Spanish Sentence Builders. A Tale of Cokefee, Sleepless Nights and Lexicogrammar.

Reflections on the creation of our latest book: Spanish Sentence Builders – “A Lexicogrammar approach”

Two months ago, I rang up Dr Conti and said that “this is it”, “I’m writing it”, “the time is now”. I was ready to get started on the first Sentence Builder exercise booklet. Gianfranco replied, in his typically husky voice, as if he had just woken up (not sure if he actually ever sleeps, which might explain this), and in the Italian accent that you only really ever hear when he lets his guard down, “ok, great idea, I’m in”. 

The initial idea was to create a workbook based on my Sentence Builders, which, as I’ve mentioned before, I have spent the last four years building up, refining, and using, in keeping with Gianfranco’s EPI methodology. The planning stage of the booklet was done in three main steps.

Planning the book

The first step was to make a basic, rough, table of contents (TOC). We laid out all the topics we would want for a beginner booklet, in a logical order. Our selection was driven by the most useful topics based on communicative functions.

We then said, “what if there was a page of consolidation activities after each Sentence Builder?” “Obvio” I thought, this would be the ideal platform for such a thing. This idea quickly built into a structure of consolidation activities following the MARS pedagogy: modelling the language, providing opportunities for receptive processing, while raising awareness of key elements of the language, finally leading to structured production. This was done via a regular pattern of Sentence Builder, Vocabulary Building unit, Narrow Reading unit, Translation unit, and Writing unit. An important part of the creation process is to make sure that all the units constantly bleed into each other; content from unit unit repeats throughout the book. In particular the main communicative functions are repeated over and over again. 

With regard to the TOC itself, we followed a logical pattern, choosing the most useful content for beginners learning Spanish. The whole book content and order is driven by communicative functions, not by grammar. Language is presented in useful chunks. This means, for example, that we are comfortable introducing the slightly complex grammar of describing hair and eye colours as early as Unit 2. 

Grammar Time

MC Hammer doesn't like hammers, 'Using hammers is a scary ...

The second step, once the basic TOC was populated, was to introduce regular grammar units, to unpack and practice the key grammar used in each of the units. These units are going to be really helpful in the Expansion phase of MARS EARS (see HERE for my own user-guide blog and HERE for Gianfranco’s, heavier and more detailed, original version). What I particularly like about them is that they unpack the grammar in a student-friendly way (no long explanations – just key info clearly presented) and then provide loads of practical activities in the context of the previous units. I also like that the grammar units also recycle within themselves, with AR and some key irregular verbs (Ir/Hacer/Jugar), for example, being repeated three times within the book. The decision to call them Grammar Time is a subtle nod to the untouchable 90s rap classic. If any teacher were ever to feel the need to say “it’s Grammar Time” in the style of the aforementioned song, then it would all have been worth it, just for that.

Revision Quickies

The third step was to intersperse regular sections, aimed at both revising and connecting the language from previous units. These units also bring in a variety of slightly higher-order thinking activities, while working within the familiar topics already covered in the book. 

Question Skills

The fourth step, after the grammar units were planned in, was to create Question Skills units. These occur at regular intervals and help students practice both understanding and formulating questions, in the context of the units. This is really helpful because questions are really important and always neglected; hence the panic when it gets to GCSE and students have to crash learn question skills to get through Role Play sections of the speaking exam for various boards. Being able to ask and understand questions is a vital life skill for communicating; whenever a student meets a native speaker friend, if they are able to cope well with questioning, think about the boost to their self-efficacy and therefore motivation as a linguist.

This is especially salient when thinking about a beginner, who will meet a native speaker and invariably have to cope with questions (How are you? What are you up to? do you study Spanish?). The standard result is often for a student to get overwhelmed, freeze, and not want to participate in a conversation. Native speaker says, “ok, I will ask you again when you’re ready” (like in a year or two, or perhaps not at all). Hence the decision to include them into the booklet at regular interviews as an extra way to practice an essential life skill and recycle the content of all the units.

