Part II: HOW TO LEARN STRUCTURES (Age 12 upwards)

Methodological comments
      Learning aim
      Learning prerequisites
      Notes on lesson procedure
Practice Idea 1: What shall we do...? Shall I...?
      Linguistic analysis
      Lesson procedure
Practice Idea 2: It's wet; it's a wet afternoon.
      Linguistic analysis
      Lesson procedure
Experiences with the approach
Scientific aspects


Learning aim

The pupils are to practise selected structures so intensively and with such variation that, when the occasion presents itself, they will be able to use them spontaneously for their own communicative purposes.

Learning prerequisites

The pupils have already encountered the target structures in texts or situations. Previous work on these texts is a precondition. Treatment of the structures is thus part of the linguistic evaluation of the text, which involves lifting the words and phrases in the text from their specific textual and situational context and making them available for use in new contexts.

The sequences of exercises presented here are suitable - depending on the level of difficulty of the respective structure - for pattern practice at lower or intermediate levels. But similar sequences can even be used with quite advanced learners, within the framework of short revision drills. In this article, two structures - or rather pattern ranges - have been selected for use at lower levels.

Structures (starting structures, without variations):

  1. What shall we do ...? Shall I ...?
  2. It's wet./ It's a wet afternoon.

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Notes on lesson procedure

The exercises have their own internal dynamics. Once teachers have grasped how this inner development works, they can modify the course of the lesson as they see fit. We present a wide range of variations of an individual sentence pattern here. Teachers are invited to choose from this selection, and also add other items according to the newly introduced vocabulary and the special interests in their particular classes (which they are, of course, more familiar with than anyone else).

  1. The exercise starts with simple substitutions or extensions, usually elicited via prompts in the mother tongue. (Use of the mother tongue for this purpose may be new to teachers and also their classes. For this reason they should start with the simplest substitutions to ensure that the exercise flows freely despite use of German prompts). At the beginning, the pupils are to concentrate totally on the form, e.g. also on articulational and intonation features - so no funny sentences are used to begin with. They come later. This is the only way to ensure that the pupils are not distracted from the focus on form and can attain basic confidence in handling the patterns.

  2. The exercise can be increased in difficulty by, for example, substituting several elements from one sentence to the other, or even by modifying the whole structure (e.g. negating, or changing a statement into a question).

  3. The exercise changes as we continue to substitute words or change patterns while at the same time adding interesting, even funny content, especially content which is personally relevant for the particular class. This is the essence of the approach: pupils will discover for themselves just how much they can express with the new structure. This aspect can only be hinted at in the following examples, as each individual class will have its own particular areas of interest and relevance.

  4. From this content-oriented perspective, we now begin to mix the new structure with older, previously learned language. This results in mini-situations and communicative interludes.

  5. In the end, the pupils will be making their own new sentences without prompt from the teachers, i.e. the exercise will automatically become monolingual. Bilingual forms of practice must always lead towards monolingual forms.

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What shall we do...? Shall I...?

Linguistic analysis

"Shall" used especially with "I" and "we" is very common for questions and offers that ask the hearer to decide (What shall I do? = tell me what to do), or to give advice, to agree or not to agree to a suggestion. Often we suggest that both, speaker and hearer, should do something together.

We are thus asking what the person addressed wants, what they want from us or want to do with us. However, we do not need to go into this with the pupils, as the similarity of form and meaning to the German verb sollen will make the pupils understand the questions immediately. Teachers could therefore (in contrast with many coursebooks!) already introduce "shall I/we" during the first year. Alternative functional exponents like "do you want me/us to ...?" are more difficult.

"Shall I" with pure future meaning as in the following sentences can be ignored:

Shall I like our new teacher? (Werde ich ...)
Shall I ever forget her?

"Shall we" as a question tag can be practised simultaneously or at a later stage, optimally after the pupils have become familiar with it as part of the teacher's classroom language, for example in friendly exhortations like:
Let's read the first paragraph, shall we?

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Lesson procedure

The class enjoys singing the shanty "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?". The teacher is aware that the title itself contains an important and productive pattern. So how can the class be encouraged to use this pattern correctly outside the song, in other contexts? And by pattern we mean not just "what shall we...?", but of course also "what shall I ...?" and ultimately also "shall I...?" or "where shall I ...?" etc.?

T: What shall we do with the drunken sailor? (Writes sentence up on board) Can you put that into good German?
P: Was sollen wir mit dem betrunkenen Seemann machen? / Was machen wir bloß mit dem betrunkenen Seemann / Was fangen wir bloß mit dem betrunkenen Seemann an?
T: Okay, let's practise this. I'll begin with German sentences, and you say the English sentences.

