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Using Sentence Builders

 There is an increasing number of language teachers; me being one of them; using Sentence Builders (previously referred to as substitution tables – often used in English Language Acquisition), in their teaching practice. 

*H.E. Palmer defines a substitution table as “a process by which any model sentence may be multiplied indefinitely by substituting for any of its words or word-groups, including others of the same grammatical family and within certain semantic limits”.

After reading quite extensively about them and about how to use them effectively to maximise my students’ learning, I have started to use SB in my teaching practice about 2 years ago. 

Even though they are not something brand new, their application has been revolutionised by Dr. Gianfranco Conti and his E.P.I, L.A.M and R.A.M approach to language teaching – a broad functional approach based on the recognition that students need to develop their ability to communicate in TL and not just possess a passive knowledge of vocabulary, structure and grammatical rules. 

They are a fantastic way of teaching vocabulary in context, for structuring and organising essential knowledge to be learnt in an accessible way, for modelling how to construct sentences, for interleaving and recycling of old material as well as for ‘seed planting’ of linguistic items that you are planning to teach in future. For more detail see Gianfranco Conti’s post on his Language Gym website here.

If  you are just starting to use them, there are some important aspects to consider, when creating a Sentence Builder (SB).

Picture 1

When creating a Sentence Builder, from personal experience, it is important to plan and chose structures that are high frequency structures designed for communicative purpose

Structures, which students can learn and are cognitively accessible – considering appropriate fonts, avoiding too many background colours as well as distractive pictures which could cause cognitive overload and split attention – this can be sometimes difficult as we like creating visually attractive resources. 

However, I have discovered that quite a few of my students get distracted by ‘pretty’ pictures and focus on them more than the essential knowledge, I want them to embed in their memory, therefore, my most recent SBs are streamlined and without a ‘fuss’ (Picture 1). This approach has been also applied in the Language Gym Sentence Builders resource books. (I am currently working on the German Sentence Builders Primary book adaptation.)

Please, note that, when I am referring to pictures, this is not a reference to dual coding which as a strategy can be used to support memory and learning and reduced cognitive load, i.e. instances when we can substitute word with a picture, but I am referring to resources where pictures are used purely for decorative purposes and cause distraction.

Sentence Builder is the spring board, which also provides the necessary scaffolding that students need for their learning and as per comprehensible input (Krashen’s theory of language acquisition – language input that can be understood by listeners despite of them not understanding every single word and structures in it as long as it contains 98% CI), when teaching my students, I provide also the L1 translation in my SBs. As we work through the SB, L1 translation gets removed and students work with the SB without this scaffolding (Picture 3).

Picture 2

How do I use Sentence Builders?

At the start of a unit, students are given their SB. The first step that students take is to annotate it to help them with the pronunciation of certain sounds and ultimately with the spelling of them (picture 2). 

In German, my students mostly struggle with the pronunciation/spelling of the -ie/-ei sound (pronouncing/spelling them wrong way round) and remembering to pronounce the -e sound at the end of the word. On my board, there is a constant visual reference to them as well.

Picture 3

Once they have annotated their SB, we use it for Listening as Modelling (LAM), an instructional technique described in detail in the ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ book (Conti & Smith).

The activities we use just with the SB are:

  1. I say/we say/you say – lots of modelling of pronunciation – quiet/loud/whisper/silly voices etc.

  2. I start the word – students finish it.

  3. I start the sentence – students finish it.

  4. Break the flow

  5. Reading aloud – first just chunks, I point to, later on students reading sentences they make themselves.

  6. I read sentences in L1, students highlight on their SB in L2 (Picture 3).

  7. MWB – translations L1 ⇆ L2 (words, chunks, sentences)

  8. Delayed Dictation

  9. Delayed Copying

  10. Listening pyramids

  11. Narrow Listening – gap fills

Examples of activities we use, created by Charlotte, our Associate teacher – yr7

I would spend 1-2 lessons working just with the sentence builder, on the modelling/awareness raising stage of the MARS EARS sequence. Other activities for MARS would then follow in consecutive lessons. The entire sequence MARS EARS would take cca. 6-7 60 mins lessons.

So far, from personal experience, Sentence Builders like Knowledge Organisers or vocabulary lists, can be used effectively or ineffectively. This depends on the classroom teacher, how he or she applies them and understands the rationale behind them, they can be just a beautifully created sheet stuck in student’s exercise book or a tool which supports student’s learning and makes it more engaging and accessible.

Please, share in the comment section your ideas and thoughts on how you use SBs in your own practice. 

* source –


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