Wolfgang Butzkamm

Grammar in action - The case for bilingual pattern drills

(Erschienen in: Claudia Finkbeiner (Hrsg.), Wholeheartedly English: A Life of Learning. Festschrift for Johannes-Peter Timm. 163-175)


The theoretical basis for pattern drills is the generative principle, i.e. the human capacity to generate an infinite number of utterances from a finite grammatical competence (W.v.Humboldt). Words can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences. Teachers have intuitively sensed the importance of the generative principle and have tried to teach in ways which will turn sentences into syntactical germ cells, i.e. into models for many more sentences. However, pattern drills often turned out to be mechanical and monotonous. This has raised the question whether successful practice on sentences can really further communicative competence. To transfer or not to transfer – that was the problem. Bilingual pattern drills as discussed here have a dual focus, on fluency and on content. Sentence variations must be seen as sense or thought variations.
Sprache ist nicht nur Kommunikationsmittel, sondern auch Denkorgan. Sie leistet beide Aufgaben, weil sie ihrem Wesen nach energeia, produktive Potenz ist. (1) Sie macht von endlichen Mitteln unendlichen Gebrauch. (2) Sie ist Gedanken- und Spracheerzeugende Kraft. Die hier beschriebenen bilingualen Strukturübungen basieren auf diesem generativen Prinzip und haben demnach zwei Aufgaben zu erfüllen: Geläufigkeit zu erzielen und das Inhaltsspektrum einer Struktur und somit auch den kommunikativen Gebrauchswert vorzuführen. Die Schüler sollen nicht nur das grammatische Muster, sondern zugleich die abgewandelten Inhalte im Sinn haben. Satzvariationen müssten also zugleich Sinnvariationen, Strukturübungen zugleich Denkspiele sein und zur Selbsttätigkeit anregen. Daraus ergibt sich ein bestimmter Übungsverlauf, der im Detail vorgestellt wird.

The generative principle, or: playing on analogies

Natural languages – as Greek grammarians knew – tend to move between analogy and anomaly, rule and exception, law and chaos. Learners have to identify and memorise the anomalies and irregularities one by one; and the same holds true for every single word stem. How else would we know that bread means bread, or Brot, panis, pain? There’s no way out: Somebody must tell us, and we must keep these forms in mind.
By contrast, analogies and rules are our big chance of getting away from mere learning by heart. Whenever there is something like order we are freed from learning individual items of language. We intuit or discover the organizing principle instead.
Take the German plural and the memory load is high; foreigners are well advised to learn the gender assignment as well as the plural form along with the noun stem: Haus – das Haus – die Häuser. At the other end of the spectrum is the formation of diminutives:

Steffi - das Steffichen
Elisabeth - das Elisabethchen

Once you have learnt to distinguish the name from the inflection and have grasped its meaning, there is no need to listen to more examples. Everything works just the same as with Steffi and Elisabeth (apart from the umlaut-rules). You can take risks and start on your own:

Helmut – das Helmütchen

This building of new forms according to known forms is captured by the didactic term generative principle, and applies to both word-formation and sentence-formation. To Prendergast, a 19th-century English methodologist, this was the fundamental feature of language:

“Sentences have within them a principle of vitality, an inherent power of expressing many different ideas by giving birth to new sentences.“ (Prendergast 1864: 19)

The great Danish linguist Jespersen spoke in a similar vein. According to him, words have the power to generate new expressions from known ones. If one uses a particular kind of word or sentence construction often enough, it will turn into something new and become part of a mental mechanism:

“...just as the English boy who has often heard superlatives like hardest, cleanest, highest, etc., does not need any rule to be able to construct forms like purest, ugliest, dirtiest, of his own accord, and who, at the moment when he says them, would not be able even by means of the most scrupulous analysis to decide if he has heard the form before and is merely reproducing it, or if he himself is creating it without having previously heard i...” (Jespersen 1904: 116)

Harold Palmer coined the term ‘ergon’ (maybe taking his clue from Humboldt’s energeia). An ergon is a phrase or sentence that presents some sort of syntactic nucleus from which pupils can construct further similar sentences. The learners’ task is to acquire these ergons, these familiar parts of speech or ‘primary material’ as a database which will then serve them to generate an infinite number of sentences (‘secondary material’).

