Rethinking How We Categorize Consonant Sounds

Click here to listen to this post. [Link to today’s handout is below.]

In an effort to help a learner master the consonant sounds in English, I recently decided to rename the traditional consonant groupings based on the manner of articulation. Why? I question if the textbook terminology has real value for a student who has no background in linguistics and no intention of becoming a language teacher. “Affricates” and “Approximants” are words that are difficult to remember. To give you an idea of my alternative labels, I started referring to The “Chain” Group, which includes /tʃ, dʒ/, and The “Railway” Group, which includes /w, l, r, y/. Using a key word seemed more logical.

In addition, on all my materials I’m color coding these groups to help the student remember the manner of articulation. We’ve also spent time on distinguishing sounds within a group based on place of articulation. I feel this approach has gone well so far, so I’ve decided to share a handout based on my user-friendly terminology. Click here to view my Categories of Consonants_handout I hope it makes pronunciation concepts related to consonant sounds more accessible for your students, too.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Nina Liakos says:

    I think you would like the Color Vowel Chart, created by my friends and former colleagues Shirley Thompson and Karen Taylor:

    1. I took a quick look, and YES, I like it. Thanks for sharing the link, Nina.

  2. Karen Taylor says:

    This is great, Jennifer. Have you ever tried turning your handout sequence around so that students do the “review” activity first, as a discovery? It’s worked well for me– I give them a similar handout with “equations” like “teeth + lips” and “tongue + gum ridge”, and the students (or teachers, in the case of teacher training) figure out what sounds they can make with those points of articulation. In groups, they discover voicing and stop/continuant before I introduce them.

    Lovely blog! I look forward to reading more of it!
    Karen Taylor

    1. Hi Karen! Thanks for adding that suggestion. The reverse sequence is great, too!
      When I first used the handout, I went through the groups asking the learner to identify what all the sounds had in common. I like to draw attention to the fact that manner can be the same, but place of articulation can progress from a forward position to farther back in the mouth (lips > lips + teeth > teeth + tongue …).
      Hope you’ll visit again! BTW – I love the Color Vowel Chart. Wonderful work!
      Best wishes,

  3. ella says:

    I may sound a little daft here, but I have never understood either consonants or vowels, and I am some how a medical secretary – neither do I understand effect and affect !!!!

    1. Hi! Sometimes learning terminology after you’ve already learned the actual content improves your mastery. Your awareness becomes heightened. This may be your case. When you speak, you speak by combining different sounds, or phonemes. We divide phonemes into vowels and consonants. Vowels are voiced sounds that we shape with our tongue, lips, and jaw position. They can be tense or lax. They can long or short. There are pure vowels like the “a” in cat. There are diphthongs that combine two vowel sounds like the “oy” in toy. Consonant sounds block or obstruct the airflow. They can be voiced or unvoicied. They are shaped with different parts of our mouth (articulators).

      As for EFFECT/ AFFECT, plenty of people also get these words confused, native and non-native speakers alike! Think of “cause and effect” to remember the basic different. We often use EFFECT as a noun, and it means the result of something. A problem always has its effects. However, there can be positive and negative effects. We can talk about having an effect on others. AFFECT is used as a verb. If one thing affects another, then it somehow changes it. For example, the president’s decisions affect the whole nation. Look a the links for more examples and feel free to ask questions.


  4. ava says:

    My son is 9 years old and having trouble with learning spellings, especially the ones with ae in them, do you have any tips on strategies to help him learn these easier.

    1. Adult learners face spelling problems, too. I wrote a blog post on EnglishCafe with some suggestions.

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