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Can you draw English syntax? How to ask trainee teachers to draw, in order for them to understand and to explain English syntax

Pouvez-vous dessiner la syntaxe anglaise ? Faire dessiner les enseignants-stagiaires pour qu’ils comprennent et expliquent
Agnès Leroux

Résumés

Dans cet article, nous proposons d’explorer le potentiel de l’activité de sketch-noting en tant que créatrice de système métalinguistique pour enseigner et apprendre l’anglais langue étrangère (ALE) dans le système scolaire secondaire français. Nous présentons une expérience menée en classe avec des enseignants stagiaires en ALE, à travers laquelle les processus d’apprentissage favorisés par le dessin, déjà mis en évidence (Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E., 2018) sont mis à profit pour explorer plus avant la possibilité de créer un appareil métalinguistique personnel à chacun, pour apprendre et enseigner l’ALE. L’analyse des résultats met en évidence les nombreux avantages de recourir au dessin en classe de langue, en prenant appui sur un exemple d’enseignement de la syntaxe anglaise. Dessiner des schémas successifs permet aux stagiaires de réfléchir à une question tout en conservant une trace de l’évolution de leur réflexion, à l’intérieur d’un système qu’ils ont créé et que donc ils maîtrisent. Les schémas peuvent ainsi être utilisés comme supports d’évaluation puis de remédiation ou comme autant d’étapes vers l’élaboration d’un système métalinguistique destiné à favoriser l’apprentissage. Ainsi nous montrons que ces dessins matérialisent des espaces mentaux de réflexion personnelle.

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Introduction

1This article will enquire into sketch-noting as activities designed to create and use visual metalinguistic devices to understand and teach English as a foreign language (EFL) in secondary school in France. The memory-enhancing and learning processes (Fernandes, M. A., Wammes, J. D., & Meade, M. E., 2018) already identified in relation to sketch-noting will be further exploited in a teaching-learning relationship, in order to explore the possibilities offered by sketch-noting and drawing to work out one’s own metalinguistic device to learn and teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Thus this analysis will focus on the process of drawing, rather than on the drawings themselves, and will not deal with preconceived visual metalinguistic representations in foreign-language class, such as the ones offered in R. Dahm’s very useful book (2018) for EFL.

2Drawing is a means to conceive and imagine either concrete objects or abstract concepts and to represent them visually for onlookers. It allows one to visualise ideas and share one’s visual depictions/perceptions with others, and as such it posits its producer as an author. Linking grammatical analysis and explanation to drawing or sketching implies encoding highly abstract concepts that have no clear link to visual referents.

3However, the visual representations resulting from such an activity may prove to be an efficient tool for reflexive practice as well as a useful device to explain grammatical features to foreign-language learners. Indeed, sketches may be conceived as constructions or as narratives which trigger detachment, reflection, cognitive construction, and interaction (Castellotti and Moore, 2009). This paper will discuss the interest of giving the opportunity to EFL learners to draw their own visual conception of a grammatical system. However, it is not a frequent practice among language teachers, who prefer to resort either to verbal explanation and examples or even to textbook sketches, when it comes to grammar. Consequently, this paper will present an experiment which was led with a group of 18 EFL secondary-school trainee teachers in France to test their ability to visually represent their own conception of English syntax and implement a grammar class based on their own newly acquired proficiency, to make the pupils resort to sketch-noting or drawing to represent their own understanding of English grammar. Originally, the final aim of the experiment was twofold and mainly focused on grammar didactics: the first aim was for the trainee teachers to use their own personal sketches to explain grammatical structures to their colleagues in class at university, and secondly, for them to implement the process of drawing in relation to grammar teaching in their own classes. However, the outcome of the experiment was far from expected: the trainee teachers’ first sketches made it clear that although they might technically be able to teach with sketches, their understanding of English syntax was not accurate enough for their sketches to be exploited in class. Therefore, the first stage to using sketching in grammar class should be drawing to better understand the phenomenon at stake. Lastly, this experience showed the trainee teachers that resorting to sketches could alleviate the cognitive load that syntax represents for secondary school learners, in that visual representations could be used as negotiation spaces with themselves and with the class, while excluding the cognitive toll grammatical meta-language constitutes for learners of a foreign language.

1. Sketches in linguistic theory

4Sketches and diagrams are not exclusive to sketch-noting. In linguistics, researchers and teachers alike have been resorting to visual representations in relation to language structure and functioning for at least a century. Resorting to visual representations allows teachers to avoid relying on long explanations and on a grammatical meta-language in the first place. It can, in some instances, alleviate the cognitive load represented by grammar for the learners of a foreign language.

