Flowchart Sentence Builders

At the weekend I saw a post on the Languages in Primary Schools Facebook group by Joe Barnes Moran.  He showed a picture of a sentence builder presented as a flowchart.  Immediately I could see the benefit of this for my young learners.  Over to Joe to tell you more about them:

I am honoured to have been asked by Clare to write a guest post on flowchart sentence builders. Between Spanish lessons, I am also a Year 6 class teacher and SLE at Parkfield Primary School, Middleton.

Convenient timing brought me to the world of sentence builders. There was a big push around knowledge organisers at my school and I was tasked with sourcing or creating them for Spanish. Knowledge organisers – or sentence builders as they are known in language circles – are by no means an entirely new concept. Everyone has their own idea of what a knowledge organiser should look like, and how it should be used. This is just me putting my hat into the ring. Take it or leave it.
I studied the work of Dr.Gianfranco Conti and, with the wonderful support of Dylan Viñales, head of Spanish at Garden International School, I put what I had learnt into practice and produced my first set of sentence builders! Proudly, I presented a sentence builder to each of my classes. Here’s a Year 6 example that I created a year ago. Yikes!

The impact was…mixed.

Students really liked them but what I found disappointing were the occasional errors that students continued to make even when the pathways to a coherent sentence seemed so logical to me. In hindsight, it was just too complex: there were too many possibilities with their own, grammatical intricacies that presented a minefield for my students – cognitive overload would strike!

Back to the drawing board I went. 

With lockdown offering me the perfect opportunity to devote some significant brainpower to the problem I was faced with, I diligently set about to simplify and streamline my sentence builders. For a sentence builder to facilitate real learning it had to be easy to follow, and without all the grammatical possibilities crammed into one table. In the words of Señor Viñales, creating the ideal sentence builder meant it had to, “avoid the possibility of impossible combinations.”

At this point, I have to take time to mention my wonderful and supportive husband, Mark. One evening, seeing how frustrated I had become with a particular sentence builder focusing on prepositions, he offered to help. Owing to the mathematical and scientific kind of person he is, he actually understood the explanation ramble on the grammatical possibilities and faux pas that the humble preposition would inevitably create.

“Give me half an hour and I’ll see what I can do!’ he said to me as he disappeared, determined to help his floundering husband.

What he presented was to be the lightbulb languages moment (see what I did there?) I had been trying to create. This was a simplified, easy-to-follow-and-impossible-to-make-impossible-combinations sentence builder. We named them ‘flowchart sentence builders’ owing to the similarities they present with the traditional flow chart (apologies to any purists out there). Any grammatical exceptions are studied in a separate sentence builder. This way it’s possible to maintain the simplified view. By providing the English equivalents, the possibility of cognitive overload is reduced further. I raise awareness of any recurring grammatical patterns (plural, masculine or feminine) by highlighting appropriate endings. Children will be able to follow the arrows and come up with a possible combination, safe in the knowledge that it will will be correct. I feel the space is freed up to focus on what’s important – modelling a high quality, grammatically correct sentence.

Since this initial creation, Clare and I have chatted about the possibilities and I have since spent this portion of the lockdown busily devising flowchart sentence builders for each of my classes. I can’t wait to use these with students when schools return to normal!