Pauses Help ESL Students

My fellow teachers often ask what are the best ways to help an ESL student learn to communicate?

Include PAUSES when you teach.  Do you speak clearly at a near-normal rate?  Speaking a little more slowly than normal is good (for giving your students the example of good English pronuciation), but the more helpful thing is to pause more frequently when teaching.  Pausing after a statement or question gives your students time to translate what you’ve said into their primary language, think of a response, translate the response into English and then try out their answer with you.    They need the additional time!   Do not be afraid of the silence.  If you learned a foreign language, you did the same thing and you needed the extra time.  So try pausing more in class.  It will give your students the chance to do those extra steps in their heads.

Reductions in American English

Reductions n EnglishReductions are very important in learning to correctly pronounce American English.  Reductions are the reduced form of common words and phrases.  It is the informal way we talk.  For example,  instead of saying “I’m going to go now,”  we say “I’m GONNA go now.”  Let’s remember:

Reductions are NOT how the words are spelled, but how they sound in connected speech.

DO NOT write reductions.  Instead use proper (formal) spelling and grammar when writing.

We use proper (formal) English at work, when talking to our boss, or someone in authority over us, and often for formal occasions, in school or when giving a speech.  However, reduced (informal) English would be used with co-workers after work if you went out to a bar or restaurant.

We use reduced (informal) English when talking with family, familiar friends and children.

Reduced English is NOT LAZY!  All American speakers use reductions!   It is very important for ESL students to know reduced forms and understand them in the community.  Using reduced forms makes your American English sound more native.  It will be a sign of your wisdom and knowledge if you can use reductions at the right times and places.

Learn some common reduced forms with this worksheet.




Star Wars Thanksgiving

How do you do a Thanksgiving lesson with a bunch of high-schoolers without being dorky?

Anyone remember the “handy” turkeys we made in preschool? Let me tell you, my high school students did NOT want to do that craft.  So our teacher put on his thinking cap, and came up with the idea for a “Star Wars Thanksgiving Turkey” craft.

Turkey crafts for older students Star Wars

We decided to make turkeys that resemble Star Wars characters, and turkey feathers like colored light sabers!   We had the students search online for coloring pages of R2-D2, Darth Vader, Jar Jar Binks and Lightsabers.  Then they printed and colored their pictures, cut them out and pasted them together to make a wonderful new Thanksgiving Turkey design.  Best of all, the students, although disabled, could participate in a fun craft that suited their needs and reaffirmed them as young men and women, and celebrated popular culture.  I wonder what George Lucas would think?

Star Wars Turkey Craft Jar Jar Binks R2-D2


Blue Fingernails

I stood in the grocery store checkout line today.  The clerk didn’t swipe my Safeway card till the very end of ringing up my order.  She could tell I was anxious to swipe it, and she asked me, “Don’t you want to wait till the end, and be surprised?”

“No, I hate surprises.”  I joked with her. “I like to know what’s going to happen.  In fact, I do better with the same schedule so I can expect the same thing every day.  I’ve always thought I was on the spectrum.  I’m very AUTISTIC that way.”

“I can see you are ARTISTIC.  Your fingernails are blue.”

blue food coloringI looked at my hands and they were blue from the craft project I did yesterday with the kids and food coloring.

But I tried to correct her, “No, not ARTISTIC…. AUTISTIC.

She totally missed it.  She looked at me with that look that said she had no idea what I was talking about.  With 1 in 68 children now diagnosed to be on the “autism spectrum” how did the clerk not know this?….



Picture Description Lesson 1 – Writing

I’m working with ESL students on Skype and they enjoy writing. Often students can read and write a second language much better than they speak and understand. I find English reading and writing skills are what they are proudest of. So we’ve been working together to find interesting and fun writing exercises for them.  Picture description worksheets for ESL students

Picture description is often an easy way to get started writing. I developed some easy sheets to help get started the “write” way! Click on the links below to see the printable picture description worksheets.

Write About Photos 1 – snow-read

Write About Photos 2 – bake-bicycles

Write About Photos 3 – parachute-basketball

See additional worksheets on picture description here.

B and V for Spanish Speakers

minimal pairs b/v ESL accent reductionTo Spanish speakers, B and V often sound the same.  It can be pretty confusing when my ESL student says “berry” and she meant “very”!

