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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Word by word: An adaptable activity to teach word order and sentence grammar

Language Point Trinity CertTESOL Word by word: An adaptable activity to teach word order and sentence grammar

So much of a teacher’s time is spent either correcting errors or working on the smallest parts of English grammar: prepositions, articles, verb endings… These are the little issues which persist in learner language, and if uncorrected, can fossilise and become even more difficult to treat as time goes on.

This activity is a flexible way of incorporating real language practice with these forms, and creating opportunities for learners to engage with them in their real production of language. I call it ‘word by word’ and it can be played with any group of students.

What are the rules?

The rules are simple: the teacher asks a question to a group of students, who have to give a full sentence in response. However, each student in the group can only say one word at a time, and must build a correct sentence one after the other, round the group. If one student makes a mistake, the teacher stops the sentence and the same question goes to the next group, who answer in the same way. This goes on until one group produces a correct sentence and scores a point. Simple, right?

Why does it work?

1) In order to build a correct sentence, students have to listen to each other, not only within each group, but between groups, to avoid making the same mistake again and losing the point.

2) The game develops quick-thinking skills with grammar - students cannot predict what the previous person will say, so they have to stay flexible and match the grammar that is built up to their turn. There is no correct answer to the question (though it should be grammatically accurate), so students need to think quickly.

3) Even the slightest mistake (with a verb ending or missing article) results in the turn being passed to the next team, so it focuses students on every single word in the sentence

4) After a point is scored, there is a lot of opportunity to discuss the errors made during the round of the game in a feedback stage - why does this word go here? Why do/don’t we say this or that example? The focus of the game exposes these common issues for analysis and correction.

5) All of the language produced by the students is real student output, so any errors made are true, authentic errors that should be addressed.

6) In order to win the game, the team aspect leads to huge amounts of peer correction between members of the groups, which is the most effective form of correction (students are way harder on each other than it is appropriate for a teacher to be!).

7) The questions prompts can be designed to include any grammar point that you are studying - design your own questions where the answers would naturally contain the language you are looking for (this is most effective if you do not use the target form in the question itself…)

Some example prompts (with more complex forms)

Past modal auxiliaries

“I ate too many doughnuts and now I have a stomachache”

—> e.g. “you shouldn’t have eaten so many”

—> e.g. “you should have stopped eating sooner”

“I didn’t see John this morning. Where was he?”

—> He might have been playing football”

—> He could have been sick this morning”

—> He must have been absent”

Conditional grammar (see our previous blog post on how to work with conditionals)

“It might rain later. Tell me your plans if it does”

—> “If it rains, I’ll take the bus home”

—> “If it rains, I’ll borrow an umbrella”

“Imagine you are 10 years older. Tell me about your day”

—> “If I was/were ten years older, I would go to work”

—> “If I was/were 25 years old, I wouldn’t be at school”

Passive grammar (see our previous blog post on how to work with the passive)

“What happens to the canteen floor after everyone finishes eating?”

—> “The floor is cleaned after we have lunch”

—> “After we finish, the floor is swept”

These prompts (and questions and statements focusing on different aspects of grammar) should be designed as open to interpretation - many possible answers can be given, and that is fine as long as they are grammatically well-ordered.

So next time you are focusing on a detail-focused grammar point, take half an hour to practice it with this word-building task, and you will give the whole class the opportunity to engage with what they are learning by building and examining sentences word by word.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.



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