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Have a repertoire, lighten your workload (part one)

The next four blogs I'm going to post are the equivalent of one of those TV clip shows - you know, the ones where they need to fill a weekly slot by showing the best bits, or deleted scenes, from the series. But these four blogs have a theme. The clue is in the title. Like you, I worked hard when I was teaching, but I was pretty good at keeping things in proportion using a combination of economical planning, rapid marking and experience. The extra time those things created even allowed me to stay relaxed and have fun (most of the time) and to come up with the occasional innovative idea.

So, what I'm going to suggest here is that, if you have a little repertoire of go-to classroom activities, you can save yourself a lot of time and stress, and, what's more, all for the benefit of your classes. You see, I think (actually, I know) pupils like routines, but they also appreciate a bit of variety. So if you apply your repertoire of lesson/activity types sensibly you can satisfy both of those needs, comfortable in the knowledge that you are using tried and tested techniques..

In this first blog, I'm going to reprise a recent post about how you can use sentence builder frames (aka substitution tables) as the basis for a sequence of comprehensible activities which build memory and skill in a non-threatening way. For years, I came across substitution tables in text books and skipped over them, firstly because I couldn't really work out what to do with them and secondly, because they weren't very well designed in the first place. It really wasn't clear what they were there for. So here is what I wrote recently on this first arrow in your quiver, weapon in your armoury, or whatever other metaphor you prefer. I am naturally grateful to Gianfranco Conti for convincing a slight sceptic how useful sentence builders are

Part One   Using sentence builders

I wouldn't use these every week, but I can imagine using them at KS3, maybe KS4 too, on a pretty regular basis as part of the repertoire.

The example below is followed by a possible teaching sequence. You could probably find alternative ideas.Note how everything is translated into English (where necessary) to ensure pupils understand everything at all times.


Je vais aller (I’m going to go)
au parc (to the park)
au cinéma (to the cinema)
au restaurant
aux magasins (to the shops)
à la piscine (to the swimming pool)
en ville (into town)

avec mes parents (with my parents)
avec mes amis (with my friends
avec mon ami(e) (with my friend)
Ce sera bien (it’ll be good)
Ce sera amusant (it’ll be fun)
Ce sera super (it’ll be great)
Ce sera cool
Je vais jouer (I’m going to play)
au tennis
au football
au rugby
aux jeux de société (board games)
au tennis de table
à l’ordinateur (on the computer)
à la console (on the games console)
Je vais regarder (I’m going to watch)
la télé
un film
un match de foot
Je vais écouter (I’m going to listen to)
ma musique
la radio
un podcast
Je vais manger (I’m going to eat)
de la pizza
du poisson (fish)
de la viande (meat)
des pâtes (pasta)
des frites (chips, fries)
un grand repas (a large meal)
un hamburger
Je vais faire (I’m going to do)
une promenade (a walk, trip)
du vélo (cycling)
des courses (shopping)
mes devoirs (my homework)
Je vais acheter (I’m going to buy)
des vêtements (clothes)
des chaussures (shoes)
un livre (a book)

Je vais rester (I’m going to stay)
chez moi (at home)
dans ma chambre (in my room)

Here is a possible teaching sequence (you might find other variations you like more).

1.         Read aloud some examples. Start with just the first row.
2.         Do some choral repetition for pupils to get used to saying the sentences.
3.         Get pupils in pairs to make up sentences (or do this as a whole class task with   hands up or down).
4.         Then move to the next line and so on.
5.         In the end get pupils to make up full descriptions using all three lines.
6.         Then take away the displayed items and see what they can do from memory.
7.         If the above needs support use the “aural gap-fill technique”, i.e. give them parts of each sentence orally, then they complete.
8.         With some classes you could invite them to make up their own additions in each slot.
9.         Do some call and response translation into French.
10.       You may like the idea of pupils recording their mini talks at the end or for homework if you give them a copy of the sentence frame. 

For an add-on, play Sentence Stealers (grazie Gianfranco)
  • Display around 15 sentences on the board, based on the language patterns from the sentence builder.
  • Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.
  • On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.
  • Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentence from the board to see if their partner has it.
  • As an alternative, to add some spice students can play rock/paper/scissors to see who has the right to read a sentence.
  • After five minutes, the winner is the person with the most cards.

This is a jolly good little game to recycle some language in a fun way and teachers say it works really well.


You take take the game a little further, though, adding an element of memory to go with the reading aloud aspect.

So, after playing the first game for five minutes, you could then display a list of the same sentences, but with gaps. The number and nature of the gaps would depend on your class. Each sentence would be numbered or lettered, e.g. A, B, C, D etc.

This time, instead of students writing a sentence on each of their cards, they simply write the letter of the sentence from the board. Then the game proceeds in the usual way, except this time students must produce their sentences from memory (referring to the gapped sentences on the board). The teacher could even create some more gaps in the displayed sentences as the game proceeds, to provide a bit more challenge.

So there you have it: a resource type and lesson sequence for many occasions and classes. In my next blog, I'm going to add a second possible string to your bow by talking about how to exploit a text or pictures using question-answer and other teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions.

Here is another recent blog about sentence builders by Dylan Viñales from the Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur. 


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