Three top tips on how to make Sentence Builders to help ALL students progress.

Acknowledgement: A lot of the language acquisition theory behind, as well as the inspiration for my Sentence Builders comes from extensive discussions and collaboration with Dr Conti, as well as from reading his research-rich blog posts. If you want more in depth information, I recommend you dip into the following post in particular, which goes into detail about lexicogrammar instruction, including Sentence Builders.

In my last blog about creating engaging listening sequences I wrote that all course content is created in-house at my school, by myself and my team. In keeping with the Conti methodology – Extensive Processing Instruction, “Sentence Builders” are a central component of the instructional method. In this post I will highlight some of the steps we take at Garden to design and utilise effective Sentence Builders.

Important disclaimer

Now, first of all, while the “Sentence Builder” is a core component of the Conti methodology, I would like to start by clarify that we are by no means the inventor of this concept and that substitution tables have been around for quite a while… In fact, “The use of substitution tables to display the interchangeable items of a grammar pattern have, according to Kelly (1969), been around since the early 1500’s.” Here’s an example from a French course of 1534. (From Scott Thornbury’s blog – An A-Z of ELT)

Sentence Builder on Greetings – 1534

What does make our Sentence Builders special, however, is the way they are designed and exploited within our EPI methodology. In this blog I will detail my 3 top tips based on my 3 years of experience making Sentence Builders.

1) Make your language selection communication driven

And then let the grammar fit in afterwards. Heading above is taken directly from Dr Conti’s blog I mentioned in the acknowledgments. Within any chosen topic, I am guided by trying to make the language content as useful as possible from a communicative perspective. When I make a Sentence Builder (SB), I want to get it right, to make the language content as useful as possible for students. Therefore, these days, as I create the chunks in a SB, I usually take the following steps:

a) First try to come up by myself with the most useful language for communication in this topic

b) Share the SB with colleagues to get their input on content. Typically, other colleagues will add a few items each, and maybe question one item.

c) Then, once happy with the formatting and content I’ll run a new SB past a class and do a quick brainstorming session with them: “is there anything that you think you’ll really need to say that’s not there?”

Because my SBs are in Google Docs, I can always go back and edit. For example, I am planning to remove a couple of low frequency items from my “KS3 Negative Relationships” SB and insert a new item in their place “because he/she always comes into my room”, which I have now identified as a more useful utterance. The result is a vocabulary-rich, comprehensive SB with a large amount of useful and relevant language for communication.

Identify key patterns and chunks.

Within your SBs, while you of course want to create a vocabulary-rich resource, as detailed in the point above, how you structure the language is also crucial. Teaching patterns, and presenting the language so that patterns can be clearly seen and noticed by students is essential. There should also, usually, be the potential for easily substituting items, otherwise, your SB becomes a glossary/list of terms (which can also be useful in some contexts).

2) Include ambitious language and structures – cater for…

For your top students, Sentence Builders can be a powerful differentiation tool. There is scope to include as much complex language as you want or feel appropriate for a number of reasons.

Primarily, and this applies to high and low level learners, because you are presenting the language as chunks, you don’t need to spend valuable class time explaining grammar rules during the early stages of acquisition. Instead, let students use their class time to use language in context, let them encounter the Sentence Builder language in a variety of written and spoken texts. Then, once they are confident with “cuando era pequeño vivía…” Vs “el año pasado fui a…”, you can talk about which is imperfect and which is preterit, and even let them work out the different usage rules for these two inductively (working out the patterns and rules for themselves). Will they use them incorrectly? It’s less likely because they already know which language to use in which context.

Also, this is a great opportunity to do some “seed-planting” – throwing in some more complex or idiomatic language they’ll need at a later date so they can start familiarising themselves with it. For example:

Extract from a Y9 Sentence Builder on free time.

Here we see an idiomatic “me flipa” ‘sentence head’ in the first column as well as a subjunctive “aunque sea” chunk in the reasons column. By systematically including “aunque sea” in the opinions, across multiple topics, students become familiar and at home with this present subjunctive chunk.

I know for a fact that this works. I’ve seen it. My Y9s, in fact, in my last lesson with them this Friday all wrote “sea” in response to an “aunque” stimulus during a “Zero Prep listening game” (more details about this in my last blog on listening) “Finish my sentence”. What structures would you want to embed early on?

Extract from “Y9 Negative Relationships” Sentence Builder

To conclude this point. Top students will look at the entire first column and try to use as much variety as possible, favouring the lower items (they know that the optional/harder structures lurk nearer the bottom). Middle and lower ability students are able to communicate at a high level with just the top two or three structures, and are able to succeed with just these.

On a side note, last lesson, having got my Y9s to finish a “Zero prep listening” “Ojalá mi hermano fuera más…” sentence I was then pleasantly surprised to see that 3 of my students had already written “Arabic” on their boards and were excitedly giving each other knowing looks, before I had even started my follow-up question about where “Ojalá” originates from. The delightful epistemophiliacs! Very impressive, but am I really that predictable?

3) Take steps to avoid cognitive overload : look after…

The beauty of Sentence Builders is that you are able to stretch your most able (as discussed above), but also support your weaker learners, all within the same learning resource.

Firstly, students know that they are not under obligation/pressure to necessarily memorise the entire content of the SB, although your best students invariably often will. Secondly, you are presenting language in correct chunks, therefore in a totally safe environment where they can ‘play around’ with the language without having to waste time making mistakes and then diverting resources to error correction during the earlier acquisition stages.

