A journey into Contification – Guest-post by Chloe Briand

As language teachers, we are all too familiar with the seemingly Sisyphean task we have chosen as a career: to instil a love for the language we teach in our students whilst developing their linguistic competence towards autonomy, to facilitate their understanding of why they are learning a language and what opportunities lie ahead if they seize that challenge, and finally, to provide them with enough success in their learning to balance out the frustration from what can feel like a never ending process of failed attempts, which is the only way to proficiency. It is a highly complex environment to navigate, for both teachers and learners, even more so when situated in highly Anglo-centric backgrounds, and when faced with divergent research findings on various Second Language acquisition methodologies on what proves to be most effective in the classroom.

Traditionally, we have been guilty of considering innate talent, or aptitude, to be the main factor in successful L2 acquisition. This misconception would allow us to predict students’ success, or failure, accordingly. This meant that our methods in class were mostly tailored to suit a finite number of students, who demonstrated these “aptitude” attributes (such as the ability to infer meaning, grammatical flair, a sensitive ear to phonemes, memory capacity, etc.) along with the motivation and determination to succeed. The way I trained as a French and Spanish teacher back in Swansea, Wales, back in the early 2000s, with the exclusive use of Target Language in the classroom and the clear veto of any use of English, most certainly confirmed that predicate. The cognitive factors at hand here were not addressed systematically in our methods; upon reflexion, I can clearly see that my training was designed to cater to a small portion of students who would be able to, not only process highly dense input through their overly able decoding and sound discriminating faculties, but also to synthesize complex grammatical concepts through abstract meaning and apply their newly acquired knowledge into their production of language. This was of course doomed to fail, and I very soon observed that such an approach lost me most of my students, who were discouraged, feeling highly anxious, and at times, completely overwhelmed with what I asked of them, especially when comparing themselves to the 2 or 3 students in the class who could keep up.

I believe this approach is what has built our reputation over the years as an impossible subject to learn, because in truth, it really was. How many times have we heard parents at teacher interviews confess they were “no good at languages” when they were at school, and that they wished they had continued with it rather than give up? To this day, children are still largely experiencing that feeling of hopelessness and that it is just “too hard”. And I agree. What we have been doing as language teachers is teach ourselves, or the impossible minority of students who possess the motivation and those abilities, and who will learn the language no matter what is thrown at them in class. I was one of those students at school. No matter what the method was, who the teacher was, I was passionate about language and I was determined to learn, so I experienced success regardless. Unfortunately, this left the vast majority of our students on the side of the road.

Another crucial element that contributed to this phenomenon throughout the last decades is the multiplicity of methodologies developed over the years, through developing academic research on second language and its acquisition. A constant evolution from the direct method, the audiolingual method, the communicative approach, the Task-Based Learning, the Content and Language Integrated Learning, a focus on interaction and transaction, an explicit teaching of grammar, a target language only approach: the abundance of suggestions was both extremely stimulating and confusing. There is often a feeling that we must reinvent the wheel with every new method that comes out, which led many practitioners to feel like they had no clear guidance on, or understanding of, how to best teach their students.

More and more, language teachers started to incorporate multiple approaches into their classrooms, based on what they observed to be effective. We started to use English purposefully to reinforce understanding of concepts and instructions with students, scaffolding into different layers what we exposed them to, in order to cater to every range of ability. We adopted the communicative approach combined with task-based learning assessment in order to contextualise their learning. We were striving to find the right balance between communication and explicit grammar teaching to facilitate analysis of language. A lot of thinking about learning and curriculum design was taking place, but there was no consistent approach across the board.

At my current school, back in 2016, we found ourselves at a crossroads. Multiple languages were on offer since Year 7, but we struggled with low numbers and retention in middle and senior school for some of them, and with many disengaged students throughout the years, despite highly experienced and passionate teachers. Our number one priority was to address students’ engagement and to stabilize numbers into sustainability. To that end, we introduced a carousel of languages in Year 7, where students study 2 languages throughout the year before selecting one to pursue in Year 8 (this would allow them to experience them first-hand, and not just randomly select a language without really knowing). We also introduced a national qualification in Year 9 and 10, the Certificate II VET in Applied Language, which focuses on both social and workplace competencies (for clarification, VET in Australia stands for Vocational Educational Training, which provides nationally accredited qualifications designed in partnership with industries and the government in an effort to train people with workplace skills and technical knowledge to help them advance their career).  These measures meant less time to teach in Year 7, as we were now delivering 2 languages, and a high volume of prescriptive assessment tasks in Year 9 and 10. The challenge was enormous, but we had restored a sense of purpose to what we were doing, and soon, all teachers found themselves scrutinizing their curriculum and experimenting with a range of tools and methods, as we were committed to empowering all students to become the best language learners they could be. This is when Dr Conti came in.

