CAELA Network Briefs

Teaching Pronunciation to Adult English Language Learners

Kirsten Schaetzel, Georgetown Law Center, Washington, DC
Ee Ling Low, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
July 2009

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Background on Adult Learners

Adult education programs serve both native English speakers and learners whose first, or native, language is not English. Native English speakers attend adult basic education (ABE) classes to learn basic skills needed to improve their literacy levels and adult secondary education (ASE) classes to earn high school equivalency certificates. Both ABE and ASE instruction help learners achieve goals related to job, family, and further education. English language learners attend English as a second language (ESL), ABE, or workforce preparation classes to improve their oral and literacy skills in English and to achieve goals similar to those of native English speakers.

Audience for This Brief

This brief is written for teachers, program administrators, education researchers, and policy makers to provide information about evidence-based strategies for teaching pronunciation to adult English language learners.


Adult English language learners in the United States approach the learning of English pronunciation from a wide variety of native language backgrounds and may speak languages with sound systems that vary a great deal from that of English. Individuals with a Spanish language background constitute the largest foreign-born population in the United States. Foreign-born U.S. residents also come from African, Asian, European, and Middle Eastern countries (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2009; Pew Hispanic Center, 2009; U.S. Census Bureau, 2007).

Because English language learners in adult education programs reflect the foreign-born population, they come from diverse language backgrounds. Their pronunciation goals, needs, and levels of English proficiency are also diverse. Their needs regarding learning of English pronunciation depend on a variety of factors that may include their uses of English (in what settings and for what purposes), their motivation to identify with different English-speaking groups, how “native-like” they choose to sound, and the frequency with which they speak English and their native language (Flege, Frieda, & Nozawa, 1997; Gatbonton, Trofimovich, & Magid, 2005; Moyer, 2008).

Although a focus on pronunciation is part of the curriculum in many adult education programs, it is often not included in state language proficiency standards or addressed systematically in instruction (Levis, 2005). In addition, some teachers teaching English to adult learners do not have training in teaching pronunciation (Derwing & Munro, 2005; Levis, 2005). As a result, teachers may not be able to identify the patterns of or reasons for learners’ pronunciation problems or have a systematic way to teach the sound, stress, intonation, and rhythm patterns of English. This brief reviews features of languages (particularly English) that can have an impact on the teaching and learning of English pronunciation and the research on learner acquisition of pronunciation, and describes how teachers can implement teaching of pronunciation in their classes.

Features of Languages

Recent discussion of and research on the teaching and learning of pronunciation has focused on contrasts between the sound systems of a language spoken and a language being learned; the importance of accent, stress, intonation, and rhythm in the comprehensibility of the speech of nonnative speakers; the effect of motivation and exposure in the development of native-like pronunciation; and intelligibility of speech among speakers of different English varieties.

Contrastive Analysis

Linguists have tried to identify potential pronunciation difficulties of nonnative speakers of a language by using contrastive analysis, which was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis posits that by contrasting the features of two languages, the difficulties that a language learner might encounter can be anticipated (Crystal, 2003; Fries, 1952). Features of many languages were catalogued by linguists, but it was not possible to systematically predict which areas of English would be difficult for speakers of particular native languages. A less predictive version of the hypothesis was eventually put forth that focused on cross-linguistic influence. Cross-linguistic influence claims that prior language experiences have an impact on the way a language is learned, but these experiences do not consistently have predictive value (Brown, 2000; Wardhaugh, 1970). From this work, linguists have been able to develop lists of sounds that native speakers of particular languages may find problematic in learning English. For example, speakers of Asian languages may have difficulty producing “l” and “r” sounds; speakers of Spanish may have difficulty distinguishing between and producing “sh” and “ch” sounds. These lists for specific language backgrounds are now featured in pronunciation texts, such as Sounds Right (Braithwaite, 2008), and pronunciation software programs, such as American Speech Sounds (Hiser & Kopecky, 2009).


