Some advice on teaching the pronunciation of past tense endings

Recently this blog has been a bit of a pronunciation geek’s paradise, due to my extended reflections on my pronunciation course. Somehow, this has led me to be seen as a bit of an authority on pronunciation (other far more knowledgeable sources are available) and people sometimes ask me for advice. One such person  was Ratnavathy Ragunathan-Chandrasegaran, whose blog can be found here. I thought I’d share her question and my response with the class. Ratna said:

I’ve got a question about pronunciation. This week, I’m planning to teach the pronunciation of the past simple verbs to my learners (‘t’, ‘d’, ‘id’). Well, when I look at different websites, it says that it depends on the voiced and unvoiced consonants of the base verb. Most websites seem to say that the “voiced consonants” cause a vibration at the vocal chord when pronounced, and the unvoiced consonants doesn’t cause a vibration at the vocal chord. Apparently when we place our fingers on our throat, we’d be able to find out.

But I find that this really doesn’t work for me. When I place my fingers on my vocal chord, I still feel a vibration when I pronounce “b” and “p”.

Is there any other way that I can explain and get my learners to understand easily? Would love some insight from you.

And this was my response:

I’d start out by saying that I don’t think it’s going to be hugely important for your learners to be able to tell the difference between ‘t’ and ‘d’ in this context (past tense) anyway, from either a receptive or productive point of view (though in other contexts it is very important). If they can make some kind of short sound there I don’t think it really matters whether it’s more ‘t’ or ‘d’ ish. What is important is that it isn’t a full on ‘id’. What I mean is that ‘workd’ or ‘workt’ is probably fine, but ‘workid’ isn’t.

The reason I say this is that in the final position in a syllable there really is very little difference between a ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ consonant. I put the names in inverted commas because when they are at the end of a syllable they are often not voiced anyway, and also not exploded (ie there’s no air released) which is another distinguishing factor. The only significant difference that they make is to the length of the vowel before the final consonant (if you want to check this, try saying bat and bad and notice how much longer bad is).

So, for verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant, it’s almost impossible to get this wrong. If fact, you can’t really say ‘workd’ without mangling the pronunciation horribly. For verbs that end with a voiced one, the key is not actually the final sound, but extending the vowel a little bit, and having it fall slightly towards the end (ask if you want me to explain a bit more).

In terms of teaching this, I would stay well away from the voiced/unvoiced rules, and just see if students can do it with verbs they already know. If they can, set up some columns on the board and have them sort ones they know, and then see if they can do the same for ones that they don’t. Do lots of drilling and practice (like making stories with a list of verbs), but I would stay away from actually teaching them the rule. In general I don’t think teaching rules works for pronunciation. It’s just too much extra cognitive load for an already overworked brain.

Incidentally, in the first position in a syllable, voiced consonants should be distinguishable by voice (vibration of the vocal cords), and also by the fact that more air is expelled in the production of the unvoiced ones.

Would you agree with this? Would even ‘workid be ok’? Are there other ways to distinguish and teach ‘d’ and ‘t’ in final consonant position? On further investigation I think that I touch my tongue against the apex of the alveolar ridge (the one behind your teeth) for ‘d’, and slightly further towards the teeth for ‘t’, but this may just be me. I’m not even sure if it’s significant. Anyway, if you have any other tips, comments or advice, feel free to leave a comment below.




17 responses to “Some advice on teaching the pronunciation of past tense endings

  1. Hi Alex,

    I agree that it’s not massively important for students to be able to tell the difference between or pronounce ‘t’ or ‘d’ past endings correctly, I’ve tried teaching this before as many coursebooks highlight this point but I’ve found it just caused confusion and frustration with students! I think it’s important to highlight the number of syllables, thus ‘workid’ is not acceptable (IMO) but I think the ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound is a point students will naturally improve on.


  2. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks the difference between /d/ and /t/ isn’t that important; however, it is important to know it more for auditory skills such as in /wɜːktɪt/ or /wɜːkdɪt/. I find learners complain about their listening weakness primarily because they get confused with the sounds they hear and the sounds they expect. Like I find understanding French is a nightmare!
    As far as as the hands-on-throat technique, I often mention the weakness of this, especially with females (for the lack of Adam’s apple?). I alyws teach students the covering-the-ears technique too. See here.

