From Building Sentences to Sentence Building – my journey to MARS

Confessions of an E.P.I. evangelist and notes on the latest Language Gym Spanish Sentence Builder Book

In this blog, I give a brief overview of my teaching journey and then outline the reasons for writing the “Language Gym – Spanish Sentence Builders” for beginners book, together with Dr Conti. As always, working with Gianfranco has been both inspiring and a great learning experience. It goes without saying, but must also be said, that without Gianfranco’s contributions, both in terms of sharing the workload, but most importantly in terms of his pedagogical input, the booklet would not be anywhere near what it is today.

This blog has been co-written with input from Dr Conti.

The journey: how I teach and why

In a a couple of blogs I wrote last year I detailed my approach to teaching. My approach to teaching has evolved greatly since I began, back in 2005. During my PGCE, I had the pleasure of being mentored by the charismatic and knowledgeable Philip Campagna, and the privilege of shadowing and being mentored by Lisa Tilesi, one of the most high-powered and passionate practitioners I have ever met.

The younger years

I learnt a lot from my PGCE training, but only just enough to prepare me for real life in the classroom. When I landed my first teaching job, I still remember, as an NQT, feeling the butterflies in my stomach before every lesson and then leaving, feeling like I’d only just ‘survived’. I recall regularly staying at work till late evening preparing lessons until the janitor would come and kindly ask me “don’t you have a family to go to?” and then, also kindly, kick me out. I won’t dwell on it, but I found the textbooks hard work. How to really thoroughly teach a unit with only a two-page spread and a short text with some comprehension questions? I also won’t go into listening exercises, as they have already been covered in this blog.

Wrap this gift for us – and the time I really messed up

Lastly, there were some topics in the books, whether two-page spread or not, that students did not relate to at all. One particular unit, which I tried to teach once as an NQT (not realising you could  go rogue and skip unsuitable content), and then never again (to this day) was on learning how to ask someone in a shop to wrap gifts, with complex grammatical explanations of the radical changing “envolver” leading to permutations like “envuélvenoslo” (“wrap it up for us” – have maybe heard this only once ever in my life… but then again, I also don’t work in a Spanish gift shop).

At this time, the department practice was to deliver discrete grammar lessons, which students would complete in a specific, grammar exercise book. I also spent a long time preparing these, to bulk out and supplement the book resources (a small square on a page that links to explanations and lists at the back of the book). While preparing these grammar lessons, I was, however, largely unaware of cognitive load theory and as a result made some classic mistakes along the way. In one particular lesson, I had prepared a blank sheet with a mainly empty grid with a large selection of verbs, regular, irregular, reflexives and asked students to fill in WAY too many gaps, WAY too soon. Although over a decade ago, I still remember the moment when one of the top students in the class, a very gifted and talented young lady called Faye, put her hand up and asked me to come over, then, literally holding her head in her hands said “I’m really sorry sir, but I don’t get it”. I looked around and, as was to be expected, everyone was holding up their paper, looking on the other side to see if they’d missed something. Game over… abandon ship!!! I made many more mistakes along the way, but this was one of the most memorable.

The more modern day: “A younger version of Dr Conti

Years passed and I figured out what I was doing, even managing to somehow thrive in the early days thanks to rapport and forgiving students. My teaching, however, changed most significantly once I arrived at my current school and started working together with Dr Conti. In my first year, he was still fine-tuning the methodology that is now known as Extensive Processing Instruction. We had an immediate rapport; I remember when, in my first week of teaching he came into my Y10 classroom and after gifting, in front of the class 3 or 4 compliments about my teaching, dress sense, ukulele playing, said  “guys, I’ll tell you why I really like Mr Viñales. He reminds me of myself when I was younger” then, after a short pause, “because his arms look like mine did when I was 13 years old”. I knew at this point that we were going to get along well! In the months and years that followed, we spent hours discussing pedagogy on a daily basis, and especially during Friday training slots. This regular input, and the chance to work closely with Gianfranco over the course of three years transformed my practice.

Making the Sentence Builders – a four year building project

So, fast forward to the almost modern day. Four years ago, I made my first sentence builder. I found it helped facilitate teaching when I created texts and other resources based on this medium. By a year later I had several sentence builders, but only about a quarter of what I needed and now have. I thought, “it’ll be a great day when I have sentence builders for EVERY topic”. Fast forward again to the beginning of this year. It’s taken four years, and I now have sentence builders for every topic. Life is good. Students really appreciate the sentence builders and so do parents; I haven’t heard “I can’t help my child because I don’t speak Spanish” at a parents’ evening in about two years now.

I share the sentence builders with students, and create resources, which I organize on my drive, and I print hardly anything, because, the planet. I use the Sentence Builders to work through the different stages of MARS EARS (my blog – original, more detailed blog by Dr Conti – here)

E.P.I. Success

Following the EPI methodology, a very high percentage of my lessons (in the MARSE phase – for the initiated) are composed of speaking/listening activities, memory games, mini white board games and other activities rooted in the L.A.M. and R.A.M. approach.

