Crisp consonants

Adults trying to help learners with their reading and writing often make the mistake of saying single consonants in a "soggy" way. This can confuse learners and make it harder for them to blend sounds into words, and segment words into sounds.

There are a number of videos on YouTube that explain how adults should say consonant sounds when teaching, such as the Read Write Inc Phonemes Pronunciation Guide one, which I will embed into this post below.

But first, I want to briefly explain the two ways adults often mangle English consonants when teaching literacy.

Common Error 1: Voicing voiceless sounds

English has a series of paired consonants, which are essentially the same sound, except that one is produced without any voice, and one has voice.

The sounds "p" and "b" are one such pair. Both are made by closing the lips, building up air pressure and then releasing it. However, the vocal cords are vibrating when you say "b", but not when you say "p" (plus "p" has more of an airburst, thanks to air not being needed to vibrate the vocal cords).

Because "p" is naturally a quiet sound, adults often try to make it louder, thinking this will help children hear it more easily, by adding voice to it. But when they do that, they change it from a "p" into something more like a "b", but with a strong airburst. So learners don't get a clear idea of the difference between these two sounds.

Try saying these two sounds, and the other voiced-voiceless consonant pairs listed below, one after another. Notice how your movements are much the same for both sounds in each pair, and the main difference between the sounds is whether you use your voice or not:

  • "t" and "d"
  • "k" and "g"
  • "th" as in "thigh" and "th" as in "thy"
  • "f" and "v"
  • "s" and "z"
  • "sh" and "si" as in "vision"
  • "ch" and "j"

We also have one voiceless consonant in English which has no voiced pair: "h", and again people often distort it by adding voicing as a means to make it louder.

When they do this, they inadvertently turn "h" into a sound that English hasn't used since it was Old English, although this sound is in many modern languages including Arabic, Dinka, German, Hindi, Portuguese and Russian.

Common Error 2: Saying a syllable instead of a sound

Adults also often hang a little vowel on the end of consonants when saying them in isolation, so that instead of "t" they say "tuh", and instead of "sss" they say "suh".

This can really muck up children's blending. Try blending these three sounds: "m", "a" and "tuh". The word I get is "matter".

Only when you make your "t" soft and crisp can you blend "m", "a" and "t" successfully into "mat".

Likewise, if you say sounds crisply, learners get a very clear idea of precisely what sounds they're listening for in words, when trying to segment them in order to spell them.

Here's the Read Write Inc video that shows how most of the consonant sounds should be produced when teaching reading and spelling. I think the YouTube version got cut off at the end, because "g", "p" and "t" aren't included in the list of "Bouncy Sounds", and there are no "Bouncy then Stretchy" "ch" and "j" sounds, plus I'm not sure what happened to "w", "h", "y", voiced "th" as in "them" and "si" as in vision. I guess they're all in the rather pricey DVD, which I notice someone seems to be selling on eBay…(update 7/8/14, it seems to be no longer available).


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