Based on MARS – A sample instructional sequence on the French negatives

1. Introduction

In a previous post (here) I laid out the main principles of my approach to grammar instruction. In particular, I made the very important point that when teaching grammar we should aim at high levels of routinization in the comprehension and production of grammar structures, with automization across all four skills being the aspirational goal.

In the same article I stated that without ‘spontaneous grammar’ learners cannot attain the level of fluency and autonomy in speech production that many UK educators refer to as ‘spontaneous talk’. But how do we bring about ‘spontaneous grammar’? My answer in that article was a two-phased methodology consisting of M.A.R.S and E.A.R.

2. From M.A.R.S. to E.A.R.

2.1  M.A.R.S. 

In the M.A.R.S. phase (Modelling / Awareness-raising, Receptive processing, Structured production) the target grammar rule is modelled to the learner and practised through intensive receptive practice (Listening and reading) and then highly structured communicative drills integrated in the topic and functions of the current unit of work.

A  typical M.A.R.S. sequence (like the one outlined in this post) may unfold over 2, 3 or even 4 lessons depending on the intrisic challenges posed by the target structure and based on learner response. Because of the heavy emphasis that my approach lays on Receptive processing, students may not ‘get productive’ with the target grammar structure until the second lesson in each sequence.

2.2 E.A.R.

The E.A.R. phase (Expansion; Autonomy; Routinization) transcends the boundaries of the specific unit of work in which the target structure was initially presented and occurs (through constant monitored recycling) across every unit of work subsequent to the execution of the M.A.R.S. cycle until the instructor is satisfied that a sufficiently high level of routinization has been attained.

Expansion refers to the integration of the target structure with old and new language material through communicative activities. So, whilst throughout M.A.R.S. the learner would practice the rule only with a limited range of L2 items in order to avoid cognitive overload, during the Expansion phase the teacher consciously engages the students in tasks which integrate the deployment of the target structure with an increasingly wider range of vocabulary, grammar structures and discourse functions.

Whilst during the Expansion phase the students still receives scaffolding in the way of reference materials and prompts by the teacher, during the Autonomous phase the teacher phases out support.

Once performance has reached a level of reasonable fluency and accuracy, teachers and learners will work on the Routinization of the target item through extensive interactive speaking and writing tasks which challenge the learner to produce output in real time under communicative pressure (what I often call ‘R.O.C.’ = Real Operating Conditions).

3. The scope of this post: the M.A.R.S. stage

This post concerns itself with the M.A.R.S. phase of the process by showing how it can be applied in a two-lesson instructional sequence that aims at teaching the use of French negatives within the context ‘Leisure’ (more specifically: talkig about leisure in the present tense).

The group of students the sequences below were designed for ad used with consisted of a fairly able and motivated Year 10 class (15 years old) at the beginning of the academic year working towards their IGCSE French examination; They had studied leisure in previous years and would have come across some of the target negatives in the past, but were far from having acquired them.

4. The Sequence

4.1 The ‘M’ and ‘A’ : Modelling and Awareness-raising phase

The following 9 steps will not occur all in one lessons, they would take at least two lessons.

STEP 1. Listen-and-correct activity :  Students are given a set of incorrect sentences (see Figure 1, below) containing the target negatives; the sentences are a word-for-word translation (google-translator style) from English into French, thereby containing common L1-transfer mistakes that English speakers would typically make.

The teacher utters the grammatical French version of each sentence whilst students rewrite the incorrect ones correctly and work out inductively, in pairs, the rule governing the use of the target negatives. As they work out the rule the students write out their inferences on a Padlet wall or Google Doc open on the classroom screen and shared with the whole class. Teacher will make amendments to the students’ inferences if they are incorrect and expanding on and clarifying issues when needed.

This activity allows the students to process the structure through the aural and written medium whilst involving cognitive comparison between L1 and L2 use of the target structure.The inductive process of reconstruction of the rule calls for greater cognitive investment on the part of the students which may enhance retention. The fact that they can compare their inferences with those of their classmates on the google doc/Padlet wall may provide support for the less confident learners.

Figure 1 – Listen-and-correct activity


STEP 2. Sentence-builder based activities

2a The teacher demonstrates use of the negatives uttering sentences made using the chunks of language in the sentence builder (in Figure 2). Students to write out translation on miniboards as s/he speaks

2b. The teacher gives a list of sentences in English for the students to translate into French under time condition using the sentence-builder. When time is up the teacher utters the sentences pointing at the relevant words/chunks of language in the sentence builder. Students compare their version with the teacher’s and amend any mistakes.

2c. Students work in groups of three or four competing against one another, one person (using the sentence builder) makes up sentences and reads them out; the other students in the group must write on mini-boards the meaning of the sentences under time conditions with no access to the sentence builder. The person in each group who gets most sentences correct after three full rounds wins.

All activities use listening to model grammar whilst drawing the learner’s attention to the way sentences containing the negatives are constructed. The sentence builder provides  useful scaffolding.

Figure 2 – Sentence buildersentence-builder-negativs

4.2 Receptive processing

Although receptive processing has technically already started with the Modelling activities described above, in this phase it becomes more intensive.

STEP 4- Students do two of the following games from on their own or in pairs (up to them). The aim is to give them some time to reflect on the details of the grammar and for me to find out, while walking around monitoring whether they have grasped the target negative structures.

