Posted tagged ‘JenniferESL’

How to Have a Happy Leap Year

February 12, 2016

1850212999_0904f6b548_bI’ve been reading about superstitions surrounding Leap Year, and it seems that some folks associate the day with bad luck. I think Friday the 13th has already claimed the title “the day of bad luck,” so why not treat February 29 as a day of fun and opportunity?

Here are some suggestions for making leap year a happy occasion for our students:

1. Teach students the rhyme “Thirty days has September.” (Don’t know it? I teach it at the beginning of my new vocabulary lesson on YT.) Use the rhyme as a warm-up and ask if they know a different way to remember how many days there are in each month.

2. Teach a related idiom or proverb and keep it on the board throughout the lesson. Give a small prize to someone who can use it in a natural context. Suggestions? In my video on leap year idioms and proverbs I include a leap of faith, look before you leap, by leaps and bounds, and go the extra mile.

3. Find out who knows why we have a leap year every four years. To be fair, start with a short trivia quiz that all students can try.

  • Did the Egyptians know about a need for leap year? (Answer: yes)
  • Which calendar came first? Julian, Roman, or Gregorian? (Answer: Roman)
  • Have we calculated leap year correctly and completely accounted for it in our present calendar? (Answer: no)

After those quick questions, ask, “Why do we need leap year?” (Answer: In short, we need to make sure our calendar accurately follows the Earth’s movement around the sun. Note at least one source for later reference. I trust the writers at

4. Hold a debate. Debates can be fun, even if you’re on the losing side. Why not see if the class can argue for and against having leap year.

  • Was creating one additional day the best solution? Is it still the best decision for us today? Perhaps what this fast-paced modern society needs is an extra hour in a day here and there throughout the year — on 24 different days to be exact.
  • If February 29 is not on the calendar every year, why not make it an unpaid vacation day for all workers who want it?

5. Talk about a tradition. Even a 1-star movie can give you something to talk about. The trailer for Leap Year (2010) is cute and brief. It can spark a discussion on the ideal marriage proposal. As a bonus, see who can catch an idiom embedded in the clip (around 2:15) — a leap of faith.

Happy Leap Year!

Photo Credit:

One Lady Leaping (November 2007) by Lauren Manning. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.


Skillful Skipping: Words with Dropped Syllables

February 5, 2016

4397519790_3655ea8e74_bIn my 20-day Fast Speech Challenge, I address words that can lose a syllable. On Day 15, I present words like actually and history. Would you like to give your advanced students some exposure to words with disappearing syllables? Take a look at my Skillful Skipping_handout.

The focus of my video series on YT is listening. However, for classroom practice you can decide to move into production. The choice is yours and my handout offers some flexibility.

Photo credit:

Hop Scotch by Charlie f. (February 2010) Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Dropping the T in a Game of Twen(t)y Questions

January 29, 2016

16926192_a1eab8db27_oIn my 20-day Fast Speech Challenge, I ended up spending the most editing time on Day 17: Dropping the T. In fact, I pulled the original video and reloaded it after adding some clarification and new examples.

Can you easily explain why we lose the T in center and Internet in fast speech? I  noted the N-T combo, but it goes beyond that. At first, I focused on stressed syllables (CEN-ter and IN-ter-net), but then I thought of international and sentimental and realized I’d have to get into secondary stress, so then I called attention to the following unstressed syllable. That simplified matters: we can drop the T after N and before an unstressed vowel sound. CEN(t)er/ IN(t)ernet/ in(t)erNAtional/ sen(t)iMEN(t)al

When else do have a choice of keeping a T or dropping it? In my opening example, I used often. Later I mentioned T as a middle consonant, as in concepts and just thinking.

The confusing thing is that in some  words the T is always silent, so we write it, but drop it in our pronunciation. If you want to see how familiar your students are with silent and dropped Ts, try using my Twenty Questions_handout. You might use the list as a listen-repeat exercise before actually pairing up for Q&A.  You can model either slow, careful pronunciation or faster, more relaxed pronunciation.


Photo credit:

Question by Cesar Bojorquez. (May 2005) Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

Word Jugglers: Learning the Uses of -er

January 22, 2016

er_jugglerA learner asked me why we add the suffix -er to existing prepositions to form words like insider and inner. What a wonderfully curious question! I love how this person’s mind works. Talk about a teachable moment. I responded with an explanation about the versatility of -er and called attention to the parts of speech we can build using that ending.

