Pete at ELT Planning recently wrote a very honest and reflective blogpost about Correcting pronunciation errors from Thai speakers of English. Generally, I think pronunciation is one of the areas of teaching which suffers the most from a disconnect between theory and practice. So this sort of reflection is really refreshing. In the spirit of reflective practice, I would like to share my thoughts on t/d/ɪd and s/z/ɪz, and chart how my approach to this one phonology point has changed over the years and with different learners.
The first time I t/d/ɪd-ed
I distinctly remember the first time I taught this pronunciation point. I was doing after-school tutoring with a teenager in Sicily before I had my CertTESOL. We categorised the words in a table headed t/d/ɪd, said them a few times and went on to do some conversation. Not bad for a first attempt, and both I and the learner enjoyed it.
Building on the basics
I got my CertTESOL and taught t/d/ɪd countless times again in London, Cagliari, Melilla and Bournemouth. I gradually built up a bank of fun activities for my predominantly teenage learners at that time. I still use many of those activities now, like pronunciation maze, odd one out and tic-tac-toe.
At first, I’d squeeze t/d/ɪd into a short slot in a lesson where I’d ambitiously attempt to review the past simple all in one go as I’d been taught on the CertTESOL: engage, study and activate, including meaning, form, pronunciation. Later on, with some helpful advice from my DOS at the time, I started putting t/d/ɪd into its own lesson. (See my post Breaking up Big Grammar for more about that, by the way).
I’d do the old routine of getting learners to touch their throats to feel the difference between the unvoiced consonants followed by /t/ and the voiced consonants followed by /d/. I even tried the old ‘hold the paper in front of your mouth’ trick – unvoiced ‘fortis’ consonants move the paper, voiced ‘lenis’ ones don’t.
And the outcome? I realiseDEH that learners overemphasiseDEH the endings. So I reminded learners where the stress should go in the word. But they still sounded very uncomfortable pronouncing these consonants at the end of words. This planted a seed: there was something wrong with what I was doing, but what? I was doing exactly as it said in the coursebook.
Around then I read Underhill’s Sound Foundations and discovered the Headway pronunciation series. I kind of twigged that learners were releasing the /t/ and /d/ endings at the end of words, when they shouldn’t be. (Great explanation of that from Tim’s Pronunciation Workshop). So I told them not to… didn’t work.
About this time I also realised that plurals, possessive ‘s and the he/she/it form of the present simple all followed a similar pronunciation pattern (ie. fruits /s/, plums /z/ and oranges /ɪz/) and I started teaching this, too.
A new challenge
Then I moved to Thailand, back to the UK for a year, and back to Thailand again, where I still live now. I realised that Thai learners actually had similar problems with t/d/ɪd as most European learners did, only the odds were even more overwhelmingly stacked against them:
- Thai doesn’t mark verbs for tense or nouns for plural (yesterday I buy 8 apple)
- Thai avoids final consonant clusters like the plague (six sixths –> si si)
- Thai has no voiced /z/ sound
- Final syllables are stressed, often with rising intonation (teaCHER)
- I think it’s fair to say that there’s a form of ‘Thai English’, just like there is ‘Singaporean English’ or other world Englishes, and Thai speakers of English have little trouble understanding each other without s/z/ɪz or t/d/ɪd.
I kind of shelved my doubt about how I was teaching t/d/ɪd for a while, assuming that some of these problems were unavoidable and (rightly or wrongly) prioritising other aspects of my teaching.
Then I did the DipTESOL. This was the time to work it out once and for all. That meant lots of trial and error and thinking about my learners’ priorities for the limited class time they have with me.
I realised that the key problem Thai learners have with -ed and -s endings is resyllabification. I’d go further and say that this is the key problem for most learners, as it causes the most difficulty in being understood (productive) and understanding (receptive).
I now focus mostly on /ɪd/ and /ɪz/, as they require resyllabification. With intermediate learners I teach /ɪd/ in one lesson and /ɪz/ in the next, drawing a parallel between the way these endings add an extra syllable to the word. Here’s the usual procedure:
- Communicative speaking task comes first – I always focus on this point as a post-task focus on form.
- Either I or learners write all the verbs with -ed or -s from the task on the board. I recently experimented with learners peer monitoring each other and writing down all the past tense verbs their partner says – this works very well, too.
