Charting Irregular Past Tense Verbs

February 21, 2015 by admin

Plenty has been said about the pronunciation of past-tense verbs with the final -ed ending, but what about irregular past-tense verbs?

Try saying these out loud:

sit / sat
feed / fed
write / wrote
say / said
speak / spoke
begin / began


It doesn’t take long to notice that vowel change is the main feature of most irregular past tense verbs. In fact, one could say that these words “change color.”

SILVER  sit–> sat  BLACK
GREEN feed –> fed  RED
WHITE write –> wrote  ROSE
GRAY say –> said RED
GREEN speak –> spoke ROSE
SILVER begin –> began   BLACK

In a recent workshop, “Telling our Stories: Focus on Past Tenses,” I gave my high-intermediate ESL students time to see how irregular past tense verbs behave when charted on the Color Vowel™ Chart. Charting about 50 of the most frequently used irregular verbs onto a black-line version of the Color Vowel™ Chart, here’s what students came up with:

A pattern emerges: irregular verbs in their simple (present tense) form tend to feature front vowels (GREEN, SILVER, GRAY, RED, WHITE) and tend to move downward (say–> said = GRAY–> RED) and/or backward (freeze–>froze = GREEN–> ROSE) for the past tense form

At a glance, one can see a lot of “traffic” in GREEN, SILVER, GRAY, RED, OLIVE and ROSE. But it gets even more interesting…I had students circle the simple form of each verb and draw an arrow to its past form:

We use circles to indicate the present tense form.

We use circles to indicate the simple or present tense form.

It was a this point that students started noticing an interesting pattern: namely, that irregular past tense verbs in their simple form tend to feature front vowels (GREEN, SILVER, GRAY, RED, and WHITE), while their past tense forms tend to move downward or back (especially toward OLIVE, ROSE, and BLUE)

Lines with arrows point to the past tense forms, which tend to take on low or back vowels, as shown here.

Lines with arrows point to the past tense forms, which tend to take on low or back vowels, as shown here.

Now that we had created a visual representation of vowel behavior in irregular past tense verbs, it was time to apply this new understanding to our spoken English.We reviewed our irregular past tense verbs in a way students had never before experienced it: by saying each present/past irregular verb pair and tapping the appropriate colors on their Color Vowel Charts at the same time.  Sit (tap SILVER), sat (tap BLACK), feed (tap GREEN), fed (tap RED), write (tap WHITE), wrote (tap ROSE), and so on.

These high-intermediate students loved this new way of experiencing irregular past tense verbs. “Now I have something more than memorizing a list,” remarked one.

We all agreed that future lessons could focus in on specific patterns, such as all of the irregular verbs that move from GREEN to RED (keep/kept, lead/led, feel/felt, leave/left).

And so it was that we took what is conventionally thought of only as a grammar or spelling issue and explored it as an aspect of pronunciation.

Karen Taylor  is Co-Author of The Color Vowel Chart.

Materials Tip: A photocopiable black-line version of The Color Vowel Chart is included in our booklet, Resources for Teachers, available for just $18 on our website.

2 thoughts on “Charting Irregular Past Tense Verbs

  1. Cyn Hatch says:

    Visual and aural patterns provide a bridge to greater understanding and help students predict appropriate pronunciation shifts. I’ll use this guided discovery technique in our pronunciation classes at NOVA.

  2. Rebecca Wilner says:

    I love this as a way to find patterns in past tense irregulars. Not only does it help us notice the patterns in pronunciation, but for speakers of languages with shallow orthographies (where each letter only makes one sound) it also open up a conversation about how to spell the sounds, and lets them discover spelling patterns as well.

Comments are closed.

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