Isn’t it both convenient and confusing when a suffix does more than one job?  If you’d like to raise awareness of word parts and focus on the uses of -er, please take a look at The Suffix -er_handout. It’s geared toward lower level students.

Photo credit: 

Juggler by Markus Lütkemeyer. (February 2007) Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr. Changes made: -er added to the pieces being juggled.

Fast Speech and Why It Challenges Learners and Teachers

January 15, 2016

Plenty of learners have told me that they struggle to understand fast speech. I’ve offered study tips and listed resources for listening practice in the past, but I’ve finally decided to make my own special contribution. I’m currently running a 20-day Fast Speech Challenge on YouTube.

My goal is to teach some common patterns in terms of linking and reduction through short daily videos. I’ve made it clear that I’m not promising total listening comprehension after watching my 20 videos. I tell viewers from the start that listening will be easier if they’re aware of certain patterns, like unstressed vowels reducing to a schwa and the frequent dropping of the T in the prefix inter-.

One criticism I’ve faced in my other video lessons is my speaking rate. “Why do you speak so slowly, Jennifer?” But more often I hear, “Thank you. I understand almost everything you say. You speak so clearly.” I believe that an ESL teacher can build bridges between the classroom and the real world. Of course, I usually speak faster and in a more relaxed way when I’m with my family and friends. But wearing my teacher’s hat, I speak to be understood. In live instruction, I can adjust my speech to the level of the students before me. In a video for a mass audience, I keep in mind the average learner at the level I’m teaching.

I think as teachers we need to expose students to fast speech, but with care and consideration. For example, if instructions are written, you could read them aloud at your natural speaking rate because the text is there for support. Also, if you’re repeating words you say every day, like a greeting or a set of instructions to get a familiar routine going, they can be said with relaxed pronunciation. However, I personally choose to slow down and articulate my speech when I deliver an explanation. Students will deal well with fast speech if they aren’t being simultaneously challenged with complex ideas, too much unfamiliar vocabulary, or new grammatical structures.

What challenges students about fast speech?

  • The relaxed pronunciation. Some learners have the misconception that all native speakers use this fast, relaxed manner all the time. Perhaps they need to remember that careful speech is still natural speech. A film clip could illustrate this point. The scene of young Mia accepting her title in The Princess Diaries might serve as an example. I especially like how her grandmother slows her down, and at the very end Mia uses her most careful articulation to announce her formal acceptance.
  • New vocabulary and perhaps some unfamiliar cultural references. Students need to realize the importance of developing their vocabulary, and they should recognize that part of the learning process is to have passive and active words. Some words are worth studying and putting into use, but others just need to be understood…for now.
  • Grammar that has yet to be mastered. As with vocabulary, every learner can benefit from some focused study of grammatical structures. You won’t pick everything up from exposure.
  • The inability to hit a pause button and replay a line when it’s a real-world situation. Learners need strategies for these situations. Towards the end of my 20-day challenge, I offer the tip of listening for key words. Often you can catch the meaning without catching every word. At that point, students should know how to ask for clarification.

What challenges teachers about fast speech?

  • To teach it or not. Should relaxed pronunciation be taught? My feeling is that learners need to be aware of reduction and omission of sounds for the sake of comprehending others. They don’t have to learn how to say, “Whadidja tell’em?” but they should have enough practice to prepare them to understand that as what did you tell them? Prioritizing comprehension, we should also teach word stress because if you say bal-LANCE instead of BAL-ance, you can be misunderstood. But if a learner doesn’t reduce the ‘a’ in can to a schwa, communication won’t break down. I also feel we should emphasize accent reduction over accent elimination. Teaching linking will help learners attain smooth, more natural speech, but a glottal stop isn’t a requirement for effective communication. Those learners whose goal is accent elimination will do the repetitive drilling needed to reproduce relaxed speech.
  • To use it or not. Yes, we should, but as I said earlier we should use fast speech with care. If the content of what we need to say is challenging, we can use more careful speech. We also need to teach strategies for listening to the news or films. I like to emphasize the benefits of repetitive listening and learning how to use (and not use) captions or a transcript.
  • To use authentic materials or instructional materials. Much of what I’ve said about authentic texts can be applied to our use of authentic recordings (films or podcasts). We certainly can and should use authentic materials with our students. At the same time, I see strong benefits of using ESL instructional materials, too. Why? It’s about building that bridge. I have a few colleagues who do that very well with their online resources. I’m a big fan of Mike Marzio’s RealEnglish site and greatly admire his smart editing choices, which take out the shock of hearing ‘real’ English. In addition to my 20-day Fast Speech Challenge, I’ve also started to post some additional listening practice on my website. I may vary the format as I go on, but you’ll presently find three listening tasks that allow students the chance to hear me speak at length using relaxed pronunciation.

