Home Speech-Language Pathology Tips on Writing Articulation Goals for Second-Language Learners

Tips on Writing Articulation Goals for Second-Language Learners

by Scott Prath
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Evaluating speech-sound errors of second-language learners might seem extremely difficult. Perhaps their first language includes sounds not used in English. And we’re not always familiar with the other language. Luckily, if we know—or can determine—what sounds exist in both languages and understand why these errors occur, we can answer this one important question:

If a child experiences difficulty producing a sound, is it a true error or is it due to influence from his first language?

Let’s begin with a look at the following Venn diagram and then take a quick stroll through some research. Finally, I’ll share two examples from other languages.

Which sounds should I use to write goals?


Image from: Difference or Disorder? Understanding Speech and Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

Image from: Difference or Disorder? Understanding Speech and Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

Find and list the consonants and vowels common to both English and the student’s first language along with those unique to each language. You can use this information to help determine if a student needs your services. A child making errors only on those sounds unique to English probably doesn’t need treatment. If you notice errors on those shared sounds as well as on sounds unique to his or her native language, you should recommend speech-language services. Also take into account the normal developmental sequence of the sounds, however. Sounds unique to one language or the other usually tend to occur later.

Why do second-language learners make sound errors in English?

Positive transfer

If two languages share a sound, you expect a second-language learner to easily produce the shared sounds in their second language as well.  For example, English and Spanish both have /b/ so the word “baby (bebe)” shouldn’t present an issue.

Negative transfer

For a sound not shared by both languages, you would expect the second-language speaker to delete, distort or replace the sound when speaking in English. Let’s use Spanish again and look at a few examples:

Deletion:  Don’t becomes Don REASON:  No final /t/ and no final clusters in Spanish


Distortion:  Spaghetti becomes Espaghetti


REASON:  No initial /s/ cluster in Spanish
Replacement:   This becomes Dis


REASON:  No /th/ in Spanish so the brain chooses the most similar sound from the first language.

In summary, second-language learners shouldn’t experience difficulty with sounds occurring in both languages.

Let’s look at some common languages to bring the point home. I took these examples from the book “Difference or Disorder? Understanding Speech and Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.”

Mandarin & English Consonant Phonemes

Venn Diagrams present this information so nicely. With a Mandarin speaker, write goals related to voicing errors cautiously, because Mandarin doesn’t include voiced stop consonants. Many of our hard, Germanic fricatives also don’t exist in Mandarin.


Russian & English consonant phonemes

Unlike Mandarin, Russian contains most of the English consonants, with some slight variations. For example, sounds marked with * are dentalized. I wouldn’t write a phonological goal for this error. Nor would I write goals for anything listed only on the English half of the diagram.


In summary, what do you need to know when evaluating English-language learners?

They shouldn’t experience difficulty saying shared sounds.

Find information on the sounds found in the second language and identify those sounds shared by English. Test these sounds at the sound, word and phrase level and in multiple places in the word. Can this work with all languages?  I believe so.


Scott Prath, MA, CCC-SLP, is vice president of Bilinguistics in Austin, Texas, and serves a diverse caseload in schools and early childhood settings. He has written and co-written several books and apps, and is a lead writer for The Speech Therapy Blogscott.prath@bilinguistics.com

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ozekmobilya July 6, 2016 - 12:19 pm

This is a very informative article thank you very much, I learned a lot new thing. As I experienced in my life of learning English “positive transfer” I think one of the biggest strain for learning a new language.

Scott Prath July 6, 2016 - 4:02 pm

Learning English has to be extremely difficult! We need speakers of every language in our field so I am glad that the article was helpful.

Stephanie H July 6, 2016 - 12:42 pm

Great article, thank you! I was wondering if there is an appropriate time period you give language learners to acquire the English sounds. I have a 5th grader (primary language Korean) who has been enrolled since 3rd grade with my school. He is now considered English proficient. He has acquired all other English sounds except for /r/. When (or if) is it appropriate to start working on /r/ with him? In other words, at what point do we begin to address these sounds in older children?

Scott Prath July 6, 2016 - 3:57 pm

There is a lot to consider for each student when we are trying to figure out what to work on and IF we should work on a sound. I will try to summarize here:

Age and/or language exposure:
While the student is older, they have only had 24 months exposure to English. It would be difficult to gain the /r/ in that time considering that Korean does not have an /r/ at all. If there are other goals, /r/ words can be worked in to his therapy. If this is his/her only goal you may have to question targeting it. (Understand I am guessing with the minimal knowledge provided here).

Intelligibility is still king. Other Asian languages do not use /r/ as we do or have it , yet we understand them. Is s/he making an appropriate substitution? Which leads to:

Error Pattern
Are they substituting another in-class sound (/l/) or is it an English style error (/w/)?

Educational Need
I am assuming you are in the schools. Can he write /r/, read /r/, point to the sound/word when you say it (right/light)?

The other hand:
My message here is that we have to consider the influences, time of exposure, and need, not that we should not target the sound. I work with many Spanish-speaking students who began therapy in Spanish and finished all of there sounds. By 3rd grade they transitioned over to English and we had to address the /r/ and other sounds. Not because they were bilingual, but because they were now speaking enough English and their /r/ was an error, not a Spanish /r/ put into English. They would not gain the /r/ “eventually” without help so it became a goal.

Hope that helps, Scott

Charlotte Knowles July 8, 2016 - 7:02 am

Fantastically useful article, thank you. I was wondering whether there are any resources you could recommend that detail which phonemes are present in different languages? I work in a diverse school as an EAL Teaching Assistant and it would be incredibly useful to have a resource containing this information which would allow us to accurately assess and appropriately support students. Many thanks.

Scott Prath July 18, 2016 - 1:22 pm

Hi Charlotte, Click on the link above about a book we wrote. “Difference or Disorder? Understanding Speech and Language Patterns in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.” We compiled current information on phoneme and linguistic patterns of 12 common languages and AAE. Thanks, Scott

Raquel Tomic-Beard July 13, 2016 - 11:45 pm

Thank you for your article. I encountered this problem in a daily basis with the population I work with, which the great mayority are Spanish, but we also have Mandarin, vietnamese, Chinese, and many african dialects.

Scott Prath July 18, 2016 - 1:24 pm

I haven’t dealt with any African dialects yet but the process above works really well with Asian languages. Here is an article we wrote on Vietnamese:

deb chitester July 14, 2016 - 7:25 am

hello. I have developed a linguistic features approach which essentially defines different features present in different languages. the article will help me further develop my parent literacy program

Scott Prath July 18, 2016 - 1:26 pm

Glad it was helpful!

Kim Adonna July 20, 2016 - 6:21 pm

Thank you for reminding us all of the importance of respecting and researching a child’s (or adult’s) primary language sound structures. To me, I see it as one of the most invigorating and rewarding parts of our job.

Scott Prath July 21, 2016 - 12:00 pm

I came over to speech pathology from linguistics and I love that we get to interact with so many cultures so frequently. You said it best. I get so invigorated when I wake up to the fact that another culture/language doesn’t have a past tense or final consonants or articles… So many things that we take for granted. Everyone produces meaning in such unique ways.

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