Sticky Grammar! #3: Walking Backwards

The example I set out in this series of posts comes from a Year 10 unit in January lasting four weeks on three lessons per week, in which pupils will, at the end of it, write a letter to a shop to complain about some faulty goods they were given as Christmas presents and the unacceptable treatment they were given when they went to complain in the shop.  In this way the end-activity fulfils some important criteria for writing activities.  I think of them as writing activities on TAP.  That is, this letter has

  • a sense of text (it’s a letter, not a report, not a postcard, not a set of instructions),
  • a sense of audience (it’s to the manager of a shop, not to a friend, not to someone they know personally),
  • a sense of purpose (it’s to complain and to demand action, with an element of narration, not to make someone smile, not to seek information).

All of this, therefore, has implications for the form of the text, how it’s set out and the tone of the text, formal and with the corresponding forms of address and verb endings.  To consolidate the sense of purpose and audience, where I have had time I have sometimes collected the letters in, shuffled them and given them out again so that the pupils who receive them write a reply to the pupils who wrote them.  The reply is much less prepared with the class than the initial letter and it is a good opportunity for pupils to do in writing what I often get them to do in speaking: communicate sometimes in situations they have prepared for, and at other times in a purely spontaneous way.  So sometimes they are aiming at fluency, and at other times at accuracy.  Eventually the two merge and this, I think, represents a much more reliable measure of progress for me than those daft level descriptors (a necessary evil) which assume that progress happens in a straight line.

Anyway, back to the letter of complaint.  This is my end-point, and I like to have it clear from the beginning, which also means writing one out and seeing what I feel the need to include.  Here’s what I came up with (it feels very grammatical, but there is plenty of scope for fleshing it out):


Je vous écris pour faire une réclamation.  Le jour de Noël mes parents m’ont offert un pull noir en laine, mais quand je l’ai ouvert, il y avait un grand trou!  Je l’ai rapporté au magasin.  Pour mes parents, je leur ai offert des CDs, mais quand ils les ont ouverts, les deux CDs étaient cassés.  Je les ai rapportés au magasin aussi.  Mon frère m’a offert des chaussettes, mais quand je les ai ouvertes j’ai trouvé encore un problème.  Elles étaient déchirées.  Bien sûr, je les ai rapportées au magasin avec les autres cadeaux.  J’ai parlé avec le serveur.  Je lui ai dit, «Voici les problèmes», mais il m’a dit, «Je suis désolé, je ne peux rien faire, tant pis.»  Ça ne suffit pas!  Je voudrais me faire rembourser.

Salutations, …

 Always an eye-opening exercise, I find.  After the first couple of efforts at teaching this unit, I found this presented a good opportunity to teach pupils to use indirect object pronouns (je lui ai  écrit  / il m’a dit / je leur ai offert, etc.) and preceding direct objects in the perfect tense in French (Le Jour de Noël, mes parents m’ont offert une …., mais quand je l’ai ouvertE, il y avait un problème).  I’m not going to go into much depth here on the indirect object pronouns as the focus here is more on how I go about teaching the direct object pronouns with agreements.  However, from the powerpoint that goes with this session (you’ll find it in the first post in this category), you will see that pupils encounter indirect object pronouns through classroom routines.  Not usually in the first stage of a routine but at some later stage in its development.  For a much fuller treatment on how classroom routines can be used for introducing progression and their place in teaching grammar inductively, see the posts in the Classroom Routines & Interaction category on this blog and the DVD Teaching Grammar Through The Target Language: Mission Impossible? Volume 2.

