Teaching pronunciation is worth – Using Pronunciation Teaching Techniques To Clarify Regular – ED Endings

After a year or more, I’m back to blogging.  This time I have decided to study and write a little about a subject that is not really comfortable for me to teach and I guess that for lots of my colleagues, it is not easy as well.

Let’s then talk about pronunciation  regarding the regular  -ED Endings, a particular area of difficulty for Brazilian students, and for students in general.

Some years ago I was conducting a workshop for the state sector teachers in Recife, Brazil  (where I live) when one of the participants asked me what I thought was the most important in teaching or tutoring EFL to adult learners – grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation? By the way, the teacher who asked me the question told me that he considered pronunciation to be the most important because, for him, it was vital for successful communication.

I acknowledged that, of course, because pronunciation problems often do lead to conversation breakdowns, but that I considered all three to be important. He playfully accused me of dodging the question. I suggested, however, that what was even more critical, in my opinion, was teaching adult learners the communication skills and strategies to negotiate conversation breakdowns when they occur.

Being  a teacher of some teen and adult monolingual groups in Brazil for years,  I have noticed a lot of difficulties they have, regarding pronunciation,  begin at the start and pre- intermediate levels.

So I have chosen to write upon this area because I believe that teachers should always be working on students pronunciation to help them communicate successfully. The goal should ideally be communicative efficiency with work on individual phonemes,  word  stress and sentence stress and intonation. Kelly(2004) states that “pronunciation can, and should,  be planned for too.  Any analysis of language that disregards of sidelines factors of pronunciation is incomplete”.

Specifically, my choice to work on pronunciation teaching techniques to clarify regular -ed endings in the past tense of regular verbs is due some aspects I have noticed of teaching and learning.

There are two key problems in pronunciation teaching:  Firstly it tends to be neglected  not because of teachers’ lack of interest in the subject , but rather  to a feeling of doubts as to how to teach it. Many experienced teachers would admit to lack of theory of pronunciation and they may therefore feel the need to improve their practical skills in pronunciation teaching. Secondly, when its not neglected, it tends to be reactive to a particular problem that has arisen in the classroom rather than being strategically planned. In addition, through my experience as a teacher as well as a teacher trainer who observed several lessons, I’ve noticed learners’ difficulty in the pronunciation of -ed sounds.

I suspect that, sometimes, we teachers do not realise how important pronunciation is for good spoken English. Learners’ needs and difficulties in this area are the main purpose for me to work upon this theme and the main aim  is to find a way to help my English language learners (especially the adult ones) to overcome some of the pronunciation problems I have noticed along the years and to which I am especially concerned.  It seems to me as if my pronunciation teaching has made little or no difference in my learners’ speech. So I wanted to know what research and literature has to say about this issue.

Why teach pronunciation?

Communication breakdowns can result from a variety and/or combination of factors and are, by no means, limited to pronunciation problems alone. I believe that teaching strategies for successfully repairing breakdowns can play a role in improving not only learners’ communication skills but even pronunciation.

Over the last thirty years interest in the patterns and causes of error in second language pronunciation has grown rapidly , especially in English due to the unstoppable rise of this language as a lingua franca around the globe. Generally speaking, isolated errors do not seriously affect communication, but an accumulation of such errors, often combined with grammatical errors and lexical inappropriacy makes it harder for hearers, especially native speakers.

According to Kelly (2004), a consideration of learners’ pronunciation errors and how this can inhibit successful communication  is a useful basis on which to assess why it is important to deal with pronunciation in the classroom. When a learner says, for example, soap in a situation such as restaurant where he should have said soup, the inaccurate production of a phoneme can lead to misunderstanding;  This can be very frustrating for the learner who may have a good command of grammar and lexis but have difficulty in understanding and being understood by a native speaker.

Kelly (2004) also claims that language learners often show considerable enthusiasm for pronunciation because they feel it’s something that would help them communicate better. There are some issues we teachers should take into consideration so that include pronunciation as part of their systematic lesson plans throughout the course.

  • If students’ pronunciation is adequate for their level and for the tasks the need to perform.
  • Non- native speakers need to now where individual words are stressed .
  • Some words are spelt identically but have two pronunciations which give different meanings.
  • If teachers and learners should be aware of phonemic transcriptions of words, at least the main vowels and consonant sounds.
  • The tone of the message is often as important as the message itself. So it’s important for the students to recognise intonation patterns and therefore, the meaning of the message.
  • To consider on how a student convey doubt, boredom, and uncertainty, of the students “sound” like an English speaker and if  they want to.


Through my reading  I discovered that most experts such as Lightbown & Spada (2004), Jones (1995: in Richards & Renandya 2005) and Kelly (2004) seemed to agree that there exists a critical period that males learning a language as a child easier and  learning a language after puberty more difficult.

