Sticky Grammar! #7: Gender Walls Revisited

In an earlier article on Sticky Grammar (which is more concerned with making grammar stick with learners rather than it being necessarily very complex), I looked at how to use the Gender Walls technique for helping learners of French to keep masculine and feminine nouns distinct in their minds.  Of course this can be used for any language which distinguishes between genders of nouns.  If learners can do that accurately and confidently, then they are in the position they need to be in to get agreements right as well: adjectival agreements or preceding direct objects in the perfect tense, and so on.  I’ve used this technique in both French & Spanish, and not just for distinguishing between genders but also between tenses, with past tense verbs being displayed on the back wall of a classroom (the past is behind you), the future on the front wall (in orange, of course) and the present tense either on the ceiling or on a side wall.  Here, I’m going to show another application of it which I’ve been using recently in teaching English as a foreign language.  Here’s how it came about:

Last September I set up a lending library of graded readers (MacMillan Readers), which has been particularly popular amongst my adult students at basic, pre-intermediate and intermediate levels.  The books are reasonably short (around 80 pages on average), most of them have a CD and the students borrow them for two weeks at a time, or longer if they want it.  Following Krashen’s recommendations (The Power of Reading, Heinemann/Libraries Unlimited, 2nd Ed., 2004 – a fascinating, inspiring read), no-one is coerced into borrowing a book, and if they want one, they choose it themselves.  If they don’t like the book they don’t have to finish it and they’re not tested on it.  Doing the opposite of this negates most of the benefits gained by reading.  Amongst my students, some read the book along with the CD, some only read the book, some only listen to the CD, others start with the book and then listen to the CD, others do it the other way round.  Interestingly, quite a few of them read the book more than once in the two weeks they have it.  I’ve not run any tests so I’ve got nothing statistical to back this up, but the very clear impression I have is that their vocabulary is growing fast (part of the evidence for this is some inaccurate pronunciation of words I haven’t heard them use before (misplaced word-stress or pronunciation of silent letters) as they say what they have read rather than what they have heard).  I find it fascinating to watch.

Another interesting side to this growth, though, is that although their sense of structure also appears to be growing in range and confidence, I have noticed that the students make more errors (as opposed to mistakes) as they confuse similar word forms.  I’m thinking in particular of verbs which require ‘–ing’ and those which are followed by ‘to’.  For example, ‘I decided to go’ (not ‘going’), but ‘I considered going’ (not ‘to go’).  And the students themselves noticed that they were unsure which to use when.  That helps, of course – if there is an area of uncertainty, I think it’s much better to wait for it to bother them, or put them in a situation where they realise that they are unsure of it, before running something in class which seeks to put it right unsolicited, as it were.  Otherwise there can be a sense of ‘so what?’ about it all.

Well, I like challenges like this!  Gender Walls was my weapon of choice for this.  Here’s how it went:

