sábado, 16 de agosto de 2014

Pronunciation and Grammar: The regular simple past inflection -ed

One of the things I try to instill the most on my teacher trainees is that pronunciation can easily be taught alongisde other language areas and skills. I have found this makes many teachers feel relieved and more confident about teaching pronunciation in the EFL classroom, as there are generally many myths and misconceptions regarding the way phonology should be tackled in the lesson (more on this on a future post!).

One of the obvious choices of pronunciation features to teach together with grammar arises when the simple past is taught, specifically the regular past inflections -(e)d.  

The Rules
A brief review of the way the rule goes:

We look at the infinitive form of the verb:

  • If the last sound is voiced (except for /d/), we use /d/.
  • If the last sound is voiceless, except for /t/, we use /t/.
  • If the last sound is /t/ or /d/, we use /ɪd/ (in other accents of English, /əd/ also possible).

This constitutes a great opportunity for students to become familiar with the concepts of "voiced" and "voiceless", to feel the vibration of their vocal folds for voiced sounds by placing their hands on their throats, or covering their ears to feel the "buzz", or sensing the vibration on the top of their heads upon the production of a voiced sound (the contrast /s/ /z/ (the "snake" and the "bee") is generally a great choice!).

Other teachers "shun" the presentation of voiced/voiceless contrasts by teaching this rule by referring to spellings . In my humble opinion, why complicate matters further by engaging the memory in endless lists when in fact voice/voicelessness can be "felt"!

A few warnings!

I feel it is my "moral duty" to make a few observations regarding the pronunciation of regular past tense endings and their teaching:

1. We cannot assume students will know how to pronounce all the infinitive forms of the  verbs they encounter, and they may make mistakes. For example, a Spanish speaking student not yet familiar with the sound /dʒ/ may deem the last sound in the verb "judge" to be a /ʃ/ or a / tʃ/, for instance. So this will result in the wrong choice of -ed pronunciation.

BUT, more importantly....

2. The contrast /t/-/d/, to be honest, is not always kept. Why? Well, simply because in final position before silence, or when followed by a voiceless sound, /d/ will present varying degrees of devoicing [], that is, it will lose vocal fold vibration during the whole or part of its production, and will thus approximate /t/ in its production. There will also be no audible release if followed by  affricates or other plosives, or by silence (optional, according to Tench 2011:66) , or subject to delayed release if a homorganic (a consonant sharing the place of articulation, in this case, alveolar), follows. That is, the final stage of the /t, d/ will not be heard, you will be keeping the release "to yourself", so to speak, till the next plosive is produced. A more technical discussion of this can be found in this blog post by John Wells. Another very interesting and illustrated discussion of these allophones can be read about in Knight (2012).

So what should I be focussing on as a teacher? Primarily, vowel length. Vowels preceding the ending /d/ will be longer; compare: complained [kəmpleːɪnd], complaint [kəmpleˑɪnt]. It has been established by both ELT and ELF pronunciation experts that vowel length may be an important source of confusion and unintelligibility at times, so it is something worth teaching at some point or another.

You could also work on the avoidance of an "exaggerated" ending to work towards a non-audibly released /t/ or /d/ in the contexts where release is not usually heard. However, I know many teachers who would prefer an exaggerated production of the ending as "proof" that the past tense is being produced. And I have to say, it may pay off in oral Language and Grammar exams! Better to be heard producing the past than having to explain (if you are ever given the chance!) that in fact you know your Phonetics theory well!

BUT, even "worse"....

3. When these past forms are followed by other words starting in consonants (except perhaps /h/) resulting in a cluster of three consonants  in which /t/ or /d/ are medial, these past markers can, and sometimes are, elided, as Tench (2011:96), explains. Cruttenden (2014:314) describes the tendency of elision of voiceless continuant + /t/ or voiced continuants + /d/ followed by a consonant at word boundary: finished late /fɪnɪʃt leɪt/ , refused both /rɪfju:zd bəʊθ/. Similarly, elision will apply in combinations of voiceless plosive/affricate + /d/ or voiced plosive/affricate + /t/: , looked like /lʊkt laɪk/, rubbed gently /rʌbd dʒentli/. Cruttenden claims that it is the context that makes up for the lack of the past tense marker in these cases.

Jack Windsor Lewis, however, claims they are generally not elided if followed by an obstruent or nasal (#11 - here) and focuses on the producing of the right non-audibly released allophones instead.

So what do we do?

If we want our teaching of English to be "enabling" and "empowering" for our learners, we need to teach the rule as it is. We may focus on the contrast /t/ - /d/ to different degrees depending on the objectives our class needs to meet, but I personally believe there should be at least a contrast between some sort of [t] sound (be it an attempt to a devoiced [d̥] or other "version" of /t,d/) vs /ɪd/. Students' rendering of past forms often include an overgeneralization of the rule, with varying versions of the /ɪd/ ending produced for all verbs, [wotʃedwotʃid] even [ɣwotʃid]  for "watched", to mention a very common example. So I claim that there should be at least a contrast between the /ɪd/ ending and some other variant for /t, d/, which you will define according to your students' needs and level.

Truth is, with this basic two or three-sided contrast, we have already got a lot on our plate, as the production of consonant clusters is a huge challenge in itself, and at times, students appear not to produce their past tenses in speech because of the cluster rather than because of lack of knowledge of the past tense in itself, as my colleague Prof Terluk rightly points out.

How do we assess this?

Lists of regular verbs can be used for both perception and production, and different experiments can be carried out by students to check whether the last sound of the infinitive is voiced or not. In my experience, teenagers find this exercise pretty entertaining (Just don't "spoil" it, as I did, by showing videos of the vocal folds in operation....couldn't help myself, I guess!).

The web is also filled with automatic-grading tasks for students to try and identify the right ending (check the collection of resources below) to extend pronunciation work beyond the classroom.

Whenever a written exercise on the simple past tense is checked in class, students may be asked to also pay special attention to their oral rendering of the past verbs. My secondary school students would deem an answer given by a classmate as "wrong" if the past tense was not pronounced correctly, even if the written version was correct. Thus, you can always make the most of a "boring" grammar exercise check to practise pronunciation! (Killing two birds with one stone, that is!)

For a successful grammar-pronunciation integration to take place, the production of the 
-ed ending needs to be monitored and, yes, assessed. A very successful task I tried on my secondary students consisted in their planning and recording a criminal confession (the unit was related to "Crime") in which at least 10 regular past verbs had to be used. They would then have to self-assess their production of past tenses by counting the number of regular past verbs and the number of -ed endings produced correctly in their recording, to give themselves a percentage of correct answers. These percentages would then be "double-checked" by a classmate. This helped me realise that at times students are harder on themselves than we teachers can be with them, feedback-wise!


As usual, here's my share of collected resources to practise the application of the -ed rule:  http://www.scoop.it/t/pronunciation-bites/?tag=ed+ending

Hope you have found this post useful, and as usual sorry about having to reveal the "dark side" of a topic which, at first glance, appears to be easy to teach. When you've given it enough thought, you will notice it is indeed simple to teach, and you will, of course, make your own choices and adaptations based on your own groups and courses. Good luck!

1 comentario:

  1. Loved it! :) I'm gonna use it with my third year students!
    I sometimes ask them to bring to class the books they use with their own students so that we can assess their pronunciation component. Because the reasons your pointed out above, the audio files tend to be misleading. I like working in a silent way (i.e. showing the articulatory gestures), so that students can see whether the verb adds an extra syllable or not.


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