Listening skills – One reason you don’t understand is that you’re listning for the wrong thing

Listening skills – One reason you don’t understand is that you’re listening for the wrong thing

There aren’t many students in my courses who say that listening to English is they’re absolute favourite thing to do! It’s something that a lot of people struggle with, and there are a number of reasons for that.

An overreliance on subtitles is one reason. People and telephone conversations don’t come with those! The wide range of accents in spoken English is another. Schools and English trainers do their students no favours when they rely on one generic type of English for all their audio materials, then send the students out into the big wide world to face all the many varieties of English and feel disheartened because they don’t understand much of what’s going on.

Today I’d like to look at a third problem – the fact that spoken speech isn’t like written speech.

Take this short message for example:

Hi, I’m just calling to let you know that I’m running late. There’s been a problem with the trains this morning and everything’s delayed. I’ll probably miss the beginning of the meeting, so please pass on my apologies and I’ll give my update when I get there. Thanks and see you later!

Not that difficult to understand when it’s written down.

But when someone says these words, they don’t pronounce every single word like this:

It sounds more like this:

Features of fast speech

Let’s look at what’s going on here in more detail.

  1. Sometimes when we’re speaking quickly, we drop letters, particularly at the end of words. We often lose the T in this way. For some people, it’s part of how they speak – you hear a lot of this from speakers with a London accent. Other people do it too – which is why “just calling” sounds like “jus’calling”, and “let you know” sounds like “le’ you know”. We also lose the T on “that I’m running late”.
  2. If you’re angry with someone and shout “where have you BEEN?” the “been” will rhyme with seen or green. When you’re speaking quickly, it sounds more like “bin”.
  3. When we have two “th” sounds together, we sometimes lose one of them. So instead of “problem with the trains” we get “problem wit-the trains”.
  4. Sometimes we lose the D at the end of words too. “And I’ll give my update” becomes “an’ I’ll give my update”.
  5. “See you later” got merged together and became “see-y-later”.

So, even in this short telephone message about being late for a business meeting, I could pick out five things that sounded different when they’re part of natural speech.

People may try to speak more clearly when they’re giving a presentation, but in general conversation, and particularly when people are in a hurry, a lot of sounds will be lost and words will become merged together.

It’s good to get used to listening to real speech and to expect this, because then you’ll know what to look out for, and it’ll be easier to understand what people are actually saying because you’ll already be anticipating where words will merge or letters will be dropped.

Next time when you’re listening to spoken English, see what other features of fast speech you notice.

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Would you read your own blog?

I wrote this article for my beauty and lifestyle blog, but I’m reposting it here because I thought it might be relevant to learners of English who write for their own or their employer’s website, and also to the bloggers who follow English with kirsty.
So – if you’d never seen your own blog before, would you read it? It’s a chance to think about what’s important to you when you’re looking for articles to read, and to look at your content in a new way.
Also, if you’re more interested in beauty, travel and food than language tips, head on over to Unseen Beauty because I don’t repost many articles!

Unseen beauty

Taking a fresh look at your blog from an outsider’s point of view.

If you were a visitor to your blog, would you want to read it?

It sounds like an odd question, but think about it for a moment. Is your blog something that you would like to read if you hadn’t seen all the content before?

Hopefully the answer is “yes!”

The reason I’m asking is because it’s really hard to write things that you don’t find interesting. You might have to do it for a job – I wrote plenty of documents in past jobs that didn’t get me excited – (strategy delivery action plan anyone?) but when it comes to your own blog, people will be able to tell whether you’re passionate and feel excited about the content.

I’m sure there have been articles that you clicked on because of an interesting headline, but then you…

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Vocabulary for understanding dietary requirements and planning meals out

This is not an exhaustive list, and I’m not an expert on dietary requirements. These are just a few things that I have picked up through my own experience and through organising large events in previous jobs. If you have any other points that you think people should consider, you can add them in the comments.

It’s fairly easy to find vocabulary lists for things to say once you’re at a restaurant – how to order what you want, find out what things are, and make general conversation. But, whether you’re going out with colleagues or organising a meal for visitors, it’s important to know what people can have, whether that’s for medical, religious, or lifestyle choice reasons. Then you can make the best venue choices, or ensure that you and your colleagues will be able to eat the food provided at the restaurant chosen by whoever is organising the meal.