An accent is “the cumulative auditory effect of those features of pronunciation that identify where a person is from, regionally or socially” (Crystal, 2003, p. 3). Accentedness, a “normal consequence of second language learning” (Derwing & Munro, 2005, p. 383), is a “listener’s perception of how different a speaker’s accent is from that of the L1 [first language or, in our situation, American English] community” (p. 385). Many adult learners of English have a foreign accent that identifies them as nonnative speakers. Some linguists support the idea, known as the Critical Period Hypothesis, that a learner needs to begin learning the language before age 7 in order to develop native-like pronunciation (Lenneberg, 1967). However, more recent research suggests that environment and motivation may be more important factors in the development of native-like pronunciation than age at acquisition (Marinova-Todd, Marshall, & Snow, 2000). An understanding of the features of learner accents, and their impact on intelligibility of their speech, can help teachers of adults learning English identify and address characteristics of learner pronunciation (Derwing & Munro, 1997). The primary aim is that students are understood. Good pronunciation is needed for this but not a “perfect accent” (Harmer, 1991, p. 22).

Stress, Intonation, and Rhythm

Munro and Derwing (1999) observed that even heavily accented speech is sometimes intelligible, and prosodic errors (errors in stress, intonation, and rhythm) appear to affect intelligibility more than do phonetic errors (single sounds). Since this finding, research on and teaching of pronunciation have moved from an exclusive focus on the sounds of language (vowels and consonants) to include suprasegmentals (stress, sentence and word intonation, and speech rhythm), or vocal effects that extend over more than one sound (Crystal, 2003; Florez, 1998; Low, 2006; Monro & Derwing, 1999).

Regarding stress, languages have traditionally been classified as either stress timed or syllable timed. In stress-timed languages (e.g., British and American English, German, Dutch, and Thai) “stressed syllables fall at regular intervals throughout an utterance” (Crystal, 2003, p. 245), and rhythm is organized according to regularity in the timing of the stressed syllables. That is, the time between stressed syllables is equal, as unstressed syllables are spoken more quickly and vowel reduction occurs. For example, the sentence “Tom runs fast” is made up of three stressed syllables, as indicated by the bolded letters. The sentence “Meredith can run fast” is made up of six syllables, but only three of them are stressed. The unstressed syllables “e,” “dith,” and “can” are spoken quickly and vowel reduction occurs, so the time between the stressed syllables tends to be equal, and both sentences take approximately the same amount of time to say.

In syllable-timed languages (e.g., some nonnative varieties of English such as Singapore and Malaysian English, and languages such as Tamil, Spanish, and French) syllables are said to be equal in timing (Crystal, 2003). That is, all syllables are nearly equally stressed, vowel reduction does not occur, and all syllables appear to take the same amount of time to utter.

Recent phonetic research has shown that languages cannot be strictly classified as syllable timed or stress timed. A more accurate description is that they are stress based or syllable based; that is, they are not completely in one category or the other, but tend to have more rhythmic features of a stress-timed or a syllable-timed language (Low, 2006). Stress-based rhythm is achieved through the presence of reduced vowels for unstressed syllables in a sentence. Function words, such as articles, helping verbs, and prepositions typically have reduced vowels instead of full ones, and the reduced vowel version is known as a “weak form.” For example, in the sentence, “Bob can swim,” the words Bob and swim have the major stress, and can, which is unstressed, is pronounced [kin]—its weak form.

The distinction between stress- and syllable-based languages is important, especially if an adult English language learner speaks a first language that is different rhythmically from stress-based British or American English. An understanding of whether a learner’s first language is stress based or syllable based will help a teacher plan appropriate pronunciation exercises.

In examining the role of stress, or “the degree of force used in producing a syllable,” (Crystal, 2003, p. 435) in intelligibility, Field (2005) asked trained listeners to transcribe recorded material when the variables of word stress and vowel quality were manipulated. He determined that when word stress is erroneously shifted to an unstressed syllable, without a change in vowel quality, utterances are significantly less intelligible than when vowel quality is manipulated. Both native and nonnative English-speaking listeners responded similarly when judging the intelligibility of words with misplaced word stress.

O’Brien (2004) reported the results of research on the importance of stress, intonation, and rhythm for a native-like accent in German. Native speakers of German were asked to rate American university students reading aloud in German. It was found that the native speakers focused more on stress, intonation, and rhythm than on individual sounds when rating speech samples as native-like.

Implications of this research for classroom instruction are that teachers need to spend time teaching learners the rules for word stress, intonation, and rhythm in English as well as focusing on individual sounds that may be difficult for the learners in their classes.