Back in 2017, Dr Conti came to deliver his first workshop, and within the space of 3 hours, managed to open our eyes to his world of comprehensible input, working memory and thorough processing. In that time, he validated what we intuitively knew already: our syllabi were too full, and they were not effective. We did not leave room for recycling and we were throwing vocab list upon vocab list at our students, hoping that some would “stick”. The discussions that ensued from this moment not only radically changed our approaches, but they also made us better practitioners, in that we started to critically observe each element of our curriculum in order to decide whether it was truly necessary to build students’ competencies. We kept on using multiple teaching tools, but the pedagogy underpinning them became clearer. In brief, we started making room and we started embedding systematic recycling, knowledge organisers, extensive processing of language in all 4 skills, and communicative functions of language. It was a revolution.

But revolutions do take time, and a lot of arduous and consistent work across teams, in order to reach their objective. With a renewed sense of purpose underpinning our programs (with the carousel in Year 7 and the VET Certificate II in Year 9 and 10), change was possible. By the time Dr Conti came back to our school for his second workshop the following year, we were all eager to ask more specific questions about his MARS’EARS sequence, the transition from oral to written fluency, and how to best maximise class time for successful learning. We had started to see the shift in students’ engagement and participation in classes, at every step of the range of abilities. They were active, focused and very enthusiastic about the skills they were developing. The anxiety levels had dropped significantly as we recycled language thoroughly, as modelling through listening became our focus when introducing new content, and as thorough processing finally allowed students to internalise what we covered in class. Our students’ survey results were unanimous: they felt positive about learning a language, empowered to do so, and their self-esteem was soaring as a result. What more could we ask for?

Upon looking back at these past few years, I am in awe of my amazing colleagues for undertaking such a challenge and for seizing every opportunity to make their student’s experience better. This has been quite the journey, from overhauling our methodologies across all languages to training for VET delivery, and I could not have worked with more committed and passionate practitioners. I am also deeply grateful for Dr Conti’s support and influence in guiding our practice. His wealth of experience and practical approaches enabled us to trial and experiment his method very quickly, but more importantly, he facilitated this drastic change to our teaching through saying out loud what everybody thought quietly: less is more, and with the right approach, far more effective. In future, we will continue to use an evidence-based evaluation of our programs, to develop teachers’ skills through training, and to collect feedback from all our stakeholders, but so far, results are staggering.

If we are to truly impact our students’ lives through our teaching, we must empower them all to believe in their own potential, and we must enable them to experience systematic success in our lessons. Only then will they open up to the possibility of making a second language part of who they are as they continue to grow as young adults. After all, Sisyphus did prove to the Gods that by embracing life’s challenges as our own, we give them their true value and significance.

Chloe Briand is the Head of Languages at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne, Australia, where she leads a team of 20 staff across 4 languages (French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese). With over 17 years of teaching practice across 4 countries and her experience of a wide range of school environments, academic excellence and innovation drive her curriculum design, along with pioneering approaches to teaching languages, through authentic contexts and experiential learning.

The art and science of creating sentence builders – key factors to consider in creating your sentence builders

Introduction: no, I have not invented sentence builders

I have not invented sentence builders. Of course not. They have existed for decades. The way I design and use them, however, differs substantively from what I have seen done in the past. I remember coming across hundreds of them when I first started teaching, but never finding exactly what I wanted.

I wanted a tool which was accessible to all of my students; easy for the children to use; which contained the right amount of words and structures my students could cope with.

I also wanted a tool that I could use for the approach that I was developing, Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), which has now become a teaching technology used by classroom practitioners from all over the world, but in those days was still in the making.

The sentence builders made by some prominent authors on TES and elsewhere fell short in this regard. They were too crowded, contained no English translation (taboo for many authors) or other means to establish meaning. The words in them were arranged randomly which made access to them and their meaning more arduous for the students.

Like many vocabulary and grammar organizers that I see floating on the internet these days, those sentence builders were not designed for introducing vocabulary orally and went against or ignored the most fundamental principles of cognitive pyschology and what we know about enhancing attention and learning.

In this post, the first in a series of posts on how to create and use sentence builders, I will deal – very concisely – with some key issues to consider when designing a sentence builder (henceforth SB).

Key factors to consider when creating your SB

(1) surrender value of the construction and vocabulary selected (e.g. Is it a high-frequency construction?) – I have already discussed in previous posts on this blog how, in E.P.I., in designing a unit of work, one gets from the target communicative functions to the key constructions one is planning to teach (here). What I would like to reiterate here, though, is the importance of choosing sentence constructions which are learnable and useful for real life communication. Not selected randomly because we like them or are found in the book in use.

