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Sentence frames and social formulae

(A quick search in my books hasn’t yielded a lot of theory on this topic, so I’ll write from experience and based on what I found online. If you have something to add, please leave a comment.)

The first part introducing the topic of lexical chunks and focusing on collocations here, the second about idioms and phrasal verbs here.

Sentence frames

So, we don’t combine individual words to make sentences. Instead we use lexical chunks. Sentence frames are a type of them, but in a way they may be even more useful than chunks, because they give the structure of a sentence and then you don’t need to think a lot about its grammar.

That’s why sentence frames are especially useful for:

  • developing speaking skills at lower levels (but not necessarily),
  • developing writing,
  • automating the use of grammar and functional language in speech,
  • introducing more complex structures at higher levels.

I really like the way Speakout uses sentence frames, both for speaking and writing. Usually it’s in part 5 of each unit. Have a look (for the speaking sections the frames are given, for the writing one I’ve highlighted them but the examples are given with them in mind) – 2 screenshots from Intermediate, 2 from Upper and 2 from Advanced:

As you see, when you have such prompts it’s much easier to approach your writing, much less effort – you already have the ideas for both organisation and content. All you need to do then is to do many exercises like this before doing a writing of your own from scratch. The same goes for speaking.

Such use of sentence frames may also be called scaffolding and it’s widely used by teachers. For example, for lower levels we may give something like these prompts when asking a student to talk about themselves:

My name is… I am… years old. I come from… I live with my… In my free time I… I like and I need English for (my work/ studies/ travelling).

The learner doesn’t have to use all the prompts but they give a clear idea how to structure their speech, so they can focus on the content of their message instead. And it saves them a lot of time because they don’t need to process a lot of grammar and make grammar choices.

Such prompts may be used with almost any grammatical topic at all levels. For example, once a native teacher told me he couldn’t understand why the third conditional was so difficult for learners – “Just repeat many times: If I had.. I would’ve…/ If I hadn’t … I wouldn’t have… and continue with your own sentences!” And yes, he was referring to approaching the topic by using sentence frames and not the rules (if + past perfect, would + have + past participle).

I would also use this approach when teaching inversion. Here’s a good activity also using sentence frame. What’s important is that it gives a clear context – unhappy experience of a service, so it’s not to difficult to use it about similar context.

Sentence frames and social formulae, image #7

How to notice them?

Sentence frames give you a type of a sentence which is easy to fill with many different ideas. For example, with tenses we’ll be looking at tense + time expression:

  • Normally I (drink tea/ do exercise) in the morning, but sometimes I (allow myself a cup of coffee/ feel lazy and skip it).
  • At the moment I’m (reading/ working) a lot, so I’m not sure I can (do this piece of writing/ meet up with you guys).
  • I haven’t (seen her/ done this/ finished my report) yet, but I hope to do it soon.
  • I should have (called her/ left home earlier) but (I didn’t/ something came up) so now I’ll have to (meet her in person/ put off the meeting).

So you need to find the main words that hold the idea together. Oh, and this approach is very helpful when learning questions! Otherwise adults really struggle with remembering the order of the elements:

  • What/ where/ when do usually…?
  • What type of… do you…?
  • Where were you when…?
  • What would you do if I …?

Actually, while you’re doing exercises (like gap fill or multiple choice) with new grammar, you need to look closely at them and try to identify these sentence frames. And then, to get used to this new grammar, it’s good to make 10-20 examples of your own using these sentence frames and changing the other words just a little (not building new sentences from scratch!) This is an important stage between exercises and free practice that really helps to automate the use of grammatical structures. But I have a suspicion that not many learners are aware of this. Or are you?

With functional language it’s easier to notice sentence frames – many of the expressions are given like this:

  • Would you like to…? (offer)
  • What about …ing? (suggestion)
  • I agree with you to an extent, but… (disagreeing)

I hope that covers the topic of sentence frames. Now to the next one.

Social formulae

Formulae… doesn’t the word look strange? Why not formulas? Actually, the Cambridge dictionary says “formulas” is also used, but “formalue” is more formal and used in academic writing. The strange ending is because the word is of Latin origin. Other words like this: alga – algae, vertebra – vertebrae and antenna- antennae. English… as if it wasn’t confusing enough as it is =) But I hope the topic of social expressions is not confusing. I think it’s pretty straightforward and very useful for developing one’s communicative skills. But anyway, let’s make it look more friendly and use social formulas or just expressions.

Social formulas are little expressions used a lot in conversational exchanges (I suspect short ones rather than discussions) with many different purposes (I enlist them as I think they are, so I may be not 100% correct, but you’ll get an idea + see examples of expressions in the pics below):

  • Greetings and farewells
  • Equivalents of How are you?
  • Small talk, including starting a topic, switching topics and finishing them
  • Starting and finishing conversations
  • Making and accepting apologies
  • Making, accepting and rejecting invitations
  • Thanking and saying you’re welcome
  • Wishing good luck
  • Offering condolences
  • Saying no
  • Making offers and suggestions
  • Agreeing and disagreeing

So you see, we’re dealing with functions here, and you’ll find them in every student’s book. These social expressions/ chunks are often either beginnings of sentences or full sentences that are more or less fixed and are just learnt by heart. The main problem here is to identify the register correctly (formal, informal or neutral). And also pay attention which variant of English uses the expression (e.g. British English, American English and so on). The books usually give information on this, but there are just too many expressions for them to cover them all. So be careful. I think it’s always better to start with neutral expressions and listen to what other people say before using something more exotic.

For example, one student of mine surprised me by saying “So long!” at the end of our lesson. This is not something I expected as an equivalent of “See you”. And somehow it didn’t feel right. I didn’t insist on it at the time, just asked where the student learnt it, highlighting that it’s American and saying I never use it.

Now I looked it up. First, yes, it’s an American expression (not commonly used in Britain) and is informal. Then I found this detail: “So long” is used for longer separations, often when it isn’t known when (or even whether) you will see someone again; for instance, “So long, and good luck with your new job,” or “Give the kids my love. So long for now.”” (Rana_pipiens here) And I’ve heard examples of this on YouGlish at the end of educational videos, exactly with the idea “we don’t know when the next one will be out”.

Also the books won’t give you lexis for more interesting situations like this:

  • Arguing/ fighting with someone/ calling names
  • Flattery
  • Flirting
  • Compliments
  • Showing jealousy
  • Domineering and proving one’s status
  • Mocking
  • Bullying
  • Tender talk
  • Threats
  • Gaslighting
  • Approaching a difficult topic
  • Showing concern
  • Calming down
  • Attacking
  • Reassuring
  • Respect and disrespect
  • Trust
  • Support
  • Giving and reacting to bad news

(don’t remember where I got this list but it makes sense if you come to think of it)

Luckily, we can pick up such phrases by watching films, series, interviews and talk shows. Although, first it may make sense to do a bit of research and prepare initial lists of them. But again, be careful to note down which variant of English it’s used in and its register.

In general, I think, making lists like this is pretty fun and exciting. And we do need such language! It’s all about feelings and emotions and there are so many of them in everyday talk.

That’s about it. What do you think of the topic?

Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash

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