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Teaching Contractions to ESL Students

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Contractions are one of the biggest challenges for your ESL students to master. This lesson offers some tips for you to help your students easily learn contractions.

Introducing Contractions to ESL Students

Let's put ourselves in the shoes of our ESL students. Not only do they have to learn lots of new vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, etc., but they also have to learn contractions. The appearance of contractions creates fear in ESL students because they include an apostrophe, which makes contractions look complicated. So, we need to put things in perspective for our students. Since many ESL students say they get confused when they see a contraction, our goal is to show our students that contractions are not as scary as they look.

One of the best ways to do this is by asking our students about contractions in their native language, or, perhaps, a mark that exists in their native language but does not exist in English. If our students get to talk a bit about their native language, this eases the way to understanding contractions in English. Naturally, students learn contractions with practice. However, a feeling of comfort helps our ESL students a lot.

We, as teachers, can then use several tips to teach contractions in an ESL class. Let's take a look at those tips.

Emphasize Usefulness

To begin, we should never forget to tell our ESL students that contractions are simply part of the English language. Therefore, they are very common and learners need to know how to use them.

One idea is to discuss with students why contractions are used in the English language. We can emphasize that contractions are useful for many reasons. For example, they allow us to make shorter sentences. In speaking, contractions make us sound more fluent. Perhaps, a good analogy to use is zip files. When we have a lot of information we want to save in our computer, or if we want to send a message with lots of attachments, a zip file compresses the information to save space.

Focus on Basic Contractions

How do we choose which contractions to teach? The best approach is to focus on the most basic contractions. Once our students are familiar with the full construction that includes a subject pronoun and a verb, we can move on to the contraction. For example, your ESL students should know the construction ''he is'' before they can use the contraction ''he's''.

Therefore, the texts, listening, visuals, etc. we use with our students can introduce contractions as long as the students are already familiar with the full constructions.

Teach Contractions as Students Progress

To avoid overwhelming our ESL students, we can teach contractions based on the progress our students make. For example, if our students are learning the present perfect, this is the best time to introduce the contractions for this tense. After students know what ''I have studied'' means and when to use it, you can tell them that people often say it with a contraction: ''I've studied.''

Differentiate Formal Language from Slang

Your ESL students may be very observant and curious. We all have had the student who asks us the meaning of ''I'm gonna...'' Sometimes, our students listen to slang expressions in songs or from people who surround them.

In this case, it is a good idea to teach our students the difference between formal contractions in the language (''I'm going to'') as opposed to slang (''I'm gonna''). To make sure your students understand, you could give them a list of situations. Then, your students can tell you if slang is acceptable as opposed to formal contractions in those different situations. To illustrate, ask your students which is appropriate in an academic paper. Also, ask if slang contractions are acceptable in family conversations, public speeches, etc.

Reinforce Knowledge of Homophones

One of the most common mistakes English speakers make (not only non-native speakers) is the incorrect use of homophones. It is common to see even a native speaker of English writing ''Every day has it's charm'' or ''Your not alone.'' Thus, it is no surprise that our ESL students put homophones in the wrong place.

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