“Were the number of sentences in a given language limited to a few hundreds, or even a few thousands, a student might reasonably be expected to learn them off by heart, and by so doing become a master of the language. The number of sentences, however, being infinite, recourse must be had to the study of their mechanism in order that from a relatively limited number of lesser ergons an infinite number of sentences may be composed at will”. (Palmer 1917: 22)

However, something important was overlooked. This is evident when we look at Wilhelm von Humboldt’s philosophy of language. For him, the quintessential property of language was energeia, its productive potential or creativity:

“Denn sie steht ganz eigentlich einem unendlichen und wahrhaft grenzenlosen Gebiet, dem Inbegriff alles Denkbaren gegenüber. Sie muss daher von endlichen Mitteln einen unendlichen Gebrauch machen, und vermag dies durch die Identität der Gedanken- und Spracheerzeugenden Kraft.“ (Humboldt 1963: 477)

(‘For it (language) is confronted with an essentially infinite and truly unbounded territory, the quintessence of everything which can be thought. It must thus make infinite use of finite means, and it achieves this through the identity of the power to produce both thoughts and speech.’)

This ‘identity of the power to produce both thoughts and speech’ means that we do not just generate novel sentences, but new ideas at the same time. Sentence variations must be experienced as variations on meaning. The problem seems to be that Humboldt’s energeia is usually only familiar in its abbreviated formulation ‘making infinite use of finite means’ and is thus interpreted in structuralist or syntactical terms only.

Evidence form natural language acquisition

We know that some children engage in verbal play which is very much reminiscent of pattern drills. This is an important discovery (or re-discovery). Children seem to ask themselves: How can I explore a structure’s semantic potential? What has become expressible now? They are interested in content variations. Witness the kind of verbal play that Ruth Weir (1962: 109, 111) overheard and recorded when her son was left alone in the dark before he went to sleep:

What colour
What colour blanket
What colour mop
What colour glass

Here is an example of a girl of two years eight months, talking to herself (Britton 1972: 83):

I’ve been sick every day in the car.
That’s why I’ve got cold.
But I don’t be sick like this,
but I don’t be sick in bed,
but I don’t be sick on the beach.

This may be sound play and grammatical play, but, to my mind, it is mainly semantic play, even if what the child produces is nonsense. After all, there is sense in nonsense, as Freud reminds us… Man is a sense-making animal. We do not accept a semantic vacuum. So we quite naturally find some sort of sense even in what seems to make no sense. The child certainly enjoys playing with words, by repetitions of similar sounds, by his rediscovery of what is familiar to him, by re-arranging familiar meanings.

According to Burling (1959: 88), who reported on his observations made when his son acquired two languages (English and Garo) simultaneously, the moment when children begin breaking up structures and permutating them, is a milestone in linguistic development:

“My feeling as I observed Stephen’s language, and my conclusions now, is that the number of words or morphemes is perhaps the least important criterion of grammatical progress. What from an adult’s point of view are multi-morphemic words, or multi-word sentences, were used before their complex nature was recognized by Stephen. The most significant single advamce in his ability came when he learned to make substitutions.”

How to proceed

Frank M. Grittner, school inspector in Chicago, takes stock of pattern drills (Grittner 1969: 203):

“Of all the elements which constitute the new American Method, the pattern drill appears to be most widely misunderstood. In the hands of a knowledgeable teacher, such drills are capable of producing an exhilarating classroom atmosphere with students sitting on the edge of their chairs listening intently for their cues and responding instantly when called upon. However, when used by a teacher who is not aware of the function and purpose of this type of the drill, the results can be as stultifying as the choral chanting of verb conjugations and noun declensions.”