Let’s look at some vocabulary.

If you’re organising a meal or event, it’s good to find out what dietary requirements people have. This goes beyond people’s preferences, although it’s good to know about those as well!

Firstly let’s look at food allergies. People can be allergic to a specific ingredient:
I am allergic to nuts/mushrooms/seafood
Or you can swap the words round and put the word first to describe what kind of allergy you have:
I have a peanut/mushroom/seafood allergy.

Some restaurants will highlight meals that may contain more common allergies such as nuts or seafood, but some allergies are less common, so you may need to check individual dishes with the serving staff.

AS someone who has to deal with this problem when eating out, I generally have a wider choice in restaurants that cook their own food from scratch, rather than larger chains that bring food in and reheat it.

Intolerances are different to allergies in terms of what is happening inside the body – they are more to do with the digestive system than the immune system. The symptoms are often less severe, but things such as stomach cramps and swellings on the skin can still make someone very uncomfortable, so it’s important to pay attention and make sure people have things that they can eat.

If someone has an allergy or intolerance, it is never ok to just remove the offending item and bring the same plate back. If it has touched other things on the plate, there can still be juices from it left which could cause the same reaction.

Secondly, some people have dietary requirements based on their religious beliefs. The most important thing is to communicate with people about what exactly is ok for them, because not all people who follow the same religion will follow exactly the same dietary rules. So don’t make assumptions!

Also, remember that if someone says they don’t eat pork, it usually includes all other kinds of product from the pig including bacon, ham, lard, or pork gelatine.

You may want to avoid organising social events when you know that some participants will be fasting.

Some other dietary requirements are:

Vegetarian –no meat or fish, but will often eat products with dairy or eggs.
Vegan – no animal products including dairy, fish, meat or eggs.
Pescetarian – vegetarian diet, but will eat fish.
Gluten-free – people with a gluten intolerance or Coeliac disease need to avoid grain-based products with ingredients such as wheat, barley and rye.
Lactose intolerance – this means that people will need to avoid dairy products such as milk, yoghurts and cheese made with lactose.

Alcohol – find out whether your guests drink alcohol. If they don’t, they may be happy to be in a restaurant where people have some wine with their meal, but they might not feel comfortable in bars with a lot of drunk people. Similarly, don’t make assumptions based on national stereotypes – even if a nation has a reputation for drinking a lot, it doesn’t mean that everyone from that country will.

Buffets – these can often be easier to arrange than sit-down meals, especially if you have a lot of people to feed and not very much time, but they are a nightmare if the dishes aren’t labelled properly, or if people with dietary restrictions or allergies don’t want to take the risk because of cross-contamination (people mixing up the serving spoons or putting things that they can eat on plates with things that they can’t).

The setting – if you want your colleagues to be able to talk to one another, choosing somewhere that’s really loud will make this difficult, even more so for those who aren’t communicating in their native language.

Tables – you may not have the choice, but big round tables make it easier to communicate with more people than long ones, where you can only really talk to people around you because people further down can’t hear to participate.

It’s not nice to be surrounded by people happily munching their food while you haven’t got anything because the caterers or restaurant didn’t get your dietary requirements right. Neither is it nice to be told that there is only one thing on the menu that you can have – irrespective of whether you like that thing! So if you’re doing the organising, try to find out about any dietary requirements beforehand so that you can book somewhere that will provide a meal that everyone can enjoy. If you’re being invited somewhere, don’t spring your dietary requirements on them at the last minute if you have the opportunity to give the organiser the information in advance!

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What do you do when students in a group class finish tasks before the others?

I mainly teach one-to-one classes, and when I teach groups, I choose who goes in them, so I wouldn’t usually agree to teach an advanced student and a beginner in the same group. Still, this isn’t the case when teachers are working with mixed ability groups, and although this isn’t something I have to deal with, I wanted to look at this topic because I have been that child who got bored in class because the work wasn’t demanding enough.

When I was six, I was one of the oldest children in my class and my school decided to put me up a year because the teachers felt I could cope with the work. When I was seven, we moved house, and my new school was having none of that! Not only was I put back into the correct year for my age, but the new school taught two year groups in one class, so essentially I was now learning with students two years behind what I had been used to. It wasn’t a problem for my whole school life, but there were times in year two when I was very bored, and that’s not a good feeling. The same problem popped up from time to time throughout primary school, and I paid attention to what my teachers did.

