The rocky road to MARS – Three lessons learnt

The last year has brought so many exciting, life changing developments I just haven’t had time to stop and write any of it down. It’s been an action-packed, non-stop, white knuckle roller coaster ride of learning and general productivity! I’m writing this blog for a number of reasons. First of all, as a way to reflect on, and share the top 3 things I’ve learned from the process: the finesse of formatting, the perils of proofreading and the courage to conquer criticism. Secondly, this blog is written as a way to share with the followers and friends I’ve made along the way an inside vision into the process. Lastly, as a way of sharing some insight as to what makes the books such a proven, valuable resource.

How and why did Spanish Sentence Builders come into existence?

During 2019, I wrote a series of blogs, detailing my own experience and the success of my students, within the context of Dr Gianfranco Conti’s MARS EARS teaching methodology. I had been creating, using and experimenting with Sentence Builders as a starting tool for modelling for some years prior to that, when I had the good fortune to work alongside Gianfranco at my current school. 

In these blogs I explained why I had totally stopped using mainstream textbooks, some years prior to meeting Gianfranco. I cited the two main reasons that there was not enough depth of coverage, and that the choice of structures and the way the linguistic progression was mapped was not always ideal. These early blogs (in which Dr Conti’s work is always acknowledged and credited) were very well received by a large part of the teaching community, and I received a large number of messages, letting me know that my take on MFL provision really resonated with them, and asking for guidance on how to design a custom-made curriculum in order to avoid some of the pitfalls I had written about. Many of my early readers requested that Dr Conti and I put together a textbook that would reflect the MARS EARS & approach. At the time, the idea of a Sentence Builders book sounded great, but it did not seem realistic, bearing in mind how much time it would take to make such a book. 

February 2020: planets aligned and the universe gave us a helping “pata”…

Covid… Malaysia, where I live and work, goes into a very strict lockdown. Citizens, except for very specific front line workers, are required to stay at home at all times. One person may leave the house to buy groceries but must return home immediately. This is enforced by the police and military, with serious consequences for offenders. Shortly into this strict quarantine, I speak to Gianfranco about collaborating on a Sentence Builders book. We are both keen to start work immediately and draft the TOC for the first ever Spanish Sentence Builders book. The fact that Gianfranco is himself, at this time, in a Covid exile in England (Malaysia only reopened its borders in July) means that we can work in shifts to increase our productivity. The result is that we, together with our original editor (and still part of the editing team) Verónica, are able to produce the first book in approximately 3 months.

It is also at this time, incidentally, that Lily (star of the #damelapata challenge – based on an original idea by the lovely Valle Fernández @ValleFdez6) joins our family.

Lily the dog – March 2020.

The book was by no means perfect, and there were a number of important lessons learnt along the way.

Lesson learnt #1 – Formatting is hard

When I first started using Word, I thought I was “not bad”, “pretty good”, or something along those lines. I thought that, as a tech savvy, fast learner I’d just pick it up straight away. I was wrong. My initial knowledge of Word and advanced formatting functions was grossly insufficient. In hindsight I was actually a total noob, a Word caveman, a typing troglodyte, a formatting failure… you get the idea. I did my very best, using my limited knowledge and skills, to format the whole book so it would be neat and user-friendly, but I was unaware of functions such as “Gridlines”, “Font spacing”, “Line spacing / Paragraph spacing”, the several levels and layers within “Alignment”, how to manipulate boxes and table, and boxes within tables. So I did my best, but looking back at the first Sentence Builders book original formatting… even though it worked fine, there was serious room for improvement.

What I learnt: 

Dissatisfied with my formatting skills, I Googled and taught myself all those functions mentioned above, every possible Word shortcut, and the more advanced keyboard combinations to override standard formatting, so you can actually just move things around wherever you like. Essentially, you tell Word what to do and not vice-versa. Those members of the adaptation teams (the book has been translated into five additional languages, including Welsh and Irish, arriving imminently) who have had the pleasure of Word training sessions will know just how into formatting I am now. The improved formatting is VERY evident in the last two books, and will be even more evident in the Second Edition of the Beginner Sentence Book (coming out later this year).

Caveat: formatting takes in the region of 100-200 hours per book. Initial efforts at using Word were infuriating, as things seemed to shift around just because Word felt like it, as if there was a “make my page a total shambles” landmine button that I kept stepping on. Word is to word processing what printers are, basically, to modern day life. Sometimes it just works great and things get done immediately, sometimes you try to adjust a box to be 0.2mm smaller and it throws out the whole doc. However, after you’ve done your first few hundred hours, it actually gets a lot easier, to the point where it even becomes (at times) a relaxing and cathartic job (put some nice music on, relax, have a Cokefee™ on ice and move things around and adjust things till it’s all perfect).