Pattern practice should not occur at the expense of communication, but should facilitate it. Ultimately we expect pupils to use the sentence patterns for their own speech intentions and to employ them in free conversation. Therefore, the bilingual pattern drills which I propose in this paper and which I first encountered in a pioneering study by Dodson (1967: 72) meet three different needs which are all important:

  • The need to notice the pattern in a sentence, to see the slots into which different words may be plugged, in other words to become aware of language as a combinatorial system, as energeia.
  • The need to achieve fluency, to automatise a given sentence pattern (these two needs have been met by traditional pattern practice)
  • The need to probe the communicative radius of a structure and explore its communicative potential. This is mainly achieved by focusing on the meanings of the sentence variations.

Initially, we use simple, easy substitutions. The focus is predominantly on form, i.e. on the first two needs. Any word will do which is easily accessible, fits the sentence pattern and makes sense. Later, we focus more and more on content

Example: Contact clause

All sentence frames, working as ergons in the sense of Palmer, should be taken from texts, stories or dialogues and are thus anchored in a situational context. Accordingly, the teacher draws the attention to this at the beginning of the exercise.
Take, for instance, the line ‘All I want is a room somewhere’ from Eliza’s song in the musical My Fair Lady. Initially, the teacher’s idea is simply to practise the formal device of a ‘contact clause’ where the relative pronoun is left out. He explains the structure which is unknown in German, by giving a literal translation:

All I want is a room
Alles was ich will ist ein Zimmer

The learner is now aware of the anatomy of the phrase. Then the teacher changes the German sentence to a more idiomatic phrase and starts out with easy substitutions, to achieve fluency:

Ich will ja nur eine Tasse Tee.
All I want is a cup of tea.

Ich will ja nur eine Tasse Kaffee.
All I want is a cup of coffee.

Ich will ja nur ein Glas Milch:
All I want is a glass of milk.

If the teacher thinks the class needs further practice he gives some more cues along the same lines. But then he changes the focus and starts to elicit the following sentence variations from his class, focusing on the things wanted:

Ich will ja nur eine ruhige Klasse.
All I want is a quiet class.

Ich will ja nur brave Schüler.
All I want is well – behaved pupils.

Sie will ja nur einen neuen Freund.
All she wants is a new boyfriend.

In the course of the exercise, we can change the tense and the verb as well:

Ich wollte ja nur einen Kuss.
All I wanted was a kiss.

Ich bekam nur ein freundliches Lächeln.
All I got was a friendly smile.

‘Empty’ sentences at the beginning, and at the end suggestive sentences powerful enough to conjure up certain situations. In the minds of the pupils, these are no longer grammatical permutations, but variations on the theme of wishes and dreams, rather than a structure drill. Only at the beginning of the exercise, is the teacher concerned about how often he has to repeat the structure in order for it to become consolidated. In the second part of the exercise, he asks himself how he can show his pupils through interesting substitution possibilities that this sentence structure is also suitable for their own needs of expression. The exchangeable sentence elements and their meanings become of greatest importance.

This, however, is not yet the end of the exercise. In the third part of the exercise, it is handed over to the pupils. They have now to make up their own sentences, and the exercise becomes monolingual. By now, the pupils are well prepared to produce sentences - and ideas – of their own. Those few who have no ideas of their own are free to select any of the sentences that the teacher had cued before. The teacher might also allow the class a few minutes’ silence to jot down any idea that comes to their minds. Most pupils will then produce sentences which are meaningful and relevant to them. This in turn will give the teacher the opportunity to ask the pupil a question and involve him in a brief communicative exchange before resuming the exercise.

Example: Present continuous

This example is given here to emphasise the difference it makes when mother-tongue cues are used. The exercise is less prone to becoming mechanical, mainly because the teachers can use their voice, their facial expression and gestures to support meaning. Isolated sentences may then not be as isolated as they seem because pupils might spontaneously think of situations that fit the sentences.

  1. Teacher: Have you found that sentence ‘What are you doing? Could you please underline it? What does it mean here? Could you give us a good German translation?“ Pupil: Was machst du denn da? Teacher: Yes. Now let’s practise. I’ll give you German sentences, and you give me the English ones.