This conclusion about acquiring  one`s native language seems to have relevance for all language learning. In fact, the critical period  theory was offered as an explanation  for why many adults trying to learn a second language seem to have a hard time achieving native-like pronunciation  and grammar. Indeed, some researchers indicated that as few as 5%, or fewer, adult learners could ever achieve anything like native-like fluency in a second language. Although this wasn’t the most positive news for us a language teachers,  it offered a plausible reason for the difficulty mine and other students have had with English pronunciation.

Having exposed all above arguments, I believe that the teaching of pronunciation in EFL / ESL should not be ignored at all, but teaching methods  should more fully address the issues of motivation and exposure by creating an awareness of the importance of pronunciation and providing more exposure to input from authentic spoken language.

The -ed sounds:

According to Batista & Watkins (1997: (pp. 26 – 34) by the process of assimilation, the morpheme ed is pronounced as /t/ in words that end in voiceless obstruents, and as /d/ in words that end in voiced obstruents, sonorants or vowels. In words that end in /t/ and /d/, the morpheme ed is pronounced with the addition of a syllable. However, Brazilian EFL learners have a strong tendency to add an extra or epenthetic vowel between all the final consonant clusters created by adding –ed, giving my words an extra syllable they should not have (as in looked, watched).

The English language indicates that the action of the verb is in the past by having some form of the “d” or “t” sound end the word. We say some kind of “d” or “t” sound although the word is almost always written with a “d”.

Many people who learn English are so confused by the irregular forms of the verbs that they give up and invent their own ways of referring to the past. Some say: “Yesterday I walk to work” or other ways to avoid using the past tense that they have never learned.

Most English verbs are regular. To indicate the past, they put some kind of a sound made with the tongue touching the back of the upper teeth. Almost always it is the sound of a “d” or of a “t”.

The ending of the verb “love” in the past: “I loved write the phonemic transcription  the movie” is very different from the ending of the verb “walk”: “I walked to work write the phonemic transcription.” When it sounds like the letter “d”, it is a voiced sound, that is the vocal cords vibrate. When it sounds like a “t”, it is a voiceless or an unvoiced sound.

But how do you know when it should end with a voiced “d” sound and when with a voiceless “t” sound? Although you may not believe it, there is a “rule” that will help you to form the past of most English verbs. You may still make some mistakes but little by little you will feel the mistakes and will correct them. The structure of your mouth will force you to make the right sound.

The “rule” for the formation of the past is similar to the “rule” for the “s” at the end of plural nouns and verbs in the third person singular of the present tense.

The rule of the “d” in three parts:

There is a one simple “rule” that covers the pronunciation of the “d” and “t” sounds.

The sound that indicates the past of the verb is the voiceless “t” sound when the verb ends in a voiceless consonant. On the other hand, the indication of the past is the voiced “d” sound when the verb ends in a voiced consonant.

The three parts of the rule are:

  1. the voiceless “t” sound,
  2. the voiced “d” sound,
  3. the added syllable “id”.


  1. The voiceless (unvoiced) “t”:

The “rule” tells us when the last sound of a verb is like that of the words talk, cap, mess, etc (that is, a voiceless sound), the past of the verb ends with a voiceless (or unvoiced) sound like that of the word walked. The past of these verbs is talked, capped, messed and the “d” is unvoiced.

For example the letter “d” that represents the past in the written word is pronounced like the “t” of Tom (a voiceless sound) when the verb ends in a voiceless sound. So when the verb ends in voiceless sounds such as the letters k in the word looked, p in the word stopped, f in the word cuffed (or gh in the word laughed) the past is indicated by the voiceless “t” sound. This always happens so don’t be fooled by the written letter “d”.

The past tense of the verb is also indicated by a voiceless sound when the verb ends in any “hissing” sound such as the words: face, wash, crunch. All these sounds are voiceless so the verbs that end with them will always have the “d” of their past form sounded voicelessly and therefore become the forms faced, washed, crunched.

It is important to note that although the voiceless “d” is written “ed”, you do NOT add a syllable to the original word.

  1. The voiced “d”: The “d” is voiced in two situations:
  • when the word ends in a vowel sound such as, played, teed, owed, cued. The “strange” vowels are also followed by a voiced “d” such as in the words: furred, papered, pawed. The past of verbs ending in a diphthong sound also end in a voiced “d” sound, for example in the words: plowed, paid, toyed .
  • when the word ends in a voiced consonant. Some examples of the second case are: b as in the word robbed, n in the word drowned, l in the word mailed, g in the word logged, v in the word heaved, m n the word farmed, n as in the word panned, the sound of the letters ng as in the word ring, r as in the word cars, v as in the word stoves, and thin the word bathed.

Remember that that the voiced “d” sound forms the past of verbs that end in a voiced consonant, for example, burned is the past of the verb burn and loved is the past of love.

It is important to note that although the voiced “d” in these words is written with “ed”, you do NOT add an extra syllable.

  1. The added syllable

In both cases, when the verb ends in either the sound of the voiced “d” or the sound of the voiceless “t”, the English language adds a syllable /ed/ to the verb. However, the pronunciation is /id/.