Lesson learnt #2 – Proofreading is even harder

My previous experience of creating individual, 1-2 page resources, led me to believe that proofreading just meant re-reading a document once or twice. This may well be the case for shorter resources, but when working on a 200 page book, and trying to make a matching answer book, things really change! In hindsight, the initial proofreading process for Spanish Sentence Builders was gravely insufficient, and the result was that a very large number of small mistakes crept their way into the initial prints of the book. Within days, we realised the issue and undertook a full proofreading and updating of the book. Most mistakes were found and corrected (so as not to affect future copies) within the first month of publishing. A small number remained for a longer time.

In a way, technically, minor mistakes, such as a missing full-stop, or perhaps a missing accent, or even a “nosotros” that crept its way into the feminine section of a table, are not “the end of the world”. But at the same time they kind of are, and I’ll confess that knowing that these mistakes still exist in earlier printed copies of some books really upsets and annoys me. However, that’s life and part of the process. Without the earlier editions, and the learning that took place, we would not be able to produce books of the quality of the GCSE Revision books, or, our best yet, the Intermediate Sentence Builder book. To this end, I would like to give a special thanks to the very early purchasers of the first edition of the first book. You have made this whole project possible.

What did we learn about proofreading?

The result of this experience was a monumental and continuous upgrade of our proofreading systems into what they are today. Those of you who follow our work on Twitter, will have seen screenshots like the one below.

Nowadays 6-8 weeks are set aside for proofreading, and this is done in a team of 3 or 4 people.

This multi-layer check ensures that an absolute minimum of errors make it through the defences! Each book has been printed, and entirely completed by hand, at least three times, in addition to other checks, by three different native speakers before it goes to print. 

Lesson learnt #3 – About Resilience & Negativity Bias

When you spend countless hours, over many months, pouring your heart and soul into a piece of work, you obviously end up feeling really invested. You’ve done your best, researching best terminology to use and best structures, you’ve carefully proofread and formatted, and feel proud about what you’ve produced.

Then two things happen:

  1. A large majority (like 99.9%) of people use the resources and send public and private messages of support and gratitude. They may find an error (in a 200 page book) but are forgiving and will send a private message, allowing us to rectify for all future copies.
  2. A small number of people find fault with the book (not always unfairly) and then launch public attacks and leave scathing reviews, sometimes attacking the resource itself, sometimes just directly attacking the author. To be fair, the “ad hominems” are almost always directed at my co-author, Gianfranco, the creator of EPI. 

N.B. Gian may have ruffled a few feathers in the past in the MFL community, but do note that for the past many months he has been a chilled, helpful and respectful member of the community. MFL community needs to live and let live, regardless of our pedagogic approach. 

This book is not meant to be a way to teach language. It is a collection of 15 sentence builders with ambitious and carefully chosen language, and 200 pages of painstakingly sequenced activities. Why are you so angry at our book? Officially, not “unhelpful” though 😀

This comment was so wild I didn’t even take offense. But it’s an example of the kind of reaction to our work that has helped me focus even more on the positive, as an individual.

The first review that really rattled my cage

I’ll be honest and say that my first “bad review” really rattled me. It wasn’t even a bad review. It was a lukewarm review. A person gave a three star rating (previously we had only had 5s) to Spanish Sentence Builders – Beginner, following an exchange on Twitter surrounding the usage of “entre semana” and “días de la semana”. The conclusion to the Twitter exchange, was that I did some extra research, and then quite quickly agreed with the person that “entre semana” was the correct usage, and said that I would update the book, to fix it for future prints. The person in question, then proceeded to leave a three star review on Amazon and a lukewarm review of “could be better”… or something similar (still not ready to go back and look… am building up to it)

Why did this rattle me?

Well, I guess that at the time, I felt that given: 

  • the overall hundreds of hours spent working on the book
  • the late nights bleeding into early mornings 
  • the regular drinking of a ‘not so good for your heart’ “Cokefee™” 
  • the sacrifice of any personal time
  • the high levels of stress
  • that it was one linguistic usage where we had just been too literal
  • that I had publicly thanked the person for pointing it out
  • that I had updated the book with the suggested change

I thought that maybe leaving a 3 star rating was a bit of a harsh move. This was my feeling at the time. Totally biased by all of the above facts (subjective, yes, but all true), of course. 

N.B. Freedom of speech is awesome, and people can and should leave any rating they like. Am not having a dig at all at Y… you know who. Am still grateful that she pointed out this misusage and also for the resilience gained from this small knock. Also, it’s true, everything can technically “be better”.

Negativity Bias – Why can one bad moment ruin an otherwise good day?

