Friday, January 6, 2012

So what exactly is patterning and how can we explore patterns with our students?

In this post we look at a typical page from a coursebook, help you analyse the patterns in a text and show you how that translates into a lesson.  Finally, we look at different teachers takes on the text and the tasks and activities they would do in class.

Choosing a lexical focus

We’re using material from Face to Face Upper Intermediate (Redston &Cunningham.  CUP.) pg8o.  The text talks about Men in the 21st Century. The language focus in the book is quantifiers i.e. a grammatical focus.  But what if you decided to look at it lexically? What would you choose to focus on?

Men in the 21st century text

Look at the text and choose what items you would focus on.  Think about:

  • the topic of the text
  • the lexical chain(s) i.e. collocations relating to the topic
  • which lexical items do you feel would be most generative

Now take a look at this Jing to see what we decided to focus on and why.


Analysing the patterns

Here is an example of a pattern from the text:

holding the baby and the saucepan

Gerund +  noun phrase

Obviously, you could break the sentence structure further, but think about how useful that would be for the students. To find the pattern you need to consider the topic you are working within and brainstorm around that, for example, this chunk is expressing a typical role that applies to women, a typical chore that is applied to men is DIY. We know that this collocates with the verb ‘do’ – ‘ do
the DIY’, if we then apply this to the chunk above, we would get:

Doing the  DIY

Gerund + noun phrase


We have found our pattern! There is no need to break it down any further because students can generate further examples around the topic without needing to worry about the constituent parts.

Look at the pattern, think about the topic and brainstorm other collocations that could go with it.

Here’s what we came up with for this one:

Holding         the babies or the saucepan

Feeding        the kids

Mowing        the lawn

Taking out    the rubbish

Doing            the DIY


Here is the language we picked out of the text. Have a go at analysing the patterns and brainstorming collocations that fit the pattern.

Pattern analysis worksheet

Now take a look at this Jing to see our brainstorm.


What happens in class

Below you can see the stages of the lesson and how the material is exploited. We have opted to take a language through a text shape and you can see the lesson from start to finish, but by all means skip to the language focus to see how the patterns are explored. Find the lesson materials here.

What we got out of teaching patterns

The key thing for me is that I can expose students to complex structures efficiently i.e. by not focusing on the structures (the constituent parts), I can get students using complex language in a short space of time.

Students find it easy to express what they want to say because once the pattern has been established they only have to slot in the information they want.

Playing with the variation and slots, gives students greater creative scope when expressing their ideas.

Students find this empowering and motivating as their input is valued.

By training students to look at language in this way, they can become better independent learners because they come to realise that words are not divorced from their co-text.

Students start noticing more patterns and bringing them into class to share.

I have noticed that as a result of patterning that students become more accurate in their speaking and writing.

Students are far more confident and express themselves more precisely because they do not need to focus on each constituent part.

I have noticed that students can easily recall/produce these patterns in real time, making them more fluent.

Students have the space/time to focus on meaning i.e. what they want to say and conversations become more natural and fluid.


To sum up

We have had a great time working with patterns and found that it’s really improved our students’ English. We would love to hear your take on this and any ideas or queries you have about patterning.


Melissa and Iffy


  1. Caroline Turner says:

    Great work, really interesting!

    N.E.R.D Club (New Exciting Reading for the Delta) are meeting tomorrow (Tues 17th Jan) at 2pm to discuss this post. Feel free to join us and share your thoughts and ideas too.

  2. Chris Milnes says:

    Hi Everyone

    We are the N.E.R.D. Club and have just had our weekly meeting, in which we discussed the following:

    1) The difficulty of choosing a lexical chain within a text and having confidence in your choices.
    2) Different ways of using this technique in the classroom and how it can be applied.
    3) Having the confidence to spend a substancial amount of time on patterning and the ‘return on your investment’. (ie. Will the students be engaged? Are you covering enough material? )
    4) The difference between collocation and patterning.
    5) Initial preparation time when new to patterning.

    We have been recommended ‘Rules, Patterns and Words’ by Willis as a point of reference.

    All in all we would love to incorporate this into our teaching, we just need a bit of scaffolding. (any offers?!)

    Felicity, Caroline, Jean and Chris.

    Do feel free to join our club!

  3. Catriona says:

    This is a fascinating post – thank you Mel and Iffy. I’d love to try out some of these techniques and materials.

    Just wondering how you recycle or revisit some of these patterns? Do you ask students to notice them in texts that they read out of class? I suppose you could also do a dictogloss which includes some of the patterns.

    Hello N.E.R.D club – I’d be interested to hear more about your discussion, especially about the difference between collocation and patterning. What did you decide? I think it takes a certain amount of skill and experience to be able to extract useful patterns from a text – thanks for the practice in this post!

  4. Annie says:

    For some reason I always missed your patterning sessions Iffy but now I have finally seen one- FAB! Thank you!

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