Teacher: Was machst du denn da? (as if accusing someone, frowning)

Was schreibst du denn da? What are you doing there?
Was liest du denn da? What are you reading there?
Was isst du denn da? What are you eating there?


“Now let’s imagine you’re preparing a meal in the kitchen.” With an inquisitive look, and a voice that indicates that he/she is really curious about what is happening in the kitchen, the teacher may produce the following stimulus-sentences:

Was kochst du denn da? What are you cooking?
Was schneidest du denn da? What are you cutting?
Was backst du denn da? What are you baking?

(Additional explanation to avoid interference and teach an important distinction: Was machst / tust / treibst du denn da? = What are you doing? But: Was machst du denn da? in the sense of what someone is producing = What are you making?)

  1. Another situation, again typical of the continuous form. The teacher’s voice carries a hint of indignation, or slightly threatening tone:

Ißt du etwa unter deinem Pult? Are you eating under your desk?
Liest du etwa unter deinem Pult? Are you reading under your desk?
Liest du etwa wieder Comics? Are you reading comics again?


  1. In a pleading voice: Schau mal, du störst die ganze Klasse.

Look, you’re disrupting the whole class!
Look, you’re causing a disturbance!
Look, you’re making it difficult for me.
Look, you’re not helping us.

  1. Another situation, the teacher again using a pleading voice: Jenny, bitte, ich versuche mich gerade zu konzentrieren.

Jenny, please, I’m trying to concentrate
Jenny, please, I’m doing my homework.

Development and dynamics of the exercise

  1. Teacher-directed, mother-tongue cues for ignition. Simple, easy sentences in rapid succession, finally more complex, “loaded” sentences.
  2. (optional, written) Short brainstorming to note down ideas. Perhaps meditative background music as used in suggestopedia.
  3. Pupils produce sentences of their own. Teacher might intervene and ask questions concerning the idea expressed by the pupils.
  4. (optional, written) Pupils write small/short texts of their own, using the new structure at least once.


Costs and benefits of bilingual practice

Why is it so important to use mother-tongue cues at the very beginning? Why not do it monolingually all the way through? My answer: The ideas expressed in the sentences are vividly pictured in the mind. Many components contribute to this effect. It is intonation in particular, and the way you use your voice, indicating surprise or indignation, it is body language in general, plus the modal particles that are so typical of German. It makes all the difference.
But what about interference from the mother tongue? Well, it cannot be completely avoided. It is always present especially when we are tired or unconcentrated, even though we haven’t heard a single mother-tongue word for quite a while. Won’t pupils be tempted to fall for interference?
For instance, pronouns may cause confusion when giving mother -tongue cues:

Teacher: Das ist eine wunderbare Idee
Pupil: It’s a wonderful idea.
Teacher: Sie (referring to „ die Idee“) ist super.
Pupil: She (instead of “it” ) is super.

One could of course simply avoid dangerous cognates / false friends or deceptive pronouns. If you have the impression that some of your pupils cannot yet cope with the proper pronouns when cued by the mother-tongue, take care the situation won’t arise. At some point, all pupils will be able to deal with this problem successfully. Another possibility of avoiding mistakes is to draw attention to them before they are actually made. You could agree on a special hand signal with your class, meaning “careful, mistakes are likely to occur”. Or a more direct hint: “Mind the gender.” Or use an anticipatory prompt: “Don’t say ‘she’ now, that’s German.”
Every solution breeds new problems, so one has to offset the costs of a technique against its benefits. If we are clever, we can end up with an extremely positive cost- benefit ratio. The gains will be mainly achieved through the flexibility of bilingual cues, the smooth transitions from various substitutions to extensions, reductions and transformation, from small and big leaps as you go from one stimulus to the next.
Remember that the teacher has to hand over the exercise to the pupils and these have to build new sentences freely. Producing new sentences on their own is still far away from real conversation; but it is an important step towards it, since the pupils tend to communicate something even through isolated sentences. These sentences can be pegs on which to hang your conversation.