So, on the topic of “one comment that can leave you feeling a bit shaken” for a whole day, or more, despite everything else around you going ostensibly very well, a main takeaway from receiving criticism and negative reviews relates to a thing called negativity bias. The other day I saw an eye-catching tweet by MissG @Oggs26 in which she posed the question “Why can one sentence make you feel like a failure?”. My favourite reply came from Ben Levinson (@mrlev) who shared the following article on the topic of negativity bias. Essentially, humans are hardwired to be a bit negative. From an evolutionary perspective, starting from back in the dinosaur days, those who would pay greater attention to danger and threats to their own safety were more likely to survive and therefore pass on their genes. Super chilled-out Charlie the caveman might not have really paid enough attention to the rising number of sabre toothed tigers in his local area (those days…). You get the idea.

Fast forward to the present day, and how relatable is it to find yourself feeling a bit stressed or annoyed at the end of a long day based entirely on one sole frustrating exchange, or one negative comment made during the day. Even when you try to think about all the other countless good things that happened, deep down, you’re still annoyed at that one comment or exchange. This is negativity bias at work. From a MARS EARS perspective, the starting point in fighting against it is just being aware of negativity bias, and then doing your best to not fall into the evolutionary trap. I personally just list all the good things happening in the day and try to get them to gang up on the one bad thing until it’s quite small and insignificant.

Good news 🙂

The good news is that the vast majority of people using the books who reach out to us do so to offer thanks.

Most reviews, from people using the book more extensively, and in conjunction with the EPI methodology, look more like this 🙂

They say that by following the Conti methodology they have seen their students make great progress. I am so flattered by the many messages I have personally received saying that my own blogs, with my own interpretations and reflections on the methodology, have also been of influence and help to a large number of teachers. One teacher, this week said that she had printed out my blogs and annotated them. This is the kind of comment I’ll keep in storage for the next time I need to offset some negativity (thank you!).

Sentence Builders – available in many languages

What I love about the books is that they are all handmade by Dr Conti and myself, and have then been lovingly adapted to other languages (Italian, German, French) by our team of talented co-authors, Simona Gravina, Stefano Pianigiani, Thomas Weidner, Isabelle Porter, Ronan Jezequel & Julien Barrett. For those following MARS EARS in their schools they are an ideal addition and complement to an EPI curriculum.

The feedback from the many teachers around the world who have enjoyed using them and shared testimonials about their students progress has the work involved totally worthwhile. I am delighted that my own school is now using all the books across both our Spanish and also our highly successful French department. It’s a real game changer for my own department, that has been flying free with no textbook at all, just our own handmade resources, for the last four years.

Lastly, I am unbelievably excited that in the very near future, we will be welcoming Welsh and Irish to our Language Gym Sentence Builders family. It is a particular privilege to be able to support these two languages, officially classified as threatened with extinction by the UNESCO Red Book on endangered languages. These books are being worked on by Barri Moc and his crack team of Mathias Maurer, Glenn Wall, Carys Swain & Heledd Nest and, on the Irish side, by three of the hardest working and most talented teachers I have had the pleasure of collaborating with, Aoife and Órla de Buitléir, and Ciara McCoy Fegan. There is also a Chinese version in the works, being built by the talented Chris Webster, Mengru Xie and Tingting Yin. Finally, last but not least, two different Dutch versions are underway, being led by Dutch experts Martin Ringenaldus and Sophie Van Meerbeeck!

Welsh… coming soon!
Irish… coming very soon!

So, loads of lessons learnt, improvements made and even more exciting developments for the future. I can’t wait!

Thank you all for the messages of support, over the year, and for taking the time to read these reflections. Do please say hi and let me know what you think about the books, and if you have any questions, on Twitter or Facebook (Gianfranco and myself can always be found on our group: Global Innovative Languages Teachers).


Dylan Viñales


5 thoughts on “The rocky road to MARS – Three lessons learnt

  1. Fab blog and really explains the painstakingly long process of creating the books (I completely feel your pain with word – I’ve started to create things in PowerPoint also as find it easier to format within boxes) – I have both beginner and intermediate books but need to look more into the full process as I find my students struggle still to retain the information (and for some to even refer to the sentence builder in our activities rather annoyingly) – also like to have things on the board in the lessons – 1 to avoid overload and to focus the students on a specific task and 2 to save the need for endless amounts of photocopying – any suggestions would very gratefully be received (unfortunately due to not being able to digitalise any of the pages/tasks, it frustrates me that a huge amount of time is spent on recreating the tasks within PowerPoint) – Many thanks once again

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing reflections on an incredible year. DJ would be very proud!! Looking forward to the physical hard copies arriving in the next couple of months. Enhorabuena, Tom

    Liked by 1 person

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