INTRODUCTION: TEACHING THROUGH CHUNKS
In the last few weeks I have been asked by many of my readers and colleagues on the Facebook professional group I founded (Global Innovative Language Teachers) the following questions:
(1) what I mean by teaching through chunks and patterns / constructions as opposed to single words and traditional grammar,
(2) where I get the chunks and patterns from and
(3) how I teach them.
Whilst I reserve to answer question (3) in a much more detailed post in the very near future outlining my MARS EARS sequence step by step, here I will deal with (1) and (2) as I know that many teachers are currently in the process of re-designing or tweaking their schemes of learning in preparation for the next academic year.
Here are the key principles of my curriculum design and classroom teaching.
2. LANGUAGE TEACHING SHOULD SERVE REAL WORLD COMMUNICATION
This is the bread and butter of Communicative Language Teaching. The teaching of lexis and grammar should serve communication, hence language learning should be about learning to perform real world communicative tasks through a range of high frequency L2 chunks and constructions.
Consequently, grammar should not be taught to novice-to-intermediate learners in futile abstract categories such as ‘Perfect tense’, ‘Imperfect tense’, or ‘Prepositions’; by the same token, vocabulary should not be selected randomly and taught through uncontextualized single words, based on a theme that means all and nothing, e.g. sports, house, holidays.
Our choice of the grammar and lexis we want to impart on our students should be driven instead by the communicative functions we believe are most important for our students to master in the real world (or, if you want to be more pragmatic – to pass the exams!).
But what do we mean by Communicative Functions (CF)?
In my latest professional development tour of England, I realised that the vast majority of England-based language teachers are not familiar with the concept. Here are some examples of key communicative functions:
– creating questions
– describing people
– describing places
– reporting an event in the past
– talking about the way one used to be
– talking about future plans
– comparing and contrasting
– expressing a purpose, etc.
A full list of CF, adapted from Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983), one of many freely available on the internet, can be found here .
3. THE STARTING POINT: COMMUNICATIVE FUNCTIONS AND ‘THE MAJESTIC 12’
The starting point of any L2 curriculum design and teaching should be the communicative functions that one wants to cover by the end of the academic year, course, key stage 3 (i.e. years 7 to 9) or even key stage 4 (i.e. years 10 to 11).
Choose with your colleagues the top 20, 15 or 12 (depending on the time and resources available) functions that you believe your students MUST master by a specific stage in their L2-learning journey and decide how many you should teach each year and plan for their systematic recycling over the years. Remember: LESS IS MORE.
I usually choose 12 top Communicative Functions that I want my students to learn by the end of year 9, which I break down in micro-functions. I call them The Majestic 12.
Example of a macro-function: Describing people.
Examples of micro-functions: describing their character, describing their physical appearance, comparing and contrasting people, saying what the worst and best things about them are, etc.
If you were to choose your own Majestic 12, what would they be?
4. IDENTIFYING KEY PATTERNS AND CHUNKS
Once identified the CFs, you then identify the key patterns and chunks used most frequently to express them:
FUNCTION: Comparing and contrasting
PATTERNS AND CHUNKS:
X is more + adjective than Y
X is as + adjective as Y
Z is less + adjective than Y
Compared to X, Y is more + adjective
Teaching patterns is key. Without pattern recognition and activation students’ growth as L2 listeners, speakers, readers and writers is substantively stunted.
The Structural Deficit Hypothesis (SDH) attributes difficulties in the acquisition of reading to syntactic processing deficiencies (Bentin, Deutsch and Liberman, 1990; Menyuk et al., 1991; Scarborough, 1991). The SDH claims that an absence of syntactic knowledge or lack of processing ability interferes with higher level text comprehension.
MFL teachers in England often complain about their students using Google translator. However, if one doesn’t explicitly and systematically teach syntactic patterns, how can one expect their students to be able to string single words together grammatically and logically without help?
Take the list of subordinate clauses in Figure 1 below: how many of those do you explicitly teach and recycle over and over again from year 7 to year 11? When I ask this question in my workshops, only one or two participants put their hands up.
FIGURE 1 – List of key subordinate clauses in English
5. CHOOSING THE CONTEXT
At this stage you choose the context that best suits the teaching of that function in the launching phase and in the subsequent recycling phases. This is different from what is customarily done in my experience in English schools, where one usually chooses the context first (e.g. talking about hobbies) and then the target linguistic items (usually expressed in terms of words and grammar structures).
This is how I go about it:
FUNCTION: Comparing and contrasting
Talking about family (launching)
Talking about school subjects / teachers (recycling)
Talking about people I met during the holidays (recycling)
6.COMMUNICATION DRIVES THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR
This way, communication drives your choice of the grammar and the theme. And when you share your objectives with your students, you will share a communicative purpose, e.g.: ‘Today we are going to learn how to talk about plans for the week-end. By the end of the lesson you will be able to understand the meaning of the patterns and vocabulary in this sentence builder (or any other knowledge organiser you may want to use) and some aspects of their usage.’