To make American B

  1. start with lips pressed together
  2. then pop lips apart
  3. and vibrate the vocal chords

B is is never held out for a long time.  You say it, then move to the next sound.

To make American V 

  1. the upper teeth bite the lower lip
  2. then blow
  3. and vibrate the vocal chords

V is always held out for a long time.

Try practicing these B/V minimal pairs:

  • berry very
  • base  vase
  • bent  vent
  • boat  vote
  • best  vest
  • bat  vat
  • curve  curb


3 Ways to Say -ed

3 Ways to Say -edMy students asked how to remember which way to pronounce English -ed endings (regular past tense).

If the end of the word is an unvoiced sound, like P F K S SH CH  -ed is pronounced as “t”
If the end of the word is a voiced sound, like B V G Z TH ZH J R L M N NG or any vowel sound  -ed is pronounced as “d”
If the end of the word is the sound T or D  -ed is pronounced as “Id”

Try these easy practice words for pronouncing the 3 different ways to say -ed in English.  (Revised worksheet added 5/12/13)


Cultural Sensitivity and ESL

I teach in a loud and boisterous manner. I am bold and direct, and I think when I teach sometimes I may offend some students of other cultures (particularly Asian), who may be expecting their American teacher to behave more like a teacher in their culture.

Learning in an American classroom is usually interactional. Correcting the students in front of others is expected, but my impression is that Asian students do not appreciated being corrected in front of other students. This is often hard for me to judge and I think I messed that up this week. I showed a student her error in front of others and she seemed visibly shaken. I wish I had been more gentle. I wish I could take it back. How do I let the student know that I respect her and appreciate her efforts. Maybe she’s reading here. If she is… if you are… I want to apologize. I’m sorry I was tough on you. I’ll be more gentle next time. Thanks!



Transitional Object

A student at my school has a transitional object.  That’s an object he takes with him wherever he goes.  His transitional object is a small plastic fish.  He takes it with him when he moves around the school, like for reading group, and to go to another classroom for an activity.  Students with autism often have a favorite object they keep with them that helps them feel safe and regulated.  It made me think of another “transitional” object that was pretty valuable in our home when my son was little.

transitional object autismWe had “Kidden”. This was a stuffed animal kitten my son got as a gift around the age of 3.  Kidden was soft and cuddly and soon became a favorite of my son’s.  He had to take Kidden everywhere.  Kidden was carried around the house for every activity, and he got to sleep in my son’s bed.  There was a spot on Kidden’s leg that my son rubbed over and over again (that’s a sensory behavior), and it soon became the softest place on Kidden’s body. Kidden was well-loved and my son found comfort in keeping Kidden near him.

One year I was a little nervous about how long Kidden might last (he was getting a little worn out), and I searched the internet to find an exact copy.  My son was thrilled.  Now we had New Kidden and Old Kidden (but I felt perfectly at ease to have a backup – you never know what might happen.)

I was a little concerned that Kidden might visit sleep-away Science camp in the 5th grade, but no need!  By then my son’s transitional object lived only in his bedroom and never ventured out of our house.  I guess my son figured out that the other kids would not understand his need to rub his stuffed animal to help him feel calm and regulated.

Both Kiddens still live with us and these are two toys that will NEVER see the door of the Goodwill Donation Center!

A French Sound in English

ZH_French Sound in EnglishThe “zh” sound in measure has been borrowed from the French language.  The are very few words an ESL student needs to know with this sound, only about 100 words with “zh” in the entire English language. Nevertheless it is pretty important to get this sound right.  The “zh” sound is made exactly like the “sh” sound except the vocal chords are vibrating for “zh”.  Practice these common words with this uncommon sound:

  • Asia
  • closure
  • fusion
  • leisure
  • measure
  • Persian
  • treasure
  • version
  • vision
  • casual
  • collision
  • confusion
  • decision
  • erosion
  • inclusion
  • occasion
  • provision
  • usual
  • usually
  • unusual
  • television

Listen to the ZH words here:

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Can you hear the difference between “zh” and the other sibilant sounds of English (“s” “z” “sh” “ch’ & “j”)?