With my end-point clear and written out, I have a clearer idea of where I’m heading and the “bits” that make it up.  That helps me to sort out a sequence as I work backwards from the end-point to the beginning both in terms of language and how much of the letter pupils can write at any particular stage.  It also tends to throw up possible areas of confusion or where they could mix up similar-looking grammatical items.  In this unit, the obvious one is confusing direct and indirect object pronouns.  It was for this reason that I decided I needed to have got pupils to use them at least one half-term before getting to this unit, so that the PDOs would be new information, and less likely to be jumbled up.  (We will see the same principle at work in the Gender Walls activity later).  The other, unexpected one (for me, anyway!) was that m’a and m’ont look, to the average pupil (and the not-so-average), identical to ma and mon, and they are pronounced identically.  Hmmm… that caught me out the first time.  Those apostrophes are easily missed and it can really throw a spanner in the works if you’re not expecting it.  Best to make a big noise about that before the pupils do.

If I work backwards linguistically I find it helps me to work out how I’m going to lead pupils to discover those grammatical rules for themselves.  Notice the apparent contradiction there (I prefer to call it a paradox, it makes it sound like I know what I’m doing!) – they discover the rules for themselves, but I lead them there.  It’s not left to chance, because some of them might not get there, and some of them won’t realise that pattern is important or what it means.  If I think about my sequence carefully enough, the structure of the language can be made quite clear.  And if I run activities which allow me to come back to the same language from different angles, or which allow me to graft new language/concepts onto old, it gives pupils more opportunities to go over the same ground without realising, and this is a particular help to those who need a little longer to get to the same place (or those who were absent last lesson).

For pupils to be successful at using PDOs, it depends, I think, on 4 things:

  • knowing the vocabulary really well (it’s a pain where some know the words you are using and others don’t)
  • knowing the gender of that vocabulary absolutely perfectly
  • I need to use past participles with a clear pronunciation distinction between the masculine and feminine forms.  In this case, I’ve used ouvert / ouvertE.  It would be no good using acheté / achetéE.
  • I need to lead pupils to distinguish between je l’ai and je les ai.

So, let’s start at the beginning of the lesson, presenting 15 nouns (Christmas presents).  I don’t always finish within the same lesson, and personally, I don’t think this is a problem.  (If your timetable allocation is tight-fisted, and you’re doing what you can with an hour a week, you may have to use fewer nouns).  I use a slow-reveal technique on a visualiser, rather than powerpoint, with paraphrase and mimes.  For a full description on how I’ve gone about that with vocabulary in a different unit, see the post comSIMPLEplexity: Presenting New Language.  I could bang through the nouns very quickly (most of them will already be known to a class by that stage anyway), but if they are not well known the activities later will stall.  In any case, I think there is a lot of real communicative progress to be gained by interacting with the complex language around those easy nouns, which is a basic idea behind comSIMPLEplexity.  The pressure for grades, grades, grades often encourages us to zoom ahead and do things as quickly as possible, but the genius that is James Burch has convinced me that you can go faster by going more slowly.  Linger longer.  They become better linguists and the grades will follow.

My contextualising question is: Qu’est-ce que mes parents m’ont offert?  In amongst the language I use to describe the various presents, I use expressions for size (c’est grand/petit, etc), materials (en laine / en plastique, etc), what the item is used for (on l’utiliser pour communiquer avec les autres / pour écouter de la musique / pour aller au college et prendre de l’exercice en même temps) and what sort of thing it is (C’est un bijou / un moyen de transport), because these are expressions I want the pupils to use in a subsequent lesson where they are giving clues to each other to guess a chosen article (20 clues) or where they are fishing for clues (20 questions) to guess the item.

If you have seen this session in action, you will remember that I used a song as a repetition activity to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas.  If you want, you can allocate a different present to groups around the class, and they have to stand when the class gets to “their” present in the song.  If your class won’t sing, just use another repetition activity!  Anyway, this is that song:

12 Days of Christmas

The song is used after each item is presented, and after every three, a repetition activity drives home the vocab learned so far.  This could involve covering the items up and the class has to guess what’s where, putting the visualiser out of focus, dropping pens/keys/coins randomly over the sheet to obscure what they can see and so on, race-reading, charades, whatever seems appropriate and makes them think rather than just drill.  One last thing to say about the song: I often take the opportunity after each line of three “boxes” on the sheet to change the pronouns.  The first three: Le jour de Noël, mes parents m’ont offert…  The next three: je leur ai offert; the next three: mon frère m’a offert; the last three: je lui ai offert.  You’ll see on the powerpoint that there are different symbols to represent each of these sentences.  The person common to all symbols is supposed to represent “moi”.  You can probably find much better ones than I have!  However, these symbols will be used in the very last stage of the sequence in a sentence-construction game, and it helps if I introduce them now.

