Struggling with the past tense: Verbal acquisition of -ed forms of verbs
By Beth Crumpler

Share this article:  

This is the first in a series of three articles about struggling with past tense -ed and instructional techniques to help.

English language learners often struggle with understanding when to use the various past tense pronunciations of the English sounds for –ed at the end of regular English verbs. They get confused with when they should use the [d], [əd] or [t] sounds. Explicit instruction is important for fluent verbal acquisition of these differing sounds. Instructional methodologies need to be clear and precise in order for students to understand.


Have you had students use a recording device to help with pronunciation?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

Part of teaching the –ed sounds in a student-friendly manner is by breaking down the exercises and examples that usually have complex linguistic symbols and explanations into examples that use plain English. Students can always learn the complex linguistic symbols later once they have acquired a thorough understanding and a good foundation of verbally using the sounds correctly.

Often textbooks and websites have examples of the various –ed sounds that include complex descriptions, visuals, examples and recordings. Often these examples contain the linguistic International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for the sounds and usages for them. ELLs struggle with understanding the IPA symbols, which hinders fluent acquisition of the sounds.

Below are charts and explanations of when to use the [d], [əd] or [t] pronunciations. Included in them are linguistic symbols for instructors and simple plain English explanations of the various sounds for instructional purposes with students.

When to use the [d], [əd] or [t] sounds

Instructional note: Teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL, ESL, EFL, ESOL, etc.) must remember that ELLs usually do not have the linguistic knowledge and training that professionals have. For this reason it is important to teach the past tense verb –ed sounds, consonants, etc., in student-friendly terms. Also, it is important to make sure students understand that when determining which –ed sound to use, listening to the last sound of the verb is more important than the actual letter itself.

[əd] = Use the [əd] sound, as pronounced in the word "did," for verbs that end in the voiced consonants [t] or [d]. The [əd] ending adds another syllable to verbs that end with this -ed sound. Example: paint (1 syllable) = painted (2 syllables: pronounced paynt-id)

Voiceless Consonants

Instructional note: Voiced consonants happen when the vocal chords don't vibrate. Point to your vocal chords and model a voiceless sound for students. Have them repeat you. Next model a voiced sound, so students can see and hear the difference. Have students either work with a partner or look into a mirror to see their vocal chords not moving for voiceless sounds. Have them practice the various voiceless sounds and words below.

[d] = Use the [d] sound for verbs that end in the voiced consonant sounds, and for all verbs that end in a vowel sound. Note: Only consonant endings are addressed here. Vowel sound endings will be addressed in another article.

Voiced Consonants

Instructional note: Voiced consonants happen when the vocal chords vibrate. Point to your vocal chords and model a voiced sound for students. Have them repeat you. Next model a voiceless sound, so that students can see and hear the difference. Have students either work with a partner or look into a mirror to see their vocal chords moving for voiced sounds. Have them practice the various voiced sounds and words below.

Verbal fluency of –ed sounds

To push students toward full acquisition of the [d], [əd] or [t] sounds, it is important to start by giving them examples to practice as a whole group. The instructor should model the content for the students and have the students repeat.

The next progression toward fluency of the –ed sounds is to have students brainstorm and chart examples of the sounds with assistance from the instructor. After this, students can progress into building sentences with the –ed sounds. This leads students to verbal acquisition of the sounds in a controlled environment. The last step is to get students to progress toward natural fluency.

Students will move toward natural fluency by allowing them to practice words with the endings in natural conversations. The instructor should give them scenarios in which they can create authentic conversations with partners using verbs with the [d], [əd] or [t] sounds.

Have students record themselves with a recording device. Students can listen to what they did well and what they can improve on. This helps students become mentally focused and aware of their conversational usages and pronunciations. As students progress in these activities, they will become more aware of their mistakes and will begin to self-correct.

The point at which students begin catching their mistakes and self-correcting the sounds is when they have begun to move toward fluent use of the various –ed sounds. Over time in natural conversations as students self-correct more and more, they will eventually develop full fluent usage of these sounds.

As an ESL instructor, the most important thing is to teach students the differentiations of the sounds, to help them listen so they can become mentally aware of their pronunciation mistakes in natural conversations. By teaching pronunciation and self-awareness in natural conversations, students begin to learn to focus in on listening to themselves and begin to self correct more and more.

If an instructor can get students to a point of self-correcting themselves, then this is a huge accomplishment toward –ed fluency. This is the ultimate instructional goal for fluent student acquisition of the past-tense pronunciations for -ed.

Beth Crumpler is an ESL Instructor for ELS (English Language Services), a freelance curriculum writer and an e-learning course developer in various areas of TESOL. Beth has written content for CTY-Online Johns Hopkins University and Pearson. She is a certified teacher of ESL and music. Beth enjoys studying technology for teaching ESL, and in her spare time studies Spanish.