(In the following sequences of exercises with German prompts, some projected pupils' reactions have been inserted, clearly labelled as such through indentation).

Was sollen wir bloß mit einem betrunkenen Seemann machen?
       What shall we do with a drunken sailor?
Was sollen wir bloß mit diesem betrunkenen Seemann machen?
       What shall we do with this drunken sailor?
Was sollen wir bloß mit diesem Lehrer machen?
Was sollen wir bloß mit unserem Mathe-Lehrer machen?
Was soll ich mit unserem Mathe-Lehrer anfangen?

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At this point, teachers can, of course, work through all the school subjects or recycle other known vocabulary, e.g. the names of animals: What shall I do with a giraffe, kangaroo, polar bear...? However, teachers should be careful not to overdo it, as there is a risk of losing sight of the real aim, i.e. to consolidate the pattern and its variations.

Was soll ich bloß tun / machen?
          What shall I do?
Was soll ich sagen?
Was soll ich trinken?
Was soll ich lernen?
Was sollen wir schreiben?
Was soll ich fragen?
Was soll ich bloß sagen?
Wo soll ich bloß bleiben?
          (Now you've got to change the question word at the beginning!)

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Of course, a class of strong learners will not require such prompting. With weaker learners, the teacher can provide additional support by pointing to the question word in the model sentence on the board to facilitate the change from "what shall I..." to "where shall I...".

Wo soll ich bloß hingehn?
Wo soll ich warten?
Soll ich den Hund ausführen?
          What shall I do?
Wo soll ich den Hund ausführen?
Was soll ich bloß sagen? (Yes, we had that sentence before!)
Soll ich "ja" sagen? (No question word now. Begin with "shall".)
Soll ich "ja, aber..." sagen?
          Shall I say, "yes, but..."?
Soll ich "ja, gewiß / natürlich / selbstverständlich" sagen?
          Shall I say, "yes, certainly..."?
Soll ich "toll / fantastisch" sagen?
Soll ich "schlimm / fürchterlich" sagen?
Soll ich "Auf Wiedersehn" sagen?
Soll ich "Doris" oder "Fräulein Doris" sagen?
Was soll ich dir holen?
Soll ich dir etwas Zucker holen?
Soll ich dir 'ne andere Gabel holen?
Wen soll ich fragen? (Begin with "who")
          Who shall I ask?
Sollen wir den Lehrer fragen?
Wen sollen wir treffen?
Wem sollen wir helfen? (Just say "who")
Wie soll ich antworten?

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Short Answers

T: That's it. How shall I answer? Now let's think up some answers to questions with "shall I / we?". What could we possibly answer?

The following answers are then collected and written up on the board:

Please do.
Please, don't.
Not yet.
If you want to.
If that's all right with you.
That's a good / excellent / terrible / bad idea.
Don't bother, there's really no need to.

I'll now give you both questions and answers for you to put into English.

Soll ich dir helfen?
          Shall I help you?
Danke. Das ist großartig.
          Thank you. That's great.
Danke. Das ist nett.
          Thank you. That's nice.
Das ist nett von dir.
          That's nice of you.
Soll ich dir mit dem Geschirr(spülen) helfen?
          Shall I help you with the dishes?
Danke. Das ist nicht nötig.
          Thank you. That's not necessary.

And now make your own questions with "shall" using these different structures. If you don't find a new question, you may choose any of the sentences we have just made up.

At this point, the exercise becomes monolingual. This step must not be skipped. The teacher should give the pupils a few moments to consider while he/she completes the questions on the board as follows:

What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
What shall I do?
Where shall we go?
Who shall I ask?
Shall I say "yes"?

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If the pupils have not yet had any practice in making free sentences, the teacher should give them ample time to write down their self-made sentences first:

And now make up your own sentences. Take your time and write the sentences down. Try to make meaningful sentences, sentences which are meaningful to you personally. For instance, Tom, who is very good at English, can ask Peter who couldn't come to school because he was ill for weeks: "Shall I help you with your homework?" If you need new words, you can ask me for these words, and I'll try to help you.

If you need some ideas, if you are short of ideas, here are some situations that you can think of. For instance, what sort of questions with "shall" do you ask teachers in lessons? (cf. the situative variants below)

The teacher goes through the class making mental notes of those pupils who have found an interesting sentence which could potentially lead to a short communicative exchange. When the pupils read out their sentences, the teacher can also elicit meaningful responses from other pupils.