Figure 3 – Bench press game (students must select the correct answer; twenty questios and three lives)

bench press.png

Figure 4a and 4b – Rock climbing game (to climb the wall, students have to hop their way up to the top selecting the right word/phrase on each line)


Figure 5a – Kung-fu game’s start (four sentences to choose from, only one correct)


Figure 5b – Kung-fu game ‘s end (students selected wrong answer)


STEP 5 – Students are given narrow reading texts (FIgure 6, below) , i.e. six passages containing the negatives as well as other language in the sentence builder and previously learnt items. The students will be familiar with at least 95 % of the content.

This activity recycles the target  structures in context over and over again.

Figure 6 – Narrow reading and narrow listening (apologies: a couple of typos)


STEP 6 – Find the matches. The sheet in the figure below is cut up into squares; each square is given to a student who needs to walk around the classroom looking for three people who have at least one thing in common with them. They have five minutes to do so. The first two people to finish win and get reward. Questions to be asked:

1. Tu fais du sport ? [Do you do any sport?]

2. Tu lis beaucoup? [Do you read a lot?]

3. Tu sors souvent? [Do you go out a lot?]

4. Qu’est-ce que tu fais le weekend? [what do you do at the week-end?]

Although the students are talking to each other, they are simply reading, so this activity still counts as receptive processing. The benefit of this activity is that it gets the students to model target-structure use to each other whilst giving the teacher, who is walking around monitoring the pronunciation, a clearer idea as to the students’ decoding ability and pronunciation levels.

Figure 7 – Find the matches


STEP 7 – Students are given a card each from the ones on the sheet below and go around asking the questions in the grid-sheet in Figure 8b below in search for people who have the requisites in the first column of the grid-sheet (e.g. someone who never reads). The first person to find everyone wins. This activity too is carried out under time conditions.

Figure 8a and 8b – Find someone who activity (cards and grid-sheet)



4.3 Structured production

This is where students do start talking but in a highly controlled and structured linguistic environment. Each of the activities below will be conducted with the sentence builder available on the table if the students feel the need to use it. Hence differentiation here will be by degree of scaffolding.

STEP 8 – After warming up through the reading  of the first four mini-dialogs in French, the students have to translate orally the remaining dialogs (as many out of the possible 12 provided in 1o to 15 minutes) from English into French, switching roles each time. Each dialog recycles material they would have already practised several times over in the previous activities.

Please note that  before staging this task I would usually carry out some work on decoding skills through one or more of my MLEs (micro-listening enhancers) and a Narrow Listening activity recycling bits found in the texts used in the Narrow reading above.

Figure 8 – Communicative drill with translation  (apologies: a couple of accents missing)


STEP 9 – Four sets of French questions are provided along with a cue. Partner 1 asks the question whilst partner 2 answers using the word in brackets in their answer (which prompt the use of a French negative) adding an extra detail of their choice. Partner 1 will obviously have to demonstrate understanding of Partner’s 2 answers.


Tu veux jouer au tennis avec moi?  (plus)

Non, je ne joue plus au tennis, car je préfère faire du kickboxing maintenant.

To spice up the task, tell the students to be as obnoxious as possible in refusing their partner’s invitations.

Figure 9 – Cued communicative drill

drills with cue.png

STEP 10 – This is as unstructured as it gets in the MARS sequence. The students can now get a bit more creative. Whilst they can choose how to answer, I do encourage them to use the target negative structures as often as possible in their answers, though, even if that means ‘lying’.

Figure 10 – Survey (first column filled with sample answers to illustrate the kind of output expected from the students)


4. And how about the writing?

I believe that most of the writing can be done at home, as homework. This includes any gap-fill or other drills (e.g. the ones found in the work-out section of or It also includes short essays where the bullet points in the brief elicit the use of the target structure (e.g. talk about a hobby you never do and why you don’t do; talk about a hobby you used to do but don not do any more) However, I would, at various points during the above sequence do some snappy translation activities in writing (on mini-whiteboards, mainly) to verify if ALL the students have grasped the target rule and what level of automaticity they have attained in writing. Moreover, with more complex structure I do, however, employ more writing tasks in order to pre-empt cognitive overload in the structured production phase.

The only kind of writing tasks I stage in class involve interactive and interpersonal writing. By interactional writing I mean that students are required to respond to a stimulus (e.g. a picture or sound) which elicit written output involving the target structure (e.g. picture of a house; arrow on the sofa in the living room; students to write under time conditions as many phrases as they can describing where the bed is located in relation to other furniture in the room using prepositions/adverbials). By interpersonal writing activities I mean tasks in which the students use the target structure whilst writing to each other in real time using online platforms as described here.

5. Conclusion

The above is pretty much how I teach most of my grammar lessons, although I do vary the activities . The main strengths of this approach are:

(1) that the target grammar structure is processed by the learner through a range of modalities; it is heard, read, spoken and written.

(2) students have plenty of opportunities to process the input receptively before they are required to produce output, which means that they get a lot of explicit and implicit modelling. This is one of the most important differences between MARS and the usual approach used in English schools.

(3) they get plenty of opportunities to start the routinization of the target structure through drills in controlled linguistic environments they are familiar with.

(4) the recycling of all the language – even the more peripheral items – is very high, which consolidates the syllabus core items day in day out until they become automatic.

As mentioned above, the extent to which the students will be engaged in future practice across the E.A.R. phases  will be the decisive factor. But I will talk about this in my next post, with more examples illustrating my approach.

Please note that all the materials in the pictures above were designed by myself and are available on (here)