  1. I made a list of verbs that the students already knew.  There was nothing new in the list at all.  That was important.  This was about improving their accuracy with language they already knew rather than presenting new vocabulary.  The activity would have stalled if they were having to process not only which form the next verb in the sentence required but also what the preceding verb meant.  Like any grammar work I do, the rules or, as in this case, not rules but observation of the language, it all comes at the end of the process, not the beginning.  The list contained some verbs that I had heard the students use incorrectly and some others that I knew they knew, but I hadn’t necessarily heard them make mistakes with.  I came up with about 30.  Far too many for one lesson.  (In fact, I ran the activity I’m about to describe with two different classes, and I changed it a bit after doing it the first time.  I used 20 verbs in the first lesson, and it was too many.  When I ran it again with 16, as described below, it was much more manageable.  Surprising for such a small change).  I saved half of the verbs for another activity on another day, and I used 8 of each category (…-ing / …. to) in this one.   Incidentally, I didn’t use any verbs in this activity which could use either form (e.g., start to [rain] / start [rain]ing) or any which could use either form with a change in meaning/perspective (e.g., remember to [go] / remember [go]ing).
  2. We needed a context.  In one of my classes (18 year olds), some of the students were coming up to starting driving lessons and in another, older class, they were always moaning about the traffic in Madrid, the difficulties of finding a parking space and speeding fines.  Splendid.  I wrote a (true) story of my experiences of trying to pass my test (all the best drivers pass second time…) and I included the 16 verbs within the story.  It’s worth being very careful with texts of this sort, they can end up being very contrived if they are written to exemplify a grammar point.  (You might think mine is, too!).  Before we got anywhere near the text, though, we needed a context for the text!  We kicked off the lesson chatting, we talked about the traffic they had to wade through getting to the lesson, whether they actually enjoy driving or prefer the underground for getting around Madrid, whether it’s even worth learning to drive, the differences in the tests between Spain and the UK, legal ages for learning to drive, who was the latest to get a speeding fine and so on.  This ran for about 5 minutes.  Then to the text, which you’ll find here: Learning to drive text.
  3. I hardly ever give out a text for students to read.  Almost always (and in this case) I slow-reveal the text on a visualiser (document camera).  That is, the text is printed on an A4 sheet (enlarged print) and it is covered by two pieces of A4 card.  Slowly the text is revealed word-by-word as one piece of card is moved horizontally to the right and the other, down.  The class is to shout out the words they anticipate – I don’t reveal the whole word until they have got it right or at least made a suggestion.  Every couple of sentences I stop and go back to retain the sense of context – this helps them with their guessing.  Some of the guesses will be correct, others not.  That’s the value of it.  The longer the text, the more I have to work to keep up the pace, and the text I used here is a bit long, so I needed to do it in two or three goes, stopping not only to go back, but also to chat about what has been revealed so far.  At the end of the text it is particularly important to stop and chat about it rather than press straight on with the grammatical work.  I wanted the impression to be that this was a context for our conversation that we genuinely wanted to have and out of which we learned something about language, not a pretext for chewing grammar for the sake of chewing grammar.
  4. Then, some light stuff before we get serious (they’re always more receptive that way, I find).  So, some race-reading/repetition games (Who can finish the fastest?  If you read it, and I shout adverbs/instructions at you as you do, can you read the text in that style/responding to those instructions?).  Much to my surprise, I find adults are just as happy to let their hair down with this sort of activity as teenagers, depending, of course, on how it is presented.
  5. Next stage, I challenge the class to find two categories of words in the text.  Blank looks.  Clue: look at the verbs.  Blankety-blank looks.  Next clue:  I give them a copy each of the text with the ‘ … to’ verbs in blue and the ‘… -ing’ verbs in red.  (Text with verbs highlighted).  Note that the ‘to’ and the ‘ing’ themselves are not in blue/red, just the verbs that precede them.  A few wrong guesses ensue (which is good), mainly around trying to find a connection in meaning.  Eventually someone gets it (or they need a few more clues until they do!).  And from there, it’s on to Gender Walls.
  6. This is run in exactly the same way as in the earlier post on Gender Walls where we were distinguishing between masculine and feminine nouns in French.  That is, one category is lined up on one wall (the ‘… to’ verbs) and the students have to remember the order of the words.  When they turn away after 7 or 8 seconds, they have to recall the order from left to right (and they must use the word ‘to’ after each verb – if they don’t, this activity won’t help them to improve!).  If they make a mistake, their partner (who is still looking at the wall) corrects them and they start again.  They keep count of how many times they have to begin again.  When they swap over, I also swap round the order of the verbs, and their partner has to do it in fewer guesses to win.
  7. In the next lesson, the ‘…-ing’ verbs are used as well.  The ‘… to’ verbs are still on one wall and the ‘… -ing’ verbs are now stuck on the opposite wall. This time, the students have to remember on which wall they saw each verb and, with their eyes closed, point to it, saying the verb with ‘… to’ or ‘…-ing’ as appropriate as their partner calls out verbs randomly from the list (Crib sheets).  At the risk of stating the obvious, the partner who calls out the verbs does not say ‘… to’ or ‘…-ing’.  That would make it rather easy.  I let the activity run a few minutes and then the students swap roles and play continues for a few more minutes.
  8. We run a completely different activity on something else, and then 15 minutes before the end of the lesson, with the cards already removed from the walls and all crib sheets removed from their gaze, I give the students are gap-fill of the same text. (Gap-fill worksheet).  This gives me (and them) a good idea of how much they have remembered.  They have to complete each sentence as the grammatical context requires.  The Gender Walls activity can be run several more times on different days at the beginning or end of the lesson, just to press this home before it falls into disuse.

Have you had a go at using Gender Walls?  I’d love to hear about it!  And, as always, if you’ve found this article helpful, please consider sharing it using the share buttons at the end of this post.

Bye for now.

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