Consonant clusters

In English, sequences of up to four consonant sounds can be run together into consonant clusters, with no vowel between them.

Consider words like scrunched, sprints, squints, strands, texts, sixths (the letter x represents two sounds, “k” and “s”), twelfths, glimpsed and angsts.

As languages go, the frequency and length of our consonant clusters is high, thanks to the good old Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

By contrast, some languages require vowels between most consonants,  which is why Japanese visitors tend to say “Sydeney” and “Melabourne” and invite you to meet their “girlafarenaduh”.

Why are consonant clusters difficult?

Most consonant sounds are quiet and quick compared with vowel sounds, so when you run them together to create consonant clusters, it’s easy to miss one of them or mix the order up. Beginners will thus often leave one or more sounds out of consonant clusters, spelling “sprints” as “sprins” or “spints”, or spell “lost” as “lots” or “silt” as “slit”.

Four of our consonant sounds – “w”, “y”, “l” and “r” – are more open and vowel-like than the rest. Two of these sounds – “r” and “l” – are also in a lot of consonant clusters.

Because they’re quite like vowels, “r” and “l” can often shmoosh into neighbouring vowels and be hard to discriminate. This gives beginning spellers their tendency to spell “plan” as “pan” and “grub” as “gub”.

To add to the confusion, our spelling system acknowledges the vowel-like-ness of “w”, “y”, “l” and “r” by using them in lots of vowel spellings, like aw, ew, ow, ay, ey, oy, al (as in calm), ol (as in yolk), ar, er, ir, or and ur.

Aren’t consonant clusters usually taught?

Because it can be tricky, there’s a tendency in education to avoid properly teaching learners to pull spoken words apart into individual sounds.

Instead, the skills of segmenting (for spelling) and blending (for reading) are replaced by the teaching of common “blends” like pr, bl, cr, sw, qu and gr. These are treated like single sounds, and often mixed up with the teaching of consonant spellings that do represent single sounds (digraphs), like sh, ch, th, ck, ff, ll, ng and ss.

Sometimes only consonant clusters at word beginnings are taught, and the ones at the ends of words are ignored.

Teaching consonant clusters or blends as chunks is a bit like teaching children to pack up their Lego without pulling it completely apart. It means it takes up more space and is less reusable next time. It’s part of the educational slippery slope that eventually leads to teaching learners to memorise lots of unnecessarily large chunks of words, and eventually words themselves, without being able to sound them out.

What consonant clusters are possible?

Like any language, English has an underlying sound system that allows some combinations and not others (called phonotactics, if you want to look this up in detail). We can say and write tr (as in truck) and tw (as in twin) but not tn or tb at the start of a word/syllable. Likewise nk (as in think), lk (as in milk) and sk (as in desk) are allowed in English, but not bk or fk (despite what graffiti and text messages would have you think).

However, teaching materials that focus on blends as whole chunks tend to omit less common, but allowable consonant clusters.

There’s generally no explanation of how chunk-learners are meant to tackle things like “shr” in “shrine”, “sph” in “sphere”, “fth” in “fifth” or “ngths” in “lengths”, if they can’t work out for themselves how to subdivide such word-slabs.

Consonant Clijsters?

The other glaring problem in the 21st Century is that other languages don’t have the same phonotactics as English, so their consonant clusters combine consonants in ways that English doesn’t. Every Australian Open we have people on our tellies with names like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Vera Zvonerava, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jonas Björkman.

These combinations (Consonant Clijsters, I call ’em) are not really allowed in English, but bad luck, they’re here, deal with them. How are tennis-watching chunk-learners to tackle them, if they can’t blend and segment?

All international interactions, not just sport, are riddled with these sorts of spellings, as anyone who’s tried Slovak cuisine, been on the trans-Siberian railway or attempted words from Nuxálk (an indigenous language of the American Pacific Northwest coast famous for its words with no vowels) can tell you.

The solution is to teach learner(s) proper blending and segmenting, and thus how to pack and unpack our spelling system, including consonant clusters, in the most efficient way possible.

This equips them with the skills to tackle not just common consonant clusters, but made-up and ring-in words like “pshaw”, “sjambok” and “sforzando” and all the many other Consonant Clijsters they’ll meet in life.

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