In a recent post, “S is for Substitution Tables,” Scott Thornbury notes that substitution tables have been around for over 500 years, and that they are just as relevant today as they were then, depending on how they are designed and used.
One point that Thornbury makes, which we support, is that builder boxes are generative. That is, they do not fence students in, but give them the opportunity to create meaning. Rather than being confining, they are liberating, for students are making deliberate choices to express their own ideas. Here, beginning-level students are using the chart to describe their childhood home. They can mix and match the items in the columns to make an accurate description. There are multiple possibilities, with the added benefit of sentences that are grammatically correct.
Builder boxes can even go one step further. In Trio Writing, students are given sentence frames to use for the topic and transition sentences in their paragraphs. Here’s an example from Trio Writing 2:
These frames give students just enough scaffolding to help them generate meaning. It’s a starting off point, but students get to decide where it will take them. Why was their childhood special? What kind of life did they have there? And how do they know?
Thornbury states that substitution tables help to provide “a model for creativity and personalization.” We would agree. They scaffold just enough to help students express themselves in another language. Sometimes, he best ideas are ones that have been in the books for hundreds of years.
In preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT, I had a slight altercation with my (wonderful) editor, who – on the basis of readers’ reports – queried my claim (in the first edition) that substitution tables ‘have fallen out of fashion’. She felt that, if anything, they were coming back into fashion, citing […]