(2) comprehensible input (Is the content of the SB comprehensible without any need to use any other resource?) This is key. Most sentence builders I see do not contain the L1 translation or images which  make the learners’ access to the meaning of the SB content possible. Comprehensible input is key to learning and the L1 translation provides very useful scaffolding. You will remove it gradually once the students become familiar with the content. I still remember a lady (on a Facebook group) criticizing my sentence builders, saying that they looked great but shouldn’t have the L1 translation. The very next day I asked my students, both in my more able and less able groups, through an anonymous questionnaire, if they preferred my SBs with or without the translation. The answer was unanimous: keep the translation at the beginning, remove it later. Every single student found the translation useful, especially ‘dodgy translation’ (word-for-word L1 translation, even when grammatically wrong in the L1 – see below). The L1 translation has another important benefit: it shows the differences and similarities between the two languages. We know this helps L2 acquisition.

(3) input enhancement techniques (Have I made what I want the students to notice more distinctive?). For instance, in the sentence builder below, aimed at absolute beginners, I wanted to highlight negatives, the relative pronoun ‘que’ and how some adjectives don’t change from ‘o’ to ‘a’ in the feminine. When you use the sentence builder to model the content, you will of course use your voice to emphasize the very same items and others.

sentence builder animals

(4) cognitive load and ease of visual access – (Is it easy on the eye? Is it too crowded? Are the words arranged according to an easily identifiable and logical system? Is this the clearest font? etc.). Many sentence builders, knowledge organisers and writing frames I see on the Web, do not consider these very important issues. I won’t discuss those issues here, but I will soon upload a video on my YouTube Channel to discuss Cognitive Load with reference to SBs. One of the obvious issues relates to working memory capacity and digit span, which, as I have mentioned many times over in previous posts, is very limited, amounting to 3 to 4 lexical chunks or words on average.

(5) phonological and orthographic similarity of the lexical items (are there items in here that could cause cross-association because they sound or look too similar?) When words are too similar in sound or spelling, they can cause interference and consequently hinder learning. Hence, you will avoid, especially with beginners or weaker students, items or chunks that are too similar along those dimensions. We know from science that phonological similarity causes more problems to the human brain, and since our brain ‘voices’ everything we read (even when we read silently) even words which may not look similar but do sound very similar to the learner (as in ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’, ‘lust’ and ‘last’ to an Italian ear) can cause massive problems. Phonological and orthographic similiarities are the main reason why students find verb conjugations so hard to learn! So, do avoid embedding entire unfamiliar verb conjugations in your sentence builders. Start with one or two persons first, then, once the students have become highly familiar with the construction and vocabulary, insert the remaining persons.

(6) opportunities for recycling and interleaving old/new items (have I seized any opportunity to recyle and interleave core items?). The columns in an SB can be used to recycle and interleave previously learnt items, so why not exploit this great advantage they give you over many other vocabulary-teaching tools? What I usually do, is slot in those columns my set of universals or desirables.

(7) opportunities for seed-planting of upcoming material – by the same token, just as you can recycle old material, you could put in the sentence builder chunks and grammar that you will expand on in a lesson or unit that you are planning to teach in the not too far future. I call this technique seed-planting. A very useful technique in that it primes the students for future learning thereby facilitating the acquisition of the to-be-taught items.

(8) target collocations /colligations – this will inform your segmentation of the content (What do I put in each column to underscore the pattern gluing the words together or high frequency collocations?) How you combine or isolate items in each column can help facilitate learning by drawing attention to them or to the fact that they are usually used in combination with specific items. For instance, in the sentence builder above, I could have chosen to have ‘que’ in a column of its own. However, dealing with absolute beginners, I am simply putting it together with ‘se llama’ in the chunk because I want to use ‘que se llama’ as a whole unanalysed building block. At a later date, when I will be explicitly modeling the use of relatives in Spanish, I will ‘isolate’ it so that it will be (a) more salient and (b) it will be easy to contrast it with other relative pronouns and show how it can be used in combination with prepositions. By writing it in ‘red’, though, I am making it more distinctive to the student and hopefully someone will ask me why I used a different colour for that word.

(9) chunking that facilitates noticing of phonological and phonotactic patterns (e.g. French: which chunks include liaison or assimilation phenomena which could be useful for the student to notice/learn?) An example of this is ‘liaison’ in French. If there is a word that liaises with another in your sentence builder and you want them to learn the liaison easily and effectively, chunking the two items together will prevent the possibility that they might ‘miss’ the liaison. By learning them as a chunk they are learning them as an item; so there will be more chances that ‘je suis allemand’ will be learnt as ‘jesuizalman’ rather than ‘je’ / ‘sui’ / ‘alman’. The same applies to the issue of assimilation. If the sentence builder above featured the indefinite article ‘un‘ in isolation in ‘Tengo un pajaro’ , the chances of them learning it as ‘tengo’ ‘un‘ ‘pajaro’ would be higher than them learning it correctly as ‘tengo umpajaro’ which is the correct pronunciation (the ‘n’ being pronounced as ‘m’ in connected speech due to the assimilation phenomenon).

