Pronunciation Meets (Hides) Grammar

3792703838_76f1ce142eLast month I posted about helping verbs. I described how we use them. And I told you that they are the key to building English verb tenses.

Today, I wanted to tell you: helping verbs can be hard to hear.

Function and Content Words

We can divide all the words in English into just two categories:

  1. function words
  2. content words

Function words are grammar words. “The,” “was,” “if,” helping verbs, and so on. Yes, they need to be there. They make our sentences understandable and orderly, but they don’t make them different. In other words, they don’t really carry most of our meaning.

Content words carry the meaning. “Swim,” “chicken,” “cried,” “bought,” “stop.” They are super important. They are the reason we have chosen to say anything.

De-Stressing Function Words

English is a stress-timed language. This means that we stress and give extra time to content words. And we de-stress function words. It’s like word stress, but on the sentence level. It gives English its rhythm.

So I might write something like, “I am going to go to the mall later today.”

But if I say this to you in normal conversation, it will probably sound more like, “I’mgonna Gotuthe mall latertoday.”


Helping Verbs Exist! Really!

I’ve heard from students directly and through other teachers that it’s hard for students to hear Present Perfect. Colleagues have also told me that some students think Present Perfect is almost never used. But it’s used a lot! They just have trouble hearing it.

Here’s what happens:

They learn in class that Present Perfect is “I have been to Russia.”

But what we say is “I’ve been to Russia.” This is a contraction.

And the way this contraction sounds in normal speech is, “Ivbeen to Russia.

This sounds to many students like “I been to Russia.” The helping verb is so short and subtle that many don’t hear it at all. Students with native languages that don’t tend to end words with consonants (Mandarin, Vietnamese, and others) may have extra difficulty with this.



My advice to ESL learners is to take both written and spoken English seriously. They are surprisingly different.

If you’re bookish, spend extra energy getting into conversations or watching English language TV. Listen hard for helping verb contractions. They will not be fully enunciated. Also, try reading sentences out loud in the spoken style, with a lot of contractions and linking.

If you’re an auditory learner, take the extra time to go over written English and notice the verb tenses. Are you saying all of the helping verbs, at least in contractions? Do you write all of them? Try saying a sentence out loud, then writing it down with its fully spelled-out grammar.

A set curriculum or group classroom will probably not have just the right balance for you to connect spoken and written English. They’ll help! But pay extra attention to what you need, and don’t be afraid to ask your teacher for advice.

Listen to Emily read this post (3:30).  (A new window will open.)


Photo Credit: gfpeck on Flickr

This post appeared first at English with Emily.


Writing Prompt Wednesday


Talk about it: What kinds of foods do you like to eat? Why? Are there any foods you avoid? Why?

Level 1: What do you see in this picture? Write a list of the foods and objects, and what color they are. For example, “green lettuce.”

Level 2: Write about your favorite meal. Write at least five sentences. What is it called? What is in it? Who cooks it? When do/did you eat it? Why do you like it? How often do you eat it?

Level 3: In at least four sentences, write about two foods you recommend eating. Use modals where appropriate. Make sure to explain the reasons for your advice. Then, write at least four more sentences about two foods you recommend against eating. Again, remember to use modals and to explain why.

Creative Writing: Imagine that this picture is the cover of a novel. What would the novel be about? Write a blurb (the paragraph on the back of a book) about this imaginary book.

Academic Writing: Write an argumentative essay for or against vegetarianism. Make sure to include a paragraph that brings in an opposing viewpoint, and then refute that viewpoint. If you use any outside sources, be sure to site them!


Hand It In!

Hand in your answer to one of these prompts using the private form below.

I’ll email you back with two short comments: one thing you did well and one thing that needs improvement.



Photo Credit: on Flickr

Two Ways to Practice Reading

4259120807_0673304b76There are two main ways to work on your reading:

  1. Intensive Reading
  2. Extensive Reading

You are probably most familiar with Intensive Reading.

When you read intensively, you’re given a difficult text and work out every detail of it. You look up the words you don’t know. You answer comprehension questions. You feel like a scholar (though often a miserable one).

You usually do this in school.


Extensive Reading is much different.

Actually, some of my students don’t like it because it sounds lazy: have fun reading easy books.

Seriously. It helps. This is supported by research!

When you read extensively, you (the student) choose an interesting text that’s pretty easy for you. On the first page, there shouldn’t be more than 3 or 4 unfamiliar words.

Read it. Enjoy. Repeat.

If you don’t like the book, stop reading it and pick something else.

When you’re finished, choose another book. No questions, no book reports. The idea is to just read a lot of high-interest, low-difficulty English.

You *might* choose to keep a simple list of the titles you’ve read. It could be useful for your teachers to see your interests and progress. It might help you see your own accomplishments, too. Your choice!

Have you been making time for extensive reading? If not, visit your local library and pick out some books! Do it this weekend! Have fun!

Listen to Emily read this post. (a new window will open)

Photo Credit: Indi Samarajiva on Flickr


Writing Prompt Wednesday


Talk About It: How do you feel about rain? Does rain ever change your plans? How?

Level 1: Write what you see: nouns (things), verbs (actions), and adjectives (descriptive words).

Level 2: Write six sentences about what this person is feeling and doing right now. Use Simple Present and Present Continuous to describe the person’s actions and states. Write two more sentences about what the person is going to do when s/he gets home.

Level 3: Imagine that this is a picture of your friend. Use modals to write at least five pieces of advice for your friend.

Creative Writing: Write at least one page of a dramatic action story. Imagine that you are the photographer. Who are you? Why are you out in the rain? Who are you photographing and why? Aim for a lot of excitement in this story!

Academic Writing: Write an essay to compare and contrast the picture in this post against last week’s writing prompt picture. Organize your thoughts using either the point-by-point or block method.


Photo Credit陳 冠宇 on Flickr

Writing Prompt Wednesday


Talk About It: When does spring usually come in your country? What do you like about spring? What do you usually do each spring?

Level 1: Write what you see. Write simple sentences. Use prepositions (on, in, etc.).
Example: The glasses are on the ground.

Level 2: Write five sentences about last spring (2016). Write five sentences about this spring (2016). Write five sentences about next spring (2017). Be careful of your verb tenses!

Level 3: Imagine that you took this picture. Write a story at least 10 sentences long. The story should be about the five minutes before this picture was taken.

Creative Writing: Write a poem inspired by this picture. Focus on one element to carry your theme (i.e. cat, glasses, green, etc.)

Academic Writing: Write a five-paragraph essay that argues why spring is (or isn’t) the best season. Be sure to include a paragraph that refutes your imagined opponents.


Photo Credit: Marina del Castell on Flickr

Tech: Microsoft Word

I’ve noticed while teaching at the college that some of my students don’t know a lot about computers.

If you’re reading my blog, maybe you’re very comfortable with computers… but maybe not.

Just in case it helps you, I’m going to write a few posts with information about really helpful computer skills. I will tag them “technology.”

Today, here are basics on using Microsoft Word. Word is most often used to write papers for school or letters that you want to print out.

(I did not make these videos! I’m just linking to them here.)

Videos – Microsoft Word Help

  1. Cut, Copy, and Paste – how to select text, put it somewhere else, and make copies of it
  2. Undo, Redo, Repeat – how to fix your mistakes or repeat things you want to do again
  3. MLA Format – how to set up your academic paper correctly in MLA 2017 format