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!

It’s been a great day at The Schools Network (formerly Specialist Schools & Academies Trust) MFL Conference today at University of Warwick, “What’s Next For Languages?”.  Thank you very much to everyone who came along to my session “Sticky Grammar: Making Grammar Teaching Really Work For All Pupils”.

I love the challenge of teaching through the medium of the target language, and it keeps me on my toes, particularly when it’s not completely straightforward (which is most of the time).  One of my main concerns early on in my teaching was this: by the time I got to GCSE myself, I knew my grammar pretty well – it was the first year GCSEs came out (many moons ago, now) and, as in most cases when a new initiative is rolled out, no-one had really been told what they were supposed to be doing, and so, while they were waiting, many teachers taught as they always had.  So my French grammar base ended up pretty sound.  I couldn’t say much, but I knew a fair bit.  And I was taught in English.  Now, I firmly believe that teaching through the target language is definitely the way forward, but somewhere in the back of my mind, often creeping to the front, was the fear that however wonderful a time pupils had in the target language, however spontaneous they became, however fluently they could speak and however instinctively they could understand by the end of it all… how accurate would they become in terms of their grammar?  Would my pupils know as much grammar as I did by the same point?

So this was the challenge I set myself.  But it would all take place in the target language, and it would have to be suitable for a mixed-ability class, because for most of my career, that’s how my classes have been, like it or not. (And actually, I prefer it, but that’s another post another day).  And it would have to be sticky – i.e., it’s no good if 3 weeks down the line they can’t remember much about it or don’t know how to transfer the grammar from the context in which they learned it to another one.  It has to stick.

The background to today’s presentation is that I had a Year 10 (very) mixed-ability class in a comprehensive school, learning French in 3 x 40 minute lessons per week, and they were studying a unit in which they were working towards writing a letter of complaint because a Christmas present that had been given them was faulty in some way.  The rest was up to them.  I saw this as an opportunity to teach preceding direct objects in the perfect tense with agreements for number and gender, and also indirect object pronouns.  As you do.

This presentation is a journey from the beginning, when the vocabulary is presented, right through to how you get pupils to use the grammar items correctly and communicatively before they are given any rules.  In fact, they are never given the rules, they have to work them out, and leading them towards finding them and testing their hypotheses is all part of the pedagogical fun.

At some point soon I will post a description of the various activities – those who were not there today will probably not get much from this post or the attachments without one – but for now, here’s a slightly extended version of the handout and the powerpoint I used.  Have fun.  And Happy Christmas.

SSAT Sticky Grammar Handout

SSAT Sticky Grammar