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Teaching Reduced Forms: An Aid for Improving Lower-Level Students' Listening Skills

Robert W. Norris

1993. In Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies Vol. 46: 49-56


Japanese students normally enter university with six years of English study under their belts. Most of this study, however, has been steeped in preparation for entrance exams, word-for-word translation of sentences, and memorizing long lists of vocabulary items and grammar rules. Speaking and listening skills have all too often been neglected, despite the efforts by the Ministry of Education in placing native speaker teaching assistants in junior high and high schools around the country.

These students often have great problems in comprehending the simplest of conversations with native speakers. There are several reasaons that can be cited for this. First. the students do not perceive certain English sounds with any accuracy because they do not exist in Japanese. Second, the students are not used to the stress and intonation patterns of English and the way these influence the pronunciation of certain phonemes and the meaning of an utterance. Third, there is an apparent need on the part of the students to perceive and comprehend everything they hear. They often find it difficult to get used to the idea that they can be competent listeners with less than 100% perception and/or understanding. Fourth "reduced forms" that occur in informal speech are usually an incomprehensible stream of sounds to the students, who are unable to distinguish where word boundaries lie within the stream of sounds.

What can teachers do to help these students become more effective listeners? This paper looks at a two-part solution: (1) raising students' awareness of what reduced forms are and how stressed and unstressed syllables play a role in their formation, and (2) suggestions for providing plenty of listening practice to help students recognize these forms and catch up with the speed of native speaker speech.

Reduced Forms and Stress

Brown and Hilferty (1986) use the term "reduced forms" to refer collectively to the processes of contraction, elision, assimilation, and reduction. These are all characteristics of informal spoken English.

The most common contracted forms in English include the auxiliary verb forms of "be," "have," "will," and "would." Some examples of these forms are "I'm happy," "She's a nurse," "They're in the house," "He's lost ten pounds," "They've already left," "I'll go," and "I'd like to be rich." Generally speaking, Japanese students entering university have had some exposure in their previous study to these contractions, but still have trouble recognizing them when they are used by native speakers of English.

Brown (1990: 66) describes elision as the "'missing out' of a consonant or vowel, or both, that would be present in the slow colloquial pronunciation of a word in isolation." The most common place for consonant elision is at the end of a syllable. The most common consonants involved in this process are /t/ and /d/. Assimilation refers to the changing of adjacent or nearly consonants to resemble each other. Reduction refers to the dropping of strong vowels when a syllable is weak-stressed, as well as to the weakening of consonants.

The importance of raising students' awareness of reduced forms and stress patterns cannot be overstated. Weinstein (1985: 81) says that reduced forms "constitute one of the most neglected areas of listening comprehension." Underwood (1989: 10) mentions the frustration foreign learners undergo when trying to comprehend spoken language.

    Those with little experience of listening, but who have had considerable experience of reading and writing, frequently fail to connect the sounds they hear with the words they have seen and recognixed in their printed form, and find the whole experience confusing and discouraging....Students have to be helped to get used to the fact that words spoken in continuous speech are often not given the same stress as they receive when they are said in isolation.
In order to learn how to distinguish word boundaries, foreign learners also need to understand that grammatical words (conjunctions, prepositions, articles, pronouns) often lose their stress when words are combined in an utterance, whereas lexical words (nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) keep their stress. Underwood (1989: 11) advises teachers:
    It is a good idea to draw students' attention to the way in which speakers use stress to give some words more importance....It is well worth explaining this to your students as they will then not feel that they are failing to hear what they assume native listeners hear, and will not be led to believe that comprehension is impossible because of this failure.
Which Reduced Forms?

Even if teachers are aware of the characteristics of informal speech and the importance of imparting this knowledge to their students, which reduced forms should be taught and how should they be presented? Nina Weinstein's (1982) Whaddaya Say? contains 20 "high-frequency relaxed speech patterns" (see Appendix) and is a good place to start. In calling attention to how these patterns sound in informal English, Weinstein (1982) uses what she calls "special spellings" (e.g., gonna for "going to," wanna for "want to," hafta for "have to," etc.) instead of phonetic transcriptions. Weinstein (1982: ix) explains:

    These "special spellings" are intended to show, in a general and easily understood way, the particular pronunciation changes being worked with. Each "special spelling" is preceded by an asterisk to remind students that it is not a correct spelling. Although the pronunciations could, of course, have been indicated with more accuracy by means of phonetic transcriptions, this was decided against so as not to burden students (and teachers!) with a set of symbols that would be esoteric at best.
Weinstein (1982) emphasizes that teachers should point out that these patterns of pronunciation are not appropriate for all conversational situations, and that students are not expected to mimic them, only recognize them. Teachers should provide guidance about when the use of informal speech is and is not appropriate.

