To voice or not to voice? That makes all the difference when it comes to English verbs and past tense pronunciation.
Regular past tense verbs in English may be easy to spell, but correct pronunciation is another matter all together. It can seem complicated and unpredictable, but once your students understand voice in English, past pronunciation is really quite straightforward. And though at first voicing may sound like a foreign concept to you and your students, understanding voicing is really quite simple.
Here is what you and your students need to know to make your past tense verbs sound perfect.
How to Teach Your Beginning Class Past Tense Pronunciation
What Is Voicing?
Voicing is a linguistic term used to indicate whether the voice box is in use when a person produces a particular sound. To understand voicing, pronounce a [b] and a [p] aloud. (Don’t worry. No one is listening.) Make the sounds again now paying attention to the detailed movements of your lips and mouth. You should notice that when you make both [b] and [p], your physical movements are identical. Still, these two sounds are distinct in English (or pat and bat would sound like the same word). What distinguishes them as sounds is whether or not your voice box is in motion.
You can think of your vocal chords (in your voice box) as strings on an instrument. When the strings are plucked, they begin to vibrate. When they vibrate, they make a sound. Your voice box does the same thing. When your vocal chords vibrate, you produce a voiced sound, like [b]. When your vocal chords do not vibrate, you produce a voiceless sound, like [p].
You can feel the difference between voice and unvoiced sounds by feeling your voice box while you speak. If you put your hand on the base of your throat and make the [p] and [b] sounds again, you should be able to feel your vocal chords vibrating when you make the voiced sound.
The [t] / [d] Conundrum
P and b are not the only sounds that use voicing to distinguish them from each other. Many sounds in English have a voiced/voiceless counterpart. Feel your voice box as you produce the following pairs of sounds: [t/d], [k/g], [f/v], [ch/j] and [s/z]. Each of these pairs has one voiced sound and one voiceless sound, but both letters use the same motions when they are produced. Not all sounds in English, though, have a voiced/voiceless counterpart. The sounds we make from letter combinations m, n and ng are all voiced and do not have voiceless counterparts. Likewise all vowel sounds are voiced.
Key #1: To make sure your students have perfect past tense pronunciation, they should understand the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds. Don’t worry, though. There is no need for them to understand the vocabulary “voicing”. They just need to be able to determine whether a particular sound uses the vocal chords.
As Easy as –ed, -ed, -ed
Once you and your students understand the concept of voicing, it is time to put it to practical use in the context of past tense pronunciation. The simple past tense ending in English –ed has three possible pronunciations. Sometimes “ed” sounds like a [t] (and is unvoiced). Other times “ed” sounds like a [d] (and is voiced). A third possibility is pronouncing [id] just like it is spelled, with the vowel sound followed by d. In each case, the suffix has the same spelling, which can confuse students who are early in their English studies.
Key #2: Your students should know the three possible pronunciations of the simple past tense suffix –ed.
How Does Voicing Affect Past Tense?
Now that your students understand the concept of voicing and know the three possible pronunciations of –ed, it is time to put the information together for perfect past tense pronunciation. The correct pronunciation of the past tense suffix –ed depends entirely on the voicing of the final sound in the basic form of the verb. That may sound complicated, but it is really quite simple.
Take any verb in English – wag, for example. (‘The dog wagged his tail.’) Have your students ask themselves what the final sound of the simple verb is. In this case, it is [g]. We already know that [g] is a voiced consonant in English. When we add –ed to make the past tense of the verb, we must choose the pronunciation that matches the final sound in the verb. In this case then, when we add –ed to the verb ‘wag’, we pronounce it in its voiced form – [d]. In effect, it sounds like we are saying [wagd]. The suffix –ed will be pronounced as [d] for any verb that ends with a voiced sound [b, g, z, j, m, n, ng, v and any vowels] with the exception of [d].
When we start with a verb that ends in a voiceless consonant, “ed” sounds different. When we say, “I washed my car,” –ed sounds like [t]. This is because the sh at the end of wash is a voiceless sound. Again, the past tense ending matches the voicing of the final sound of the word. In this case, it sounds like we are saying [washt]. The –ed ending will sound like a [t] for any verbs ending with a voiceless sound [p, k, s, ch, f, sh] with the exception of [t].
The exceptions are when –ed sounds like [id]. For any verb that ends with [t] or [d] sounds, the past tense ending is pronounced [id]. This means that when an English speaker says, “He patted his stomach,” the verb is pronounced just how it is spelled - [id]. Also, when a speaker says, “The cat padded along the floor,” “ed” is also pronounced the same way it is spelled - [id].
Key #3: The pronunciation of –ed matches the voicing of the final consonant with the exception of verbs ending in [d] or [t] sounds.
Key #4: For verbs ending with [t] or [d] sounds, pronounce both the vowel and consonant in [id'].
Past tense pronunciation in English can seem unpredictable at best and downright confusing at worst.
For students who understand the concept of voicing, though, past tense pronunciation is methodical and straightforward in English. Understanding voicing is key to correct pronunciation in the past tense in English, and as long as students know to feel their vocal chords to check for vibration, determining voicing is simple, too.