TAIS 2018: Addressing the Grammar Issue in CI-Based Courses

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How do we embody grammar?

I know I’m probably stretching the definition of “embody” here, but I’ll let the English teachers debate that. What I mean is, how do we relate grammar to things happening with our body?

TPR and TPRS (when students act out a story) are tried-and-true methods of embodying grammar. Being a part of the transition from group commands (vous forms) to individual commands (tu forms) to indicative forms in questioning and storytelling gives my students a physical point of reference for understanding those distinctions. They can think back to what they heard and what they were doing when they heard that particular form.

There are also many other ways we can embody grammar through CI. Activities like Taxi, PAD and Tapout offer all the benefits of “embodied grammar”:

  • Students can apply a particular structure to a wide variety of old and new vocabulary.
  • The activities provide opportunities to be silly or do bizarre things, which trigger neurochemicals that boost retention.
  • Language is comprehensible because there’s physical or visual confirmation.
  • That physical or visual confirmation can stick in students’ memory as a reference point for when they recall the skill later.
  • Students are moving around, so they’re more likely to stay focused and energized during the activity. The “grammar lesson” from your point of view becomes a welcome break from their point of view.

There are times, however, when it’s a challenge to embed grammar into big, physical actions. And of course, sometimes you just need a little more variety in your physical options. Working with manipulatives can help fill this gap. As their name implies, manipulatives are things that students can manipulate as they work with the language.

Below is part of a manipulative set I use to help students get a feel for the pas de structure in French. The rule is this: indefinite and partitive articles all change to de, regardless of gender and number, when preceded by a negative structure except in cases where the negated verb is copulaic in nature or the negative structure is ne…que. That’s a mouthful of a rule, and it also distracts students from the fundamental purpose of that rule: use pas de to mean “not any”. Working with these manipulatives keeps my students focused on that simple usage, and I’ve discovered that enough practice with the little cards can ingrain this structure so thoroughly that I never have to actually teach or explain it at all.

In this particular activity, students are simply placing little cards on the positive or negative side of the paper. We can practice with various phrases like “J’ai… / Je n’ai pas de…” and “Il y a… / Il n’y a pas de…”, first as a whole-class activity where I’m speaking and then as a partner activity where students talk to one another. I scaffold the phrases by writing them on the board to ensure students are making the distinction between un(e) and pas de while they talk to each other. What’s really fun is when students dig into their backpacks and pull out their own props to add to the mix.


If you don’t want to make all those manipulative sets all by yourself, print out the page for students and have them cut out the cards for homework or during a brain break.

Whether you do the manual labor or leave it up to your students, I highly suggest you have a system in place for storing these manipulatives for future use. You’d be surprised at how much use you can get out of these little cards if you get creative with the grammar you want to teach!

In the example below, I’m pulling out manipulative cards from two different units: one where we learned parts of the house, and another where we learned idioms with avoir. Today, I’m going to mix those things together and have students put these people in different parts of the house.


“Class, find the man who’s sleepy and put him in the bathroom.” Everyone moves their cards around, and if I’m worried that I might overwhelm students, I’ll have an enlarged set of my own to work with at the board (the house is a PowerPoint slide projected onto a whiteboard, and the cards are clipped up with magnetic bulldog clips).

The students will giggle when they see the man falling asleep on the toilet, and I’ll say, “Class, should the sleepy man be in the bathroom? No? Where should I put him?” They might say something serious like “in the bed” or something goofy like “in the washing machine”. Either way, what really matters is that I’ve purposefully embedded lots of different content into this pattern, and now we’re embodying those structures as well:

  • Reviewing parts of the house, idioms with avoir and two irregular verb forms (prenez/mettez during a whole-class practice, and prends/mets when students repeat the activity with a partner).
  • Using the relative pronoun qui.
  • Using direct object pronouns in the imperative.
  • Using the conditional of devoir (“should”).

If that’s not impressive enough, look at all the grammar we’d be embodying if we did this same simple activity in Gaelic:

  • Singular and plural imperative forms.
  • Direct and indirect relative forms of tha (a tha fuar, air a bheil an cadal…).
  • Using e as a direct object.
  • Positive, negative and interrogative forms of the idiom bu chòir (“should”).
  • The prepositional pronoun dhomh.
  • Forms of prepositions before definite articles (dhan, anns an).
  • Initial mutation patterns after an article in the dative.
  • Reversed word order for the object of an infinitive.

And there’s still more! I can take all that clipart I used for the avoir cards, print them out on full sheets of paper, and stick them up for a Taxi activity. Perhaps the leaders are superheroes, and those with prompt cards are going to help the superheroes save the day: “Hurry, Batman! I found a man who’s really cold!”

Embodying grammar brings us back to the main idea of this presentation: CI is a wonderful and effective tool for working with grammar because it gives us the opportunity to REUSE structures over and over again, in a wide variety of contexts, with visual and physical stimuli that keep the neurochemicals flowing and boost long-term acquisition.