So what do you do if you have a group with mixed abilities and some students finish faster or find the tasks too easy?

Here are some ideas that I have seen working well.

1. Make the task a minimum requirement, but not the end goal

If the task is to write 10 sentences and a student finishes early, have a look at the text and ask them to elaborate.
* What was the place like?
* what did the other characters say?
* what were they wearing?
* How did you feel?
* Who else was around?
What’s an alternative point of view
Why do you think that?

One English teacher said that I had constructed a good skeleton, but if I was going to be finished earlier than the other students, I had time to flesh him out and put meat on the bones!

Later when I was in one of my first jobs, one of my managers reinforced this. One of the tasks I’d been set was to collate and analyse some statistics. I think my boss knew at that time that overall, my job wasn’t really stimulating enough. The best thing I could do was to move on, which I did, but in the meantime he asked me to present the statistics to the board as well. I was in the meeting anyway, but adding that bit more responsibility made me feel that my job was that little bit more worthwhile.

If the student finishes early, can they elaborate on what they have already done in some way or do something else to practice an additional skill related to the original task?

2. Create additional tasks for early finishers

Yes, I know this is more work, but if you have students staring into space, distracting others, or generally disengaging, you’re going to have to find time to deal with that. So it’s better to have them doing something constructive. Generally early finishers are motivated and eager to learn, so don’t lose that momentum by not having anything stimulating for them to do.

Sometimes just asking them to write more will get a bit dull, and it’s more of an incentive if the students know they might be asked to do something completely different.

I remember finishing a creative writing piece early and then being asked to write it from another character’s point of view. Alternatively the task could be related to the text, but practicing different skills – a diary entry or newspaper article to follow a comprehension text.

3. Reread and correct

Sometimes the early finishers have plenty of ideas, but particularly with writing tasks, they finish because they don’t check their work thoroughly and spot the simple errors or spelling mistakes. If you have students that do this, it’s often of more benefit to them if they spend the time going through the task again and correcting mistakes they made because they were in a hurry than if they move straight on to something else.

4. Helping others

Sometimes students will not like it if they can’t choose their own groups, but putting stronger students with weaker students can both help the weaker students, and also make the stronger student feel that they are doing something useful if they can help others by explaining something. Often explaining something in their own words will reinforce the knowledge, and get the message across in a simpler way – so it’s a win-win situation.

Some teachers like peer correction, whereby students mark each other’s work. However, in the times when I’ve worked with groups, sometimes this has worked well, but other times students corrected things that were actually right or introduced new errors in their corrections, so I tend to use this sparingly because in the end it can cause confusion and more work!

5. Setting the bar higher

If a student has already understood the basics, you can move on to expect more from them in terms of vocabulary and correct language production. You might let something go if someone is struggling with basic tenses, but expect more from your student who needs more of a challenge.

6. I’m finished!

I haven’t actually seen this in action, but an activity that I read about online was the “I’m finished” jar. Basically you put a bunch of sticks with different activities on them in the jar. The activities need to be related to what you are working on in class, but there is an element of randomisation in terms of what the students will pick out. This keeps it fresh.

I never minded the “if you’re finished early, you can read a book” because I loved reading. In fact sometimes I intentionally finished early so that I could read my book! However using this jar means that the lessons are a bit less predictable for those who finish early.

7. Phones and the internet </h3?

Schools will have their own policies on phone use in class, but as most students' immediate reaction to having some free time is to get out their phone, why not have some activities that incorporate constructive phone use into the English class? This could tasks such as researching information for an ongoing or future project, creating articles for a class blog, or engaging with students in an exchange class in a private Facebook group for both classes.

8. Summarising for those who weren’t there

Whilst it’s not the early finisher’s responsibility to create material to help others catch up, writing a summary of the lesson can be useful for all members of the class when it comes to revision time. It’s not fair to have the same students writing up revision summaries every time, but you could have a rule where each student can do this once or twice a term if they finish early.

9. An individual project

Filler activities can just feel like extra work, and even if you have students who are keen to learn, completing work early only to be given more work, so they end up doing twice as much as everyone else, isn’t that great an incentive. If you have a student or group of students who regularly finish early, they could have a longer-term project of their own to work on. This is good because it feels more meaningful than just another worksheet on the same topic that they have just finished, but there needs to be an understanding that this is only for free time after the rest of the activities have been completed. Otherwise you may find your student rushing through the class activities so that they can work on their project, because they may find the latter more interesting.

