Sticky Grammar! #6: The Sentence-Construction Game

The activity I’m going to describe in this post is the climax of a whole series of activities intended to teach pupils how to use direct object pronouns in the perfect tense in French with all the agreements.

Throughout this whole process, my aim has been to help pupils use this particular bit of grammar fluently, confidently and accurately, and as close to instinctively as I can get.  The sequence, exactly as I have described it, has been used in mixed-ability groups in Year 9 or Year 10, often with a very wide range of prior attainment, and a variety of combinations of learning styles.

Importantly, all of this has taken place entirely in the target language.  Yes, it would be quicker to do it all in English, but I think by doing so it robs pupils of the opportunity to learn to think in the target language by encouraging them to translate and those pupils who struggle when they go from conscious rules to sentences (especially rules in English to sentences in French), would find this all too much.

The context of this is that pupils will be able to write a letter to a shop to complain about some faulty goods and to demand action.  The sequence of learning that the pupils have followed so far has involved this:  they have learned (or revised) a list of vocabulary for Christmas presents by listening to paraphrase descriptions, working out what the visuals have represented and doing mimes to represent the nouns.  In between each item of vocabulary they have sung a song which has got longer with each new noun to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas.  They have played a couple of guessing games (as repetition activities) in which they have also used the language of paraphrase which I used when I presented the vocabulary.  They have learned the genders of the nouns through the Gender Walls activity and in the next stages of the same activity they learned how to use a singular direct object pronoun, its place within the sentence and the effect is has on the past participle, before going on to do the same with plural nouns as well.  By the end of the last article on this subject, we had got to the stage where they had learned to distinguish between correct and incorrect sentences which used this grammar point.

And now… the Sentence-Construction Game, my favourite of the lot.  Whereas in the activity I’ve just mentioned pupils were distinguishing between correct and incorrect sentences, the focus here is on production in writing.  By the end of this lesson, pupils will be able to write a whole sentence which follows this pattern: “Le jour de Noël, mes parents m’ont offert une raquette de tennis, mais quand je l’ai ouverte il y avait un problème, elle était cassée.”  Of course, the idea is that they can change the occasion, who gives to whom, the noun, the verb, the agreement as necessary, and the problem.

The detail

The only new bit here is the language of problems.  It’s worth noting that at every stage of the sequence from the first article up to here, there is only one new thing added each time.  If I add too many different things at any one stage (breadth as opposed to quantity), I find pupils can miss the focus completely and it all becomes a jumble.  It all helps those pupils who were absent in the previous lesson to catch up quickly.

I introduce the problems in exactly the same way as I introduced the Christmas present vocabulary at the beginning of the sequence.  I have them categorised on my visualiser sheet according to how the sentence starts (Il / elle était… cassé, ébréché, déchiré, trop grand, trop petit, défectueux, dangereux; Il y avait … une tache, un trou; Il manquait …un bouton, les instructions), and within the category I keep the adjectives in groups according to how they change for feminine (i.e., défectueux doesn’t get mixed up with cassé, because there is an extra change apart from just the –e).   I don’t allow us to get too distracted by Il y avait and Il manquait not having an “Elle” form.  All of the problems must have a simple picture to go with them.  Once these have been introduced and repeated, this is what will happen:

Sentence-Construction Game

The class will work in pairs, each pair in competition with all the other pairs in the class.  At the end of the lesson there will be just one pair that wins, and they will have won by getting the most correct sentences.  During the course of the game, I will read as many sentences as there is time for, as fast as I possibly can.  On every table for two there is a set of cards with all the words they need, some of them represented by symbols, others with the words written.  Working together within their pairs, pupils have to choose the correct cards from their pack to “write” the sentence out in full, placing them in order on their desk.  I read each sentence 3 times, allowing a few seconds between each reading, and as each group finishes placing their cards, they cover them with their hands to prevent a neighbouring pair from copying (and they will try!) and I count down from ten to zero.  On zero, I sound a bicycle horn, everyone has to put their hands on their heads, ready or not, and I go quickly round the room dropping thumbs-up cards on the tables of all those who have the sentence 100% correct.  Before anyone is allowed to touch their cards again (whether they have it right or wrong), we go through it as a class, with the sentence now displayed on the screen.  Then on to the next sentence, and so on.

