Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sentence Auctions - fun but not without pitfalls!

My last post described how to play 'sentence auction' with your students. It's a fun way to review grammar points, and students are more likely to remember which errors to avoid if they got burned trying to buy incorrect sentences.

I do this activity quite a lot with my learners at the moment, one reason is that I have to teach the same group for seven hours a day, four days running, and it's a nice way to break up the afternoon session, when the urge to take a nap kicks in. The more I do it, however, the more I realise that some of the sentences I choose for the game could be interpreted in many different ways - sometimes they are not grammatically incorrect after all.

Here's an example:

Im working here for 2 months.

A French speaker would say this instead of 'I've worked here for 2 months', so in the game it's incorrect. But I could interpret the above sentence as meaning, 'I've recently started working here, and I will here for 2 months before going somewhere else'.

In every sentence we utter, there's a ton of meaning that isn't explicitly stated, leaving the hearer to derive whatever meaning they consider to be the most appropriate. Compared to the complexity of the world around us, we will never have enough words or enough time to spell out exactly what we mean, and so we often talk in vague generalities. (I'm getting all philosophical here).

If you were revising 'some' and 'any' would this be right or wrong:

Do you have some money?

If you've taught them that 'some' for positive statements, while 'any' is for questions and negative statements, then it must be wrong. But one might hear this kind of construction all the time among native speakers. If I ask the question, 'so you have any money?', my listener understands that it really is a question, I don't know whether he or she has any money or not. But if I ask, 'do you have some money?', what I'm really saying is, 'could you give me some of it if the answer is yes?'.

On the other hand, 'do you have any bread?' would be correct, but completely stupid if the question was being asked in a bakery. Context is everything, so good judgement is definitely required.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sentence Auction

If you don't know this activity, you really should give it a try. It can be great fun and it has quite a lot of pedagogical value because your students are more likely to remember grammmatical pitfalls to avoid after having invested time and (make-believe) money in them. "Once bitten, twice shy" might be an appropriate idiom to explain the learning process.

How to do a sentence auction in your ESL class.

Prepare a handout, or write up on the board twelve sentences. These sentences should have some connection with something that you've been studying recently. In half the sentences, slip in some of the mistakes that your students often make.

If you have done much, many, some, any recently, mix in some sentences like:

*I don't have some money
I have no idea
*I have much baggage

You can lead in to this activity by asking your students if they know what an auction is and if they have ever bought anything at an auction. One easy way to explain what an auction is is to mention the online auction site, ebay. Someone is sure to have an anecdote about buying or selling something on ebay.

Tell your students that you're going to hold an auction, not for works of art or vintage cars, but for English sentences. Explain that some of the sentences are 'genuine', that is, are grammatically correct, and that others are 'fakes'.

Give them a budget, say, 4000€, and tell them that there is a reserve price of 100 and bidding must go up by at least 100€. By the way, you'll probably need to pre-teach this vocabulary.

Put them into pairs and give them ten minutes to decide which sentences they would like to buy. You will then play the role of the auctioneer, reading out each sentence and taking bids. If you are convincing enough when you read them out, some of your students who weren't going to bid will suddenly start having doubts and offering large amounts of money.

Keep a record on the board of which pair buys which sentences and how much was paid.
Only at the end of the auction should you tell them which ones were right and which ones were wrong. The winners are the pair who have bought the most correct sentences without losing money on incorrect sentences. Money lost on unwise purchases could be used as a tie-break.