Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: How to Teach Reductions

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
How to Teach Reductions

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 21,210 views

Teachers of ESL instinctively and unknowingly change their natural pronunciation and speech patterns to increase their students’ comprehension.

Studies show that teachers use motherese (the same characteristics women use when speaking to babies), when speaking to nonnative speakers. The qualities of motherese include speaking more slowly, using more dramatic inflection, speaking at a higher pitch and articulating carefully. This may be helpful for students as they learn to speak English, but this will not help them when they are in the real world with native speakers who do not cater to and do not care to cater their speech to your students. Therefore, to adequately prepare your students, it is important to create as realistic an environment as possible for their English studies. Part of this realistic speech needs to include the phonological phenomenon of reduction.

What is a Reduction?

  • Reduction is a pronunciation pattern found in all languages in which the phonology, or sound pattern, of a given phrase is changed and simplified. Native speakers do not even realize they are practicing reduction. In reduction, the content words of a phrase are unchanged or minimally changed while more functional words with less content or meaning are downplayed and made less prominent in the phrase. For example, “You should have studied for the test,” sounds stiff and formal coming from a native speaker in a casual context. What you will hear instead, if you listen for it, is “You shoulda studied fertha test.” The grammatical structure words (have, for and the) are reduced. Their vowels are pronounced more neutrally (schwa sound) and there is less time and emphasis placed on them than on the other words in the sentence. The words containing more of the content of the message (should, studied and test) are pronounced without change or reduction. If you listen carefully, and this can be difficult to do if you are a native speaker, you will hear reductions in almost all spoken English. For a native speaker, this is natural and not even noticed. For a second language learner, however, this is confusing and can make even the simplest statements incomprehensible. For this reason, every ESL student should have some instruction on reductions in their English program.

Where do Reductions Come From?

  • The first place to start teaching your students about reduction is with helping verbs. This grammatical structure is where most reductions will occur. Should have, would have, and could have are the most common culprits. They make their first move to should of, would of and could of. You will often hear this word change in native speech. If you do not give your students instruction on this point, they will see it as a grammatical change that is confusing. What is really happening in this case, “of” which has a more neutral a vowel than have, replaces the correct grammatical structure. We then end up with, “You could of done better.” The phrase then becomes further reduced. The next step is the reduction of “of”. What happens is the final /v/ sound is dropped simply leaving the neutral vowel (schwa). There is no separation from should and this vowel, and so we end up with shoulda. The same process occurs when “would have” becomes “woulda” and “could have” becomes “coulda.” Though these phrases are not the only ones in which native speakers practice reduction, they are the most straightforward for introducing the concept of reduction to your students and are very easy to practice. Once your students are aware of the reduction phenomena, they will be able to better understand other situations in which reduction occurs. Another of the most common instances of reduction is from the phrase “going to.” In this phrase the “to” is reduced to a schwa and the ‘g’ of “going” is dropped. The result is the all too familiar “gonna.” It is valuable for your students to spend time on this reduction pattern as well because they will hear it many times in their future English conversations.

Practice Makes Perfect

  • If you are teaching the future tense, this is the opportune time to give your students practice with the reduction gonna. If your students have already covered the future but have not studied this reduction, simply introduce it now. Have one student ask what a second will be doing tomorrow, next week, or when he returns to his home country. “What are you gonna do tomorrow?” The second will answer, “I’m gonna get up early. I’m gonna go to the library. I’m gonna study for my test. I’m gonna meet my girlfriend for lunch. I’m gonna take my test in the afternoon.” The more practice they have with the reduction, the more comfortable their speech will be with native speakers.
  • The use of reductions in phrases like woulda, coulda and shoulda is also easy for your ESL students to practice by creating a situation in which they give advice. Have your students describe some past situation in which they could have used advice from another. You can have them relate an embarrassing situation to their partner, a frightening situation or a disappointing situation. The student who tells the story will have some good conversation practice. Then the second student then gives advice to the person who told the story using the reduction “shoulda.” When one student describes how she failed an important exam, her partner should say things like, “You shoulda studied. You shoulda gotten enough sleep. You shoulda talked to your teacher about it. You coulda hired a tutor.” The first student can then answer the other student with an explanation. “I woulda hired a tutor, but I had no money. I know I shoulda studied, but I didn’t have the time. I know I coulda done better, and now I’m sorry.

The hardest part of being comfortable with reductions for ESL students is understanding them when they hear them.

Because reductions do not follow the grammatical rules we teach our students, we have to take time out to give special instruction on reductions. All teachers want their students to be successful. If we want our students to be truly fluent in English, then reductions must be taught. Don’t worry. It’s gonna be fine.

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