Other lists of common reduced forms can be found in Ur (1984), Brown and Hilferty (1989), and Brown (1990). Teachers can also make their own lists by simply brainstorming or listening to a conversation tape between two native speakers and copying down the most frequent reduced forms they hear.

In-Class Activities

Dictation and cloze exercises make up the bulk of my in-class activities. At the beginning of each class I introduce anywhere from one to five new patterns and how they are reduced. I model both the ideal pronunciation and the relaxed, fast pronunciation of each pattern. For example, "What do you" and "What are you" often become Whaddaya, and "going to + verb" often becomes gonna + verb. Next, I have the students listen to sentences containing these reduced forms. I either read the sentences or play a tape on which they have been recorded. Each sentence is played twice--once with slow, careful pronunciation, and once with relaxed, fast pronunciation. After this initial listening, I give a dictation of the same sentences, repeating each sentence twice at natural speed and using the reduced forms. The students must write the sentences, using the full forms of the reductions they hear. For example, if they hear Whaddaya gonna do this weekend? they have to write "What are you going to do this weekend?"

After the dictation is completed, I hand out copies of the sentences (or write the sentences on the board) for the students to compare with what they have written. Then I either read the sentences or play the tape while the students follow on their copies.

Next, I give the students a cloze exercise in which reduced forms they have studied are deleted. The degree of text difficulty depends greatly on the overall level of the class. Various types of cloze can be used (e.g., dialogues, simple questions and statements, monologues, news broadcasts, short interviews, etc.). I play the text straight through once while the students listen and follow the cloze copy without writing anything. Then I play the tape once more, stopping after each line to allow the students time to write. Finally, I play the tape a third time straight through.

If the students have trouble with any particular reduced forms, I play or read that portion of the text again and ask them to try to repeat what they hear, even if it doesn't make sense. I encourage other students to help the ones who can't catch the reduced form. If no one catches it, I repeat it more slowly until the students recognize it. After all the blanks have been filled, I give out the answers and play the tape once more. The students follow along with the completed text in front of them.

These cloze exercises can easily be used in conjunction with task-listening exercises. They can be used either before or after the task itself, but I prefer doing the task first. The important thing for the teacher to be aware of is that having the students listen for information in the form of labeling pictures, numbering sequences of events, completing charts or graphs, matching information, etc., requires the students to use different listening skills from those used in catching reduced forms. Tasks that require students to identify relevant information and ignore unnecessary details give practice in "top-down" processing1. Cloze exercises that have the students fill in reduced forms give practice in "bottom-up" processing2.

As the students become more accustomed to listening to a variety of reduced forms, I try to personalize the forms by incorporating them as much as possible into real exchanges with the students. The exchanges are meant to give more realistic practice in recognizing the forms in questions about the students' own lives (e.g., Whaddaya gonna do after school? What'd ja get cher brother fer 'is birthday? Do ya think the Hawks shoulda won the game last night? etc.) The students are not responsible for using the reduced forms in their own speech; rather they are responsible for trying to understand and respond to what they hear.

I occasionally use recognition games such as dividing the class into teams, reading out a sentence containing one or more reduced forms, and giving points to the team that can correctly repeat the sentence in full first. Team members can discuss what they hear, but only each team's captain is allowed to give the answer.

I also use exercises that call for students to listen for stressed words. These are usually done with lists of sentences and include:

  1. Students circle the word that contains the most iimportant information in each sentence.
  2. Students check whether stress is placed on when or where something is happening.
  3. Students check whether stress is placed on what happened or when it happened.
  4. Students check whether they hear "can" or "can't." When the sentence is affirmative, the vowel is generally unstressed; when negative, it is stressed.
  5. Students mark on a written text where they think the stressed or unstressed words are. This can be done first without listening to the spoken text, then checking their guesses while listening.
Listening Journals as Homework

It is unlikely the students will progress very much if the only listening practice they get is in the classroom. One way to get students to listen to English outside class is to assign listening journals as homework. Although Japanese students have few opportunities to engage native speakers of English in conversations, there are many other sources of listening material they can use. These include movies, music, radio and television programs, text tapes, commercial tapes, and materials on file in school libraries.

Simple exposure to spoken language, however, is not sufficient by itself for developing listening skills. The students are in most cases overwhelmed by the difficulty of listening to the above-listed materials. There must be a purpose for listening. Since the main focus of my classes is on upgrading the students' ability to keep up with native speaker speed and recognize reduced forms when they occur, I have found it useful to provide the students with the following list of guidelines for making entries in their journals.