The system works well. Spanish enjoys high take-up and increasingly favourable exam results at GCSE, as well as steady growth. Other languages, and other phases, such as lower primary get on board with Sentence Builders (post in-dept E.P.I. training delivered by myself and supported by my wonderful Head of Faculty, Tom Ball). This year, I entered two of my year 9 students into a cross-school languages competition; pitted against the best students from every other top school in the city: they won gold and bronze medals.

The Dream: an E.P.I. textbook/workbook

When I’ve written about Sentence Builders, how I use them and the effect on learners, a common sentiment shared has been that teachers use the resources commercially available because they don’t have the time nor expertise (especially and most certainly the former) to make their own.

So I rang up Dr Conti and said, “I’m going to make a booklet that contains Sentence Builders and follow up exercises”. “This is a resource that I need as an accompaniment to all the E.P.I. activities that I do”. After a short, maybe 10 minute conversation Gian agreed to come on board, and we discussed a basic format. Then came the creating.

The Booklet – Key Features

So Dr Conti and I set out to make a best case scenario Sentence Builder book. Key features would be the heavy recycling, the intentional and structured interleaving of core structures and constructions from unit to unit, and the emphasis on reading-for-writing instructional sequences  based on narrow readings. Compared to a more conventional approach, this is the polar opposite, with multiple opportunities to recycle language in each unit and for retrieval practice. Additionally, language is presented in useful high-frequency constructions and chunks with lots of work on collocations throughout the booklet.

What is a useful chunk?

A useful chunk is a unit of language with a high surrender value. A piece of language which contains a structure or lexical item that can be reused in multiple scenarios, which means that your efforts in one unit will build on your fluency and reduce your cognitive load in a later chapter. A useful chunk should contain language that is going to be useful in the real world. As part of the proofreading work done by the talented Verónica Palacín we have had extensive discussions over tiny questions such as choosing “voy a casa de mi amigo” over “voy a la casa de mi amigo” because the former is slightly more idiomatic, so this is the chunk we want students to assimilate. The result of working so closely with Verónica, apart from being free of accuracy errors, the book should also be free of any “useless” language.  Useless language would be items that native speakers never ever say, and that only exist in foreign language textbooks.

Proofreading is a gigantic and very essential job. When I confided with Vero that after so many hours of exposure, I had even dreamt about the Sentence Booklet the night before, she replied to me that she had actually dreamt about if for several days. I thought this was actually really cool, but Verónica slightly less so!

The interleaving and recycling is intentional, tracked and structured

At the start of each unit, underneath the title is a page which tells you what new content you will be learning, followed by what content will be revisited (recycled).

Every unit states what will be learnt and what will be recycled

Grammar Sections

At regular intervals there are grammar units, done in the same lexicogrammar style (gap fills/spot errors/translation/progressive difficulty), and in the context of the unit they are embedded into. These grammar units help consolidate the key grammar covered as the booklet progresses.

Question Skills

Every 5 units there is a questions skills units. This is a further way to recycle content across multiple units while practicing working with questions; a key skill to have.

Pop-up culture

The narrow readings are a chance for us to throw in some cultural nuggets. For instance, the characters in the readings come from a variety of Spanish and Latin American cities, so students have a chance to learn a bit about geography. In addition, there are nods to the different regions of Spain, in terms of topography, languages spoken (in Catalunya and the Basque Country, for instance) and important monuments (such as La Alhambra in Granada).

Miquel from Barcelona – example of Catalan bilingualism
La Sagrada Familia is amazing… but my Catalan friends are the first to tell me that there are better beaches than la Barceloneta

Stereotypes – good and bad

Throughout the book, we avoid and, where possible, reverse traditional, outdated, gender stereotypes; anyone can be a doctor or a receptionist, and a househusband, for example can be seen described as a tough but rewarding job. At the same time there is positive reinforcement of gender equality, through the characters, including strong characters of both genders.

Constraints/challenges

Ok, confession time. I broke one of my biggest rules when putting this book together with Dr Conti. This is a rule that I’ve insisted on so much that when we published a sample unit on our G.I.L.T. Facebook group a few weeks back, one person, familiar with my blog jumped on it straight way and said, “I thought you said you couldn’t make impossible combinations”.

No “impossible combinations

In one of my most read and shared blogs I advocated against “impossible combinations” in Sentence Builders. I believe in giving students multiple opportunities to practice the language in the safest possible space. In my online Sentence Builder resources, I am militant about providing separate masc/fem/plural sections and even separate positive/negative sections. This is easy to do when you are not printing Sentence Builders out, because it just means an extra page on a Google Doc which students are accessing electronically.