The song sheet (the second of the two in the pdf file) is also the sheet I use with the visualiser to present the vocabulary.  You will notice that masculine nouns are written in blue, feminine in red.  It doesn’t matter which colours you use for colour-coding genders, as long as you are consistent with yourself (even better if there is consistency across the department, but the likelihood is that others don’t do it at all, rather than that they use different colours to you, and so less of a problem).

The first page (without the vocabulary written down) is the one pupils stick in their books (I give them an A5 size sheet) and label themselves using as their support a vocab list with of anagrams.  First they solve the anagrams, then they associate them with the correct pictures.

Well, that’s probably enough for now.  Next time: Getting pupils to use the structures the teacher uses, and making sure the genders stick.

Sticky Grammar! #2: What makes it sticky?

This series of posts is intended as a reminder for those who attended my seminars at ALL Cornwall Regional Branch in July, at The Schools Network Languages Conference in Warwick or the Language Show Live in London in October, and as an explanation for those who were not there but are interested in an approach to teaching grammar inductively through the target language.  As a rule I work on the principle that if someone who wasn’t at the session can understand everything about it just from the powerpoint that was used, it was a pretty poor session.  Have you sat through seminars like that, too, where they just read to you what you could read for yourself?!

The session at the Language Show Live, at Olympia in London, was filmed and will be available soon to watch at  It was also filmed when it was presented at University of Warwick earlier in October and will be available next summer as part of a 5-hour DVD course on target language teaching together with a full set of teaching materials and resources to help you extract the principles and techniques and apply them to other situations, contexts and language items.  But more on that next year!

Part of the thinking behind “Sticky Grammar” is that grammar teaching is no good at all if its effectiveness only lasts for a couple of weeks.  We’ve all had the experience where we’ve taught our little hearts out, working really hard on making something as clear as possible, only to find that as soon as we move on to another topic or situation which is quite different from the one in which pupils first learned the grammatical item, they either can’t use it, can’t transfer it, or they can’t remember even having done it in the first place!  Or am I the only one?  The other part of my thinking on this is that the syllabus or scheme of work changes more often than I change a light bulb, but the language itself does not.  If all of my planning goes in to the transient scheme of work but not into how I teach what a verb is, or when the subjunctive is used, or how to connect sentences, I create a lot more work for myself and I may never realise how pupils spot pattern.  The danger then, of course, is that I might end up teaching grammar in a decontextualized approach, and there is very little sticky about that.

I came to the conclusion a long time ago that the problem about grammar teaching’s all-too-common lack of stickiness is not clarity but rather intensity, relevance and accessibility.  I think most of us with a couple of years’ teaching behind us can make a pretty good stab at explaining a grammatical item clearly.  Doing that through the medium of the target language raises the challenge both for us and for the class, but with careful planning and a learning environment in which the foreign language is used as the normal means of communication all of the time, clarity doesn’t have to suffer.  Indeed, I think comparing the foreign language and the native language can make explaining a grammatical item much less clear, particularly at an early stage of learning.  Several times I’ve heard the same thing from people not connected with each other about trying to explain what an infinitive is.  Not at all straightforward for learners who are English native speakers.  The second most common one I’ve heard is the messiness of explaining that avoir means to have and être means to be, but in their first half term the poor souls have to get their heads round the fact that avoir  and not être is used to state age (J’ai 11 ans) and soon after that être and not avoir  is used to express “I have” in expressions such as “I have gone” (Je suis allé).  In any case, what I don’t want to do is start with a crystal clear explanation of the grammar with my classes – that’s the end point for me – I’d rather start with a clear experience of the grammar.  The two are not the same thing.  If I start with a clear explanation, and to be honest it sounds like a common sense approach, I encourage my pupils to think in terms of grammatical rules when they speak.  Many pupils just can’t cope with that without their fluency suffering severely.  It’s the opposite of how we learned to speak our own language and, I’ve found, it’s just not necessary.  Grammatical rules are much more securely learned when they are discovered, when they describe what pupils already know and can use based on what has gone before in lessons and where pupils have been led to spot patterns.

