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!


Sticky Grammar! #5: Gender Walls

By the end of article #4 in this series, I had presented the new vocabulary for Christmas presents and repeated it with the class using a song (12 Days of Christmas) and various activities to be done in pairs, but we hadn’t looked at any techniques for remembering the gender of the nouns, and as that is particularly important in this unit (we’re coming up to using preceding direct object pronouns in the perfect tense and agreements), that’s what we’ll look at here.  Quite unusually for me, the song is basically a list of vocabulary.  There are all sorts of ways songs can be used… but that’s another post, another day.

Gender Walls

This activity is ideal for when you need learners to keep 2, 3 or 4 categories completely separate in their minds.  I have used it in French & Spanish and some colleagues of mine have used it in German and Italian.  I have used it in KS3, 4 and 5 to help pupils distinguish between masculine and feminine nouns, masculine & feminine adjectives where there is a difference in pronunciation (vert / verte; blanco / blanca / blancos / blancas), and for past, present and future tenses.  I have also on occasion used it for government of verbs in French in KS5 (distinguishing between those verbs which take à and those which take de) and between subjunctive and indicative forms.  As activities go, this has a very high success rate, success being understood here as the vast majority of the class remembering, internalising and using the concepts way beyond the lesson and unit in which they were encountered, and very reliable for me in terms of gauging within the lesson how many and who have grasped it.  It is also extremely simple to prepare and run.  You can use it with a whole class and, much more importantly from my point of view, run it as a pairwork game, thus increasing the intensity and involvement in the activity.  As such, it is my methodological weapon of choice when teaching these items of language.

Let’s set a bit of context.  I start off the lesson (the second or third in the sequence, depending on how long it took to present and practise the vocabulary) by setting the homework.  Always best to set it first thing, I find.  It gives pupils who don’t understand what I’m banging on about time to ask questions if they need to and I don’t set myself up for the stress-inducing situation at the end of a lesson where I’m frantically trying to set up the homework, the class doesn’t understand and I know I’ve got to get this lot out of the room and off the corridor before the next lot arrives.  And then the homework is a load of rubbish when it comes in!  So the start of the lesson it is.  I give the class a strip of paper, about 1/3 size of A4, with a dozen sentences on it (take a look at the powerpoint in the first post).  The sentence (repeated a dozen times) is basically this: “Le jour de Noël mes parents m’ont offert une chaîne stéréo mais quand je l’ai ouverte il y avait un problème.”  Each time there is a different present.  Some of the sentences contain mistakes, some don’t.  All of the mistakes centre around the direct object pronoun and the agreement.  The pupils have to work out whether the sentence is correctly written or not, and if not, correct it.

Step 1: Get the pupils to stick the sheet in their books.

Step 2:  Get the pupils to record the homework in their homework diaries: Il faut cocher les phrases correctes et corriger les phrases qui contiennent des erreurs.  Date limite: …

Step 3: Start explaining!  Normally I’d have a bit of back-and-forth with the class about the homework, negotiating (apparently) a deadline, arguing about how much I’m giving them, speculating on what they might have to do this week (before they’ve seen it) and so on, but not this time – I know I’ll be under some pressure of time to get to the end within the lesson, so full steam ahead.

Well, I say that Step 3 is when I start explaining.  In reality, the whole of the lesson is an explanation, or more accurately, a demonstration.  I like to get the whole administrative side of setting the homework out of the way first, then books closed, then I’ve got them all with me before I start.  As they look at the homework, they won’t know what to do.  I acknowledge that, tell them not to panic, that now at (for example) 9.00 a.m. they don’t know what to do, but at 9.45 a.m. (or whatever time the lesson finishes), they will, and these activities will make it possible.  Straight into Gender Walls:

Here, I want pupils to remember perfectly which nouns are masculine and which are feminine.  I need an A5 flashcard for each noun, preferably masculine ones on blue card, feminine ones on red card, because these are the colours I used on my visualiser sheet when introducing the vocabulary earlier.  Failing that, white card with blue/red ink.  There is nothing flashy about these flashcards – just the words will do.  You can have the pictures too, but you must have the words written down and large enough to be seen across the room.