5One well-known instance of this is generative grammar and syntax trees. They are not drawings as such, but they do give visual representations of the structure of sentences in clauses and of the relation between the different parts of speech inside the clauses. Examples of trees are reproduced below:

6These are static representations, but in generative and transformational grammar, sketches can also represent the dynamic activity of language, such as this representation of the underlying structure of a question:

Figure 2. Underlying structure of a question

Figure 2. Underlying structure of a question

7We will call this a functional representation.

8On a more conceptual level, in enunciative linguistics, there is also quite a large array of visual representations aimed at clarifying grammatical or linguistic concepts, such as the following topological sketches for time intervals:

Figure 3. Time intervals – (Leroux, 2018)

Figure 3. Time intervals – (Leroux, 2018)

9Or verb processes in relation to time intervals:

Figure 4. Verb processes in relation to time intervals – (Leroux, 2018)

Figure 4. Verb processes in relation to time intervals – (Leroux, 2018)

10As a matter of fact, these sketches still include a figurative component and allow the onlooker to access the relevant concept with topographical representations of temporal issues.

11However, some EFL class books present learners with more abstract representations of concepts. J.P. Gabilan’s triangulation for modality (2016) reproduced below is typical of this tendency:

Figure 5. J.P Gabilan, e for English 4ème, 2016.

Figure 5. J.P Gabilan, e for English 4ème, 2016.

12Many grammarians and linguists, whatever their theoretical framework, have also tried their hand at visual representations of the way they imagine, or conceive, the relationship between cognition and language:

Figure 6. Transformational model – Aspect of the Theory of Syntax (1969) (Kirsch 2018)

Figure 6. Transformational model – Aspect of the Theory of Syntax (1969) (Kirsch 2018)

Figure 7. Three levels of representation proposed by Culioli (Culioli, 1990: 21-22), reformulated by Dufaye (Dufaye, 2008: 31)

Figure 7. Three levels of representation proposed by Culioli (Culioli, 1990: 21-22), reformulated by Dufaye (Dufaye, 2008: 31)

13Generativists argue that their representation of syntax as tree-shaped diagrams may illustrate the deep structure of language and represent the structure of a Universal Grammar (UG) deeply rooted in our cognitive activity, while enunciativists remain cautious and question the representativeness of their sketches in relation to our cognitive activity, linking them to a language activity. But generally speaking, these sketches represent attempts at giving visual interpretations of concepts.

14The abundance of sketches in the domain of grammar, whether for teaching purposes or to describe the functioning of language, shows that encoding grammatical concepts with visual representations corresponds to a need that verbal explanations cannot fulfil. However, sketches conceived by grammarians encode specialists’ conceptions of specific abstract concepts (e.g., J.P. Gabilan’s proposition based on the theory of meta-operations by Adamcewzsky, or Leroux’s representation based on Culioli’s Theory of Enunciative and Predicative Operations) and may remain as obscure to foreign-language learners as traditional verbal metalinguistic explanations are.

15I started from the assumption that our metalinguistic ability, i.e., our capacity to describe how language functions, often originates from epilinguistic activity (Culioli, 1999, p. 74) – an unconscious perception of the structure of language, a very emotional perception that needs objectivation (Reichler-Beguelin, 1990). I implemented a first experiment in a French secondary-school class with a research-Master’s student to work on visuo-perceptual representations of the English grammatical system to objectivate these epilinguistic perceptions and transform them into metalinguistic devices with the pupils. This way of encoding grammar was intended to avoid using language as a self-referential medium and to enhance the students’ reflective activity on language.

16Consequently, in this experiment, drawing became a negotiation space (Feunteun and Simon, 2009) to make the learners first objectivate their epilinguistic activity, then use their own visuo-perceptual representations to better understand and explain the English grammatical system, and eventually lead them to work out a metalinguistic device.

2. Experiment

17One of my linguistic research-Masters’ students, who is also a secondary-school teacher, experimented with a class of seconde (15-year-olds), on the possibility of making pupils draw a collective metalinguistic device to help them refer to the past in English. They started with individual sketches and naïve remarks on the way English language construes the past and they ultimately produced a metaphoric timeline they could use in class when in difficulty. They found it convenient and easy to use because they had designed it collectively. They recurrently used it in the course of the year, whenever they had a problem with a time-tense relationship (Leroux, Plessis, 2021). The method proved efficient, for the control group, i.e., the class that was not taught to work out a visual metalinguistic device progressed at a much slower pace than the test group.