What activities do you use when students finish early?

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Also, if you’re interested in posts for teachers, you can see my other articles about teaching English and running an online language teaching business on my page for teachers.


The most popular posts written in 2017

It’s the end of another year on the English with Kirsty blog, so I decided to look at which posts from this year have been most popular. This helps me to find out what types of post people are enjoying, and it also gives new readers a chance to find out what kind of content I publish. I’ve separated out the teacher posts because a couple of them were shared a lot on social media and would otherwise affect the results.

Posts for learners of English and language enthusiasts

10. How to end conversations with difficult callers – you know those people who just won’t stop talking!
9. Adjective order is important – I was surprised that a grammar post made it into the top 10, but it did! The word order rules we follow to make sure that the sentence sounds right when we’re describing things.
8. Make sure that your writing style is suitable for your audience – Sometimes it’s not spelling or grammar mistakes that make people click away, but a writing voice that just doesn’t sound right for the situation.
7. Summer weather idioms – I knew an idiom post would make it in there somewhere! Here are some expressions that we use related to sunshine and good weather.
6. What to do when you’re the only non-native speaker in a team. It can be tough – I talk about my own experience of this and the things that I have learned.
5. Audio books – the forgotten resource for listening skills – people talk about films and Youtube, but audio books are a really good way to improve your listening skills too because they make you rely entirely on your ears!
4. 10 mistakes people make with language exchanges – language exchanges are great, but if you don’t plan what you’re going to do and how you want it to work, you might not get the results that you want.
3. How to make listening a habit – Guest post from Cara at Leo Listening about building listening activities into your daily life.
2. Improve your written English by writing a blog – this is the post where I interviewed a number of bloggers who are writing in English although it isn’t their native language.
1. When did I stop being afraid to speak German? – I was actually surprised that this post was so popular, but I guess people like to read about real people and their stories. This is about learning German, because that’s my second language, but you can apply what I said to any language that you want to learn.

Posts for teachers of English

3. How can we help the quiet students?
2. How to find new students
1. 15 things I wish I’d known before becoming an online English teacher

I hope you enjoyed these posts. Don’t forget to let me know in the comments if you have any ideas for other content that you’d like to see next year! I wish all my readers a Happy New Year and that 2018 will bring you success, happiness, and a lot of fun!

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Blogmas day 16 – let us howl

A number of people enjoyed my winter food post earlier this week. If you are interested in more lifestyle posts from me, please follow my other blog, Unseen Beauty, as I won’t repost all of the additional features on the main English with Kirsty blog, which is primarily for language learners and teachers.
This post is about our visit to the Wolf Conservation trust – an organisation that takes care of captive wolves.

Unseen beauty

So, I’m going to break with the Christmas posts to tell you about what I did last night – because it’s cool, and also I’d like more people to find out about the Trust.

Anyone who has been following this blog for a while will know that S and I are interested in Wolves. I published the walking with wolves post earlier in the year. While I was researching that trip, I also discovered the UK wolf conservation Trust website, and last night, S and I went with some friends to their Howl Night!

The first part of the evening is a presentation about wolf communication. We learned about ways in which they communicate with other wolves using long-distance communication, such as howls, as well as other verbal forms of communications, such as barks, growls, whimpers, yips and woofs! We then went on to look at body language – the…

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Blogmas day 13 – warming winter food

This is from my personal blog – what foods do you enjoy when it’s cold and windy outside?

Unseen beauty

On Monday a box arrived from Amazon and inside was my new pressure cooker!

The reason I’m telling you this is that I used it last night to make one of my favourite winter meals – a quick and easy winter stew!

I used to have this as a child too, although my Nan didn’t use a pressure cooker. I could smell the stew as it was cooking and I knew there would be a tasty warm meal with dumplings.

Actually I didn’t make any dumplings, because I didn’t have much time yesterday, but it’s a hearty and pretty healthy meal because all I used was fresh vegetables and some meat, though of course you could do it without the meat.

I won’t write down a recipe because my stew is different every time. Yesterday I used pork, potatoes, mushrooms, a tomato, an aubergine, and a couple of onions. I…

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