    • Chiew,

      Thanks for the link, and the excellent advice. I think you’re absolutely right – it’s a perennial problem for my learners who use ridiculously overemphasized past tense endings (there’s no such thing as a syllabic consonant in Korean), and struggle to distinguish them in normal speech.

      Also, thanks again for adding me to the hall of fame! Not sure what I’m doing surrounded my that kind of esteemed company 🙂

  3. Hello Alex,
    I think I’d be able to answer that question now !:)))
    Well, to think of it now, I think it was more of me wanting to experiment with teaching pronunciation, the only thing that I’ve been avoiding this far, for the reason that I believe I don’t remember the phonetics well (yes, shamefully!), and I never really had an idea how to teach it and how to tackle it.

    After asking you some questions, I did some research on my own. And found out that actually, it’s really quite easy to do it. You can recognize a consonant as being voiced or unvoiced by placing your palms UNDER your ears, and NOT on your throat (as many many many many resources suggested!). Also, I emailed another presenter from the KOTESOL conference, and she mentioned that when we utter the consonants, we should never include a vowel sound. For example, when you say “p”, you say that, and not as “pi” with the extra “i” vowel there. Because if you do, it immediately makes it into a voiced consonant (since all vowels are voiced).

    In my past language school, this pronunciation of past simple verbs was really problematic. And the problem with language learning is, if you don’t give any corrective feedback or even make learners aware of it, the language would eventually be fossilized!

    My only regret it I wish I started researching pronunciation much earlier in during my time in Malaysia. It would’ve been so useful for my learners!

    • Hey Ratna,

      First of all a big thanks for asking the question in the first place. Without you we wouldn’t be having this discussion, which I’m sure will be helpful for all of us. Also, I wouldn’t worry too much about not being up on your phonetics. If there’s one thing that I’ve seen to strike fear into the hearts of English teachers native and non-native, it’s pronunciation, and as this discussion demonstrates, rightly so as it’s very difficult to break it down into neat rules.

      However, I’m not sure that I agree with never saying the consonants with a vowel. While vowels are all naturally voiced, the consonant that comes before them can be either voiced or unvoiced, even when attached to the vowel. You can use the palms below ears technique (that’s a new one for me, so thanks!) to test ‘din’ and ‘tin’, the first one you should feel vibration through the d and the i, the second just through the i. I wonder if she meant you should never say ‘pee’ as in the name of the letter, as opposed to the phonetic sound?

      I think that feedback is crucial in pronunciation, especially when students aren’t concentrating on it. As you say, habits (or fossilization) is built up over time, and learners are often unaware of it. If you’re intrerested in how I go about tackling it, have a look at my ‘Pronunciation Camp 4’ post a few back.

      Thanks again for the comment and the inspiration!


      • I think what Ratna or the presenter was referring to is the fact that articulating consonants is not exactly easy because they’re basically air. So, we usually add the schwa so we can say it, and, of course, schwa is a voiced sound! In fact, all examples you hear on interactive sites have the schwa added, so they become /pə/, /kə/, etc.

      • (I hope this comes out below your post Chiew – WordPress doesn’t let me reply to it). Now I see what you’re getting at. This does perhaps pose an interesting question then. It’s difficult to articulate a consonant (especially a voiced one) without some kind of vowel sound, so why do we bother to even try to teach the sound alone or with a kind of short schwa-ish sound as you describe above. Would it make more sense to teach it ‘in context’ with common vowel sounds in initial, final, and intervocalic positions. After all, we seem to be tackling vocab and grammar in context more and more these days, why not phonemes too?

        PS Expect when they are more or less individual phonemes, like in past tense endings for ‘worked’ 🙂

      • Of course, sounds should ideally be taught in context and with examples, but it’s also useful to get students to be familiar with the phonemes. When it’s done live, you can more or less demonstrate the /p/ or the /k/, especially aided with paper in front of your mouth, and you can tell them that what they tend to hear online is /pə/ or /kə/. The paper would show them the difference. I think all this is useful so that the students understand the complexities and may begin to expect to hear words such as kissit instead of kissdit 😉

        • Hey Chiew,

          Sorry, forgot to reply to this over the busy weekend.

          I do agree with teaching the phonemes individually, but I wonder how much bad teaching of them leads to Korean students’ problems with /workid/ and adding a vowel to final syllables as in /churchee/. I find myself teaching them more as repair than at first, and also as a comparison of Korean and English phonetic systems.


