For many learners of English, particularly those with non-Indo-European language backgrounds, English syntax can often be a nightmare. Even for speakers of Romance or Germanic languages, unmarked word order can be a challenge in English.

With this simple colour system, you can encourage low level learners to self correct word order errors and you can raise awareness of marked and unmarked sentences with higher level learners.

While teaching English in Turkey, I noticed that one of the trickiest issues that learners faced was word order. This is no surprise, considering that Turkish syntax is very different from English syntax. One of its main features is a great deal of agglutination, which means that much of the meaning of a Turkish sentence is created by simply adding suffixes to the verb.

As a result, a language like English, with separate words for each sentence element and an almost militant word order system, can be highly problematic for Turkish learners.

I realised quite early on that Turkish students need to be clear about which parts of a sentence are verbs, which ones are nouns, which is the subject, which ones are objects and which are just what I came to call “extra information.” To solve this problem, I developed a colour-coded system to help Turkish learners distinguish these sentence elements, introduce them to the strict word order of English and ultimately allow them to slip into more natural and expressive speaking.

After leaving Turkey, I discovered that learners with first languages closer to English also had similar issues. How many times have you heard an Italian say something like “I have also to check my emails every day,” or a German say, “In Bavaria are many churches”?

Here’s how you can use the system, which I call “blue/red/blue,” in your classroom.

Elicit a straight-forward sentence from your students. Ideally it should be as simple as possible but should include an object (so “He ran the company” is better than “He ran”). It should also have room for extra information (time, place, manner and so on).

Here’s a safe example:

Ali’s eating sushi.

Now, here’s the trick – don’t use your usual black marker. Instead, write it like this:

Alis eating sushi.

Then elicit from the students why you chose those colours. For most classes, the answer should be clear: the verb is red, and the nouns are blue.

This is when I tell them that this is the key to English -- the core of the language. It’s very simple but also very, very important: everything in English is “blue/red/blue” – or, if they prefer, “subject/verb/object.” We almost never break this sacred structure.

At this stage, you can elicit some more sentences from the students and work together to identify which parts are blue and which parts are red.

Once everyone’s feeling comfortable the colours, it’s time to add some extra information. Most English sentences contain much more information than just the subject, verb and object. This is when you can elicit some “extra information” from the students. Where is Ali eating sushi? Who is he with? What time is it? What day? etc.

BlueRedBlueExtra information
Alis eatingsushiin Pariswith Jasminein the eveningon Saturdayat about 8 o'clockin a bue jacket

This may appear simple, particularly for higher-level learners, but once they’ve established the basic concept, they start to self correct much more frequently.

Taking a look at a classic error I’ve heard from students from around the world, we can see how this works:

“I have also to check my emails.”

When you come across a word order mistake like this, draw the student’s attention to it and ask her to analyse it in terms of “blue/red/blue.” The student will identify “I” as blue, “have” and “to check” as red and “also” as extra information.

Walking through the “blue/red/blue” system with your students helps them see why adding “also” right in the middle of the verb part of the sentence doesn’t fit the “blue/red/blue” structure.

Hopefully the student will self correct at this stage and produce a sentence like:

“I have to check my emails also.”

If you’re confident in the student’s capacity to develop the idea, you can now introduce the concept of “VIP extra information.” This is a simple way of describing the types of one-word adverbs (like “also”) that can fit in the middle of a sentence.

Start by eliciting another simple sentence (you could go for the same sentence each time you present a new structure as a way of creating a theme and a bit of an in-joke atmosphere with the students). So back to Ali and the sushi:

Ali’s eating sushi.

Ask the students how many parts there are to the verb (two – “is” and “eating”). Tell them that almost all English verbs have two parts (“have been,” “was doing,” “must leave,” etc.) and that there are “VIP adverbs” which can fit right in the middle of the two parts. They’re special and can break the sacred “blue/red/blue” structure. That’s why they’re “VIPs.”

Try to elicit the words that can fit between “is” and “eating,” and hopefully you’ll see a nice list of possible ways of modifying the sentence about Ali and his sushi:

BlueRed 1VIPRed 2Blue
Alis

only

always

quickly

also

just

definitely

eatingsushi.

This way of looking at English can help with all sorts of word order and syntax problems. Think about mistakes like “In Bavaria are a lot of churches.” Once the student sees “in Bavaria” as “black” (extra information) and not “blue” (subject), she’s more likely to self correct.

Let’s look at another classic error, such as “It’s very good the atmosphere.” The solution can present itself when the learner sees that “the atmosphere” isn’t “extra information,” and so is in the wrong place.

“Blue/red/blue” can also be used with higher-level students to introduce the idea of “marked” and “unmarked” sentences. I think of these terms as meaning “emphasised” and “neutral.” For example, consider the sentence “She dreams only in Spanish” (as opposed to “She only dreams in Spanish”). Is it wrong? It isn’t wrong, but this sentence emphasises “only” over “Spanish.” It’s possible that this is not what the learner meant.

This is when you can discuss how we use marked sentence structure when we want to emphasise a certain part of a sentence. You could, for example, talk about how the emphasis changes when you move the VIP adverb (“Only she dreams in Spanish,” “She dreams only in Spanish,” and “She dreams in Spanish only.”) You can also compare these marked sentences with the neutral, unmarked form: “She only dreams in Spanish.” These are the kinds of tools higher-level learners need to communicate with more nuance and express themselves with more subtlety.

That is the power of “blue/red/blue”!

Of course, language is complex. This is obviously not the answer to all our students’ questions and all our teaching problems, but it can really help solidify an awareness and practical understanding of the basic structure of English sentences and can give them the tools and the guidance to move from simple sentences to more complex ones.

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