Writing the book – reflections

So we started populating the content. We used a system which emulated the way Gianfranco and Steve Smith wrote their last two best-sellers: we had one common document that we took it in turns to add to. I make one unit, send it to Gian, who adds his unit and sends it back. Only about 15 units to do. All very manageable. Once you have completed your unit, you can have a rest for a couple of days while the other person completes their units. This sounded like fun, the way Gianfranco described it, “it’s like a game of ping-pong. We just ping-pong the document back and forth”. Thus, the possibility of a fast-paced project, but with a bit of work life balance too. Easy. Small problem though: the deadline we agreed on was madness. Absolute madness. I was thinking in the ballpark of 3-4 months, but then Gianfranco said “we can do this in slightly under two months” and then gave an on the spot plan of attack. It sounded madly ambitious, and exciting, bearing in mind that I’ve been wanting to write this book for years, so I immediately agreed to the plan. I love a challenge, and the actual Sentence Builders themselves already existed, which I figured was a large part of the work already done. 

Then reality kicked in. Within about a week, I realised a few things. Firstly, making good units that are interesting, challenging, have cultural nods, and that build on the previous units, takes quite a bit of time. Secondly, this is kind of tough while also contributing to a busy family life, trying to raise two energetic, multilingual, ukulele playing kids. Thirdly, I still need to keep up with my actual full-time job, planning, marking, online-teaching, attending meetings, supporting colleagues etc. 

The first couple of weeks of writing happened during our Easter holiday, and also shortly after Malaysia went into a strict Coronavirus lockdown. “Strict” here meant it was illegal to leave the house unless buying food or going to the hospital; everything else was shut down. There were police and army roadblocks in key places to enforce this law. This situation was monumentally helpful in terms of making the book, as I could dedicate large chunks of the day to writing. This meant that I could keep up with Gianfranco, who has years of experience and can somehow produce high quality material in just a few hours. It takes me a bit longer, but I am on Easter holiday and, stuck at home all day, am able to work for long stretches, thanks to my wonderful wife Natasha and her doing some heavy lifting with the “home life situation”. I can keep up, create my content and send it to Gianfranco, and then have a short break before he creates his own units and bounces the document back to me.

Then Easter was over

And the book was only half finished.

At this stage, things started to get a bit tougher. This is a euphemism. I am slowing down, and it is taking a bit too long to produce my content, especially as I was now back at work and no longer had 6-8 hour stretches readily available to me. I made an executive decision to do the only honorable thing I could do and slightly cheat the ‘ping-pong’ system by working on my next unit independently while Gianfranco was working on his. This was to be the case throughout the two months we were working on the book. During the second month, when I was lacking ‘bandwidth’, or hours in the day, to get everything done that I needed to, I started borrowing extra hours out of the night. My first attempts to borrow the early hours of the day, by waking up at about 4.30am, was only partially successful, as my 3 year old son Leonard quickly realised that he had an early rising playmate, and would come and join me, jigsaw puzzle and teddy bear in hand. Rumbled. I then switched over to stealing the later hours, regularly working into the very early morning and then sleeping for a few hours before work.

Cokefee – and what it means to me

What is cokefee?

Centre pic: Cokefee. Left and right, the two main (only) ingredients

A shout out to this sugary, double caffeinated, anti-health concoction. The elixir, on ice, of the person with too few hours in the day. Does it taste great? No. No it does not. Does it look good? No, also no. The coffee and coke mix together to make a sort of light brown head, reminiscent of the scum that washes up on a moderately polluted beach. Is it a good plan to drink this long term? Really, really no. But, does it give you a bit of a morale boost, keep you awake and able to concentrate? Yes, that it does. I found myself drinking this in both the early and the late hours, and I can say that I probably wouldn’t have made it without it.