The wonderful thing about this game is that the class gets better and better as the activity goes on.  I have a clear picture, too, of who is “getting it” and who is not.  So, let’s look at some of the detail of this:

The cards:

You need:

  • Le jour de Noël / Le jour de mon anniversaire (or, a Christmas tree and a birthday cake) (pink)
  • Mes parents m’ont offert / je leur ai offert / mon frère m’a offert / je lui ai offert (I use the symbols you can find on the powerpoint that goes with this series, rather than the words written out) (white)
  • The Christmas presents, one symbol on each card – I just photocopy my visualiser sheet (yellow)
  • Mais quand (red)
  • Je l’ai / Je les ai (light green)
  • Ouvert / ouverte / ouverts / ouvertes (dark green)
  • Il y avait un problème (orange)
  • The problems (I use the pictures from the visualiser sheet with no vocabulary written out) (violet)
  • Thumbs-up points cards

Each group of cards represented here by a bullet point needs to be a different colour for this to work well.  I’ve indicated the colours I use, but you can use any colour of course.  The only rule I make for myself, though, is not to use red or blue for any groups which could be affected by gender.  As I’ve used these colours earlier in the sequence, it gets confusing if a masculine noun presents itself to a pupil’s eyes on a red card.  Instead of coloured card you can print everything in coloured fonts on white card, but I much prefer the coloured card route.  It’s much easier for pupils to distinguish between the parts of the sentence, it’s also cheaper and it looks much better when everything is out and on the tables.  One potential hazard with this game is that cards will fall on the floor, so you need to keep an eye on that – all of the packs are identical, and you don’t want to get them mixed up.  Normally in pairwork card games I put each set on a different colour, but with this activity, the colours are important, so it’s not possible.

There’s a lot of cutting up with this activity, but once you have your sets prepared, you can use them year after year with no extra work.  You will need enough for half of your class (as they are working in pairs), although I always make about 10 extra sets so that as sets get ruined through use, I can just chuck one away and I still have enough for next time.

I always have my class set out horseshoe fashion, with a smaller horseshoe inside the larger one.  This also makes it easier for getting round and seeing who has it right and who does not.

Playing the Game

At the start of the game I give out all the sets and together, we put the cards on the table in groups of colours in the order that I give them from left to right.  This is much better than having a mish-mash of colours.  The only instruction I give them is to tell them that they need to listen and choose the words they hear.  If they don’t hear every word (and they won’t – that’s deliberate), they can calculate the words they don’t hear using the words that they do.  On zero, they will need to put their hands on their heads or they’re out!

I start off with the first sentence I will eventually (but not yet) display.  I read it as fast as I possibly can.  They will freak, but I just look smug and unperturbed!  I wait a few seconds and read it again.  Ignoring all requests to say it again, I wait a few more seconds, then read it one more time and count down loudly from ten to zero.  On zero, the horn sounds and anyone caught touching their cards, even for a split second, is out!  (They will, of course, join in for the next sentence).  As I go round and look at their cards, it’s actually surprisingly easy to see instantly if it is right or not.  This part of the lesson can be (and needs to be) very fast indeed.  Some will start to move their cards once I’ve looked at them, thinking they’re not needed anymore, but I stop them.  Some will realise they made a mistake and try and change it before I get to them, and they are instantly out!  Once I’m back to the front I project the sentence and we point out the number of the noun and look at the pronoun and the participle ending.  Then we point out the gender and look again at the participle ending.  For some, the penny drops at that moment.  And it’s on to the next sentence.

A couple of things to bear in mind

This gets rowdy!  But it’s a good rowdy.  I often play some very fast music while they’re making their sentences, dropping the volume sharply when I shout the sentence.  This helps to keep the pace going and makes stopping them easier.  It’s also very important to speak so fast that they cannot understand every word.  The first time round, they will hear the noun and the problem– with this information alone (just the noun, in fact) they can work out the “je l’ai / je les ai” and the “ouvert /ouverte / ouverts / ouvertes” – which is also what you are really testing in this activity.  Without everything else it would be too easy.  The second time they will pick up the occasion (if they haven’t already) and the other bits of the sentence.  The third time they have the opportunity to check everything.

I know I always need to leave at least a clear 5 minutes between the end of the game and getting everyone out of the door.  Winners need to be celebrated and the whole lot cleared up.  Clearing this up in a hurry is never good and a fun activity ends up with some being told off.  Much better to do it slowly and as you want it done, with plenty of floor-checking for stray cards before the envelopes are collected in.  I always use little pay envelopes rather than letter envelopes, they keep everything together much better, and the whole lot can go in an A5 or A4 envelope without anything falling out.  These 5 minutes also give me a chance to calm everyone down before I release them out into the jungle which is the corridor.  And their next teacher wouldn’t thank me for releasing them all hyper.

Well, that’s the whole sequence from start to finish.  Within the unit, there is still a fair bit to do.  In these articles I haven’t gone into the rest of the letter of complaint as my purpose is to focus on how I teach the grammar.  I also haven’t discussed grammar notes and how they are recorded in pupils’ books.  Suffice to say that the grammar note is in the target language, but it should by now be clear that any note that they write will describe what pupils now know, understand and can use confidently and accurately, as opposed to the more traditional note in English which pupils refer to in order to remind themselves how to use something they never quite remembered in the first place!

Thanks for staying with me through this, these have been long posts, but it’s the detail which makes the activities work.  Happy Christmas, and who knows, you might find yourself having a go at this in January!

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