Motivation and Exposure

Along with age at acquisition of a language, the learner’s motivation for learning the language and the cultural group that the learner identifies and spends time with are two determiners of whether an adult language learner will develop native-like pronunciation. Research has found that having a personal or professional goal for learning English can influence the need and desire for native-like pronunciation (Bernaus, Masgoret, Gardner, & Reyes, 2004; Gatboton, Trofimovich, & Magid, 2005; Marinova-Todd, Marshall, & Snow, 2000; Masgoret & Gardner, 2003). Marinova-Todd et al.’s, (2000) review of research on adult learner acquisition of English concluded that adults can become highly proficient, even native-like, speakers of second languages, especially if motivated to do so.

Moyer (2007) found that a combination of experience with and positive orientation to the language appear to be important factors in developing native-like pronunciation. In a study of learners of Spanish, Shively (2008) found that accuracy in the production of Spanish is significantly related to age at first exposure to the language, amount of formal instruction in Spanish, residence in a Spanish-speaking country, amount of out-of-class contact with Spanish, and focus on pronunciation in class. Therefore, in addition to focusing on pronunciation and accent in class, teachers will want to encourage learners to speak English outside the classroom, including giving them assignments that structure those interactions.

Intelligibility and Varieties of English

Because English has become an international language, teachers need to keep in mind that the adult learners in their classes will speak with both native and nonnative English speakers (e.g., a fellow student or a boss at work may be a native speaker of Bengali, Spanish, or Vietnamese). Jenkins’ seminal work (2000) on the phonology of English as an international language, in which she studied which phonological features caused a breakdown in communication when two nonnative English speakers were communicating with each other, has popularized the notion that minimal features of pronunciation are required for intelligibility among nonnative speakers of a language—a lingua franca core, or “LFC” (Jenkins, 2002). Teachers of adults learning English should be aware that the goal of improving pronunciation for many adult learners is mutual intelligibility, not perfection.

Instructional Strategies

Based on the discussion above, there are a number of instructional strategies for teaching pronunciation that can help students to meet their personal and professional needs. Teachers can guide students to do the following:

  • Cultivate positive attitudes toward accuracy

  • Notice the effects of pronunciation on interactions

  • Notice prosodic features of language (stress, intonation, rhythm)

  • Develop communicative competence

Cultivate Positive Attitudes Toward Accuracy

Teachers should create a classroom atmosphere in which affiliation with the native language group is respected at the same time that learners work on their English pronunciation in order to be understood. To do this, teachers might first give a background lesson on varieties of English in the United States and around the world and how they have developed. Then specific pronunciation features from Jenkins’ (2002) table of features can be worked on. Table 1 (Pronunciation Focus) shows the LFC features that Jenkins described as well as the features needed for clear pronunciation in American English.

Table 1: Pronunciation Focus

Pronunciation feature Focus of lingua franca core (LFC) Focus for teaching American English pronunciation
1. Consonantal inventory All consonant sounds except for /t/, /d/, and /l/ All consonant sounds in English
2. Phonetic realizations Aspiration after /p/,/t/, /k/; Appropriate vowel length before consonants (e.g., /b/p/, /v/f/, /z/s/) Aspiration after /p/,/t/, /k/; Appropriate vowel length before consonants (e.g., /b/p/, /v/f/, /z/s/)
3. Consonant clusters Preserve consonant clusters word initially (e.g., stop) and medially (e.g., sister) Preserve consonant clusters word initially (e.g., stop) and medially (e.g., sister)
4. Vowel quantity All long-short vowel contrasts (e.g., bit vs. bite) All long-short vowel contrasts (e.g., bit vs. bite)
5. Vowel quality Consistent regional qualities can be preserved (e.g., Singaporean English vowel pronunciation) Consistent regional qualities can be preserved (e.g., if teaching English in the South, southern vowels will be taught)
6. Weak forms of vowels Contrast between weak and strong forms (e.g., I can [kin] swim/I can’t dance) Contrast between weak and strong forms (e.g., I can [kin] swim/I can’t dance)
 7. Stress-timed rhythm Not necessary to teach; use rhythm of the regional variety of English Stress-timing of American English rhythm (e.g., where major stress in words, phrases, and sentences falls: I am sick)
 8. Word stress Difficult to teach in some areas of the world where the variety of English used is syllable timed Needed in American English (e.g., project/project, object/object)
9. Nuclear (tonic) stress Important to teach the most prominent syllable in a sequence of pitches (e.g., My sister bought a new dress; dress is the most important piece of information, so it carries the most stress) Important to teach the most prominent syllable in a sequence of pitches (e.g., My sister bought a new dress; dress is the most important piece of information, so it carries the most stress)

Source: Adapted from Jenkins, 2002.