Situative variants

Instead of unrelated, isolated sentences, teachers can also focus on a situation and deal with a range of sentences relating to it . The most relevant situation is, of course, the classroom itself.

It should be noted that, in the final analysis, such grouping of sentences according to content is not really necessary. The decisive change in context can also be achieved with unrelated, isolated sentences, especially if these are spoken with emphasis on the meaning.


Situation 1: The classroom: asking for the teacher's wishes and instructions

Shall I open the window?
Shall I shut the door?
Shall we break up into groups?
Shall I wipe the board?
Shall we sit in a semi-circle?
Shall I read what I've written?
Shall I read out the second sentence?
Shall I write the sentence up on the board?
Shall we move nearer to the front?
Shall he come in?
Shall I go now?
Shall I look it up in the dictionary?
Shall I summarize the main points?

Situation 2: preparing food in the kitchen

What shall I do with the potatoes,cook them or fry them?
What shall I do with the rice?
How shall I cut the onions?

Situation 3: laying the table for breakfast

Shall we lay the table?
How shall I lay the table?
Where shall I put the forks / tea-spoons?
Shall I make tea or coffee or both?

Situation 4: a car ride

Shall I stop for a moment?
Shall we leave the main road?
Shall I turn into Oxford Street?
Where shall I park?

Formal variant: verbs with preposition

The teacher can also use the structure to familiarise the pupils with the practice of placing prepositions at the end of sentences, a strange habit for German ears. He/she could for example get them to collect known verbs of this type from the vocabulary list and then to make sentences with them.

Wonach sollen wir suchen?
          What shall we look for?
Woran sollen wir arbeiten?
          What shall we work at?
Wen soll ich anbellen?
          Who shall I bark at (!)?

Shakespeare with(out) an end

Here is a good sentence to finish our exercise up with. It's the beginning of a love letter.

Soll ich dich mit einem Sommertag vergleichen? (Say: summer's day)
          Shall I compare you to a summer's day?

Du bist lieblicher als ein Sommertag.
          You are more lovely than a summer's day.
Du bist schöner als ein Sommertag.
          You are more beautiful than a summer's day.

This is really the first line of a sonnet by the great English poet and playwright William Shakespeare. The original line is:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
(Write it on the board)
"Thee" is of course an old English form which you can compare to the German word "dich". Can you write a love letter where you compare your friend to something beautiful? Or can you make up funny comparisons?

Question tag: shall we?

This pattern is best practiced separately.

T: If somebody wants to ask someone to do something, he can begin with "let's", like "let's do this", "let's do that". If he wants to be/sound really nice and friendly, he can add "shall we?". Let me give you an example:

Let's take a vote on it, shall we? (Write it on the board)

Now let's translate this sentence, shall we (!)? Yes, I want you to translate the sentence on the blackboard.

P: Laßt uns mal darüber abstimmen. Stimmen wir doch darüber ab, ja?
T: The German "ja" at the end is also very friendly, isn't it? So let's make similar friendly requests, shall we? I'll start with German sentences.

Schreiben wir mal ein Diktat, ja?
          Let's do/write a dictation, shall we?

Diskutieren wir doch mal die Situation in Großbritannien, ja?
          Let's discuss the situation in Great Britain, shall we?
Machen wir mal die Übung auf Seite 20, ja? (Use "do", not "make")
          Let's do the exercise on page 20, shall we?

Now make your own sentences.

Has the aim been achieved?

The aim can only be considered to have been truly achieved when pupils actually use the pattern more or less spontaneously on suitable occasions, i.e. as follows: What shall we do with Tom? He broke his arm. He can't write. This will happen if teachers themselves behave in the same way and apply the structure naturally when using the foreign language as the classroom language (which may, of course, also include specific bilingual teaching techniques).

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Linguistic analysis

One might reasonably argue that German pupils do not need extra practice in such simple structures which are similar to ones in their mother tongue. But one advantage of an easy exercise is that it can be done quickly. And is the exercise really so easy when we take into consideration all the little modifications? Has a pupil ever spontaneously said: "Isn't it a wet afternoon?" With prompting in German and conscious handling of the German way of saying things, we can emphasise the communicative value of certain phrases like, for example: Der ist aber müde - Isn't he tired! In addition, this also provides an opportunity to combine pattern practice with intensive vocabulary work.

Lesson procedure

T: After seven months of English, we can say a lot of sentences. Let's just take the word 'wet' and see how many different sentences we can make. I'd like two children to go to the board and write the sentences up on the board, taking turns. Let's start with short and easy sentences. I'll say them in German, and you give me the English sentence for them to write down.

