Silly Grammar

Monday, December 10, 2012

This is an exercise from Nick Bilbrough’s book, one which he refers to as “Silly Grammar”, and indeed it is. A Focus On Form with Spike Milligan, perhaps. It encourages learners to come up with bizarrely memorable, emotionally engaging contexts for language items. Here’s how it works:

1.            Draw a table on the whiteboard or IWB. Here’s Nick’s example:

You then elicit words from the learners that are of the same word class as those you in columns 2, 4, 6 and 7. It’s really important to make it clear to them that there doesn’t have to be any rhyme or reason for their choice, nor a link in any way to those you have already provided, other than their grammatical categorisation.

Once they have given you enough to work with, fill in the remaining gaps (1, 3 & 5) to make, say:

The learners then make sentences such as, “While I was teaching my rabbit, a baby danced” or “While I was washing your brother, my uncle sang”, both of which I think are instantly more memorable than the perennial favourite of having a soak in the bath and being disturbed by the phone.

You then need to prompt them, asking questions that help them to build upon the sentence and flesh out the images in their heads.

  • So the baby danced. What song was playing?
  • What were you teaching the rabbit? Is the rabbit a good student? 
  • Where were you, in a classroom? A club?

Alternatively – or in addition – you can also ask them to:

1) write their favourites onto the board and decide which is best / funniest / most memorable

2) draw colourful pictures of the sentences

3) visualise and describe how they might feel being part of, or being an observer to, such wanton silliness.

For engaging learners’ imaginations and emotions I would definitely urge you to try 2 and 3 in particular; get everyone asking each other questions, finding out more information, using the language in inventive ways.

Theoretically, this activity can be adapted to fit any level, any tense, or any lexical chunk; you need only to take a few seconds thinking about how to parse the sentence. Here’s an example from an Upper Intermediate B class I did recently whilst tackling the thorny issue of Future Time Phrases, Future Perfect and Future Perfect Continuous.

Bit blurry, that. So this is it more clearly:

With a little prompting, all the language came from them apart from the two columns in blue (which the task necessitated me completing anyway). Soon enough, the session was allowing them to produce such sentences as, “tomorrow, I hope to be playing with the Queen”, and “By 2014, he’ll have killed a clown”.

In this particular session, the learners also linked in other lexis that we had been working on. Two interesting and fun examples were:

And here’s the start of the conversation that ensued...

Me:  Really? Have you met George yet?

Learner A:  Not yet, but we spoke on the phone last week. We’re both excited for this.

Me:  I bet. Are you acting or directing it?

Learner A:  Oh, acting. And the film will be in Italy, so this is good for me. 

All quite spontaneous, all invented by the learner on the hoof. Next:

And what followed:

Me:  Is this an ambition of yours, then?

Learner B:  No, not ambition. I don’t want to do it.

Me:  Why? What do you mean?

Learner B:  I’m worried because when I sleep I get hungry. 

This particular conversation was wonderful, as it led us into talking about how the use of ‘might’ can be ambiguous – it can express both “I’m hopeful that this will” and “I rather hope that this won’t” happen.

Finally, after you’ve brought everyone together for feedback, it is a good idea to discuss whether this activity makes the grammar any more memorable. You might be surprised at how many of them say that it is. Certainly, for the more serious-minded learners, many of whom are coming to us from a very different educational background to the one they find in our classrooms, it helps to know that there is a pedagogical function to all this apparent lunacy. And there will always be students who are convinced that they lack the imagination to come up with any silly sentences and feel that it is a waste of time. Fair enough. You can’t please them all. And yet, and yet and yet and yet…in this lesson, for example, an IELTS-obsessed learner came up with the sentence, “This time next year, I hope to be doing a Masters“. A rather sensible offering in comparison with the others, but it was at least meaningful for her. Plus, I’d heard her say at the start of the lesson: next year I hope I will do a Masters. Not necessarily incorrect grammatically, but she came away from this lesson with the language to say more clearly what she really meant.


“Created examples of grammar […] have been criticized for being unnatural and unlike real English. Guy Cook (2000) has argued, however, that the very fact that such sentences are bizarre and unnatural may help to make the grammar embedded more memorable for learners”.

from Memory Activities for Language Learning by Nick Bilbrough

A very good point. How many of us remain married to the idea that each and every task or activity should have a spontaneously authentic, communicative focus? Giving learners the chance to come up with a picture of themselves painting an egg while a witch sits tearfully in the corner, or to describe to a classmate how they feel having just cuddled the Queen, can be both personalised and affectively memorable.

Don’t just take my word on it. Here’s Martin with his thoughts:

What I particularly like about this interview is that Martin quickly defends gap fills against my rather flippant aside. And he’s absolutely spot on; this activity – indeed, all the tasks and activities I’ve written about in this blog entry – are not replacements for anything. They are simply there for us to support and to widen our existing skills bases.

One caveat: although I haven’t tried it, I’d argue against using Silly Grammar to introduce language items on day one with a new class. They will simply conclude that you are having some sort of meltdown, and the resultant queue for Student Hour will lead down the stairs, out of the building and round the corner to War Horse .

Although, having said that, that would certainly make the session more memorable.



Now check out:

Cornelia and The Shell: Memory, Language and those Unforgettable Romans

Milk Danger Rabbit


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