Still cutting up cards! Activities for storing and retrieving chunks

We’re delighted to feature our very first guest post. At IATEFL Harrogate last year, one of the sessions we enjoyed was by a young teacher called Andrea Borsato, who was working at International House, London at the time. Andrea was partly focusing on a subject close to our hearts – the revising and recycling of chunks that students have previously encountered in class – and what was particularly interesting was his insistence on the use of physical cards. In an increasingly digital age, it seemed a brave and somehow quite radical approach! Anyway, he very kindly agreed to write up the talk he gave and we’re very happy to make it available here. Over to Andrea . . .

Yes, it’s true! While surrounded by tablets, interactive whiteboards and phones that get smarter and smarter, I’m still using primordial tools such as scissors and paper to create colourful cut-up cards! I have to admit there is a selfish element to my obsession with the use of cards in the classroom: on a stressful working day, you will see me at my desk cutting away in a Zen-like state of trance, feeling the causes of stress melt away like snow. Having said that, in the ten years or so I’ve been using cut-ups for different activities in the classroom, I have learned to appreciate their versatility, and seen at close range the power they have to motivate my students to perform language tasks.

So, what exactly are the benefits for the learners? Well, possibly the most important is that cut-up cards perfectly lend themselves to pairwork, making all the tasks highly communicative. The kinaesthetic and playful element seems to appeal to students of all ages: when moving those bits of paper around, one minute they’re frowning with concentration, the next they’re animatedly disagreeing or laughing about their different ideas. In other words, the students are communicating with each other, and already starting to use the target language through their negotiations. Another great advantage of lifting material off the page is evident with matching activities: when done in the book, the mess of criss-crossing lines means that the students are less likely to look at that page again. With cards, though, they can still work out the solutions, or revise answers they’ve previously come up with, but in the end they can also take home the clear handout I prepare for them, which they will perhaps use for revision at a later stage.

What language should be practised with cut-ups, then? Well, all types of language, but always in chunks, always within a context, and always in a natural form. Michael Lewis is obviously the guru we all refer to when it comes to a lexical approach to teaching and learning (which I fully subscribe to, both as a teacher and as a second language speaker). There are several forms in which chunks manifest themselves. Lewis categorizes chunks into polywords (traffic lights / by the way); sentence starters (I see what you mean, but…); collocations (heavy / light / chain smoker); colligations (‘They are planning to get married next summer’ as a much more frequent occurrence than the pattern often seen in ELT material ‘get married to someone’). These, obviously, are useful terms to help teachers reflect on the nature of language, but when it comes to making students aware of the importance of chunking, I really like Margaret Horrigan’s convivial definition of chunks as ‘words that hang out together’. For me in the classroom, I simplify even further and ask my students to underline ‘good language’.

I use cards for four main types of activities: categorisation, ordering, speculating and revising. Card categorisation is an effective way to introduce sentence starters expressing agreement or disagreement (useful when writing essays for IELTS or the main Cambridge suite of exams). Rather than just giving the sentence starters themselves, I include them in full sentences all related to a single topic. This has the advantage of showing students how the stems connect grammatically to the rest of the sentence and, as a bonus, it exposes them to additional language related to a context. Categorisation is also useful for speaking. As part of my reading lessons, I do extensive reading both in and outside of the classroom using grader reader versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories. As a lead-in to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, I ask my students to categorise cards containing personality traits related to each of them. This creates interest in the stories they will read, and also introduces vocabulary they might not be familiar with in a natural form (He’s a bit of a loner, for example, feels more naturally expressed than the plain and simple He’s a loner). After students have read part of the story for homework, in the next day’s lesson I ask them to retell in pairs what’s happened so far. Before they do that, though, I first get them to reorder strips of card with a skeleton outline of the chapter that they have read. The cards help to jog their memory and also expose them to more sophisticated vocabulary than they would normally use when retelling the story. This enables the students to summarise the events in more detail and with a higher standard of language.

While reading stories in class, I often stop at significant moments and ask students to speculate on the reasons why something has happened. This gives them an opportunity to practise modals of deduction for guessing about the past in a meaningful and contextualised way. I have found that learners struggle to produce such modals accurately because they focus on the form, which is quite complex. In the example ‘He might’ve killed his stepdaughter to get his hands on her inheritance’ there are three components: might + have + done. I feel these are best remembered phonetically by memorising /maɪtəv/ and then adding the past participle. To help the students do this, I show them cards containing the phonemic chunk and ask them to supply a sentence using it. This has the added benefit of encouraging them to use less commonly used modals of deduction such as /kɑːntəv/.

Another activity, which I use to revise vocabulary, involves the use of double-sided cards. On one side, there is a gapped sentence with a specific collocational chunk removed, on the other is the solution. Sometimes I provide a synonym of the chunk to help, but more often I try to make the missing word clear from the context of the sentence. The students work in pairs: one tries to remember the missing chunk, the other confirms if it is correct. If it is, to win the card the first student also has to memorize the sentence and repeat it aloud. Otherwise, the card goes to bottom of the pile. The oral repetition of the sentence has the aim of moving the students from simple retrieval to the more challenging act of production. I divide the sentences into lines that reflect the pauses in natural speech to further help the students towards a natural delivery.

Well, if it is true that L2 learners tend to instinctively learn and store lexical phrases as prefabricated chunks without needing to analyse them grammatically, as is the case with first language acquisition, cut-up cards are an invaluable teaching tool which is fun for the students and effective both in terms of recognition and production.

I’d love to hear if anyone out there does anything similar – or if you have alternative ways of using cards in class.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

3 Responses

  1. Sigo Gatt says:

    for (followed by a noun or a gerund)

    • Lexicallab says:

      Not quite sure what the point is of the holes you two are picking here. ALTERNATIVE WAYS OF USING is perfectly fine and correct English. As a fixed chunk, it gets 253,000 hits on Google! ALTERNATIVE WAYS FOR USING is obviously also fine, but gets far less hits – 163,000!

  2. Caroline Cattermull says:

    I also often use cards in classes. More often for revision of the week’s vocabulary. The cards have lexical chunks/phrases on them and are placed, face down, in the middle of each group of 3-4 students. The first student picks up a card and keeps it hidden from the group. He/she explains the meaning, without saying the target phrase. The student who remembers/says the phrase wins the card. The second student picks up a card and so on. The overall winner is the student with the most cards at the end. Learners are motivated to learn new collocations throughout the week when there’s a competitive activity coming up.
    I keep the cards in the classroom and use them for students who finish activities before others. For example, they randomly pick a card and write sentences using them.
    You have some fabulous ideas which I will most definitely use. Many thanks!

Leave a Reply