Therapists have some rather specific requirements when choosing words for speech work. We’re not just looking for words that end with /k/, we want to contrast these with a sound, say /s/, in word final position – so everything else in the word must be the same. And we only want VC, CVC or CCVC words. Oh and let’s have the vowel as a back-ish vowel to facilitate the /k/. And the onset should be something within the child’s inventory. And of course, each word in the pair should be imageable, functional and known to the child.
Are there any pairs like this? Intuition can only get us so far. The answer to all questions of these sorts can be found in the rather user-unfriendly MRC Psycholinguistic Database. I use it quite a bit in my work – here are some tips for how to get the best out of it.
Let’s run the example from the first paragraph. You could use the box towards the bottom of the search page called ‘Rough Phonetic Transcription’ (RPT) to set the basic word shape that you require, e.g. by typing CVC. You would need, in our case, to run the search a second and third time, with CV, and then CCVC typed into this box. A better alternative, which I will use here, is just to set the number of syllables to 1 by typing ? in the final box ‘Stress Pattern’.
All of the heavy lifting is going to be done in the box called ‘Precise Phonetic Transcription’ (PPT). Type *[ks] in there. This means ‘one or more phonemes, then either k or s’. Press the ‘Go’ button. We will be returned a list of one-syllable words which have /k/ or /s/ in word final position. 614 of them. We need to filter these to look for useful pairs.
Although there are fields for imageability / age of acquisition / concreteness, etc, they are of no real use, unfortunately. Try it – go to section 1 at the top of the search page, click on the ‘Concreteness’, ‘Imageability’ and ‘Age of Acquisition’ tick boxes, and run the search again. You will see that many of our 614 words have these ratings against them, but many don’t (all of the dashes represent missing data). A search with the age of acquisition set to be no higher than 300 would yield 34 very child-friendly words, but words with no rating, such as ‘bike’, ‘dice’, ‘hiss’, and ‘muck’ would not be included.
Back to our 614 word list then. We want only back-ish vowels, so this means that we can limit our output to words with the following vowels – /ɒ/, /ɑ/, /æ/, /ʌ/, and /ɔ/, which are known as 0, A, &, V and O here.
You could add these as alternatives, using square brackets again just as you did with [ks], but the words will still be sorted alphabetically, so pairs, not necessarily orthographically related, would still be tricky to dig out*. A more elegant way to look for word-final pairs is to run a separate search for each vowel that you are interested in. Here then are the strings for the PPT field, and the possible pairs that are returned. I have filtered out the useless words manually:
- *0[ks] – flock / floss; lock / loss; rock / Ross
- *A[ks] – bark / baas; park / pass
- *&[ks] – back / bass (the fish); pack / pass
- *V[ks] – buck / bus; pluck / plus
- *O[ks] – fork / force; hawk / horse
When you interpret the results, always be on the alert to words that you could use, that might be missing, such as real names, and words that have come into use only in the last few years. You will need to think of these yourself. You will also need to make allowances for how certain vowels are produced in your region (‘park’, ‘pack’, ‘puck’ etc).
There aren’t many great pairs here, but you can be pretty confident that this is about as good as it gets for /k/ versus /s/ WF one-syllable contrasting pairs of words which feature back vowels.
One problem with the approach I have detailed above is diphthongs. For example, a search for words which have /ə/ as their vowel will also show up words that feature /eə/ and /iə/. If you want to eradicate these, do it manually, or you could try specifying that the vowel should be a monophthong in the RPT, by typing in CMC (not forgetting that CCMC and MC, must be run on a separate search).
Anyway, here are some more example searches, off the top of my head, to show what can be done with the database:
|Description of search||Rough Phonetic Transcription||Precise Phonetic Transcription||Stress Pattern||Output|
|/t/ initial CVC words, followed by facilitative /i/, /ɪ/, /aɪ/ and /eɪ/ vowels||-||t[iIsIaI]*||-||36 words, including take, tape, teach, team, tin, tip and type|
|VC words||VC||-||-||101 largely useless words|
|CVCC words with /sp/, /st/ and /sk/ word finally||CVCC||??s[ptk]||-||106 words, including gasp, nest and mosque|
|VC, CVC and CVC words that have a diphthong followed by a velar stop||*DC||*[gk9]||-||42 words, including ache, spike and 'yoick'. There are no examples of words which have a diphthong followed by a /g/ or an /ŋ/|
|Two syllable words with /t͡ʃ/ WM, surrounded by facillitative high vowels||-||*[iI]tS[iI]*||??||8 words, including itchy and kitchen|
|CVCVC words with /f/ word-medially, surrounded by vowels||CVCVC||??f??||-||43 words, including barefoot, defeat, coffin, puffin, refill and roughage|
* Tricky, but not impossible. If you’re looking for pairs, just go to the alternative which has the fewest examples, and then generate its counterpart in your head. If it’s a word, you have a pair. This is the only way to look for pairs that are contrasted at the initial sound.