Where grammar and lexicogrammar intersect: the new Language Gym grammar books series

The Language Gym has just launched the first tome in a series of grammar books entitled Spanish Verb pivots 1: foundation level. This book will soon be adapted to French and German and possibly to other languages (e.g. Italian, Welsh, Irish and Japanese). In this post I detail the rationale for this book series; the underlying methodology; the content and how we wrote it.

1.Who is it for?

The Spanish verb pivots book is aimed at learners in the A1-B1 proficiency range. It can be used to introduce the target verbs and associated grammar and lexicogrammar patterns to absolute beginners. It can also be useful with lower-to-intermediate learners (years 9 to 11 in the U.K.) in order to consolidate, expand and deepen their mastery of those verbs and patterns. The latter learners, in my experience, are often able to master verb formation, but lack depth of knowledge, i.e. knowledge of verb collocations (which lexis the verbs partner with) and colligations (the rules which bind the verbs with what comes before and after them in a sentence).

The book was conceived both for classroom and independent use, whatever the method, setting or course, as it offers ample opportunities for practice through a wide range of activities designed to appeal to learners with a variety of cognitive styles and learning preferences. This is not a book exclusively aimed at EPI teachers!

2.Why this book?

Based on the premise that second language instruction should be first and foremost about empowering learners with the ability to convey meaning in the real world and not to learn grammar for grammar’s sake, the book aims at teaching lexicogrammar (or pattern grammar), i.e.: the grammar glueing together the sentence patterns (or syntactic schemata) that we make use of in order to fulfill a communicative purpose (e.g. describing a person; comparing and contrasting people; making arrangements for an evening out; describing one’s daily activities, etc.).

I conceived and created this book because I felt the current trends in modern language teaching were too concerned with the teaching of isolated grammar rules as totally divorced from a communicative context.  Also, I have always found that textbooks, even when used in synergy with their associated workbooks, provide insufficient multimodal practice. This is a major shortcoming of traditional grammar instruction at large, as research shows clearly that the learning of L2 grammar structures must be multimodal for them to be effectively learnt. Multimodality is one of the most innovative features of this book: the target sentence patterns and morphemes are learnt across all four language skills, including speaking and listening, which are usually the most neglected skills (please note that the audio tracks accompanying Spanish verb pivots are accessible by anyone for free at this link).

3.Why is the book called “ Spanish verb pivots”?

Verbs constitute the core of every sentence we utter and write. In other words, they are the ‘pivots’ around which each sentence pattern develops. Each verb one selects, as well as the social context and the purpose one selects it for, constrain the range of lexical and grammatical choices we can make in producing a sentence. So, for instance, using the verb querer to express what one wants someone to do will require the use of querer + que+ subject + present subjunctive (e.g. quiero que tu vayas al supermercado).

This book aims at teaching how to use the most useful and frequent Spanish verbs in everyday communication in terms of how to:

  • manipulate them effectively (inflectional morphology, e.g. how to conjugate the verbs in the present)
  • deal with the linguistic choices they trigger (pattern grammar, i.e.: the constructions associated with each verb)
  • master the rules which bind words together within a given syntactic pattern (colligations, i.e.: how each word affects the next; for instance how determiners or adjectives agree in gender and number with nouns)

As it is clear from (1), (2) and (3) above, exploring how a verb works also entails learning a lot of other grammar and lexicogrammar rules which emerge organically from the communicative context at hand. For instance, teaching the verb ir will lead to learning articled prepositions (e.g. voy/va/vamos/etc. al cine), possessives (e.g. con mi/mis/su/sus/etc. padres/amigos/hermanos/etc.) and even how to form a final clause (e.g. voy al centro comercial para comprar un ordenador nuevo).

4.What’s in the Spanish book?

The book includes 8  macro-units, each focusing on a different verb or verb set in the present tense. The verbs are: Tener, Ser, Hacer, Ir, Gustar, Estar, Jugar and Modal verbs. Each macro-unit centres on a key verb and explores and drills in, through a wide range of engaging and enjoyable multimodal tasks, all the possible patterns associated with it deemed to be learnable at this level of proficiency. Every macro-unit includes 7-8 sub-units for a total of 55 sub-units. For instance, the unit on ‘Tener’ was broken down into the following sub-units:

1.Tener + un/una + noun (What animals I have)

2.Tengo + un/una + noun + adjective  (What animal I have and its colour)

3.Tener (all persons) + noun + relative clause  (What animal one has)

4.Tener + noun  (How one feels)

5.Tener + classroom objects + adjective  (What school items one has)

6.Tener + clothing item + adjective  (What clothes one has)

7.Tener + number + plural nouns + adjectives  (How many things one has)

8.Tener + number + años (Telling one’s age)

Each macro-unit ends with a revision unit that brings all the content of that unit together and consolidates it through written and oral retrieval-practice tasks.