Teachers might also want to ascertain which specific features of the varieties of English spoken in their classes pose a problem for their learners. To do this, two types of classroom activity can be undertaken.

  • Replicate Jenkins’ (2000) study by recording two adult learners who speak different languages at home communicating with each other in English. Note the junctures at which communication breaks down and attempt an analysis of which pronunciation features caused the miscommunications to occur. Based on the results of this study, develop a list of pronunciation features that pose a problem for effective communication and intelligibility in your classes. This list can guide instruction on pronunciation.

  • Work with learners to help them develop realistic pronunciation goals. For example, teachers and learners can work together to complete a learner pronunciation profile that includes (a) an inventory of the sounds and stress and intonation patterns that the learner does well and those the learner wants to change, and (b) a questionnaire about when and how the learner uses English (Grant, 2010, pp. 1-8). The inventory and questionnaire can help learners develop pronunciation goals and be used to check their progress toward achieving those goals.

Notice the Effects of Pronunciation on Interactions

Teachers can learn a great deal by observing adult English language learners as they communicate with each other, noting the places where communication breaks down, and attempting to determine which pronunciation features caused miscommunications to occur. As they observe, teachers can develop a list of pronunciation features to focus on in class and jot notes on note cards to give learners feedback as they listen to group and pair work and learner presentations. Teachers might use a checklist similar to the one in Table 2 or in Well Said (Grant, 2010, p. 4). For example, when students are giving presentations or working together in pairs or groups, the teacher can use the checklist to make note of when a student is not understood or when several students make the same pronunciation mistake. This information can become material for subsequent pronunciation lessons. Through use of a checklist, learners can be made aware of particular features of speech that potentially cause problems for intelligibility and can work on these features. A checklist can also be helpful to learners as they develop their own pronunciation goals.

Table 2: Pronunciation Checklist

Pronunciation Always Sometimes Never
Mark “x” where applicable, according to frequency of error      
th (e.g., thin—not[t])      
th (e.g., then—not[d])      
s & z (e.g., sue vs. zoo)      
r (e.g., rice vs. lice)      
l (e.g., parrot vs. palate)      
Final consonants
Voiceless, voiced (e.g.,nip . nib; seat vs. seed; lock vs. log; larch vs. large)      
final l (e.g., final, little, sell)      
final s (e.g., pupils, writes, schools)      
-ed suffix to mark past tense      
Vowel variation
hill vs. heel      
cut vs. cart      
cot vs. caught      
pull vs. pool      
pen vs. pan      
Use of rising intonation: yes/no questions (e.g., Are you coming?)      
Use of falling intonation: statements (e.g., Yes, I am coming); wh questions (e.g., What are you doing?)      
Mark “x” where applicable, according to frequency of error      
Audibility level
Too loud      
Too soft      
Fading out at end of statements      
Pitch and range
Other comments



Note: This checklist was designed by Nora Samosir & Low Ee Ling (2000) as a means to assess teachers’ oral English proficiency.

Notice Prosodic Features of Language

As has been noted, prosodic features of language—word stress, intonation, and rhythm—are extremely important to comprehensibility, in addition to correct pronunciation of discrete letter sounds. Teachers should therefore include prosodic training in instruction (Bally & Holm, 2005; Gautheir, Shi, & Yi, 2009; O’Brien, 2004). Teachers can begin with listening activities (e.g., listening for rising intonation in yes/no questions) and then have learners compare question intonation in English with that of their native languages and then imitate dialogues, perform plays (see O’Brien, 2004), and watch videos in which yes/no questions are used (e.g., Hardison, 2005).

Focus on word stress
There are a number of activities teachers can do to help learners use word stress correctly:

  • Lead perception exercises on duration of stress, loudness of stress, and pitch. These exercises will help learners recognize the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994; Field, 2005). For example, learners can be taught to recognize where stress falls in words with two or more syllables through learning the rules of parts of speech and word stress (e.g., putting the primary stress on the first syllable in compound nouns: airport, laptop [Grant, 2010, p.57]). Learners can also use a pronunciation computer program, such as American Speechsounds (Hiser & Kopecky, 2009), to learn the duration and loudness of stress.

  • Do exercises on recognizing and producing weak, unstressed syllables (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994; Field, 2005). For example, one exercise helps learners identify computer voice recognition mistakes that have occurred because of mispronunciation of weak vowel forms (e.g., Alaska if she wants to come with us instead of I’ll ask if she wants to come with us [Hancock,1998, p. 80]).

