Some Things Never Change, or Do They?

Irregular verbs logo 3However hard you try, there are some things one can’t get around in learning a language and in English (and German and Swedish…) one of those would be learning the irregular verbs by heart. You can group them in categories, play around with flashcards and you would still eventually face the fact that these things really are illogical (even though there may be good historic and etymological reasons for them being the way they are) and the most sensible decision you can make is simply to learn them verb by verb the old-fashioned way.

There are, however, things we teachers can do to ease the students’ pain of having the whole list to learn all at once. One pretty common method is to give students ten verbs to learn for every lesson and then to quiz them on those every time, which I think makes the whole thing less dramatic and not too strenuous for most students. The problem is that if a student for some reason fails to study for one or two lessons, he will probably never get the same incentive to learn those particular verbs again and they will constitute a white patch, a terra incognita, in that particular area of his language proficiency. Additionally, there’s another risk involved here  – failing once or twice through simply having forgotten to do his homework might reduce his motivation altogether for the next batches of verbs. He might very well consider having blown his chances already, so what’s the point? And you can’t really blame the teacher either, can you? Having and grading (!) tests or quizzes every lesson for some 25-30 students is quite enough without having to keep track of all those students who might want to re-take this or that test. That kind of permissiveness would result in burn-out for any teacher, and there would never really be an end to it all. It’s a dilemma, all right. Everybody deserves a second chance, but certain limits also need to be set.

Pretty early on in my teacher career, I realised that this particular piecemeal of system didn’t work for me. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for other teachers, only that I felt I failed miserably. The students, even those who did well on those mini-tests, didn’t really retain the knowledge for very long – it was a system of ten new verbs in and the previous ten verbs out. Plus the problem of all those “forgotten” homework assignments. I needed to come up with something else, something that would work for all of us, and still be feasible requirements on the students’ time and effort.

The parameters I had to proceed from were

  • 1) the whole list of irregular verbs would still need to be mastered, principle parts and all
  • 2) not enough that the students were given one principle part and required to fill in the remaining two – they needed to be able to provide all three in English when given the equivalent verb in L1.
  • 3) the piecemeal system still in place, but the batches – both scope and selection – would not to be dictated by me but up to the students themselves
  • 4) second chances – there might be completely legitimate reasons for students not to have done the required studying
  • 5) differentiated learning paths – not only a list on paper but games to work on in an autonomous manner
  • 6) desirable (for me): cutting down the grading to a minimum and to make the grading into a motivating carrot instead of a punishing stick if possible

I can’t say that I came up with the optimal solution at once, but the system I have by now, after many years of modification and revision, works well enough for most students and for me.

It goes as follows – and here I’m talking about 8th-graders who already know the basics about the use of the main tenses in English:

1st lesson: Small warm-up exercise with a few high frequency verbs, well known to the students from before, such as go/went/gone, put/put/put, etc.

When they have refreshed their memory, I’ll explain that this kind of words are what we’re going to work with for a small part of each of the following 20+ lessons or so (I would be quite precise with the end date, though), and that they can start by checking themselves on how much they already know, and that they have 10 minutes to fill in as many verb forms as possible on a 3-page quiz. I will also point out that it’s paramount that they use a pencil, because they might want to review and revise their answers at one time or another. No grading from me involved at all, the whole activity right now is strictly for purposes of self-evaluation. This is what the 3-page handout looks like – the red words are in L1 – 114 verbs in all:

Irregular verbs quizWhen the 10 minutes are up, most are still writing, but I still insist on their handing me the handouts back, but promise they’ll have plenty of opportunities to fill in more yet.

When I have all their handouts, I’ll explain that they will now get a handout with the exact same list of verbs but with all the missing English parts included and that they now go quietly through all the list from top to bottom individually, checking themselves by covering up the English part with their notebook or any piece of paper they have at hand, and ticking off those verbs they didn’t know, or where they failed to give the correct English forms.

Irregular verbsBy now there usually is an intense atmosphere of positive student engagement and task involvement in the classroom. When finished I tell them to work in pairs and take turns at quizzing each other on those verbs they themselves have ticked off as particularly difficult.

When 5-10 minutes remain of class (we have 75-minute lessons), I’ll tell them to put this paper carefully away in their book and take out that pencil again, because now will be their first opportunity to fill in more on that 3-page test/handout or correct previous faulty answers – anything that they may have learnt during the last thirty minutes or so.

And this is how we will spend the last 5-10 minutes of every class for the next 20+ lessons. For the first 1o I will do no grading at all; I won’t even glance at what they’ve written or rewritten, other than cursorily check that they’ve understood the system with the principle parts and that they’re making progress. 

I also tell them that their own complete list of irregular verbs is an extremely important document because they are going to need it for every one of those next 20+ lessons. They will, however, also have electronic access to it on our LMS, in case it, against all odds, gets lost. On the same LMS, which in our case is the combined LMS and game generator www.didactor.com, they will find various games on the exact same verbs as on their paper.

For one batch of those optional autonomous exercises I’ve divided all the verbs alphabetically in groups of 20 each, but within the group the verbs appear in random order. This I feel is best described by a graphic representation of what actually happens in the game:

 

Click on the picture to get an enlarged view.