Write up on the board:

It's wet
It's too wet
It's still wet
It's wet again
It's very wet now
It's only wet
It's so wet
It's wet, too
It's a wet afternoon

Is it wet? - Yes, it is. Of course, it is. No, it isn't. Isn't it wet?

And now I'll give you more sentences in German for rapid oral practice. I'm using only these sentences or these sentence types on the board. So it's nice and easy. But I'll put in other words, of course. So it is a sort of vocabulary test, too. Try to answer quickly / come up with a quick answer.

Es ist naß.
Es ist auch kalt.
          It's cold, too. It's also cold.
Es ist immer noch kalt.
          It's still cold.
Es ist sehr kalt.
Ist es nicht kalt?
Es ist kalt in Deutschland.
Es ist so kalt in Deutschand.
Das ist wahr/ Das stimmt.
          That's true.
Das nicht wahr / Das stimmt nicht.
Es ist immer noch wahr.
Es ist so wahr.
Das ist richtig.
Das ist großartig.
Das ist spaßig.
Das ist nur albern/blöd.
Ist es nicht blöd?
Er ist blöd.
Nein, er ist nur müde.
Er ist jetzt sehr müde.
Bist du auch müde?
Ich bin so müde.Oder: ich bin ja so müde.
          I'm sooo tired.

Here, we are intentionally smuggling in the German modal particle "ja". The pupils notice that it is not translated at all. In English, stress, facial expression and gesture are used to achieve the same effect or mood.

Ich bin ja so glücklich.
Bist du auch glücklich?
Nein, ich bin hungrig.
Du bist schon wieder hungrig?
Der ist immer hungrig.
Wir sind auch hungrig.
Sie sind auch hungrig.
Wir sind alle hingrig.
Ist der nicht hungrig.
          Isn't he hungry!

There are other ways of saying this in German: Der ist aber hungrig / Ist der aber hungrig.

Ist der aber müde.
Ist die aber müde.
Ist die aber clever.
Ist die aber faul.
Ist die aber spaßig / komisch.
Ist die aber stark!

Now let's combine all these adjectives with nouns (or: let's combine words like "wet", "cold", "great" with other words).

's ist ein nasser Nachmittag (Look at the board where you find this sentence)
's ist ein nasser Morgen.
's ist ein ruhiger/stiller Nachmittag.
's ist ein verrückter Nachmittag.
          It's a crazy afternoon.
's ist eine verrückte Sonne.
's ist eine faule/träge Sonne.
's ist eine müde Sonne.
's ist eine alte Sonne.
's ist eine sehr alte Sonne.
Sie (!) ist sooo alt und sooo groß!

Here, some pupils may, of course, get carried away and translate "sie" with "she". We are indeed risking interference problems when we use mother tongue prompts. But the positive effects of using flexible content-oriented trigger sentences far outweigh the negative ones, i.e. L1 interference. We can always mimimise the risk by anticipating such effects and saying: "Start with 'it', and don't say 'she'". Later on, a raised forefinger to signal "Careful!" will be sufficient.

's ist ein ruhiger Abend.
's ist eine ruhige Klasse.
's ist eine äußerst / sehr ruhige Klasse.
Nein, 's ist eine aktive / geschäftige/ rührige Klasse.
          No, it's a busy class.
Es ist eine lebendige / lebhafte Klasse.
          I's a lively class.

And now, just for a moment, I'll say things in English, and you find good German expressions:

It's a busy morning. (arbeitsreich, lebhaft)
It's a busy street. (verkehrsreich, belebt)
It's a busy week. (ereignisreich, voller Arbeit)

And now let's switch back to the old pattern.

's ist ne ziemlich nasse Woche.
          It's quite a wet week.
's ist eine großartige Woche (Monat, Jahr).
          It's a great week.
's ist eine großartige Klasse.
5b ist eine großartige Klasse.
5b ist auch eine sehr gescheite /clevere Klasse.
5b ist 'ne gute Klasse.
Nein, 5b ist 'ne schlimme/schreckliche Klasse,
5b ist 'ne interessante Klasse.

Ein interessanter Beruf?
          An interesting job?
Nee, is et nich.
          No, it isn't.
Ein toller Beruf?
          A great job?
Nee, is et nich.
Ein tolles Zeugnis?
Nee, is et nich.
Ein tolles Programm?
Natürlich (is et dat) / Klar.
Ein rotes Kaninchen?
Kann nicht sein.
Eine lebendige (Unterrichts)Stunde?
Natürlich isse(!) das.
          Of course it is.

