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The Importance of Teaching Consonant Pairs

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

This week during our How To Teach Reading and Spelling cohort meeting, several of the literacy teachers spoke about the fact that they had been told not to teach the consonant pairs, p & b, f & v, s & z, etc. They asked what I thought of this advice, so I did. I can think of at least three very important reasons why I teach these pairs and groups of consonants.


One, if I am working with a student who has phonemic awareness difficulties, they do not discriminate the minute differences between sounds efficiently. They make pronunciation, reading and spelling errors by substituting the voiced for the unvoiced partners, spelling bottle, boddle, shelv instead of shelf.

Teaching students how they articulate each of the consonants and vowels also helps them to accurately pronounce the words, read them and spell them. Many students substitute /f/ for /th/ or /s/ for /sh/ because the pronunciations are so similar. If they are aware that they articulate the sounds, using their lips and teeth to say /f/ and that their tongue sticks out when they say /th/, or having their lips pulled back in a smile with a narrow stream of air coming out for /s/ as opposed to having their lips puckered forward and letting out a wide stream of air when they say /sh/, they are able to feel difference between these phonemes, even if they can’t hear the difference.

A second reason to teach the articulation patterns of the consonants is that orthography, spelling rules depend on them. The most frequent spelling of /z/ is “s”, the unvoiced partner of “z” in English, as in words rose, chose, rise. When explaining the pattern of sound for the plural spelling of “s” or “es”, knowing about voiced and unvoiced sounds, and the characteristics of the letters, “s,sh,j and ch”, that they are all sibilants, helps students to make sense of the spelling and pronunciation. The same is true of the past tense rule.

Thirdly, when a student makes a mistake, such as pronouncing “tr” and /ch/, if you as a teacher are keyed into how these sounds are produced in the mouth, the mistake becomes logical. Both pronunciations are using the lips and the front of the tongue. Talking through this with a student helps them to differentiate the pronunciation and spelling of the sounds.

Students need to be aware of how they articulate the consonants and how there are ideas and patterns that can organize these ideas into a schema instead of memorizing so many disparate facts about each of the consonants and the sounds they make. Teachers need to understand this most of all so they can ask relevant questions, correct mistakes thoughtfully and show that the English language is logical and interesting to learn about.

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