How to Teach Word Order: Help Them Remember the Patterns
Correct word order is often the difference between beginner and intermediate students. When moving on to more complex structures, students may find word order confusing and struggle to remember all the various patterns. There are many ways you can help them.
How To Proceed
When Introducing New Structures It is best to teach word order when introducing new structures. For example, when teaching the simple past tense of make, it is important to emphasize “Mary made a cake.” as opposed to “Mary a made cake.” The second sentence of course is incorrect. Breaking structures into sections will help your students immensely. For this example, teach them Subject + Verb + Object or SVO to help them remember. How the board is organized will also aid your students. For this lesson, be sure to use three columns where column one has subjects, column two has made, and column three has a list of objects. If students are having difficulty arranging phrases during a particular lesson, for example a lesson about giving directions, then a lesson specifically designed to teach word order when giving directions may be necessary. In such a case, try to focus the first lesson or two on the pronunciation and meaning of new words with the following lessons on sentence structure, word order, and dialogue.
Drilling Word Order After introducing new material, move onto drilling it. Have students repeat each section of the new structure after you. “Mary made a cake.” is really simple but say it in three parts anyway to start off with. If using columns on the board, assign part of the class to each column so that each group contributes one part of the structure.
Practice Word Order Students must also have the opportunity to practice word order on their own or in pairs. Worksheets can provide your students the necessary practice. Activities such as Maze are fun. Break sentences into grids like the ones below. The idea is to connect the words in the correct order with a line. Only words that share a side may be connected. For simple sentences six boxes is enough but for more complex sentences add another row or two and see what your students can do. To make the exercise easier, capitalize the first word and add a period to the last word of each sentence.
Fill in the blank exercises are good practice. To make them easier, list the words or phrases students need to put in the blanks. Songs can be a useful teaching and learning tool in ESL. If you find a song that reinforces the structure you are teaching, create some worksheets to go along with it and perhaps that will help your students remember word order better.
When Reviewing Word order lessons can also be useful before tests because it is possible to combine many different grammatical points in a word order review lesson. While it is tempting to give students worksheets with both correct and incorrect sentences, it is best not to expose them to intentionally incorrect material but to simply reinforce proper sentence structures. Any activity where students write or say complete sentences can be used to review word order as can a variety of worksheets such as those explained above.
Production There are many activities which you can use to help your students practice word order when producing sentences on their own as opposed to working from material you have given them. In small classes an exercise such as Story Time can be used. The idea of this exercise is to build a story one sentence at a time; each student adds a sentence to what his classmates have already said. This can be a lot of fun and since students have no limitations, they can really draw on all their combined knowledge of English. Often, Story Time is based around a theme so you can choose to start a love story on Valentine’s Day or a scary story on Halloween. Fruit Basket is a great way to get the class moving and is good for larger classes too. To play Fruit Basket, arrange chairs in a circle so that there is one less chair than the number of students participating. The person in the middle of the circle has to make a sentence, for instance “I like apples.” if you are teaching the structure I like ~ and all the students who like apples have to stand up and find a different chair. This exercise works well with lessons on telling time too; the model sentence would be “I get up at 7:30.” or something similar. If sentences are getting too specific and certain students haven’t changed places in a while, sentences such as “I like ice cream.” or “I go to school at 8:30.” will get the whole class switching seats.
By focusing on word order in your everyday lessons, your students will have more practice with and understanding of word order which will leave them feeling more confident in their English speaking abilities.
How do you teach Word Order? Please share your ideas in the comments below!
Tara Arntsen has worked with English Language Learners of all ages for many years and has taught in Japan, Cambodia, and China as well as online. When she is not teaching, she enjoys cooking, traveling around the world, and scuba diving. She is a member of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Teaching-TESOL at the University of Southern California.
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Another way I've helped to reinforce word order is by having students write the each word from a target sentence on a index card. Working in pairs, the students can mix up the cards and try to put them in order. If you have a smaller class you can also give each student a larger card with one word, and then read target sentences and have students with words in the sentences come up to the front of the classroom and arrange themselves.