Click on the picture to get an enlarged view.

 

As the visuals here show, the feedback is immediate, and the game is not only a quiz but first and foremost a means toward learning in itself. The learning process is further reinforced by the final feedback when the student has finished the last item. Here he’ll find the key answers to all items as well as exact representations, letter by letter, of his own responses. (The additional comments here are inserted later by me, in the average student’s voice, to illustrate the actual cognitive processing taking place in an activity construed like this.)

Irregular verbs didactor result jpg

Another type of game within the same game generator focusses on  distinguishing regular verbs from irregular ones. Being able to recognize the irregular ones might assist the student in eliminating many of otherwise likely errors in his own future use of the L2, both in writing and speaking. A screen shot of a very simplified version of this activity clarifies how this kind of learning situation might pretty effortlessly come about.

 

Irregular verbs SORTER game

There is no immediate feedback – there would be little need for thinking if there were. The programme accepts without blinking everything the student decides on. But he can also undo – without losing points – any sorting he deems to have been incorrect. The time factor is not at play here either – he can take his time, consult his verb list, or dictionaries, or Google, or he can take his chances and rely completely on getting the correct answers in the final result feedback, which in itself provides food for additional revision and learning.

Irregular verbs SORTER result

In this particular case, five items were incorrectly categorised – no further comment needed.

These are only two instances of additional or alternative learning paths to the traditional irregular verb list on paper, and many more that work in a similar way might be added. I won’t, however, delve further into them here and now. None of them, I think, excludes another; on the contrary, they complete and reinforce each other by activating different parts of the brain, creating new thinking patterns and giving impulses for new brain synapses.

What then could motivate the students to do any of this; why spend time after school revising grammar stuff, when there are so many fun things a teenager could do in his sparetime? The gamification aspect is, of course, one motivating factor, but would it be enough? We certainly couldn’t spend all 20+ lessons on the verb list – there simply wouldn’t be time and there’s a lot more in the school curriculum that I, as a teacher, am obliged to have my students learn. So sparetime activity is where the verb work would be delegated to.

There is another highly motivating factor at play here – not for all students, but for many more than with any other method, 10-verb-batches or not, that I have tried. And surprisingly that would be the grading process, and the 3-page test paper that would appear over and over again in front of the student at the end of every lesson. Up to the student himself to decide on whether to do everything by piecemeal and on the sizes of thoses piecework portions. Does he want to slack now and save the whole lot until the day before the deadline, or does he want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible and be free to do whatever he wants for the rest of those-end-of-20+ lessons? (I’m talking about a “he” here for the sake of convenience, I do include the girls here, they are neither invisible nor insignificant but highly esteemed and respected in my classroom – I’m just saving up on letters here.) And there really is no easy road here, no shortcuts by doing sloppy work and say they’re finished. If they tried, I would immediately start grading their paper and unless there were aboslutely no mistakes or errors there, they would get it back, and go on working on it.

What about the grading or the marking here – in what way could that both reduce my workload and motivate the students?

It all depends on the way it’s done and the timing of it. The 3-column grid on the right hand side of the test paper comes into play after the 11th lesson, and the grid is there only to make my own life a little easier. Every correct verb form yields 1 point, and the column to the far left is reserved for a verb with one correct  and two incorrect verb forms – and it needs to be completely correct, spelling and all, in order to yield a point. The middle column stands for an answer with two correct and one faulty (or missing) verb form, and the column to the far right is, of course, for a full 3-point score. Now is when my grading starts, but I will focus exclusively on the 3-point column and mark all those answers that are perfect, leaving the rest blank. That will tell the student which ones he doesn’t need to bother with any more because they are perfect as they stand. The unmarked ones, however, need completing or correcting.

GridI will repeat this procedure for the remainder of the assigned classes until the very last lesson, ie. the day of the deadline, and then I’ll mark the 1- and 2-point columns as well, and subsequently sum up all points into a total score which will be divided by the maximum score 114*3/100 =3.42, yielding the final score in percentage. 50% is the required score for a Pass. The more marks in the 3-point column, the easier it is for me to get to the final score.

Let’s have a look at the parameters from the onset of the procedure:

  • 1) the whole list of irregular verbs would still need to be mastered, principle parts and all – Yes, definitely.
  • 2) not enough that the students were given one principle part and required to fill in the remaining two – they needed to be able to provide all three in English when given the equivalent verb in L1. – Yes, still valid.
  • 3) the piecemeal system still in place, but the batches – both scope and selection – would not to be dictated by me but up to the students themselves – Yes, they decide what, how much, and when (within the given time parameters)
  • 4) second chances – there might be completely legitimate reasons for students not to have done the required studying – Yes, they can skip studying a few times and make up for any omission at the next opportunity
  • 5) differentiated learning paths – not only a list on paper but games to work on in an autonomous manner – Yes, described in detail above
  • 6) desirable (for me): cutting down the grading to a minimum and to make the grading into a motivating carrot instead of a punishing stick if possible – Yes, this grading method is fast and efficient for me, and the 3-point column marking makes those 3-point scores highly desirable and completely feasible for the students, and it makes them concentrate on improving what they don’t know and not spend unnecessary time on what they already know.

 

Quod erat demonstrandum 😉