(10) visuals that may support the learning of the target vocabulary (e.g. Can I replace the English translation with pictures instead? Do I have a set of flashcards or other visual aids to support the teaching of the SB’s content?)  Dual coding, whereby images and words are used in combination, helps massively in bringing about stronger retention. Whilst having sound (your voice) and written text helps, using images in combination with the SB is even more powerful. I make sure I use all three media when possible. Before or after introducing the construction with the sentence builder, do use visuals. In certain cases, with very basic sentence builders introducing places, colours, animals, food, etc. you will be able to add in images instead of the L1 translation.

Conclusion

Do bear in mind that an SB is only a tool that is as good as what you are going to do with it. I still remember when I first talked to the great Steve Smith about SBs a couple of years ago. He asked me: how would you use them? As a writing frame, right? He had never used an SB before as a means to present vocabulary orally because, for donkey years, SBs have been used as writing frames or grammar-teaching tools.

So, first off, you need to decide what you are going to use the SB for: for Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), i.e. the set of instructional sequences and techniques I talk about in my book “Breaking the sound barrier” or as a writing frame? That decision is crucial: as it affects massively how you are going to design the sentence builder. Why?Because my ‘scripted listening techniques’ will require more focus and will pose greater cognitive load than copying bits from a sentence frame in order to write a sentence or paragraph in your own sweet time.

Reading and writing exist in space, which means that you can go back to the text at will. But Listening exists in time, aural input lingering in sensory memory for barely two seconds; hence, when you use sentence builders to present language through listening you must be aware of anything that may add an extra cognitive challenge. Hence the importance of a clear SB design with spaces in between words, alphabetical order, etc; of input enhancement techniques; of highly patterned comprehensible input; of ‘dodgy translation’ (i.e. word for word L1 translation which may flout L1 grammar rules) which makes it clear what each word means (e.g. translating ‘J’ai dix ans’ ‘I have ten years’ as opposed to ‘I am ten years old’).

In conclusion, designing effective SBs should be, just like teaching, both a science and an art. Something you design with a clear pedagogic framework and instructional technique in mind.

No, I haven’t invented sentence builders, but I have perfected their usage as teaching tools after twenty years of using them in the classroom with primary to university students; asking for lots of feedback from my ‘classes’ on how to improve them to facilitate their learning. Bouncing ideas off my colleagues (e.g. Dylan Vinales, with whom I am currently writing a Spanish book of activities centred around sentence builders and follow-up activities: “Spanish sentence builders – a lexicogrammar approach).

After much experimentation with both very weak and very able students, I have become aware of the benefits and drawbacks of using this tool and how it can be made more effective using techniques which involve focus on sounds, vocabulary, lexis, syntax and even discourse. Many of which I share in my workshops around the world, have shared in my second book and will soon share on this blog. Watch this space.

A final word. An OFSTED inspector has recently said to me that SBs make language learning too easy. They shouldn’t be used. The students should not be provided with ready-made worked examples of how sentences are built; they shoud work that out by themselves. The answer to this person, who boasted that having taught for 15 years he was an expert, is that, according to research, the main reason for which students drop modern languages in Year 9 in the UK is that they find languages difficult and too much work.

This doesn’t mean we must dumb down our learning expectations, but that we must teach in ways that suit the adolescent learner’s cognitive capacity and style; that are engaging; that rely more on the aural route than on the written one; and that are based on what we know about second language acquisition.

We know the brain chunks every single language item we learn. That’s how we acquire language – any language. Traditionally, this has been done by teaching words and then the glue (i.e. the grammar) that chunks them together in sentences. This painstaking process often carried out through less-than-engaging techniques has failed students and teachers alike for many decades. Hence, the continuous decline of languages in schools in England. Adding in phonics, high-frequency word lists and banning ludic activities, as some prominents UK MFL ‘gurus’ propose, won’t make this approach any more palatable or easier for youngsters.

The Sentence builders, if designed and used effectively, make this all-important chunking process much easier, whilst the LAM activities we propose, not only make the explicit teaching of phonics nearly redundant, but make language learning much more fun and durable. And because they rely mainly on the aural medium (in synergy with visual coding) to introduce the new constructions and vocabulary, sentence builders and L.A.M. make learning much easier.

 

If you want to find out a bit more about how to use sentence builders and Listening As Modelling (aka LAM) do get hold of my book, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen”, co-authored with Steve Smith.