Benefits of mother tongue cues:

  • Thought put into language vs mere manipulation of a structure
  • Conveyance of sense through intonation, mime and gesture vs loss of meaning through mechanical substitutions
  • Emotional involvement vs boredom
  • Strictly oral exercise, no written substitution tables
  • Flexible change vs fixed transformation pattern (operations: substitution, extension, crossing out, rearranging)
  • Communicative dynamics: focus on content vs focus on form
  • Development: initially “empty” sentences; then more suggestive sentences, personal, funny, imaginative, and sentences alluding to current events

Monolingual drills are also welcome, of course, if only for variety’s sake, and they can be combined with bilingual cue drills. Our programme is to free method of its dogma, and hence the enrichment of language work and not its impoverishment.

Advice for the student teacher: do’s and don’ts

Be clear about the grammatical point you want to practise. Have you chosen a productive pattern? Is there a structural contrast between L1 and L2? At the beginning, make absolutely certain that your students fully understand both the meaning of a pattern and its internal structure.

Begin with model sentences from well-practised dialogues. You may write these sentences up on the board.

Don’t interrupt the stimulus-response sequence by calling on each student by name.

At first, use only easy substitutions. Centre on one grammatical feature and don’t change too many elements when going from one sentence to the next.

Your sentence variations include exchanging elements, adding / leaving out elements, and perhaps structural transformations such as changing tense, negation, interrogation, passivisation. But don’t make your sentences too long.

Choose your mother tongue cues carefully. Use only idiomatic German. When in doubt, ask your students for better versions.

Support your mother tongue cues with body language, the proper intonation and the right voice. Can your sentences be easily contextualised?

Insist on fluent delivery and natural intonation. Don’t allow students to reflect too long prior to responding. Give a prompt instead, or say the complete sentence yourself and get the student to imitate it.

Make sure your exercise does not degenerate into a tortuous translation puzzle. Don’t allow your students to “translate”, but keep a lively pace instead.

Watch out for possible sources of interference from the mother tongue and don’t trap your students into making those mistakes.

Don’t stick to isolated sentences as the drill continues. Try to combine and connect sentences meaningfully.


As the exercise develops, focus more and more on content:

Try to come up with some funny ideas. Stimulate positive emotions.

Try to relate your sentences to topical events and to personal communicative needs in your class.

When you are looking for exciting ideas, don’t hesitate to introduce a new word.

Later in the drill, break away from it whenever possible and initiate a brief communicative exchange before you resume the drill.

Don’t forget to hand the exercise over to the students so that they can make up their own sentences.

If at the stage where students take over you think your class will need prompts (verbal or visual), put a list of suitable expressions to choose from on the board.

Anyone has the right to pass if they prefer.

Watch out for signs of boredom and fatigue. In general, keep your drills short and rapid.



Britton, J. (1972). Language and Learning. Harmondsworth: Pelican.
Burling, R. (1959). Language Development of a Garo and English – Speaking Child in C.A. Ferguson, D.I. Slobin (eds). (1973). Studies of Child language Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Dodson, C.J. (1967/1972). Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method. London: Pitman.
Gerngross, G. & Puchta, H.. (1999). Creative Grammar Practice. Harlow: Longman.
Grittner, Frank M. (1969). Teaching Foreign Languages. New York: Harper & Row.
Howatt, A.P.R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.
Humboldt, W. v. (1963). Werke in fünf Bänden. Bd. 3: Schriften zur Sprachphilosophie. Flitner, A. & Giel, K. (eds.) Stuttgart: Cotta’sche Buchhandlung.
Jespersen, O. (1904). How to Teach a Foreign Language. London: Allen and Unwin.
Palmer, H.E. (1917/1968). The Scientific Study and Teaching of Language. London: Harrap.
Prendergast, T. (1864). The Mastery of Languages; or, the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street.
Weir, Ruth. (1962). Language in the Crib. The Hague