  4. Very interesting discussion! For me, I do think it’s worth going here but more in an awareness raising way, because of some typical learner errors with past simple. Many low-level learners overgeneralise and pronounce all ‘ed’ endings as an extra syllable. So doing some awareness raining that this isn’t the case can be an interesting revelation and will help refine their reception and production. I agree that the difference between /t/ and /d/ ending is not so important (you are absolutely right about final consonants) but syllable or non-syllable is certainly noticeable and relevant.
    Another issue is their not using a past tense marker at all, ‘yesterday I watch tv’ etc. This may be because they themselves don’t really hear/notice the tiny additional /t/ or /d/ especially as it is easily masked by the final consonant of the root word. Again awareness raising can be an interesting revelation, and it could be receptively important – although I can’t seem to think of any contextualised examples where that would be the case!
    On the other question of how to feel/demonstrate voiced vs voiceless, the neck vibration thing has always worked for me, although I think it is ESSENTIAL to a) exaggerate it and b) take it out of context (there are WAY too many factors that affect voicing such as initial vs final position in word, if it is part of a consonant cluster, if the cluster is in the onset or the coda, whether the syllable is stressed or not, etc). Another technique is to hold a sheet of paper loosely in front of your mouth then exaggerate the ‘explosive’ contrast between /t/ and /d/ (/t/ would blow the paper sharply, /d/ would hardly move it).

  5. Sophia,

    Thanks a lot for the detailed and insightful comment. I’m guessing there were some high marks on that phonetics exam! 🙂

    Totally agree that the extra syllable is relevant, or in fact crucial, ESPECIALLY receptively (productively I can take or leave it, but as Chiew said it’s often the sign of a receptive problem). As you said, if they’re expecting this, then they probably don’t hear or use a reduced tense marker. The fact that the odd irregular past is unmarked probably doesn;t help things either.

    The paper thing is an awesome tip too. Have done that with YL’s before. Now ashamed I didn’t remember it to put it in the OP.

    Cheers again, Twitter DM headed your way very soon 🙂 Good luck with any remaining papers!


  6. Hello Alex,

    You’re most welcome!
    And I think I don’t need to re-explain myself about what I meant about not uttering the vowel sound; It’s actually the schwa sound that I meant.

    Many teachers have told me that I don’t really have to remember the phonetics by hard if I intend to teach it. Please do elaborate what you meant by that, Alex. Somehow, I’d feel a lot more confident knowing it by hard before tackling it!

    • Hey Ratna,

      I got the schwa bit now. That was just me being dim 🙂

      And to clarify, I just meant that you’re not alone in being worried about phonetics. That seemed to be the module that scared everyone on my MA course (weirdos like yours truly excepted). I think part of the scary thing is that pronunciation depends so much on context, and rules are always more difficult to apply to something so physical. Also, teaching vowels is really hard here for a Brit as all the students tend to have more American leanings. It’s always a good idea to strive for intelligibility first 🙂

      If you’re interested in increasing your phonetic awareness, have you checked out Adrain Underhill’s blog? It’s at:


  7. Interesting discussion guys! 🙂
    I was recently working on a curriculum for a new pronunciation learning software that is soon to be launched and we actually had a lot of problems determining which methods to use in teaching English phonology to ESL learners on different levels. We wanted to present the sounds of American English in such a way that everybody can understand them and thus be able to learn them easily.
    Anyways, I know how phonology can be scary and that it often requires a real lot of energy to actually explain a simple thing such as articulation of -ed suffix in different contexts. I know that many teachers simply give up explaining such things because it can be too complicated. Eventually, it all comes down to learner’s practice and his or her ability to actually hear such differences even though you don’t explain them the rules.

  8. Hi Jenny,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I’d love to hear a bit more about how you went about presenting the sounds, and in what kind of contexts. If you can do that without disclosing trade secrets that would be really great.

    I think with segmental phonology (especially consonants), learners are simply unaware that the sounds that they make are causing confusion. This happened a lot with students of my courses conflating /p/ and /f/ without ever realizing it. That one is a quite easy fix, but I certainly take your point about other aspects. These days I rather agree that most intonation (for example) is only ever going to be acquired rather than taught, but it doesn’t hurt to raise awareness at least.

    Best of luck with your projects anwyay, and you’re totally right that phonology is scary 🙂


  9. I’m looking forward to hearing feedback from ESL learners in future 🙂

    Thanks for your wishes!

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