  • Present pronunciation rules for stress (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994; Kenworthy, 1987). For example, teach learners that in reflexive pronouns, the stress is always on the word self (e.g., myself, ourselves [Grant, 2010, p. 57]).

  • Teach word stress when teaching vocabulary (Field, 2005). For example, any time that new words are introduced, point out to learners where the major stress falls.

  • Use analogy exercises (Field, 2005). Words sharing similar stress patterns are easier for listeners to remember (Aitchison, 2003). For example, give learners a list of words with similar stress and ask them to state the rule (e.g., compound adverbs of location, such as inside, downstairs, outdoors [Hancock, 1998, p. 69]).

  • At higher levels, teach learners how to break words into syllables and predict where word stress lies (Field, 2005). For example, the number of syllables in a word can be taught to the class with examples from the teacher. This might then be practiced using the Making Tracks board game, played in pairs (Hancock, 1998, p. 8), in which learners make a “track” through words on the board based on the number of syllables in each word. Learners need to be able to accurately state the number of syllables in the words on the board, and the first learner to make a track through the board wins the game. Teachers can also make their own version of this game to give learners practice counting the syllables of new words they are learning in class.

Focus on unstressed syllables
There are many exercises that a teacher can use to focus on unstressed syllables, or weak vowel forms, in connected speech. Liang (2003) discusses three strategies to teach weak vowel forms.

  • Introduce weak forms through the grammatical category of function words such as articles, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and prepositions.

  • Present sentence drills where both strong and weak forms appear. For example, the teacher can read a passage while learners underline the weak forms in the passage.

  • Allow learners to practice using weak forms in conversations in order to simulate real-life speech encounters. For example, the teacher might focus the lesson on “ability to do things.” Student A can roleplay an interviewer, and student B, an interviewee. Student A poses a list of questions regarding student B’s ability to do things. For example, student A asks, “Can you dance?” Student B uses both the strong and weak form of the vowel a in can and can’t in an answer like, “I can’t dance very well, but I can try.”

Develop Communicative Competence

The goal of pronunciation teaching and learning is communicative competence, not the complete absence of an accent (Gatbonton, Trofimovice, & Magid, 2005; Hymes, 1972; Low, in press; O’Brien, 2004; Savignon, 1997). Savignon (1997) stressed the need for meaningful communicative tasks in the language classroom, including those that focus on pronunciation. Pronunciation exercises that relate to daily use of English include, for example, role plays of requests learners have to make (e.g., to ask a boss for a day off or go to the bank and cash a check). (See Grant, 2010, “Communicative Practice” exercises.)

Learners can become careful listeners in the conversations they engage in. Pitt (2009) shows that learners need exposure to conversations so they can hear variation in pronunciation. By using audiotapes and videotapes, especially of speakers of different varieties of English, teachers can give learners meaningful exposure to variation in pronunciation and increase their communicative competence (Florez, 1998).


Although there are challenges to teaching and learning English pronunciation, it is an area vital to adult English language learners’ linguistic competence. Recent research has shed light on pronunciation features to be taught and on learners’ goals and motivations for improving their pronunciation. By incorporating current research and its implications into their teaching practice, teachers can help learners gain the skills they need for effective communication in English.


Special thanks to Karen Taylor, who provided feedback on an early version of this brief.


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Levis, J. M. (2005). Changing contexts and shifting paradigms in pronunciation teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 39(3), 369-377.

Liang, W.X. (2003). Teaching weak forms. Forum, 41, 32-36.

Low, E.L. (2006). A review of recent research on speech rhythm: Some insights for language acquisition, language disorders and language teaching. In R. Hughes (Ed.), Spoken English, TESOL and applied linguistics: Challenges for theory & practice. London: Palgrave-Macmillan.

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Pronunciation Teaching Materials

(These materials are provided solely as examples; their inclusion here is not intended as a product endorsement.)

Braithwaite, Merle. (2008). Sounds right. New Zealand: Curriculum Concepts.

Brown, A. (2006). Sounds, symbols & spellings. Singapore: McGraw-Hill (Education) Asia.

Dauer, R. (1992). Accurate English. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Gilbert, J. (1993). Clear speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gottlieb, M. (2006). Assessing English language learners. California: Corwin Press.

Grant, L. (2010). Well said. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Hewings, M. (1993). Pronunciation tasks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2005). How to teach speaking. Harlow: Longman.

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