The importance of teaching “voiced” and “voiceless” consonant sounds in English
It’s important to teach English language-learners the difference between “voiced” and “voiceless” consonant sounds and how they are formed. It’s especially helpful to teach these sounds in pairs to contrast their pronunciation and identify their distinctive means of production. For example, /b/ and /v/ can be difficult for Latin-American Spanish speakers to distinguish, because the /b/ sound in Spanish is often softened (“el baño” is frequently pronounced “el vaño”, etc.) Similarly, Arabic speakers may have difficulty hearing the differences between “many people” and “many beeble”, because the /b/ and /p/ sounds overlap so much in their native tongue.
Thankfully, the voiced-voiceless distinction is consistent throughout spoken English and there are a number of ways to demonstrate it, such as the technique where you hold a small piece of paper in front of your mouth. Making a clear /p/ sound produces a short puff of air (voiceless) that vibrates the piece of paper as it expels. In contrast, the /b/ sound occurs in your throat, so the paper won’t move when you say it. But if you place your index finger and thumb on your voice-box, you’ll feel it vibrate as you voice the sound. This technique also provides students with a visible method of gauging their own pronunciation of consonants.
Voiced-voiceless pronunciation can be taught early on in tandem with grammar as your students learn regular past tenses endings (for example, the “-ed” ending as the /t/ in “liked”, /d/ in “played”, and /id/ in “hated”) or the plural endings /s/, /z/, and /iz/. The challenge for pronunciation of particular consonant pairs will differ depending on the student’s mother tongue, but you will find problems very often reside in whether they are using the appropriate voiced or voiceless technique to reproduce the sound. There are various websites where you can find lists of consonant pairs for English, but it’s also important to listen to your students’ pronunciation in light of what you know of their native language and, of course, the common speaking errors it can produce when they are learning English.
In my experience, most students appreciate attention to these features. They may not necessarily be seeking to perfect their accent, but they do want to feel less self-conscious and be better understood in their new language. As a language learner myself (Spanish, French, Thai), I like to be given the rules and tools that can help me pronounce unfamiliar words in the target language, and to be confident that I’m doing so correctly!