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Teaching English Past Tense
Pronunciation to ESL Learners

Teaching English past tense pronunciation is probably one of the more challenging parts of teaching the Simple Past to ESL and EFL students. It's certainly one of the more difficult things for people studying English to master.

However, with a few simple pronunciation tips, ESL and EFL teachers can effectively design lesson plans and English language learners can master pronunciation of the challenging "-ed" endings of Past Tense verbs and past participles.


Getting Started — Adding "ed"

When teaching English past tense pronunciation for regular Simple Past verbs, ESL and EFL students have to first be taught to add "-ed" to the end of the base form of the verb. This is easy enough when forming, spelling, and writing regular past tense verbs.

The problem arises with pronunciation because students are often taught (or observe) that the "-ed" ending adds another syllable to the spoken word. And then they always add another syllable to the past tense of the verb. For example, "worked" is erroneously pronounced "work/id/" with two syllables, instead of just one, "work/t/."


General Past Tense Pronunciation Rule

An additional syllable with the "-ed" ending is only necessary when the last sound (not the last letter) of the base form of the verb is a /t/ or /d/; for example, "wanted" (two syllables), "decided" (three syllables), "needed" (two syllables), or "invited" (three syllables).

The last sound for the words "want" and "invite" is /t/. The last sound for the words "decide" and "need" is /d/. These two sounds require that the added -ed ending be pronounced with an additional syllable.




Three Distinct Pronunciations for Words Ending with "ed"

The "-ed" ending for regular verbs has the following three possible pronunciations:

/id/

/t/

/d/

Examples of each of these endings is discussed below.


Teaching English Past Tense Pronunciation— /id/Endings 

Deciding when to use the /id/ pronunciation is pretty simple. The ESL or EFL student just needs to remember that this Past Tense pronunciation ending is only used for verbs that end with a /t/ or /d/ sound, as discussed above.

The learner also needs to know that this is the only ending that is pronounced with an additional syllable.


Examples of /id/ Endings for Past Tense Verbs

"want" becomes "wanted" and is pronounced "want/id/" (two syllables)

"need" becomes "needed" and is pronounced "need/id/" (two syllables)

"decide" becomes "decided" and is pronounced "decide/id/" (three syllables)

"dedicate" becomes "dedicated" and is pronounced "dedicate/id/" (four syllables)


Teaching English Past Tense Pronunciation— /t/ and /d/ Endings

A lesson plan teaching ESL students how to differentiate between past tense verbs with a /t/ ending and a /d/ ending is a bit more difficult. Many students will think that it is just a matter of memorizing which letters at the end of the word (the base form of the verb) take a /t/ and which take a /d/. This strategy will work for many verbs, but not all.

The better pronunciation rule is to teach English language learners how to distinguish between voiced and unvoiced sounds. The "-ed" ending of unvoiced (or voiceless) sounds takes on a /t/ ending. Voiced sounds take on a /d/ ending.


Examples of /t/ Endings for Past Tense Verbs

"laugh" becomes "laughed" and is pronounced "laugh/t/" (one syllable)

"walk" becomes "walked" and is pronounced "walk/t/" (one syllable)

"kiss" becomes "kissed" and is pronounced "kiss/t/" (one syllable)

"finish" becomes "finished" and is pronounced "finish/t/" (two syllables)  


Examples of /d/ Endings for Past Tense Verbs

"clean" becomes "cleaned" and is pronounced "clean/d/" (one syllable)

"dream" becomes "dreamed" and is pronounced "dream/d/" (one syllable; note that "dreamt" is the British English version of the past tense of "dream")

"save" becomes "saved" and is pronounced "save/d/" (one syllable)

"enjoy" becomes "enjoyed" and is pronounced "enjoy/d/" (two syllables)

"marry" becomes "married" and is pronounced "marry/d/" (two syllables)


Teaching Strategies

A lesson plan teaching English past tense pronunciation can mostly involve drills to help students choose the correct ending and also to hear the differences between "-ed" endings.

You can also give learners a list of the endings that take /t/ or /d/ sounds. ESL and EFL students often feel more comfortable memorizing such a list, but as I mentioned above, memorization will not work for all situations.

While a list will help with a lot of verbs, it's better to have the back-up rule on the voiced or unvoiced -ed ending that the student can always rely on for correct English past tense pronunciation.


Exceptions to the "ed" Endings Rules

OK. It's English so you know that there are going to be exceptions!

If you are teaching your students pronunciation of past participles of verbs that are being used as adjectives, then sometimes a second syllable will be added even if the base form does not end in a /t/ or /d/ sound, and the "-ed" ending will be pronounced as /id/.

Common past participles used as adjectives with an additional syllable are: aged, blessed, crooked, dogged, learned, and ragged.

Fortunately, these exceptions do not apply to teaching pronunciation of English past tense verbs, just pronunciation of past participles when they are used as adjectives.


Related Pronunciation Article

Using Tongue Twisters for Pronunciation - Here's a fun strategy for teaching students to pronounce various English language sounds.




From English Past Tense Pronunciation to Teaching ESL to Adults Home


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