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Literacy Resources for Adult ESL and ABE Educators: Pronunciation

Tips & suggestions, online resources, and physical materials for Adult ESL and ABE educators.


Although many people differ on the importance of correct pronunciation it may be useful to pay attention, first, to the situations and environments where English will be used and, second, to the errors in pronunciation that could possibly interfere with meaning. 

For example, you may have a learner who only uses English occasionally at his customer service job. The level of English that is needed might not necessarily be very high and the learner may just have issues with certain vowel sounds, like /I/ or the short "i" sound, that interfere with easy communication with customers. Another learner, though, might be applying to a University to participate in a Master's program or will soon be working for a business where her pronunciation will be more scrutinized and could eventually cause problems for her. In this case greater attention and rigor would be needed to improve pronuciation.

Just keep in mind that all learners have individual goals and will use English in different contexts.  If you adapt your pronunciation lessons to these specific goals it may be more useful and rewarding for everyone involved.

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Pronunciation and Phonotactic Constraints

Speaker A:  How can I help you?

Speaker B:  I looin fo engli cla.

Speaker A:  I'm sorry, can you repeat that please?

Do your learners ever feel like no matter how hard they try, regardless of how many times they are corrected, given examples to model, or how much they practice, they just can't pronounce something correctly?  People just never seem to understand what they are saying.  "What?"; "Can you please repeat that? "; "I don't understand."; "What do you mean?"  Do they get frustrated and feel like they want to give up?  Don't worry.  All you need to begin to help them is a brief introduction to Phonotactic Constraints.

Phonotactic constraints are rules that tell us what sound combinations and sequences are possible in a language.  For example, in English you will never see the consonants "k" and "t", or sounds /k/ and /t/, used together at the beginning of a word.  However you will see the consonant cluster /st/ as in  "stop' or "stand".  If you speak Spanish this may seem strange to you.  In Spanish the cluster /st/ is impermissible, or not allowed, at the beginning of a word.  So when your learners want to tell someone about an interesting "story' that they read, they might end up saying "estory" or /eststɹi/, and you or the English speaker listening to them might think they said "history".  This is because /st/ is impermissible at the beginning of a word in Spanish,  but /est/ is not.  So what your learners are doing is unconsciously adding the vowel sound at the beginning of a word so it matches the rules of Spanish.

Other phonotactic constraints have to do with syllables.  In English, there is a wide variety of vowel (V) and consonant (C) sound sequencing allowed in a single syllable:

  • CVC                hat            /hæt/
  • CV                   to              /tu/
  • VC                  am             /æm/
  • CCVC            queen         /kwin/
  • CCV               free            /fɹi/
  • CCCVCC       streets       /stɹits/

or for multisyllabic words:

  • VCCV             into            /ɪn tu/
  • CVCVCC        behind       /bɪ haɪnd/

There are of course more combinations, but this shows you that a syllable can end in a vowel or a consonant.  However, in some languages syllables can only end in a vowel.  Therefore people who speak Thai might say "fry rye" when they are trying to say "fried rice".  A Vietnamese speaker might say "wor" when they want to say "work" or "word".  In each situation, the speaker is omitting, or taking away, the final consonant sound because they are not accustomed to ending a word or a syllable with a consonant sound.  As for a Korean speaker, she might say "churche" or /ʧɚʧei/ instead of church.  Instead of omitting a final consonant sound, she is adding a vowel and another syllable to the end of the word so it also conforms to the pattern of having a vowel sound at the end of a syllable.

With this in mind, it is a good idea to learn about the phonotactic constraints in your learners first languages and which constraints will cause problems for them when learning and speaking English.  Just so you know, people often times cannot even hear or process sounds, sound combinations,and/or sound sequences that are not present or permissible in their first language.  So, no matter how many times you correct your learners or model correct English pronunciation, they may never even really process what they are hearing.

So instead of continually correcting your learners with little or no improvement, a knowledge and awareness of phonotactic constraints will give you an understanding of WHY they are making particular mistakes.  You will have the tools to begin to help your learners make real changes.

Pronunciation Books

Helping learners improve their English pronunciation is often the mire of teachers and conversation facilitators. Not only can this be a sensitive issue, but it can lead to frustration on both sides. We have included a list of useful books to aid you in your work either as a teacher or learner.