For example, the verbs in the present tense visit, vote, side, need, plant, adopt, add “ed” to make the past tense and become visited, voted, sided, needed, planted, adopted.

The “ed” is pronounced with a special vowel followed by a voiced “d”. The special vowel is the “short i” which has the IPA symbol of the small capital “i”. When pronouncing such words, we have to be able to hear the difference to be able to use this vowel in the added syllable.

It is only in this special case that you pronounce the second syllable of the past of a verb. Not all verbs have two syllables in the past. It is important to realize that most common English verbs have only one syllable. We do not pronounce the “ed” of the words such as walked, talked, played, tuned, tooled.

Although many verbs have “ed” in their past, it is just a strange note of English spelling. You often only pronounce one syllable with the past indicated by a voiced “d” or an unvoiced “t” according to which sound preceded the ending.

You only pronounce the “ed” when the root form of the verb ends with your tongue touching the back of your teeth, either with a voiced “d” sound or with an unvoiced “t” sound. For example, “Today, I heat the coffee but yesterday I heated it” (2 syllables because the last consonant is a “t”). But, “Today I talk to my friend but yesterday I talked on the phone.” (one syllable because the last consonant is not a “t” or a “d”).

The extra syllable: Listen to this as often as necessary for you to be able to distinguish the unvoiced “t” from the voiced “d”.

A problem faced by learners is in recognition of spelling and pronunciation. Influenced by L1 , learners tend to pronounce words as they were written in their mother tongue. This is what happens to the past tense of regular verbs. As they all end in –ed , learners usually stress the ed.  Having said that, how could we help learners with this area?

There are, for sure , many ways to help learners and to make them feel comfortable, rather than threatened , with pronunciation.  I would say that, pronunciation-focussed lessons should not be aimed at accent elimination, but at accent reduction. Rather, students should work on reducing areas of their pronunciation that affect comprehensibility, that is, those aspects of their accents that make it difficult for native speakers to understand them.

The most important thing, as I see it, is the hands-on stage, because above all students need to practice these features in different situations, from very structured exercises to spontaneous speech. I am focusing on the past tense -ed endings (e.g., worked, played, constructed, learned, etc.). The first step would be to expose students to these words in order to enable them to recognise and produce the correct pronunciation of the endings of each word in isolation by repeating them; however, this does not guarantee that students will be able to use them in natural conversation. Thus, the teacher can record students talking about the past weekend and what they did-again, using past tenses. This strategy will provide students with material to take home and listen to the recording so that they can check to see how well they formed the verbs and if they pronounced them correctly. However, I also believe that awareness-raising plays a crucial part in pronunciation improvement, because just drills don’t seem to be enough. The students need to know how the language works, and how the sounds and the syllables are different from students´ L1.

To sum up, teachers should focus on exercises that help students understand that language variation is quite normal – something that every English speaker participates in.They see that there is more than one way to pronounce <-ed>, and the choice follows a pattern: If the root word ends in /t/ or /d/, the <-ed>ending is pronounced /Id/. If the root word ends in a voiced sound other than /d/, the <-ed> ending is pronounced /d/; if the root ends in a voiceless sound other than /t/, the ending is pronounced /t/.

I think that this hard work is worthwhile. The way I find to justify my decision to teach pronunciation and familiarise learners with the phonemic symbols is by making them aware of the following aspects:

  • Students can use dictionaries more effectively.
  • Students can become more confident and more independent learners.
  • The phonemic symbols are a visual aid.
  • Although speaking a language is a performance skill, knowledge of how thlanguage works is of great value.

However, I would have to question devoting precious class or tutoring time to this one aspect of language at the expense of all others, including reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary development, and grammar — not to mention the sociocultural aspects of language that are so critical.

Additionally, learning the skills and strategies to negotiate meaning and to repair conversation breakdowns will empower learners in every interaction that takes place outside the classroom, giving them the tools they need for independence. Learning to correctly articulate the “ed” sounds is not so important if one has learned to compensate and strategize when breakdowns occur. Moreover, if learners engage in conversations with confidence, they may very well identify the specific aspects of their speech that are causing the most trouble — making it possible to target these for practice and remediation. Effective communication — not perfect pronunciation , should always be the ultimate goal.


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Roseli Serra

Roseli is an enthusiastic educator in Brazil. Graduated in English and Portuguese, she works as an ELT consultant, teacher trainer, materials writer, Cambridge examiner and e-moderator. She's a member of the IATEFL LT (Learning Technologies) subcommittee and works, teaches and trains professionals in the area of TD and LT. She’s also a psychologist, a mentor and a coach certified by SLAC (Sociedade Latino Americana de Coaching). She has a post-graduate degree in Applied Linguistics and is now doing her MA studies in Science of Languages at UNICAP (Universidade Católica de Pernambuco). She truly believes in life-long learning and teacher development.

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