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.

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!