In this booklet, because of the constraints of print (aka not wanting to produce a 300 page book), there is only one Sentence Builder per section, and as a result, students are able to make “unlikely combinations” in several cases, for example, by mixing positives and negatives. For adjectival endings, I have still insisted on these being presented in separate sections of a table – there is one exceptional unit, in which it was unavoidable to present adjectives with an o/a ending to choose from.

Nonetheless, “unlikely combinations” are not necessarily a bad thing; they can foster metacognition and force the student to have to make their own choices.

Sample Sentence Builder

No frills

It must be noted: this book has been hand made by Dr Conti and myself. We gave ourselves a tiny “budget” for illustrations, and nothing else. As a result, the booklet is a NO FRILLS, black and white production. We think that this is advantageous for the following reasons:

1) Printing in colour would have nearly tripled the cost of the booklet. We wanted to make a workbook that was accessible to all.

2) We chose to only include illustrations on the unit introduction pages, as a way to offer some visual relief, while introducing a new unit. Parents and teachers often complain that regular course books are padded out by pictures that do not contribute to learning (in addition to a lack of recycling and structured interleaving). Our book contains over 180 pages of concentrated learning opportunities.

3) The booklet is low-cost: at only 12GBP the book is affordable for students to purchase their own copy 4) The booklet is self published. Therefore, we have been able to apply our own version of best practice and make the book which we genuinely believe will be the most useful possible resource in existence, as a complement to a well-delivered E.P.I. course.

Edit: cost of booklet has increased slightly to reflect the increased length, therefore printing cost.

Narrow Listenings

At the moment, the one thing which is missing from the book is a listening section for each unit. These are currently in development and will be accessible via the Language Gym  website, from September 2020.

Language Gym (dot com)

Please note that the content in these Sentence Builders is closely linked to the content that I use to create the Spanish sections of the Workouts, Boxing Games and Rock Climbers on the Language Gym. I start every lesson with a Language Gym Boxing Game warm-up before moving on to a variety of communicative drills. This booklet, which will be ready in the next few days is the only resource missing from my practice.

Is it a textbook or not???

Well, it depends how you look at it. The very short answer is no, not exactly. But then again, what is a textbook? If it is a book full of text, then there is no more textbook than this. For some users, they would use this booklet to supplement the activities in their current textbooks, in which case it would function as a workbook. For myself, this is my definitive textbook. It is the one missing piece of my own version of the E.P.I. course. All of the admin of having to organize all these sheets and activities will soon go away once my students have this book; as well as the slight guilt when the students say “is there a textbook for this subject?” and I say, “I’ve made all the resources, and I’ll share, but you don’t get a book”. Like it or not, there is a legitimacy to having a coursebook.

The main two advantages for me are:

1) As an organisational tool for myself and my department: we can just ask students to turn to whichever Sentence Builder we are on, and they have it all there in one place, without having to go onto a device.

2) As a way to follow up on all the communicative drills, retrieval practice and lexical building games: we can ask students to do some follow-up work from their booklet either during a lesson or for homework.

Conclusion

This booklet is the result of years of hard work; years of study; years of experimenting in the classroom. As stated above, there is not yet a listening section, but this will be added by September this year, and available via the Language Gym.

Our booklet contains:

1. No frills

2. A body of work based on cognitive science

3. Language made up of chunks and useful constructions

4. MASSIVE amount of recycling

5. Teacher and student friendly format

It will make a huge difference to my own teaching practice and I hope that other teachers will also find it useful in helping their students make progress and reducing their own workload.

Respectfully,

Dylan

17 thoughts on “From Building Sentences to Sentence Building – my journey to MARS

  1. Will there be a French version as well or only the Spanish one? I love the idea but I don’t teach Spanish unfortunately.

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  2. If you purchase the book will there be some form of discount to purchase sound files at a later date without having to subscribe to the language gym?

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    1. Ironing out the details to that one. Most likely will be a separate Listening Booklet, also at a very fair price. Will keep you posted on how the listening booklet develops. Un saludo.

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  3. Hi. I purchased the book and am very happy with it. Where can i access the digital version too? thanks.

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    1. ¡Hola! There is no digital book per se. But there are editable Sentence Builders that match the ones in the book available in the Language Gym locker room section. Un saludo.

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  4. Bonjour! Mille mercis for these books, Dylan.
    I have the French book, with the listening workbook too. I am currently redesigning our Year 7 SOW – do you think it is possible to be selective with units, adding in and/or removing things we would like to include as a school? Or has the recycling and interleaving been structured to such an extent that you must move from one unit to the next?
    Many thanks again,
    Oliver

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    1. Salut Oliver, thanks so much for the comment. Yes, you can definitely pick and mix. That’s what I do. There’s no need to follow the book from start to finish; just make it work for you. Bon courage! 🙂

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