Teaching Contractions

By Alex Case
Why and how to teach students recognition and production of contractions like “I’m” and “we’ve”

What contractions are

In this article, contractions refers to shorter forms of a combination of pronoun plus verb (e.g. “I’m” or “It’s”), verb plus verb (e.g. “would’ve”), verb plus not (e.g. “isn’t”) or question word plus verb (e.g. “what’s”), plus “there’s”. As with these examples, all contractions have an apostrophe which represents the letters that have been taken out. This helps distinguish them from similar words with the same (e.g. “it’s” and “its”) or similar (e.g. “he’s” and “his”) pronunciation. Although students often try to pronounce a contraction as a fast version of the two words that make it up, all contractions are pronounced quite differently to their source words. The correct use of contractions can have an effect on formality and even meaning, as explained below.

Reasons for teaching contractions

Students generally still find native speakers to be the most difficult to understand, for reasons including the very common use of contractions. A lesson on contractions can also lead naturally onto other pronunciation points that are important for understanding fast natural speech, such as elision (linking between words). Unlike points like elision, you will probably also want to teach contractions as something for productive use. Perhaps the most important reason for this is that not using a contraction while speaking can change the meaning. For example, if we say “I do not like it” instead of “I don’t like it”, it is most natural to stress both “do” and “not”, therefore making it a much stronger (and probably impolite) negative sentence. In the same way “I have got two computers” with stress on “have” is probably contradicting the other speaker, which can cause confusion or a negative reaction if that was not the intention.

The use or not of contractions is also an important choice in writing. The normal form in formal letters, very formal emails and academic writing is to avoid contractions, and use of them can seem too informal, or just plain wrong. In contrast, avoiding contractions in emails with the normal level of formality can seem old-fashioned or excessively distant or formal. Mentioning this in class can be a good way into a more general lesson on formality in writing.

How to teach contractions

As mentioned above, students often expect the pronunciation of “they’re” to be a shortening or approximation of “they are”, whereas it is a completely different word that is pronounced exactly the same as “there” and “their”. Just having this pointed out can help with both production and comprehension, and some more detailed work on homophones (e.g. “I’ll” “aisle” and “isle”) and rhyming words (e.g. “you’ve” and “prove”) can be well worth at least half a lesson. There is a page to help plan such lessons here:

Pronunciation tips for contractions (EnglishClub.com)

Students understanding that many contractions sound the same as other words can lead on to questions about how it is possible to identify whether a contraction or its homophone is being said. A lesson on guessing which homophone is meant from the context can be a good reinforcement of the previous point and a link into guessing meaning from context more generally. For example, you could play or read out sentences like “We’d been there for ten hours” and “For him it’s a weed, but for me it’s a beautiful flower” and ask students to guess if it is a contraction or not. It is also well worth spending some time on learning to guess whether “he’s” is “he is” or “he has” from context.

An alternative way of introducing contractions is as part of a more general pronunciation lesson, e.g. a lesson on homophones, difficult sounds (e.g. the “th” in “there’s”) or minimal pairs (e.g. “she’s” and “seas/sees”).

Another thing you can ask students to listen out for is whether a contraction is being used or not, e.g. whether they are hearing “They’ll come soon” or “They will come soon”. They can then speculate on why the full form is being used, e.g. the second example here may be being said to reassure someone.

The best way of introducing the use of contractions in writing is to give them an exchange of emails that get progressively more informal as the writers get to know each other. After putting them in order, they can then analyse them for formal language (lack of contractions, long sentences, fixed phrases that are unlike speech) in the early emails and informal language (contractions, missing subject, idiomatic phrases) later on.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet May 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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