  1. Write the date, time started, time finished, and type of material used.
  2. Concentrate on listening for reduced forms you have learned and stressed words.
  3. Write down the reduced forms you recognize.
  4. Write down new words and expressions you hear.
  5. If you are listening to a song, take dictation on as much of it as you can. Replay it as many times as is necessary. Compare your dictation later with the lyrics.
  6. Take dictation on a one-minute section of the tape or video you are using. Replay it as many times as is necessary.
  7. Write down the degree of difficulty on a scale from 1-10.
  8. Write down your level of interest on a scale from 1-10.
  9. Do you recommend this material for other students?
  10. Listen to the tape once more. This time don't write anything down. Concentrate on relaxing. Don't try to understand everything. Listen only for stressed words. Write a brief summary of what you think you understood.
I collect the journals about once a month and provide feedback in the form of personal comments and encouragement. This type of regular communication through the journals is beneficial to both teachers and students. Teachers can gain an understanding of the types of strategies and materials the more effective listeners use, and pass this information on to the other studnts. The students, in knowing they are provided with specific guidelines for writing in the journals (without having to understand everything) and an audience for their efforts, have a reason to listen attentively and with a purpose.


In order to effectively help students improve their listening skills, teachers must be aware of the characteristics that mark informal spoken English and use this knowledge in designing activities that can guide the students toward being efficient listeners. Most Japanese students who enter university cannot be expected to bring with them such higher-level listening skills as the ability to infer meaning and predict what language will be used based on familiarity with cultural contexts. They need first to have a firm grounding in what Brown (1990) calls the "phonological code" of English (i.e., the rhythm, stress, intonation, and distinctive sounds of spoken English). Brown (1990: 151) elaborates:

    The foreign learner needs to learn to control the phonological code of the target language sufficiently to be able to use the richness of the cues at this level....This is, after all, the raw data of language input--without this there is no linguistic message, only the sort of gestural communication which infants who have not learnt to talk are capable of.
The activities discussed in this paper are aimed at helping lower-level Japanese university students improve their listening skills. In using these activities over the past two years, I have seen a great deal of improvement in both ability and confidence in the majority of the students I have taught. I hope these activities can be of as much help to other teachers as they have been to me.


1. Top-down processing refers to the listener's use of background knowledge or previous experience of the situation, context, and topic to arrive at comprehension. This knowledge allows listeners to predict or anticipate much of what is said. It is not necessary to decode every word of an utterance; rather, key words are used to check whether the message matches the listener's expectations. Understanding works from the "top" (the listener's expectations) down to the message (Richards, et al., 1987).

2. Bottom-up processing refers to perceiving and interpreting the aural information contained in an utterance to arrive at meaning. Listeners work from the "bottom" (the sounds they hear) to try to identify meaning (ibid).


Brown, G. (1990). Listening to Spoken English. Second Edition. London: Longman.

Brown, J. and Hilferty, A. (1986). Listening for reduced forms. In TESOL Quarterly 20(4): 759-763.

Brown, J and Hilferty, A. (1989). Teaching reduced forms. In Gendai Eigo Kyoiku (January issure): 26-28.

Richards, J., Gordon, D., and Harper, A. (1987). Listen for It: Teachers Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Underwood, M. (1989). Teaching Listening. London: Longman.

Ur, P. (1984). Teaching Listening Comprehension. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weinstein, N. (1982). Whaddaya Say? Culver City, Calif.: ESL Publications.

Weinstein, N. (1985). What in the world is spoken English? In Cross Currents 12(1): 81-85.


1. ya -- you

2. whaddaya -- what do you, what are you (a related form, whadda, is used when "What do" is followed by either "we" or "they")

3. wanna --want to

4. gonna -- going to + verb

5. donno -- don't know

6. ta -- to (when followed by another word)

7. gotta -- got to

hafta -- have to

hasta -- has to

8. yer -- your, you're

yers -- yours

9. cha -- /t/ + you

cher -- /t/ + your, you're

10. -in' -- -ing (most often used with progressive tenses of verbs)

11. whacha -- what do you, what are you, what you (more informal than whaddaya)

12. ja -- /d/ + you

jer -- /d/ + your, you're

13. er -- or

14. 'e -- he

'is -- his

'im -- him

'er -- her

'em -- them

15. 'n' -- and

16. kin -- can

17. a -- of

18. shoulda -- should + have (when followed by past participle)

coulda -- could + have (")

woulda -- would + have (")

musta -- must + have (")

maya -- may + have (")

mighta -- might + have (")

19. da -- to (after a vowel sound)

20. fer -- for

Copyright (c) 1993, 1998-2010 Robert W. Norris. All Rights Reserved