Similarly, when approaching the teaching of the imperfect tense in French, you will not teach all the seven rules of the imperfect – which overloads students and puts them off this tense; rather, it will be in one instance: ‘talking about how you and your family/friends used to be’ a function which will allow you to recycle time markers, adjectives, family members, adverbials, etc. killing several birds with one stone. In another instance: describing a past event (weather, places). In another instance still: describing what you were doing when something (e.g. an accident) happened. Each instance with its own contextualised chunks and patterns. Nothing wrong, of course, after coming across several instances of the Imperfect in pulling all the threads together and unifying them under the metalinguistic umbrella-term ‘the imperfect’.
When communication drives your selection of the grammar you teach, you don’t risk overloading your students with a myriad of rules and sub-rules and exceptions to them, that classic grammarians many centuries ago categorised under one convenient label (e.g. ‘Prepositions’, ‘Adverbs’, ‘Conditional’) artificially separating the inseparable: grammar from vocabulary.
Grammar and Lexis are too closely intertwined to be considered as distinct from one another: learning the word ‘beautiful’ in French (‘beau’) means learning its word-class, its word-order, its feminine and plural form, its grammatical attributes, not simply its meaning.
7. GRAMMAR LEARNING AFTER CHUNKS LEARNING – THE SEQUENCE MARS’ EARS
In my approach, grammar learning occurs organically after much exposure to and use of the target chunks and pattern through activities constantly recycling the same language over and over again (highly controlled input followed by highly controlled output).
Here is how a typical instructional sequence of mine (MARS’ EARS) unfolds over two or three lessons:
1.Modelling – this phase models the use of X number of chunks and patterns presented IN CONTEXT through sentence builders / story telling / songs / etc. My modelling tool par excellence are sentence builders such as the one in the picture below, because:
1. They are a great way to teach lexical and syntactic patterns in context;
2. They allow you to model chunks and patterns through listening and reading – reinforcing print to sound correspondence. You make and read aloud sentences, whilst the students translate them on mini white boards;
3. They are very clear and accessible knowledge organisers;
4. They help prevent agreement mistakes in languages like French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc. For instance, in the sentence builder below, clothes are taught together with the feminine or masculine form of the related adjective from the word go;
5. They help create a vocabulary-rich learning environment;
6. They can be used as a scaffold in students’ books or – as I do – constantly on the classroom screen as students interact orally;
7. They are a fantastic way to recycle old material and to plant the seed of new linguistic items you plan to teach in the near or distant future (implicit learning). Just put such items in a column of the sentence builder with the translation and they will be learnt effortlessly through exposure;
8. You can play many interactive games with them (e.g. sentence puzzles, guess what comes next, faulty echo, etc.)
9. Students love them – in every single student voice questionnaire I administered, the children rated them as the single most useful resource I gave them. Possibly because ‘they allow students to take ownership of their learning, resulting in active engagement early on’, as noted by my colleague Ursula Maley.
FIGURE 2 – sentence builders for a year 7 French class on describing clothes
2.Awareness-raising – the learners are concisely sensitised to the patterns/rules governing the target chunks; their formation and use. This is not the typical lengthy explanation on a Power Point but rather ‘pop-up grammar’.
3. Receptive processing – provides high-intensity processing of enriched input practice through the receptive skills (Controlled Input). ‘Death by chunks’ through highly structured activities such as these fun read aloud games,(e.g. mind reading with prompts, sentence stealer, find someone who with cards, find your match) engaging narrow reading and listening tasks involving problems solving and thorough processing, sentence puzzles (e.g. the rock climbing game on http://www.language-gym.com or mosaic writing in FIGURES 3a and 3b), dictations, gapped parallel texts, etc. Every text is manufactured in order to be flooded with the same chunks and patterns over and over again and to contain 90 to 95 % comprehensible input. Scaffolding is available throughout (e.g. sentence builder on desks or classroom screen).
FIGURE 3a – Sentence puzzle (1): Mosaic writing
FIGURE 3b – Sentence puzzle (2) : rock-climbing game from http://www.language-gym.com
4. Structured production – provides intensive scaffolded and HIGHLY CONTROLLED production practice (Pushed Output). The chunks are now used in structured tasks. These include fun translation games, highly structured information-gap activities (see example in picture 6a and 6b below), Narrow translation, creative tasks (see example in picture 7), Interactional writing . Scaffolding is still available throughout.
Translation and other tasks that elicit highly controlled output are crucial at this stage, as you want your students to produce every single chunk you taught them, not simply come out with the same answer to a given question from year 7 to 11 (e.g. Q: ‘What did you do last week-end?’ A: ‘I played football, went to the cinema and ate pizza’). Pushed output tasks allow you to practise the production of as wide a range of target chunks as possible whilst recycling old material (Interleaving); this means you have total control over the output, something that traditional communicative tasks usually don’t allow.
