Seven minimal-prep/high impact techniques to focus students on function words and less salient morphemes – Teaching grammar through listening (part 2)

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(co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden International School and Steve Smith)

In a blogpost I published two months ago, ‘Teaching grammar through listening’, I discussed the benefits of teaching grammar through L.A.M. (Listening-As-Modelling) tasks I devised. In a more recent article, ‘They can’t learn what they can’t notice’ posted last week, I concerned myself with the issue of salience, discussing how the extent to which an L2 item or morpheme is ‘noticeable’ will affect its acquisition, making the point that L2 students are less likely to learn what they can’t perceive or hear clearly. I concluded that post suggesting a few activities that may enhance student perception of less salient items such as determiners, prepositions, discourse markers and suffixes (e.g. those indicating gender and number in nouns and adjectives in French, German and Spanish).

In this post, I suggest more minimal-preparation /high-impact L.A.M. tasks which focus L2-students on the grammar (e.g. morphology, function and syntactic behaviour) of such items through listening. I have been using the tasks discussed below mostly with French, Spanish and German, but can be applied to TEFL too. Please note that L.A.M. tasks are more likely to have an impact when they are practised regularly and in a logical instructional sequence – not haphazardly.

  1. Track the word

Imagine you want to focus the students’ attention on a set of less salient function words (e.g. prepositions). You read to the students a text at less-than-native speed and ask them to track as many instances of that word-set as they can. For example, last week I used this activity to focus my Year 5 students on the difference in pronunciation between ‘un’ and ‘une’ in French. The students truly enjoyed the challenge and reported finding it very useful.

  1. Faulty ‘echo’

This is another activity my younger students appear to enjoy. The teacher utters or plays a pre-recorded sentence; then he repeats it with a mistake or omission. The students are tasked with identifying the omitted word and write it out on their mini-whiteboards or iPads. Example:

Time 1: ‘I am driving at one hundred miles per hour’

Time 2: ‘I am driving one hundred miles per hour’

The omission usually involves short and less salient items. Recently I have used it to enhance my students’ awareness of the use of French prepositions in the pattern ‘I go to + country’ and how they vary based on the gender and number of the noun designating the country (e.g ‘je vais en France’ as opposed to ‘Je vais au Japon’).

  1. Faulty transcript

This activity requires a bit more preparation as you have to modify a text by planting mistakes which focus the students on specific less salient items you want to draw their attention to. You will read the original (correct) version, whilst the students are given the ‘faulty one’. As you read out the students are tasked with spotting the incorrect items and put them right.

Last week, I used this activity to draw the students’ attention to the different auxiliary French verbs required in the formation of the Perfect Tense; so I replaced the auxiliary of verbs requiring ‘avoir’ with ‘etre’ and viceversa and read the text. Usually I cue the students in advance as to the number of mistakes contained in each text.

  1. Find the spot

This activity is suitable when you want to focus students on word order and, more specifically, on the position of specific items (e.g. adverbs) within the sentence. Take adverbs like ‘often’, ‘never’, ‘always’, etc., one could use this activity to show how they ‘behave’ across tenses. The task is as follows: the students are given a set of simple sentences such as ‘I go to the cinema’, ‘I play tennis’ etc.. Then, if he is teaching adverb usage, the instructor reads the sentences adding in an adverb per sentence, while the students are tasked with indicating where each adverb was located. After this activity the students are asked to work out the rule governing adverb usage and any exceptions to it. This is the typical lay-out of use for the sentences I give to my students prior to the dictation.

Students get : ____  I   _____ go _____ to the cinema__

Teacher reads out:  I never go to the cinema

Students write: _____ I _never_ go to the cinema

  1. ‘Gapped relations’

‘Gapped relations’ is a partial dictation technique I use in my French and Spanish primary lessons to direct my students’ selective attention to the grammatical relations between two items in a sentence, a determiner and an adjective. For example the sentence, ‘La cuisine est très grande mais le salon est petit’ (the kitchen is very big but the living room is small) is gapped as follows: ‘____ chambre est tres ______ mais ______ salon est  _______. Emphasizing the gapped items to underscore the gender obviously helps directing student attention to the gender of the determiners, nouns and adjectives involved.

This activity, when carried out frequently serves three purposes: firstly, it focuses students on determiners, items which students of French and Spanish usually find hard to acquire, because of their low salience; secondly it builds, day in day out, a stronger awareness of the of gender of nouns; thirdly, it encourages the students to pay more attention to gender and number agreement – to the point that my students claim that now, after three months of practising with this technique, as soon as they write or utter a determiner they automatically think of the gender of the related noun and adjective(s).

  1. Cued gapped-word dictation

I originally devised this technique a few years ago for a group of English learners of French who really struggled with word endings which appear in the written form of words but are not pronounced (e.g. ils regardent). It consists of cueing the students as to the number of words in the sentences you are about to read out to them whilst providing the endings you want them to focus on. For example, the lay out of the task for the sentence “Ils ne regardent jamais la télé’ would be:

____s  ne _____________ent ________ais ______ _________

Since this lay-out made the above endings more salient, this activity enhances the students’ decoding skills whilst focusing them on two important morphemes (the ‘s’ and ‘ent’ endings in positions 1 and 3).

In my TEFL past, I have used this activity with South-East Asian learners of L2 English who struggled with hearing and producing dental sounds at the end of words and consequently kept mispronouncing past participles and other key morphemes

  1. Minimal-pair partial dictation

I use this technique mainly with French students but it can be adopted to other languages too. The teacher reads aloud sentences, the gapped version of which is given to the students who are provided with two (or even three) options to choose from. This is what it looks like in a French sentence I used in the past with my year 8 French class :

Je ne vois pas la/le/les batiment (I can’t see the building)

As the example above illustrrates, the options provided are items or morphemes (e.g. word-endings) which are near-homophones. Recently, I have used this task successfully to reduce the erroneous use of the partitive article after quantifiers with year 9 students who would say ‘beaucoup du monde’ or ‘plus de l’argent’ instead of ‘beaucoup de monde and ‘plus d’argent’.

Concluding remarks

I believe teachers striving to enhance their students oral and written accuracy cannot overlook the importance of less salient items such as determiners, prepositions, discourse markers and suffixes.  In languages like French and English, in which these items’ low semantic salience is compounded by phonological barriers, enhancing their salience through engaging the aural modality can have a significant enhancing effect on their noticeability with beneficial consequences for their acquisition.



6 thoughts on “Seven minimal-prep/high impact techniques to focus students on function words and less salient morphemes – Teaching grammar through listening (part 2)

  1. I believe I will never quite be done with tweaking my lesson plans as long as I keep reading your articles – which is not a bad thing! Recently I’ve been doing a lot of work on sound discrimination (è/é/e) to see if students hear sounds correctly, they will write them correctly. This provides another layer of checking and working on this task. Thanks again!

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