We are judged on our linguistic output whether we like it or not. People are instinctively primed to make snap decisions about others based on a range of subtle signals. Language is a huge factor. This is one of the reasons that language-based disorders in children can have such long-term, corrosive effects.
In my practice, many of the children who come to see us for help with reading and writing also have trouble with irregular past tense forms. They often add an -ed suffix to verbs whose forms change in other ways to express tense (e.g. “runned”, or “eated”). Sometimes they confuse active with passive voice (“I seen it.”) Sometimes they mis-associate similar forms (“Sing goes to sang therefore bring goes to brang”). Wherever there is irregularity, be it in spelling or grammar, we see hotspots of slow or faulty acquisition.
Many of our students who struggle with past formations even hyper-correct during oral reading. For example, a passage might say The boy threw the ball into the tree, but the child hyper-corrects to “The boy throwed the ball into the tree.” This habit of not believing the evidence of their eyes and preferring to call out what they think should be there is further compounded by schools that embed the three cueing system or other guessing strategies into their reading instruction.
As a result, students who already struggle to acquire irregular forms are further disadvantaged. They don’t pick up the correct forms through reading either, since accuracy is not granted the importance it deserves.
Another problem is that typically developing students need no or very little explicit instruction in irregulars. They acquire knowledge of such things through oral language development. As a result, schools tend not to write explicit instruction of this kind into their curricula.
The net result is a population of children stranded in a world of ‘brang’ and ‘drawed’, with all the social consequences of that.
Children are acutely aware of their similarities and differences and form hierarchies accordingly. Linguistic inaccuracy is often publicly corrected by well-meaning adults: “No, Johnny, it’s not brang!” Those micro-shamings over time surely must add to a whole raft of behaviours, ranging from word-avoidance in speaking and writing, to acting out and disengagement.
It has become something of a standard during our lessons to screen for and explicitly teach irregular past tense forms. We use a basic list and go through it systematically, marking correct and incorrect responses and giving around five a week to practise at home.
It goes like this:
- Introduce the concept of regular verbs.
- Introduce the concept of irregular verbs.
- Start with the first item on the list and put it into context: “Today I run, yesterday I…”
- If the student makes an error, we write it down, we kindly correct the error and coach the parent/carer to use the sentences above to practise correct formation with the child.
- Re-check in the next and subsequent session before finding and adding more. Five at a time is usually enough.
- Interleave these forms through subsequent spelling and reading tasks until stable.
Grouping the words according to their common features is also helpful. As a matter of course, all my students learn this grid sooner or later, both for spelling and for reading (and yes, I teach and define sought):
Irregulars not being part of Tier One instruction is understandable, as there’s only so much you can do in a day/week/school year, but if you are working in a smaller setting with children who struggle with some aspect of language, irregular formation is a mighty good thing to check and assist with.