5.How does the book work?

Each macro-unit starts ‘small’ with the target verb being learnt within very basic sentence patterns and in the first person only. As each unit progresses the target verbs are modelled in sentence patterns which gradually increase in length and complexity. In order to enhance transferrability of learning and lexical depth, each verb is also practised with a variety of lexical sets. For instance, the verb ‘Tener’ is practised with animals, classroom objects, clothes, physical description, emotional and physical states, age, etc.

Task-essentialness is pervasive: each unit contains a plethora of tasks which elicit the application of the target grammar structure multiple times.

Recycling is carefully engineered to allow for repeated receptive and productive processing of the target language items within the same units and across the whole book. As mentioned above, each new unit builds on the previous one in a ‘what I know + 1” fashion, so that the stem of a new sentence builder was covered in the previous sub-unit. Also, revision quickies are interspersed throughout the sub-units and every macro-unit ends with a massive recap of everything covered thus far.

Subconscious learning through input flood and repeated processing works in synergy with explicit learning in the way of (1) awareness-raising boxes at the beginning of each sub-unit, (2) tasks focusing the students’ attention on the target features and (3) metacognitive activities eliciting self-reflection and self-evaluation.

Traditional grammar and lexicogrammar intersect throughout the whole book, as, in order for the learners to be able to become creative with each sentence pattern, they must also master the manipulation of the changeable items in each sentence such as verbs, adjectives, pronouns determiners, etc. The teaching of grammar arises organically from the need to enhance the generative power of each target sentence pattern – this is a major innovation of this book.

The book is very mindful of cognitive load. Hence, each instructional sequence gradually increases the cognitive challenge, with receptive activities in the initial section of each sub-unit paving the way for the productive ones located at the end and with each task priming the next. It goes without saying that the repeated processing and the constant recycling also makes it easier for the content to become effortlessly entrenched.

6.How can one supplement this book to enhance its impact?

Please note that this book is best used in synergy with www.language-gym.com and www.sentencebuilders.com , both website featuring self-marking games and activities based on its content. Note that on the latter website, 58 sentence builders based on the “Spanish verb pivots” book are already available.

7.The verb-pivots team

I authored the book in collaboration with three experienced and talented native-speaking teachers of Spanish: the world-famous Dylan Vinales (co-author of many of The Language Gym books); creative, active blogger and twitterata Esmeralda Salgado and former colleague and friend Roberto Jover. I am very thankful to them for their hard work on the project. Brought in in the latter phase of the process, Esmeralda was very valuable in filling some of the gaps Dylan and I had left in the book at that stage, including creating a number of sub-units, following the EPI blueprint. We are especially grateful to her for taking care of the language awareness sections (notoriously tedious and challenging to create) alongside Dylan; as well as the end-of-unit revision sub-units packed with practice and for adding in the metacognitive activities promoting self-reflection and retrieval practice through self-explanation. We are also mega-grateful to the eagle-eyed Roberto for his massive and decisive help in the editing process.

8. Our invaluable guest editors team

Finally, I would like to thank our international team of guest editors recruited by Dylan in the very last leg of the process. They have looked through each unit and have provided us with 25 (25!) pages of precious and thorough feedback, spotting typos and other glitches that needed ironing out. Here’s the full list (in no particular order):

  • Imogen Brown
  • Susie Fernandez Gomez
  • Tom Ball
  • David Dun
  • Thais López Martín
  • Paloma Lozano
  • Lewis Rees
  • Joe Barnes Moran
  • Pam Stallard
  • María Simon
  • Paddy McDevitt
  • Dr M Boyd
  • Jérôme Nogues
  • Inés Glowacka
  • Chris Pye
  • Simona Gravina
  • Aurelie Lethuilier
  • Sonja Fedrizzi