FIGURE 4 – Oral translation board game – ‘No snakes no ladders’. The game is played in three, two players and a referee who has the solutions. When one mistake is made, the referee reads out the correct translation to the player who waits for his turn; if s/he gets it right the second time, s/he can cast the die and continue the race.
FIGURE 5 – Oral ping pong translation – two players challenging each other. Scoring: 3 points for 100% accurate sentence; 2 points if mostly accurate; 1 point if only verb is accurate.
Figure 6a – A classic information-gap game – two detectives on different shifts are following the same person. They call each other and must fill in the details missing from their notes asking their partner.
Figure 6b – An oral interaction scaffold designed to support a conversation on family. Questions are listed with a range of possible answers including the target chunks (translations provided)
Figure 7 – Structured creative tasks
5. Expansion: two things happen in this phase:
(1) the target patterns/chunks are learnt in greater depth in order to teach the students how to make sense of the target patterns/constructions. This is your typical grammar lesson, except that it occurs after the students have already memorised the chunks and have been sensitised to the underlying grammar through relentless exposure and use .
Learning grammar by deconstructing the chunks one has already used over and over again is evidently much easier than learning it ex novo through decontextualized examples on a PowerPoint slide or textbook page.
(2) the target chunks are practised with old and new vocabulary and structures overtime through systematic recycling (INTERLEAVING). This is vital; since memory is context-dependent, learning the perfect tense within the topic ‘holidays’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be transferred automatically to other contexts.
Scaffolding may still be necessary during this phase.
6.Autonomy – intensive oral and written practice at the end of which scaffolding is phased out. This phase starts within the first few lessons from presenting the chunks and runs through the whole academic year and even beyond and must be planned carefully in your schemes of learning.
This is where your traditional communicative tasks are carried out and students experiment more creatively with previously learnt chunks. The difference is that now the students come to those tasks with tons of relevant routinized chunks, patterns and sentences.
7.Routinization – focus is on recycling throughout the academic year and beyond through interleaving and fluency and automation-promoting activities. Some tasks simply recycle; others are designed to foster speed of retrieval and automatization (see 4,3,2 technique in picture 8, below). Other sample tasks here.
Figure 8 – the 4,3,2 technique
8. Spontaneity – practice in unplanned response to a stimulus (a picture, a set of questions, a problem) is provided at spaced intervals over the year to assess students’ ability to perform the target item(s). This is assessment for learning, not a traditional high-stake assessment. Students’ performance in these tasks is not graded; feedback is only positive, to foster willingness to talk.
Figure 9 – the MARS’ EARS sequence
8. GRAMMAR TEACHING / LEARNING OCCURS AFTER LEARNING CHUNKS
In sum, only after the students have learnt the patterns as vocabulary, as chunks, does the teacher actually explain the grammar rules that govern the use of the target constructions in order to enhance their generative power, i.e.: to enable the students to manipulate them creatively and spontaneously, at will. Or, even better, if you have the right students, you will ask them to inductively work out the rule by themselves – my favourite approach (see picture 9 below)
Figure 9 – Inductive task on French negatives
9. CONCLUSION – GRAMMAR VS LEXICOGRAMMAR
It will be obvious by now that I don’t teach grammar; not the traditional way at least. I teach chunks of language and constructions which convey a communicative function. Grammar is not necessary, but it is valuable in expanding the power of the chunks for future use, to enhance their expressive range and depth.
In other words I am teaching grammar through lexis and lexis through grammar – i.e. lexicogrammar.
This is a faster way to learn and activate what we traditionally call grammar and to help students get how grammar relates to real-world communication. Because ‘talking about how we used to be’ makes more sense to younger learners than the term ‘Imperfect’. Because learning through the ‘deconstruction’ of what one is familiar with already is easier than building from scratch. Because concrete, hands-on and contextualised information is easier to grasp than abstract notions presented in a vacuum.
It is worth reminding the reader that in my approach the content is reduced substantively compared to the norm (in my case from 6 to 3 units per year), as the main focus of instruction is not to accrue flimsy intellectual knowledge about the language or to memorise lists of words; rather, it is to bring about automaticity, fluency and spontaneity in the receptive and productive skills. However, the use of Implicit learning routines and other strategies discussed here , along with the vocabulary-rich environment you will have created through all the activities mentioned above, will eventually make up for the explicit content you cut out.
This goes beyond mere retention of information, hence it requires lots of recycling and tasks which foster speed of retrieval and execution. The aspirational goal being not having to re-teach in the years to come the same basic structures over and over again (as often happens !) and to forge student who can think in the L2 on the spot, with confidence and without much hesitation.
Please note: this post was written with a lot of useful input from my former colleague and Head of Spanish at Garden International School, Dylan Vinales, who has helped me over the years through his application, creativity and feedback to refine the E.P.I. (Extensive Processing Instruction) methodology and its practical implementation.