Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Save the Voice for Last

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2008

What did I do wrong? It worked so well with the second graders last year! The second graders had figured out what made [z] different from [s] in pretty short order. Remember the kid who said,“Your tongue vibrates more for the Z”? And the one who said, “Your teeth vibrate more, too”? They nailed that distinction in voicing, and from there we were able to sort all the other consonant sounds into ones that were voiced like [z], and ones that were voiceless like [s]. But now, here I was with Adam’s first grade class, and the same technique was crashing. Maybe I should explain…

Ms. L and I had decided that raising the kids’ general phonetic awareness might help some of them with their reading, and in any case wouldn’t do any harm (as far as we knew). I wanted to show them several ways of making “consonant families” and make kind of a game out of it. Ms. L said that stickers were always a hit with kids this age, so I had spent a couple of hours drawing and coloring little lips, teeth, and tongue icons on some blank stickers, for the various parts of the mouth used in making the sounds (in phonetic terms, “place of articulation”). I had made three nose stickers, for the nasal sounds [m, n], and the ng sound [ŋ]. I had a supply of red circle stickers to use for stops (the phonetic term for the consonants [p, t, k, b, d, g]) and green ones for “go” consonants — my non-phonetic term for consonants that you can keep saying as long as you have breath. (In phonetic terms, this is “manner of articulation”.) For voicing, I just labeled the stickers “Voice On” and “Voice Off” and colored them in contrasting colors. (I didn’t think this audience would get much out of a picture of vibrating and nonvibrating vocal folds.)

The idea was that each kid would have a card with a specific consonant sound, and in the course of the presentation would get to put the appropriate stickers on the card. Then the kids could have fun sorting themselves into groups according to my specifications: “All the voice-on stop consonants, over here!” “OK, now let’s have all the lip consonants over here!” “All the lip consonants that are also teeth consonants, move here!” I started out with voicing, partly because I’m used to thinking about voice first when I think of a sound (“voiceless stop”, “voiced alveolar fricative”, etc.), and partly because I remembered how well the second-graders had grasped it. The trouble was that in order to award a sticker, I had to go to each kid individually, and have him or her perform the test: while feeling their Adam’s apple, say “aaa__aaa” with the consonant sandwiched between two (voiced) vowels. Then they could feel the voicing either continue all the way through, or stop after the first vowel and start up again for the next one. So in the best case, that would take about 30 seconds per kid, translating to 11 minutes of class time with only one kid actively engaged at a time. I halved that time by having Ms. L take half the class. But I was still taking more time than expected because of kids not recognizing whether their voice was on or off, even after the full-class practice we’d done earlier. They were just having to take my word for whether their sound was voiced or voiceless.

Things started to smooth out after the voicing was out of the way. When I asked anyone who had a lip consonant to raise their hand to claim their sticker, I got my [p, b, m] pretty quickly, and the [w] with only a little bit of questioning. (They laughed at me trying to say my last name without rounding my lips.) Similarly for teeth and tongue. They were even able to distinguish between tip-of-tongue and back-of-tongue sounds (which appeared on the stickers as tongues with arrows pointing to the tip or the back).

For Stop and Go consonants, kids came up one by one, and the class would attempt to stretch out the sound of his or her consonant. “Stop or Go?” I’d ask. The class would shout it out, and the kid would move to the appropriate side of the room. The kids with the ch and j sounds ([ʧ] and [ʤ]) liked the fact that they got both red and green stickers, since their sounds started off with a Stop, [t] or [d], and finished with a Go, [ʃ] or [ʒ]. The kids with [w] and [y] didn’t get either: These sounds don’t stop the airflow like a Stop, but you can’t just keep saying these sounds either because then they turn into the vowels [u] and [i].

The nasals were particularly fun. I had all the kids with Stops sit back down. Then I called on the Gos one by one to make their sound. As they made it, they had to move their hand toward their face and then clap it over their mouth. If the sound continued, they went to sit at a special table. Once [m, n, ŋ] were separated out in this way, I asked how it was possible to say these sounds even with your mouth blocked. “How can you do that? Where is the air getting out?”

“My ears?” one kid guessed, but soon after that another one figured out the right answer. “Right! The air is coming out through your nose! Everyone try this now.” I began making an [m] sound, clapped my left hand over my mouth again, and this time pinched my nose shut with my right. They giggled as they watched my face turn red and my cheeks puff out behind my hand. We did the same for [n] and [ŋ], and then the kids with those cards received their specially-drawn nose stickers. Then we finished with some of the on-the-fly formation of consonant families (or in phonetic terms, “natural classes”) that I’d envisioned.

So overall, the lesson went well, but why wasn’t the voicing distinction as clear to these kids as the ones last year? Looking back on it, I think it helped that the second graders already had two minimally different sounds to compare, and were therefore able to zero in on the difference and recognize what voicing felt like. Also, they already had an idea whether a given sound would be voiced or voiceless because of the work we’d already done. If I do this phonetics presentation again, I’ll do the place and manner of articulation and nasality first, and save the voice for last. And when I talk about voicing, I’ll start off with voiced/voiceless consonant pairs, with the question of what distinguishes these two sounds that so far have the same combination of stickers. And I’ll do it with the whole class at once for each pair of sounds — so that hopefully, the right answers will drown out the wrong ones.

When it was all over, I left the stickers on the consonant cards. There was no pressing need to get them off, so I didn’t bother. And that came in very handy for the next linguistics presentation I did for Adam’s class…

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