An article discussing English word order and possible teaching solutions.

I am a native speaker of English and teach multi-lingual classes. Many students have difficulty with word order but there are few materials which deal with this. The problem is often specifically related to their L1. Do you have any suggestions?

Here are some ideas that I have for looking at word order with multi-lingual classes. You may have already tried some of them but good luck with any ones new to you:

  1. Have you read ‘Learner English’ by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith, CUP? I found it an invaluable resource. The latest edition has translations of many languages at the back of each unit, showing just how the word order differs from English. It also has particular references to the word order differences for each language. This can really help you when you are planning lessons. If any of the word order difficulties crop up in the target language you plan to highlight, you can list this under Anticipated Difficulties and make sure that you build in a phase where you have the highlighting of word order. You can do this either through guided discovery questions/tasks or through asking the students to translate this sentence into their own language – or both.

    Many coursebooks suggest this translation phase. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak the students’ language, as the value seems to lie in the ‘noticing’, or paying attention to, the different word order. Students can then talk in small groups of the same language or mixed languages about how their language differs from English. This really helps to bring it to their attention.
  2. Plan to include in your syllabus lots of lessons that pay attention to word order. Seek out the rules and then make lessons around the specific rules of word order and around the mistakes your learners are making.
  3. If word order is a significant factor in a new piece of language you can also make sure that the highlighting and practice phases include plenty of attention to this form.

Some practice and discovery activities:

  1. Ask students to look at a series of sentences with the correct word order patterns and to complete a sheet with rules written on them but with gaps the students fill in. e.g:

I always teach this first. etc etc etc

Every day I teach it and it works

Adverbs such as _______________________ come ___________a main verb, ________________ the verb ‘to be’, and ________________ the auxiliary and the ________________verb.

Adverbial phrases such as __________________come ___________ etc etc

  1. Cut up each word in target sentences illustrating different patterns and ask students to put them in the right order. Students do this before or after looking at the rules. Ask students to write out the correct sentences at the end of the correction phase so that students have a written record.
  2. If you can’t cut up sentences just jumble up the word order and word process the sentences from the coursebook. Again, students can do this before or after looking at the rules. Ask students to write out the correct sentences at the end of the correction phase so that students have a written record.
  3. Write out sentences with the incorrect word order and ask students to correct them. Correction exercises can also take the form of any of a large number of games, such as the one I list below.
  4. On the board, OHT or a handout, write down some of the word order mistakes in homework and writing and speaking activities without naming the students and ask students to correct them as a group. Correction exercises can take the form of any of a large number of games. If you look in ELT publishers’ catalogues for books on grammar games, in the activities books for major coursebooks, or in the games books you have you can adapt any game that will lend itself to word order and you will then have a huge repertoire. You can write grammar auctions, write correct and incorrect word order on snakes and ladders boards, card games, dominoes, and so on. If you have two or three or more students from one language group then you can ask the students to work on only the problem areas in their language as a group.
  5. When you set longer pieces of writing, give students models of genres and ask students to identify features of the model. In your model include many important features of word order, especially the kind that challenges the speakers of the languages in your class, and get them to notice these features. Then ask students to write from the models and ask them not to translate from their language but to write the sentences exactly as the models do. Some students need to be encouraged to copy, as they think it is cheating. It provides a chance for them to think only in English and not to start from the word order of their own language.
  6. Provide controlled speaking and writing tasks so that they can make all the ideas with English prompts.
  7. Give the students plenty of practice.
  8. Students often want, and need to, write about what they want to and this free writing can give them the chance to try out all kinds of expressions and get feedback on their use or get the correct form from their teacher or peers. In communicative teaching this phase is also necessary and important and mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning. Individual feedback on problems with word order and L1 transference is usually valuable. In task-based learning, if you play tapes of native or fluent speakers doing tasks then draw students’ attention to the particular word order areas on the tape, especially if they are problems for the learners.

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