Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Simple Past’s Best Friend . . . The Rubber Band?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

There is always at least one of me at the bottom of your purse, bag, backpack or briefcase. I come free when you buy celery and when your newspapers are delivered. I am everywhere, but I also hold a magical power for students when it comes time to learning the simple past tense. What am I? An elastic band!

English is Stressful

Have you ever heard students say that they “miss-ed” their families or that they “watch-ed’ TV last night? On one hand, it is great that the students know there should be an -ed ending with simple past regular verbs. On the other hand, their mispronunciation of these verbs in the past may cause listeners to have difficulty understanding them. English is a stress-timed language. This means that pronouncing the correct number of syllables (or beats) in a word is key to “listener-friendly pronunciation.” (Gilbert, 2008). If a student adds an extra syllable or doesn’t pronounce enough syllables, listeners may have a hard time understanding the word.

Pronunciation and the Simple Past

After we have covered the “grammar-y” part of the lesson – the formation and use of the simple past – I show a slide in my PowerPoint presentation that shows the three different pronunciations of the -ed ending: /d/, /t/ and /ɪd/. Specifically, in verbs that end with a voiced consonant sound (/b/, /g/, /ʤ/, /v/, /δ/, /z/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /l/, /r/, and /y/) and any vowel sound, the -ed ending is pronounced /d/. In verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant sound (/p/, /k/, /ʧ/, /f/, /θ/, /s/ and /ʃ/), -ed is pronounced /t/. Finally, with verbs that end with the sounds /t/ and /d/, -ed is pronounced /ɪd/.

Then, I let my students in on The Big Secret. The biggest difference between the three endings is that with /d/ and /t/ endings, we don’t add an extra syllable, but with /ɪd/, we do. Students are unfailingly delighted to learn that they don’t need to sweat the difference between /t/ and /d/ as long as they get the syllable count right. (In my opinion, students and teachers who are obsessed with exact pronunciation are the only ones who really care whether the final -ed is pronounced /d/ or /t/. Listeners certainly don’t, because the speaker can be easily understood regardless of which of the two endings they pronounce.)

Enter the Rubber Band!

When I am teaching the simple past tense of regular verbs, I bring enough elastic bands to give one to each student in the class. Students pull once on the rubber band when the verb has only one syllable, like pushed and moved, but they pull twice for verbs that have an extra syllable when the final -ed is added, like wanted and added. For these verbs, students pull hard on the rubber bands when they say the stressed syllable and only pull it a little when they say the rest of the verb. This helps them to feel the difference between a one-syllable past tense verb, like laughed and a two-syllable verb, like waited. Gilbert (2004) suggests that the elastic bands be thick, the thicker the better. Pulling on a thick elastic band requires more effort, which helps students to internalize this pronunciation skill. Students have lots of fun with this activity, and getting students laughing and moving in a grammar class is always a good thing!

Gilbert, J. (2004). “Exchanging thoughts on teaching pronunciation.” Paper presented at TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, CA, USA.

Gilbert, J. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Comment from superbigmuch
November 20, 2009 at 11:07 am

Tamara: Thanks for this sharing Gilbert's idea! I believe combining "muscle memory" and language learning is, as you said, a great way for students to internalize and have a good time doing so.

Comment from Lori
November 26, 2009 at 5:18 am

This is wonderful. In my classes, I have students stand and STOMP out the syllables. They are usually able to "discover" the rule for themselves and are very pleased with the "ownership!"

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