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Sentence combining drills

A standard way to introduce or practise a grammatical structure is by means of sentence combining drills. Look at the example below, taken from frenchteacher.net, which focuses on the meaning and form of present participles in French. Strictly speaking, in this case the exercise is about combining two clauses, not sentences. The exercise is a typical audiolingual one in style, based on the idea that by repeating the structure  numerous times you are helping students to internalise it. “Internalise” in this context means embed it in long term memory, automatise,  or help it to be “acquired”, ready to be used spontaneously in the future. Now, it’s very unlikely that an exercise of this type would achieve the aim of automatisation on its own, but by bringing the form and meaning to the attention of the learner, it should, in combination with comprehensible input featuring the structure’s use, along with other activities, more or less communicative, help students use the structure in a sp…
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The textbook family

There was a time (the 160s and 70s) when pretty much every Y7 and Y8 MFL textbook featured the amusing adventures of a family. Veteran teachers familiar with the audio-lingual and oral-situational approaches, will recall the Lavisses, Lenoirs, Bertillons and Marsauds. Families with a mum and dad and 2.4 children were a staple of every child’s language learning experience. The nadir of this textbook trend may have been the German Wurst (sausage) family, with their son (or was it dad?) Willy. You can imagine that this book was an open goal for the keen grafitti artist.

Then, the advent of the communicative movement was accompanied by the demise of the textbook family. This was probably due more to a social change than a methodological one. Writers and teachers became uncomfortable with presenting students with a stereotyped family unit when society was in flux. (I read yesterday that the ‘traditional family’, married with children, is now the minority in France.)

Methodologically speaki…

The keyword method

Following on from my last post about making vocabulary input distinctive, I've been reading about the keyword method for learning new words. It's one type of mnemonic technique for learning words and is described in a book I've been reading by Annette de Groot called Language and Cognition in Bilinguals and Multilinguals (2011). I'm sure you're familiar with the keyword concept, if not the term "keyword".

Annette de Groot explains that this is a common strategy for remembering words, the success of which is supported by numerous studies. It combines using knowledge of your native language words with a mental image. To give an example, to remember the word in Italian for night (notte), you could imagine having a naughty night out. Another example was supplied by a teacher on Facebook when I asked for distinctive input - she said she encourages pupils to remember the French for swimming pool (piscine), by thinking that it's something you might (inadvis…

Distinctive input

Happy New Year, dear reader.

For my first post of the new decade I'm going to have a look at the importance of making language input distinctive. As Gianfranco and I are researching and writing our next book about cognitive science for language teachers, we have been examining memory and what helps students remember language.

An emphasis is often placed on spaced repetition, which is obviously vitally important, but less stress has been laid on how important it is that language items be distinctive - interesting, outstanding, funny, memorable for whatever reason. Teachers can do a good deal to help make language memorable, through anecdotes, pictures, anecdotes, gestures, mimes and more no doubt. With that in mind, I asked language teachers on Facebook and Twitter to give me examples of words or phrases they recalled with just one memorable exposure and no repetition.

Teacher Barri Moc made this useful general point:

"For me I have retained certain chunks from various languag…

How can we make sentence builders more communicative?

Many teachers are having success with their classes using sentence builder frames (substitution tables). these allow for quick wins with students, enabling them to receive comprehensible listening and written input with a series of scaffolded tasks, from which they can create their own output. The principle behind their use can be summed up: from comprehensible input to output.

But not everyone goes for these, and some anecdotal teacher feedback is suggesting that the most able classes enjoy using them less than than other groups. It's hard to know whether this is owing to the way the tables are used, or whether the principle itself is just not quite challenging enough for the best linguists.

In addition, one slight concern I have had with them is that the games and activities done with them are often based on paired or whole class reading aloud, transcription and translation. These are all well and good, but I have been asking myself if we can use them in more communicative ways.…