Got any tips or favorite resources of your own? Please share them.

Student Stumper 43: Distinguishing between an Infinitive and a Bare Infinitive

January 8, 2016

My colleague Holly Dilatush from Learning English with a World Wide Perspective has invited my thoughts on a grammar point. A community member of LEWWWP kicked off January 1 with an interesting question (click here to read). I already offered my initial ideas, but I know there’s more to say. So thank you, Holly and Irina, for giving me the first Student Stumper of 2016!

Question: Why is “to” omitted in this sentence? Now all she wants to do is return to Northumberland. Isn’t it more logical to write to return to Northumberland?

Answer: It’s funny how this question ties into one of the last YT lessons I posted in 2015. In Lesson 9 of Using English Prepositions I addressed the need to be concise and reduce repetition. Without getting into terminology yet, I’ll just say it’s usually best to be efficient with our structures. If we can reduce the instances of to from three to two in that sentence, why not do it?

A second factor here is context. When ideas are already understood, grammar allows us to omit them. An ellipsis can be our friend in direct communication. For example: I’m going to explore this grammar point because my colleague invited me to (explore this grammar point). Why repeat unnecessary words? In the LEWWWP example, the infinitive to return is understood. Using the base form return is sufficient.

There are other situations when we omit the to from an infinitive because it’s understood:

  • I’d love to go and see her.
  • I plan to meet them at the baggage claim and then drive them home.
  • Ask him to call, text, or email me.

The interesting thing about Irina’s example is that we’re dealing with a complement after a copular verb: All she wants to do is return. My understanding is that infinitive complements are more common than bare infinitive complements. We must use bare infinitives after perception verbs and some causative verbs, namely, let, make, and have.  (See my discussion of bare infinitives used with perception verbs.) But more often we see verbs controlling infinitive clauses. I believe in Irina’s sentence we’re dealing with an infinitive clause, but we can omit to because it’s understood from the earlier verb phrase wants to do.

What I want to ask is why the sentence is even set up to have two clauses? (Like the question I just wrote. Ha!) Greenbaum and Quirk discuss pseudo-cleft sentences as a way to focus on the predicate (415). Isn’t that what we’re seeing in Irina’s example? The basic idea is that she wants to return to Northumberland. Subject + predicate. But in the original statement all she wants to do [is] return home to Northumberland there are two clear parts divided by the copular verb is. Subject with a relative clause + copular verb + an infinitive clause as the complement. The complement became the focus.

In other words, the purposeful sequencing highlights a single idea — the answer to the question what does she want? The variation what she really wants to do is return home would fall in line with the examples Greenbaum and Quirk offer because they cite more instances with a wh- clause (embedded question) as the subject. Using that wh- item in the subject position, we then climax to the main idea: return home. The relative clause all she wants to do in Irina’s sentence performs the same function, right? The listener is waiting for the big reveal at the end. What does she want to do? Return home.

Here are additional examples of what I believe to be at the very least approximations of a pseudo-cleft sentence. They each use to do as part of the subject, so only the base verb is used in the subject complement. You’ll notice how they all express either a wish or an intention, which may help us understand why and when we’d use such structures:

  • All that’s left to do is clean up.
  • One thing I still need to do is buy stamps.
  • Something I’ve always wanted to do is bungee jump.

Do you have any examples of your own?



Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.


Holiday Wishes

December 22, 2015

Like many others, I’m running around in these final days of holiday preparations. To all those celebrating, I wish you a peaceful and joyful holiday!

I’ll be back soon with a new post.

Kind regards,



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