Most grammar topics come with variations, and I like to have my students practice writing them so they can get used to them. Some of the most common variations are affirmative/negative/interrogative and past/present/future; you could use others like simple/continuous/perfect or active/passive, and so forth. I found this especially helpful for my elementary students as they were still getting the hang of basic structures, but I used these for intermediate and even advanced students as well.
The idea here is to use the same set of words and rearrange them in different ways to get a slightly different meaning.
When you’re teaching a topic like past progressive, for instance, students should be able to use the negative and interrogative structures as well as they use the affirmative structures. Once you cover the basics, it may be better to have the students go through twenty quick reps on these variations than to spend a lot of time on one example from each. Moving back and forth between multiple ideas and returning to an idea after you’ve left it is a good way to instill those ideas in your memory.
One of the schools I used to teach in had mini-whiteboards in my classroom so that my students could use them individually. For practice after learning a new topic, I’d pass the boards out to students. Depending on their confidence level and on the size of the class, I might pair up the students. Next, I would write or say a few prompts, and the students would have to write a correct sentence on the board. When they were done, they’d hold it up for me to check (ideally at an angle that other students couldn’t read), and if they had an error they had a chance to fix it.
Prompts might include a subject, verb, and variation type. For example, we could practice present simple sentences and I might write ‘He’, ‘smile’, and ‘-’ on the large board. Students would then have to write “He doesn’t smile.” on their personal boards. During the next iteration, I might change it to affirmative or interrogative, or change the pronoun, or change the verb, or change multiple things.
One nice thing about these mini-boards – as opposed to pen and paper – is that it was very natural to write large, which made it easy for me to read everyone’s answer very quickly. Another benefit is that students could quickly erase something if they needed to make a change (whether there was an error in their response, or their next answer is similar enough to the previous one that they could just swap out a word or two).
Another option I’ve done is to write a set of words on note cards (generally one word per card) and have the students place the cards in the correct order to form the sentence I’m looking for. The rest is the same in terms of giving prompts and opportunities for correction.
Here are some cards I tend to use:
- green: I / you / she / he / we / they
- yellow: is / am / are / do / does / have / has
- orange: go / sit / walk / sleep / laugh / sing / etc.
- blue: who / what / where / when
- red: not
- white: . / ?
Obviously, you can change the color scheme, but having some colors to organize your cards can help students find what they’re looking for, and eventually to recognize the patterns they’re forming. If you don’t have different colored cards, write on them with different colored markers.
Depending on what we’re doing, I might also have suffix cards for -ed and -ing. Sometimes on the back of cards I’ll write an alternate form of the word (such as irregular past). You’ll need one full set of cards for each pair or trio of students.
Note cards don’t have the flexibility of whiteboards, but as students physically rearrange the words, they can more easily identify the patterns used in those sentence structures. Also, cards are great for kinesthetic learners.
Sometimes I’ll incorporate dice to randomize the prompts. Read our article on using dice in the classroom.
How much I challenge students depends on the class. For some, I simply wait for all the students (or pairs) to get the correct answer before moving on to the next prompt. For others, I give them a time limit (say, ten seconds) and see how many get it right within that time. For others still, it’s all about being the first ones with the correct answer.
Often I award points, which makes it more fun for the students and might give an added motivation.
Here are some benefits I’ve observed for both the boards and the cards (and yes, some of these were mentioned earlier in this article):
- students are engaged in learning
- it appeals to different learning styles
- it’s easy for the teacher to check answers quickly
- students get immediate feedback on their responses
- the chance to correct themselves improves their understanding
- quick repetition enhances memory
- leaving a variation and returning to it multiple times enhances memory
- students can identify patterns in sentence structures
- students become more comfortable with variations on that grammar point
- it’s great for review