To, Two and Too

When I’m looking for something to do on Monday, I don’t want to see something that says, “Teach ‘to,’ ‘too,’ and ‘two’ by examining meaning and pronunciation, and find kinesthetic and auditory hooks to help learners remember the spelling.” I want details, details, details. So I’ve written lots of details today.  

Here is a lesson I have taught many times, to help students understand and remember the spelling of “to,” “too,” and “two.”

These three are called homonyms in every book or app that I have seen, but in my part of the English-speaking world, they are not all pronounced the same way. “To” is usually shortened in speech to “t’ ”  a “t” sound and a very little “uh” or schwa sound after it.

I like this lesson because it’s a new take on an old topic, because students collect and analyze the data and come up with the rules instead of me giving them out, because it involves a fair amount of moving around and fun, because it involves exploring the language, and finally because it offers the students some physical and auditory hooks to remember these three words, in addition to the usual meaning-based distinctions.

In preparation, I gather up a collection of books and magazines, every one different, at about the reading level of the students. I need one for each student, plus about half as many more, so people have lots of choice, and for the few people who might need two.

Collect the data

I ask someone to give me a number between 2 and 15. This number will tell students what page to start on when they do the activity.

I invite students to come up and each choose one of the books or magazines from the collection.

The instructions are:

  • Start on the page chosen to be the starting page.
  • Read along looking for “to,” “too,” or “two.”
  • The first time you see one of these words, write it down, and write down some of the words around it, so you have something that makes sense. For example, you might read “After we had supper I took the kids to the mall.” Write down “to the mall.” You don’t need the whole sentence. Another example: After work we were too tired to do anything. Write down “too tired,” and “to do anything.”
  • Keep on reading, looking for the next “to,” “too,” or “two,” and putting each one on your list.
  • Write down every “to,” “too,” and “two” that you find, along with a few words around it.
  • If you come to the end of the book you are looking in, come and get another one, and start on the page we’ve agreed on.
  • I’ll give you six or eight minutes to do this. Some people will find more words than other people. That is not a problem.

Pool the Data

While students are making their lists, I make sections on the board. I label the largest section “to,” and I label two smaller sections “too,” and “two.”

When students are finished, I ask them to come up to the board and write the phrases they found in the appropriate section, so that all phrases with “to” are together, and so on.

Analyze the Data

As a group we look at what we have got. Which of the three words came up most often? (It’s always “to” by a landslide.)

We look at each group in turn, trying first to find the meaning of each variant spelling, and, second, some way to associate the spelling with the meaning.


We look at one of the smaller groups first. Most people know, when they read it, that this “two” means the number. I ask how they remember to spell it with a “w” and various students explain their strategies, or invent one. I offer mine: hold up three fingers, (first, middle and ring fingers) in the shape of a “W” while saying “two.”


We read all the items on the “too” list, and come up with the meaning. Adult literacy students generally can say that one meaning of “too” is “also” or “in addition” or “as well.” The other sense of the word, as in “too old,” is harder to pin down. Usually people will say it means “very,” or “very, very,” or “very to the max!” I might introduce the dictionary definition of “beyond what is desirable or fitting,” but I never have any sense that people don’t understand what this “too” means–they just have never thought about defining it before.

Compare the pronunciations

We look at “too” and “two” to compare pronunciation. In my part of the world, the two words are said exactly the same, and are nearly always stressed in the sentence they are in. So the fun begins. If there are any, we look at examples in our lists of “too” and “two” in front of the same word, e.g., “too old for school” and “two old men.” Then we brainstorm some more examples: “too tired for walking,” and “two tired moms” or “too happy for words,” and “two happy kids.” We check each one. Are “too” and “two” pronounced in the same way? I ask many people to read each example, so we all get to hear many instances of those two words.

So if they are pronounced the same, how do we know which one to write? Use your brain: remember that “too” means “very, very” and that “two” is the number, OR
Use your hand: does it make sense to hold up your W fingers?


Next we go on to look at “to.” Students generally can come to the conclusion that there are two different kinds of meanings here–pointing out a direction, and naming something that is to be done.  If I’m working with ESOL students who know grammar, of course we’ll talk about prepositions and infinitives. But with adult basic ed or literacy students, using grammatical terms will confuse, not clarify, so I don’t go there.

Compare the pronunciations

Again, the fun begins. I point to one of the examples where “to” is a preposition,  for example “to school.” I ask someone, “Where are you going?” and point to “to school.” He reads it. I ask him to answer the way he would normally talk, and he says, “t’ school.” I repeat with all the examples where “to” is a preposition, asking an appropriate question for each one, and asking students to answer in common speech. I make sure everyone hears the short, almost-not-there vowel in “to.”

We go back to the examples of “too” and see if we can put this “short o” pronunciation into those phrases: “I am t’tired.” Everyone laughs. “He is t’little.”  More laughter. It is established that “to” has a different pronunciation in common speech.

Next I take examples of “to” where it marks the infinitive, for example, “to work.” I ask “What do you have to do today?” and coach a student to reply with a full sentence, “I have to work.” Again we notice the pronunciation, “t’ work.” I ask questions to elicit all of the infinitives on the list, and we play around with variations of “I’m going t’ work,” “I’m goin’ t’ work,” and “I’m gonna work.”  “I have t’ dance,”  and “I wan’ t’ dance,” and “I wanna dance.”

We go back to the list of “two” and play some more, for example “two daughters.” Could you ever say, “I have t’ daughters”?

So how do we know when to write “to”?
Use your brain: remember that “to” points a direction, or says what is to be done, OR
Use your hand: Does it make sense to point? OR 
Use your ear: Do you hear the short “t’ ” when you say it in ordinary talk?  

This session isn’t enough to make it stick forever; practice is necessary. However, this lesson provides several multi-modal ways to remember the correct form when students are doing those practice exercises on paper or on-line. Of course, the real life application is proofreading their own writing!

2 thoughts on “To, Two and Too

  1. “Could you ever say, ‘I have t’ daughters’?”
    Well… the East Coast is kind of a different place: “I have t’daughters and t’boots, and each daughter takes a boot to sea fir cod.” But we take your point – we probably *shouldn’t* say it like that.

    Wholly written up lessons are great things to post. Besides giving us concrete ideas for a classroom activity, you provide a model we can use to create our own versions and variants AND add more data to the really interesting discussion about the things that make an effective lesson or activity effective.

    • Thanks for this comment, Wendell. I’ve made a few changes in the post to reflect your feedback. Don’t know if that is legitimate blogging practice, but I seem to be able to do it, so I did it.

      On the west coast (and on the prairies where I grew up) we don’t say “t’daughters” so that’s why we can trust our ears to tell us when to write “to.” If we hear “t’ ” we write “to.” Clearly that won’t work for you on the East Coast.
      But really my point was that you find something in the way it really is to help you remember. If learners hear “t’daughters” and then have to remember that they “shouldn’t” say it that way, and then remember the way they “should” say it and then use that awkward (because it is unusual) pronunciation to remember how to spell it, it is much too cumbersome to be of any use in remembering how to spell “to.”

      Now I’m curious. Do you say “t’tired” and “t’old”?

      I’m glad you like the wholly written up lessons. I have some other favorites that I’ll write up. Teachers don’t often get a chance to get into each other’s classrooms, and video and written-up lessons are one way to do just that.

love to hear your ideas or experiences!

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