Did anyone else have a poster like this in their earliest school experience? I can still remember gazing at it in Mrs. Churchland’s grade 1 classroom but it took me well beyond grade 1 to master the difference between ‘to’ and ‘too’ and to spell ‘two’.
Today there are a lot of young people and adults who still struggle with the difference and we simply need to get better at helping them figure it out.
Here’s something to try. First, remove ‘two’ from the equation.
two (bundle by spelling & meaning)
Instead of worrying about how to spell the ‘t’ or ‘oo’, bundle it with words of similar spelling and related meaning.
Then you’re left with the trickier pair.
to & too (bundle by pronunciation but not as you’d think)
I’m going to suggest something contrary to our usual ‘spelling voice’ advice. For these two words, it’s your student’s ‘non-spelling voice’, their natural dialect or informal way of speaking, that will help them decide what to write because, in everyday informal speech, to is usually pronounced ‘t’ or ‘tuh’ while too is pronounced as it’s spelt.
1. Don’t use this if your students don’t mix up to and too. A principal of both That Reading Thing and That Spelling Thing is never back a student up if they don’t need it. This is intended for learners who have tried but not managed to learn this the conventional way. However, if you want the whole class involved, you can make this a lesson on the difference between formal and informal speech and how it relates to formal and informal writing.
2. This can’t be taught only on paper; everyone needs to do this exercise out loud with the sentences in front of them.
3. Don’t teach parts of speech until they’re good at hearing which word is correct.
4. Once they’re good at hearing their own voice, ask if they can explain in their own words when they use ‘too’ and ‘to’. Each word has 2 possible jobs.
5. Try these sentences with all the accents in your group. Listen to each other and have a laugh.The key is to insist on both formal and informal speech. In the phone example, people might say “Give it me!” I consider that the ultimate in ‘short’ so it will be ‘to’. You can explain that the ‘t’ of ‘to’ is swallowed by the ‘t’ of ‘it’.
Fill in the following blanks with either to or too. They both sound the same, but only one can be replaced by ‘t’.
Say each sentence with a clear ‘too’ then with ‘t’ in the blank space.
If you can say the missing word as a ‘t’ by itself then it’s to.
If ‘t’ doesn’t work and you have to say the whole ‘oo’ sound then it’s too.
NOTE: There’s one clear exception. Can you find it?
Keep reminding your students to use their informal way of speaking. Try ‘t’ first.
Sanjay: I want ______ give you a new car.
Ben: That’s ______ good _______ be true.
Sanjay: I have ______ go ______ the dentist this morning.
Ben: I have ______ go ______ the dentist ______.
Sanjay: I need ______ leave at ten ______ eleven. (Tricky one, perhaps.)
Ben: I need ______ leave at ten ______ ten. (But this should make it clear.)
Sanjay: I’ve got your phone and I’m reading your texts.
Ben: Give it ______ me now!
Sanjay: I love ______ run on the trails by the river.
Ben: That’s my go ______ route ______.
The clear exception is the informal term ‘go to’ where the ‘to’ is always pronounced with the long ‘oo’ sound.
We have many more exceptions but they form a pattern which is helpful. Many are rare but be prepared to talk about them.
1. Nounds and Adjectives: lean to, go to, set to.
2. Verbs that don’t have an object (intransitive verbs):
- When did he come to? (having been unconscious)
- They were ordered to stand to.
3. Before it. Snap to it. (Though some can happily say t’wit in this situation. “Put an end t’wit.”)