Stage 1:

I blu-tack/attach with a magnet all of the masculine singular nouns in a line along the left-hand wall in a random order.  I tell them that all of those nouns constitute a category and I ask them what it is.  If they are used to this sort of thing they will tell me straight away, otherwise I might need to give them a nudge: MasculinI make sure they can pronounce un correctly.  (A small point, but the next stage will break down if this isn’t clarified).  I give the class 5 seconds to memorise the order of the flashcards and then turn to face me as I stand on the right-hand side of the room.  I pick on some poor, sleeping pupil and they have to tell me the vocabulary in order without looking at the flashcards: Le jour de mon anniversaire, mes parents m’ont offert un rasoir électrique, un jeu-vidéo, un appareil-photo…   5 seconds isn’t long enough to remember the order perfectly before starting the activity so that when they make a mistake I can jump in with: Menteur!  Tes parents t’ont offert… and then the item they forgot or got wrong.  They go back to the beginning and start again.  I keep a count of how many times they had to start again, and then it’s another pupil’s turn after I’ve jumbled the order again.  The winning pupil is the one who has to start again the least number of times.  Then it’s over to the class to do it in pairs with one (guessing) pupil looking away, the other looking at the cards.  That’s why you need the vocab written on the flashcards – it doesn’t work if there are any doubts as to the vocabulary.

At the end of the activity I put the homework back up on the screen.  Clear now?  NO?!  Of course not, but it’s not 9.45 a.m. yet.  Don’t panic.  On to the next stage of Gender Walls.

Stage 2:

Next up on the wall are the feminine singular nouns, but they need to go on the opposite wall to the masculine nouns.  Sticking cards up on a wall, like giving out books, collecting in work or just looking for something on my desk, is of course a transition, and in my book, any transition is a danger point for ‘losing’ a class or giving them a cue to start chatting which I’ve then got to step in and stop.  Especially so here, as I’ll probably have to turn my back on them, never a safe moment…  So, rather than do that, just before each card goes up, I give them a very quick paraphrase of whichever card I happen to be holding for them to guess before I show them what it is and stick it on the wall.  This gives me a pause between putting each card up, an opportunity for language practice (I always say the sentence very fast) and they don’t have time to “make their own entertainment”.  What is going on in their heads this time I paraphrase is different to what took place when I introduced the vocabulary in the first place – they know what all the answers are this time, they just don’t know which one is the right one, and the paraphrase will get them to their answer.  So why not talk as fast as you possibly can?  It ups the ante and it’s better than a CD for listening practice…

Again I say that these red cards represent a category.  What is it?  Féminin!  Alors, un ou une?  Une!   This time, pupils don’t have to remember the order of the nouns, but close their eyes and tell me which wall they are stuck to.  “Le jour de Noël, mes parents m’ont offert ****** chemise.”  (Beep out the article with a bicycle horn or some other noise you might even produce yourself).  The class responds with “un chemise / une chemise” according to what they think is right and point to the correct wall.  The pointing is very important and they may need a nudge to realise that they have to do it.  You can see quite clearly who’s getting it and who isn’t.  (Much more reliable than asking a class to give you a thumbs up / down response as to whether they think they understand something.)   I repeat the same thing with a few more vocabulary items, randomly switching between masculine and feminine nouns.  And then?  In pairs, of course!  They swap over when you say so.  Activities such as this don’t really need instructions, you just do them.  In fact, if you explain it, it’s more likely to stall.  Just do it.

This activity works so well because the feminine adjectives are the “new information”.  They have done so much with the masculine nouns that they know these words they are now including were not part of that first category.  Try it, you will be surprised!