And finally, the formatting

The whole book was written in Microsoft Word. This is ideal software for making perhaps one or two pages of worksheets. Maybe a ten page project. Formatting a 193 page book though… really not ideal. All I can say is that it took many, many, full days to format the book. The days were long. The suffering was great. The swearing, quite frequent and very varied, with inventive curses crafted across often multiple languages. The result though, I would now say, 300 hours later, and on the other side, that I do not hate Microsoft Word. Yes, sometimes it seems like it is being intentionally obstinate and unhelpful: “Word, please make me a page break here”, “Yes master, page break and take last word with me to next page”, “No Word, I made the break after the word”, “Yes master, but I insist we take that word”, “Just page break”… However, once you’ve used it for enough days, and Googled enough issues, like the fun hours trying to get roman numerals on only the first few pages, (how I laughed that day!) you realise that it does actually work well, you just need to learn how to use it. 

Concluding thoughts

I really enjoyed the process of writing, and later formatting, this book. I’ve developed skills (my touch typing is a sight to behold), and pushed myself to the limits of how much a human can work over the space of about 2.5 months. All in all, this is a small sacrifice, for such a great gain. The resulting book, born initially out of gained lockdown hours, inspired and directed by Gianfranco’s wealth of experience, fueled with dangerous levels of caffeine, is the exact resource I need for my own classroom, and I am so excited to use it. Our ‘text’ book (not technically a textbook, but also much more than just a book full of text) is the one thing that I really wanted for my own practice. It is my ideal resource, that I plan to use in conjunction with my own usage of the EPI framework. In my previous blogs, I say that the ideal would be to have a book that recycles, provides comprehensible input, creates copious opportunities to practice the language, is ordered in a logical way, uses real life language, focuses on the items with the highest surrender value. Such a resource did not exist though. Until now.

The end.

No wait. What???

Coming next

Having been through all the above, and on the eve of publishing the answer booklet to the Beginner Spanish Sentence Builders book, this would be a great time to take a rest. However, one good night’s sleep later, and with eye-twitching down to moderate-safe levels (not prosaic exaggeration this time), I get an email whoosh… It’s Gianfranco with an exciting plan for Book 2. Taking it to the NEXT level he says. Showing the true power of EPI. High surrender value chunks. A book focused on the intermediate students (year 8 to 9 English system). Nailing the preterite and modal verbs (our ‘universals’); mastering the immediate future; ‘estar’ vs ‘ser’; interleaving the three main tenses and modelling and drilling more ambitious syntactic patterns. Extra recycling of Book 1 content. “Expansion units” in which the sentences modelled in the main units are stretched and combined with subordinate/embedded clauses (with hints at the subjunctive within maximum surrender value structures). Units interspersed with pyramid translations, acronym writings, puzzles and jigsaw readings. Looks like I’ll be needing some more cokefee (espresso-cola?) after all! ¡Hasta pronto, amig@s!

5 thoughts on “Spanish Sentence Builders. A Tale of Cokefee, Sleepless Nights and Lexicogrammar.

  1. Loved reading this Dylan! It was really interesting to understand the process behind the work. I am currently proof reading my Dad’s 200 page book on Word so I empathise with your comments about its challenges as a programme!
    As an MFL department, we are working on rewriting our curriculum with Mars Ears as our framework and so your lockdown work has supported our lockdown work and we are very grateful! We will certainly be buying the next book and are looking at class sets now. We have also signed up to The Language Gym. Congratulations on this awesome book! An assessment book linked to these would be super helpful when you have had five minutes to breathe and your cokefee habit has begun to calm down!
    Muchísimas gracias a ti, a GFC y a VP 😃👏🏻

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hola Dylan. Acabo de recibir vuestro libro y puedo decir que todo ese sacrificio ha merecido la pena. Es fantástico y definitivamente lo usaremos con nuestras alumnas. Ya te contaré


  3. Incredible achievement, Dylan. So impressed that you created such an effective and engaging learning tool in a ridiculously short period of time (he’s a slave-driver that Conti). Cannot wait to give my students their copy (if we’re ever allowed back into the classroom!)


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