In terms of designing student-friendly Sentence Builders, there are a few things to bear in mind:

  1. Avoid the possibility of impossible combinations!

For example, this Sentence Builder, aimed at Y5, was one of the first ones made within our department some time back. There are however some issues surrounding the way the information is presented.

  1. Firstly here is scope for weaker students, or any beginner in fact, to make errors just by following the supplied structures. A student could potentially write “mi padre es habladores” or even ‘hablador(es)’. Or even “yo soy masculine”!
  2. Students could also confuse first and third person, as they are not presented separately: “Mi padre es hablador pero no soy…” (although this actually does make sense, it’s problematic if they weren’t intending to switch to first person here)

In this example, by trying to include different combinations, but not presenting it clearly enough, students could potentially make incorrect sentences, if they didn’t really consider their choices, and this is exactly what they did. Beginner students encountered cognitive overload as they had to cope with too many simultaneous processes, therefore experiencing overload of working memory – in a nutshell, they made mistakes. In languages that are less transparent/phonetic than Spanish this is even more of an issue.

Here is a more modern design of the same Sentence Builder:

“Y5 Describing Personality – Singular” Sentence Builder

In this revised version, 1st and 3rd person are more clearly separated, there are no longer plurals in the mix (they are separated into an entirely different sentence builder), and the parts of speech are labelled. Using this Sentence Builder, it is now really hard to produce incorrect language. With adequate modelling and teacher support, our Y5 students were able to produce large amounts of language, with next to no grammatical / agreement errors.

2) Start fossilising correct language!

Maybe you’ve felt slightly conflicted at some point so far, as you’ve been reading, “But I encourage students to make mistakes, and mistakes are ok!”. Of course I agree that our job is to create a safe and judgement-free environment where we celebrate and learn from our mistakes – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But allow me to clarify my intention surrounding this point and ask you to also consider this: How much of your time do you spend correcting adjectival and other agreement errors? Do you find that students are still making mistakes throughout KS3 (age 11-14) and into KS4 (age 14-16)? Once a student has made the same mistakes a few times, these mistakes become fossilised, making it a big challenge to correct, even for motivated students. Should we not just make it clearer to students from day one?

In all sentence builders that I make, I try my best to clearly separate the different genders/singular/plural and anything else that will cause any kind of cognitive overload.

This means that I will never give a student a Sentence Builder that requires them to decipher something like:

“Mi profesor/a es simpático/a y gracioso/a”

to make their own sentence (not least in the early stages of acquisition). This is a recipe for confusion and mistake generation. Instead, I would favour having a sentence builder divided into two separate parts – one for describing male teachers and one for female teachers:

“Y7 Describing Teachers – Positive” Sentence Builder

In terms of cognitive overload, there are practically zero impossible combinations in this SB and students only need to remember ONE thing, use the right section of the Sentence Builder. If a student is going wrong I just quickly remind them to check that they are using the right section. The result is that all students, regardless of ability, can very quickly produce lots of accurate, high level language. In this Sentence Builder I have also separated positive and negative opinions. Page 2 of the same document contains only negatives and dislikes.

Our department is already reaping the rewards of some of this positive fossilisation (making correct language stick). By way of example, earlier this week, playing some mini whiteboard games with one of my Y7 classes (“Finish my word” the game that keeps on giving) I gave the following stimulus:

[Few sentences about my daily routine and then] “Cuando llego al colegio siempre hablo con MIS AMI…”

I was delighted to see that all 20 students wrote either

“GOS” or “GAS”

… zero agreement errors. I remember looking around and scanning to see if anyone had written it in singular (to be honest, there is often one that still does! They are only human after all), but on this occasion there was a 100% success rate. They were all keen to tell me the rationale for their choice too. What a superb sign of understanding and progress!

Concluding thoughts

As I mentioned at the start, Sentence Builders are at the core of our instructional method. The number of Sentence Builders required for any particular topic will vary from class to class, and how long you want to spend on one before moving on will also vary. In any case, I would always advocate going slow and learning topics in depth before moving on. The way our “Extensive Processing Instruction” curriculum looks (also made in-house) we tend to spend a whole term on a topic before moving on. And once we do move on we keep revisiting previous topics through a structured system of interleaving. Sentence Builders are shared with students electronically and students refer to them throughout the year as study documents, long after we have finished exploiting them in class.

Finally, the ultimate proof of their success is in the success of the students, and also in their popularity amongst the students. These days, I even get requests from students to access Sentence Builders outside of their phase, such as a keen Y10 who recently asked if I could “share a Sentence Builder on daily routine” with her so she could review this topic. And a Y11 class who requested a new Sentence Builder on Festivals, which I was, of course happy to make for them.


These are just some of the design techniques that I have refined, as well as some of the pitfalls I have encountered during the three years I have been basing my curriculum around Sentence Builders, along with some evidence of how they are helping our students succeed at Spanish. I’ll put some examples of ones that have worked really well on TES for you to take a look at, and I hope they serve as a good starting point if you decide to make some of your own.

Click the link to see a whole Sentence Builder on giving opinions about school subjects. I designed it for use with our Y7, but would be good across KS3. Enjoy 😀

4 thoughts on “Three top tips on how to make Sentence Builders to help ALL students progress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s