Sunday, February 26, 2017

Simple past tense endings for reading or spelling

I’ve never used my blog to answer a question from a single individual but, as the subject has come up in other contexts, the post is about reading and spelling simple past tense -ed endings in weak verbs.

To be honest, I’m always slightly surprised by this question – it does come up occasionally on our courses because regular verbs in the past simple take –ed endings. I think what some teachers is the fact that they represent three different pronunciations /d/, /t/ and /schwa/ + /d/ (two sounds).

When some years ago I was teaching English for the British Council, I came across a popular resource book that mapped out the ‘rule’ for teaching how to pronounce these endings, and it went something like this:
  • ·      When a verb ends in the following consonants sounds /b/ /g/ /j/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /v/ /z//th/ (voiced), the [-ed ] spelling represents the sound /d/
  • ·      When a verb ends in the consonant sounds /d/ or /t/, the [-ed ] spelling represent the sounds schwa + /d/, and the schwa can be realised as a truncated /uh/ sound or as an /i/ sound, depending on accent.
  • ·      When a verb ends in the consonant sounds /f/, /k/, /p/, /s/ /sh/ /ch/ /th/ (unvoiced), the [ -ed ] represents the sound /t/
  • ·      When a verb ends in the vowel sounds /ae/ /ee/ /ie/ /oe/ /ue/ /er/ /ow/ /oo/ /ar/ /air/ /oy/, the [ -ed ] will be /d/.

Now the question is: can you teach these ‘rules’ to foreign language learners? The answer is that, realistically, you can’t. Why? Because every time the learner hits a simple past tense verb ending, they have to stop and think about the rule and how to pronunciation it. It’s only with speaking practice and helpful correction that the learner irons out the problem – ‘hevenchually’, as Manuel might have said.

Does this problem apply to English L1 speakers? No! Almost every four- to five-year old has learned to produce simple past tense endings without having to be taught. Why? Because we learn to talk naturally! So for reading, all of these [-ed ] endings aren’t really a problem: even quite young children ‘normalise’ the pronunciation if they read too literally. The decoding process goes hand in hand with making/looking for meaning. When writing, however, we might have to teach that we spell the -ed ending [ d ] or [ t ], making [ ed]  a spelling alternative for the sounds /d/ and /t/: one spelling-different sounds, which is the subject of my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I think it was a really good point that you said that a lot of this is learned naturally. I think this applies to our English language as well as to learning other languages. I find the best way to learn a language is naturally, such as being fully immersed. I find teaching language to be rather difficult, but I have also only tried with other languages other than English. I can only imagine what it is like to teach the English language to students.

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