making students pronounce “-ed”

As a veteran English teacher I still struggle to understand what makes pronunciation of regular -ed difficult for Spanish speakers. I am not sure if this equally applies to speakers of other languages but it makes my ears bleed when a student reads or says “called” (phonemically transcripted as ” ‘kɔ:lɛd “). Why is that?

One likely reason can be the syllable-timed nature of Spanish. Students perceive “call” as one syllable and “called” as a two-syllable word that requires a vowel being pronounced in each syllable. Another reason may well be the over-reliance of the written form of words when it comes to studying vocabulary. It does not really help either that verbs, in particular, are memorised as isolated words in the infinitive form. For instance, in addition to learning “call” = Spanish “llamar”, students at a A1-A2 level of English should also adopt or create their own sentences such as “I called my friend on the phone but he didn’t answer” (possibly including recorded pronunciation of such). This also presents the added benefit of the general context of getting to grips with connected speech plus gradual incorporation of language chunks or building blocks of language (as in “call someone on the phone”) and, last but not least, inclusion of co-text words (call on the phone/answer the phone).

These mispronunciations also reflect, in a broader sense, the way things are usually taught but not learned. Teaching something does not equal instant acquisition and mastery. In the best of cases, teachers can explain the rules behind pronunciation of regular -ed and hope that the students ace the ensuing exercises from, presumably, the textbook (namely assorting a string of regular verbs into three boxes according to the sound). Time to move on for the students to, eventually and inevitably, make mistakes. But that’s the nature of teaching and learning. Things have to be revisited. Things are, perhaps, taught in linear ways but not learned this way.

So what can we do to revisit and provide spaced repetition? Here’ a couple of tips:

Write or display on the board about 10 sentences with verbs ending in -ed. Have the students drill them and check accurate pronunciation. Then have them play Gianfranco Conti’s “sentence stealer card game”. Basically in this game the students are given four cards each and they choose any four sentences and copy them on the cards. The students walk around and try to guess what’s written on other students’ cards in order to steal them if they are right. More details on this game on his blog here.

We can adopt intervention strategies. So when a student mispronounces -ed, then find an adequate moment to make the correction and then use a site like Youglish to exemplify spoken utterances of it. Youglish is a website that renders occurrences of word searches using YouTube video as corpora. One simply types the word or words into the search box and is presented with the videos. Also, encourage your students to look for their own examples to listen and notice and repeat. For more information on it, read my blog entry Do you youglish.

Tons of listening input, time and practice will eventually take care of it.