Accessibility can best be increased by incorporating visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles in everything we do.  To make this really work without making lesson preparation ridiculously time-consuming or the teaching of the lesson exhausting for the teacher, it’s a good idea to get some specialist training – now that would be a good use of a training budget and an INSET day…!  However, failing that, there are some pointers we can bear in mind as we plan our teaching.  For example, is it really a good use of our time to spend hours on preparing an amazingly beautiful powerpoint?  Incidentally, I don’t agree with the view that if something takes longer to prepare than to teach, we’re not using our time well.  I would agree with that if the resource/activity that we were preparing could only ever be used once, but if we are thinking through an important building block of language or a foundational grammatical item and how it can be developed over time, I think it can be a very good use of time.  Some of the teaching I’ve done on the perfect tense in French, for example, which I have used for years I couldn’t possibly have done if I hadn’t put the thinking time in all those years ago.  True, some of the resources and contexts have changed, but thinking it all through in the beginning has made life so much easier since then.

My point is rather that if I put an extraordinary amount of time into fiddling about with animations, transitions, pictures and text, I may not have the time to think through how I am going to make my predominantly visual activity truly multi-sensory.  So just as in the olden days before IWBs when at least some (many?) teachers did a lot of talking but there wasn’t much to see (so the auditory learners did well, but the visual learners didn’t get a look in, as it were), now the visual learners have got more of a chance (and lessons are probably more consistently planned in advance rather than being winged because a powerpoint is de rigueur).  But what is still common to both the before and the after of all this is that kinaesthetic learners are frequently left out.  And as their opportunities for accessing and retaining what is presented are denied them, an artificial gap arises in their performance and attainment compared with their classmates.  Ever wondered why there are so many fidget-bums (technical term) in the lower sets but many will sit pretty in the upper ones?

Relevance and intensity can be addressed through the use of classroom routines.  Some of them can really raise the roof (if you want!).  My particular favourites in that category are a lateness routine and a forfeit routine, whereas others are much more calm.  At the end of the day we have to be ourselves and do what suits our personality – there is no reason why we have to be extroverts if we are not, and it isn’t necessarily better.  I’ve seen some lessons where the pupils were having an absolute whale of a time as they engaged in a routine, but were then so over-excited that control was lost or learning didn’t take place afterwards.  Light and shade (or stirrers and settlers) help here.  The point here is that where language is used meaningfully and communicatively in the classroom, language is more acquired than learned.  If we plan those routines in such a way that the language is deliberately developed and taken to a more advanced stage, and where pupils’ awareness is raised to notice the salient features of the language they are using, the grammatical rules end up explaining something they already know, rather than being a starting point for making sentences.  There are so many situations we can exploit for linguistic purposes, from taking the register or setting & reviewing homework, to asking for equipment, announcing room changes/exam arrangements and classroom management.  This is the type of communication which allows us to use much more advanced structures at an earlier stage than any amount of teaching grammatical rules or teaching topics does.

But we also have to teach topics (or whatever your scheme of work requires).  These posts will look at some strategies for going about teaching grammar within them, all the time trying to address the issues of accessibility, relevance and intensity, and of course clarity, through the medium of the target language.

In the next post on this subject later this week, we’ll start looking at a unit of work, the one I used in my seminar, for Year 10, how the vocabulary was introduced and repeated and a song that helps drive it all home.