At the end of the activity, up goes the homework on the screen again.  All clear? No?!  Of course not, it’s still only 9.25!  Straight onto  the next stage of Gender Walls:

Stage 3:

Exactly the same as Stage 2, except this time instead of pupils just giving you the indefinite article, they respond “mais quand je l’ai ouvert / ouverte” as appropriate.  Before I let them loose on this I need to make sure they understand what they are saying.  Take a look at the powerpoint in the first post in this category.  I back up the meaning with mimes and full sentences so that they get the context, and I point out that the word order is different in French compared to in English (Je l’ai ouvert / I opened it), but without actually using English.  This can easily be communicated by saying the French sentence correctly and then saying the same words in an English order (le at the end), and some arm-crossing to show how the sentence has a different pattern.  It’s important that the last thing they hear from me, though, is the correct version.  When I elicit the response, “mais quand je l’ai ouverte”, we make a T with our hands to emphasise the difference in pronunciation.  I do a couple of examples with the class, and then it’s back to doing it in pairs.  For all of these quick pairwork activities, I let them run for about a minute, or a minute and a half before getting pupils to swap over.  It’s tempting to stop them too early, but it’s important to give pupils the thinking time so that the activity can be effective.  It also gives me a break in the lesson to draw breath and think about where it’s all going and whether I need to go back a bit, hurry up a bit or put in another stage somewhere.  How often do we think about what we are doing as the teachers, when really it’s what they are doing as the pupils that really matters?

At the end of the activity, we take another look at the homework.  Ah!  It’s getting clearer now!  But there are still a few more holes to plug.  On to the next stage:

Stage 4: 

This time the masculine plural nouns are added to the wall, the same wall as the masculine singular nouns, but along a bit so they are clearly separate.  I go back to the powerpoint slide I used in Stage 3 and see if they can work out how the sentence should be different when, instead of using un rasoir électrique, we use des patins à roulette.  (Je l’ai ouvert > Je les ai ouverts).  Some of them will probably get it.  In any case, I need to show them.  Again they do the same activity, pointing to the right wall with their eyes closed and filling in the sentence.  This stage in the activity helps them to distinguish very clearly between Je l’ai and Je les ai, a tiny difference which would sail right past many pupils.  A quick pairwork, then the feminine plurals can go up on the wall, on the same wall as the feminine singular, but along a bit.  By this point, many more pupils are likely to guess how the sentence will look before they are shown.  Now the activity can be run with pupils pointing in up to 4 different directions, depending on whether the noun they are given is masculine, feminine, singular or plural.

Finally (almost), the homework goes up on the screen again.  All clear now?  Yes!

This may seem like a very long-winded way to do something which could be explained much more quickly in English.  I would agree, it would be much quicker to do it in English but, in my view, a wasted opportunity.  It gives pupils the chance to learn through the target language something they didn’t already know.  It’s not a mere re-labelling exercise, this is a concept they don’t already have.  It teaches them that the foreign language is capable of expressing complex things and not just ordering ice-creams.  It shows them that I don’t have to revert to English to express important or complicated things, and in this way it gives the language status.  A quick trip to the maths department will prove that pupils have to think very hard in that subject.  Why should it be so different for languages?  It also doesn’t have to be long-winded.  A lot depends on the pace we maintain as we present a lesson like this, and the back-and-forth between the teacher and the class, between whole-class work and pairwork, does a lot to maintain pace and sustain concentration in a way which keeps the class busy, breaks up the information input and gives me a break as well.

But there is still one more stage I want to put in before I leave it to the class to crack on with the exercise at home.  On the powerpoint you will find a number of sentences (some correct, some incorrect) which, as a class, we discuss very quickly:  Bonne phrase ou mauvaise phrase?

“Le jour de Noël, mes parents m’ont offert une raquette de tennis, mais quand je l’ai ouverte, il y avait un problème

Raquette de tennis – masculin ou féminin?  Féminin!  (pointing to the right wall).  Ouverte, masculin ou féminin ?  Féminin ! Alors, c’est bon ?  Jusqu’ici, c’est bon.  Une raquette de tennis, c’est singulier ou pluriel ?  C’est singulier !  Ouverte, singulier ou pluriel ?  Singulier !  Je l’ai, singulier ou pluriel ? Singulier !  Alors, c’est une bonne phrase ou une mauvaise phrase ?  Bonne phrase !

And in this pretty straightforward way we look at the other sentences on the powerpoint, deciding whether they are correct or incorrect.  This helps pupils to see the relationships between the various elements of the sentence, and there is no need to go into English to do it.

Now they really are in a position to get cracking on their homework … and it’s just coming up to 9.45….

Next time?  My favourite activity of the lot!