- I elicit how many syllables and then show the adding of an extra syllable on fingers. Elicit why this happens: it’s hard to say wantd or kisss without a separating vowel.
- Drill thoroughly.
- Quick check: odd one out as in picture above.
- In my 2-hour lessons, I have time to consolidate this with a game – Mark Hancock’s Chinese Chequers is fantastic for this. Each number on the dice has a corresponding stress pattern. Learners roll the dice and have to cross the chequerboard, only landing on words that have the stress pattern they rolled. This gets learners thinking about if the -ed or -s adds a syllable or not.
However, it’s not just about resyllabification within the word boundaries. You remember the overemphatic /d/ and /t/ that I was talking about above? That’s due to focusing on words in isolation, I realised. So I started focusing on t/d/ɪd beyond word boundaries…
I picked up the money and handed it in to the Police
When /t/, /d/ and /ɪd/ endings are followed by a vowel sound, you get consonant-vowel linking – so we get pick tup and han di di tin for the example above. Why focus on this? I don’t expect learners to get this consistently right when they’re speaking, but it is enormously important for their receptive skills, after all, what’s a ‘tup’ or a ‘di’? And why did he hand in a ‘tin’ and not the money? Again, resyllabification. In terms of how I integrate it into lessons, I like to focus on this in receptive tasks like:
- Reconstruction. Learners listen to me telling a story, draw pictures to remember the story and retell it to their partner. I elicit the story back to the board word for word and then focus on this pronunciation point.
- Any type of dictation. A dictagloss, a dictation from a verse of a song, a running dictation, whatever – in all instances the focus is on decoding the resyllabification and re-encoding it in writing.
- Multi-word verbs. I nearly always focus on this when teaching multi-word verbs. Consonant vowel linking often occurs here (as in the example above) because the particles (up, in, about, off, around, over, on, along, etc.) often begin with a vowel, for example:
Backchaining drills (like tin > ti tin > di di tin > han di di tin for handed it in above) work a treat for forming correct habits, as learners often have a mental block against resyllabifying if you just drill it forwards. I’ve recently discovered Cuisenaire rods, too, so I’ll be experimenting with using those to show how word boundaries shift like this: (maybe even without sticking my hand in the way next time LOL)
I crouched down, planted the plant and watered my herbs
I generally feel that /t/ and /d/ aren’t worth teaching. In fact, with Thai learners, I think this is a positive instance of L1 transfer – Thai doesn’t release word-final plosives in the same way we don’t in English with final /t/ or /d/.
In theory, it’s way more complicated than that even. (Warning: you might want to skip this paragraph if you’re not into the nitty gritty of phonology). For example, the /d/ in watered my undergoes progressive assimilation because of the bilabial /m/ sound following it, so it becomes like an unreleased /b/ sound. Do learners need to know that? Not really. Pronunciation is all about laziness – that /d/ gets pronounced like a /b/ because our vocal apparatus takes a shortcut. Only on the odd occasion, have I had to talk about assimilation of this type was with learners who were trying to be ultra-correct and always pronounce a pure /d/ sound. And on one other occasion, with an upper-intermediate student who wanted to perfect his British accent.
My father shop sell glove
How about /s/ and /z/? I hate pestering learners about dropping /s/ and /z/ endings. To be honest, I don’t think it’s all that important if it sounds like a /s/ or a /z/, given that most of my learners are around pre-intermediate level and just want to be understood, so I don’t bother them about that. But when they drop it altogether and number (singular/plural) becomes ambiguous, I usually play dumb – In response to the heading above: Oh yeah, only one glove? I like to think it’s more communicative and sinks in better, but I’ll often use little gestures, too.
Wow! If you’re still with me, well done for getting this far! The length of this post just about one seemingly simple language point just goes to show how much reflection, experimentation and development we as teachers put into every single language point or teaching skill over our careers!
Ultimately, anything like this always comes to down to your context and the learners’ goals. So while what I’ve said above works for me in my context, please do comment below on what works for you in yours!
Featured image adapted from: Image from page 1286 of “Popular electricity magazine in plain English” (1912), For more information on images on TESOLtoolbox, see Imagery.