Now let's all be crazy and make crazy sentences

'ne kalte Übung.
'n nasser Satz.
'ne braune Idee.

Now you go on! you can also write down your ideas, if you want to.

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Situative variant

I've got here a group of nouns/words which we often use when we talk about our work or our activities in class. We've got to practise them a little so it's easier for us to use English when we speak about our work here. Let's go through the list first. Say them after me:

word, sentence, letter, sound, line,page, unit, activity, exercise, answer, question, meaning, spelling, mistake pronunciation, problem, programme, homework, song, round, rhyme, game puzzle, cassette.

Here is a list of grammatical terms that we know already:

verb, noun, singular, plural...

Are there any questions about the meanings of these words?

(The teacher can, of course, also get the pupils to gather all the nouns themselves and write them up on the board.)

Let's begin:

Dieses Wort ist neu.
Dieser Satz ist neu.
Diese Seite ist neu.
Dieser Satz ist sehr lang.
Dieser Satz ist zu lang.
Nein, dieser Satz ist zu kurz.
Dieses Lied ist zu kurz.
Dein Lied ist zu kurz.
Diese Übung ist zu kurz.
Deine Hausarbeit ist zu kurz.
Deine Hausarbeit ist auch zu kurz.
Die Antwort ist immer noch zu kurz.
Dieser Kanon ist sehr lustig.
          This round is very funny.
Dieses Rätsel ist auch sehr lustig.
Diese Zeile ist hübsch.
          This line is nice.
Dein Satz ist auch hübsch.
Dein Satz ist interessant.
Dieser Satz ist anders/verschieden.
Diese Zeile ist schwer.
Diese Zeile ist zu schwer.

Das ist ein interessanter Satz. (Begin with: That's...)
          That's an interesting sentence.

Das ist ein schöner Satz.
Das ist ein toller Satz.
Das ist ein toller Song.
Das ist 'ne interessante Frage.
Das ist die richtige Frage.
Das ist die richtige Schreibweise.
Das ist die falsche Bedeutung.
Das ist die falsche Zeile.
Ist das die richtige Zeile?
Das ist 'n heißer Song (Platte, Programm).

In English, we can also say a hot tip - "ein heißer Tip" ( same as in German). But "hot" can also mean "scharf gewürzt"

Ist das nicht ein schöner Satz / Das ist aber ein schöner Satz.
          Isn't that a beautiful sentence!
Das ist aber 'ne verrückte Antwort.
Das ist aber eine gescheite Frage.
Das ist aber ein gescheiter Junge. (Begin with: Isn't he...)
Das ist aber gescheites Mädchen.
Das ist aber ein schönes Mädchen.
Ist das nicht / Ist er nicht ein schöner Junge!
Er ist jetzt sehr schön, aber in 2o Jahren...?
          He's now very beautiful/handsome, but in twenty years' time...?

Formal variant

And now let's play with sounds:

a brown breakfast
a boring birthday
a cold car
a crazy colour

You can find more combinations where the two words start with the same / with identical sounds. Use the alphabetical list of words in your textbook.

a green granny
a green group
a white walk
a wet weekend
a poor present
a yellow year
a hungry husband
a pink page
a difficult dog
a red rhyme

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Experiences with the approach

The essential thing is to know when to stop. Beforehand, the exercise should have been handed over to the pupils, i.e. they should now be making their own sentences. This "proof of the pudding" should never be skipped. It serves to check whether the pupils have grasped the pattern or not. In addition, it provides an opportunity for them to say something of their own - and they should always be given that.

We should also ensure that the pupils are not reeling off their sentences mechanically. So we must always pay strict attention to appropriate intonation and meaningful expression.

Scientific aspects

We are not presenting these exercises simply for the sake of innovation itself. We are proposing them because they are effective. They bridge the gap between grammar and communication, between practice and production. It may well not be the only way, but in my opinion it is the fastest way to move from sentences to conversations, and it is a way which can be pursued at all learner levels. The bilingual component of the exercises - for many teachers an unconventional strategy - is not just a personal quirk. It has been tried and advocated independently by a range of prominent researchers, e.g. by W. Stannard Allen (English for Czechs), John B. Carroll (Chinese for Americans), C.J. Dodson (German for Welsh), E. Ericsson (German for Swedes), A.I Fiks (Vietnamese for Americans), T. Meijer (French for Dutch), A. Valdman (French for Americans).

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