18However, this is one isolated experiment led by a qualified teacher. As a teacher-training instructor, I wanted to determine whether this way of teaching could be implemented on a larger scale, with secondary-school trainee teachers enrolled in a French Inspé (national institute of teaching and education), who might eventually find it natural to teach grammar through the implementation of sketch-noting and drawing in their own classes. I framed my enquiry as the following question: can French-speaking EFL secondary-school teachers be trained to teach the English grammatical system with sketches? The ambiguity of this question – teaching trainee teachers with sketches or teaching them how to teach with sketches – sparked another question: should they be trained to use sketches, and implement sketching, in their classes, or should they be trained to produce and use sketches for their own professional education? Assuming that experimenting a method often proved more efficient than being advised to use it, rather than teaching trainee teachers how to implement such a class, I decided to have them experience with how it felt to use other means of expression than language to describe its structure and grammatical rules.

19This decision required me to define a twofold objective: convincing my student teachers to agree to draw and inducing them to reflect on the use of drawing to teach. However, I had not foreseen that they would first use their drawings to develop a reflexive activity on their own conception of the English syntax system, and that they would not be ready to go beyond this reflexive activity.

20I worked with a group of 18 second-year trainee teachers (M2 masters des métiers de l’enseignement de l’éducation et de la formation [MEEF] ), who had all passed the CAPES (certificate of aptitude for secondary school teachers) and followed a first Master’s MEEF year, and who were all part-time teachers in the French national education system.

21My first goal was for them to take a whole semester to design their own individual linguistic devices to use with their classes. The experiment was implemented in four stages during a semester dedicated to syntax teaching. The class was given in French:

  • At the beginning of the semester, I asked them to draw how they visualised English syntax (one class);

  • One week later, I asked them to explain their drawings to the rest of the class (one class);

  • This first phase of drawing and explaining was followed by an English syntax class to make some of the sketches and explanations more accurate (eight classes, one class a week);

  • I took pictures of each sketch, and very precise written notes of their oral descriptions (reflexive feedback);

  • Their colleagues were allowed to ask them questions;

  • At the end of the semester, we had the final drawings and their explanations. (two classes, over two weeks);

  • I took notes again and let the other trainee teachers ask questions.

22Sketching proved difficult for them, mostly because they did not imagine drawing in relation to syntax, which, as we have mentioned, is a highly abstract concept. One of the trainee teachers, when first asked to draw English syntax, produced this small vignette, which was her first response to my request:

Sketch 1. Depiction of English syntax by a trainee teacher

Sketch 1. Depiction of English syntax by a trainee teacher

23This trainee teacher obviously felt comfortable with drawing, for she scribbled this sketch very quickly to show to the rest of the class, but was less confident in her own conception and representation of English syntax. As this experiment took place during the second Covid lockdown in 2020, all the sketches and drawings were made on computers, which explains the clumsiness of some of the first visual representations.

2.1. First collection of drawings

24The first drawings were meant to make explicit their own conception of syntax and how they would represent it to explain it to someone else. It also was their first go at visual representation in relation to a concept. I collected 18 sketches which, after a close analysis, I organised into three categories:

  • Figurative, or metaphoric, drawings;

  • Diagram sketches;

  • Functional sketches.

25The differences between these three categories are explained below.

Metaphoric drawings

26Some drawings were highly figurative, paradoxically showing that their creators had a very conceptual way of imagining syntax. The explanations were usually very vague and did not mention what the constituents of the English syntax system were. In some way, those drawings were metaphors of the English syntax system, in that they gave a representation of a grammatical phenomenon which was both very synthetic and picturesque.

27For sketch 2a, reproduced below, the trainee teacher said that words were like flowers you pick to make a posy to establish a link with people:

Sketch 2a. Metaphoric drawing by a trainee teacher

Sketch 2a. Metaphoric drawing by a trainee teacher

28In this other example, it seems clear that the few constituents that are named are written randomly; there is no retraceable logic:

Sketch 3a. Trainee teacher’s representation of how sentences are made

Sketch 3a. Trainee teacher’s representation of how sentences are made

29This picture represents a sweet machine which produces sweets with the products that players manage to shoot down. This trainee teacher explained that making sentences was like a videogame in which you choose your targets to get to a result that allows you to access the next level.

30The drawings in this category required a great deal of explanations from the producer, and sparked many questions, which thus proved that they could not be exploited as such in class.

Diagram sketches

31Some trainee teachers produced descriptive and analytic diagrams in the shape of trees, which may have been inspired by former grammar classes based on generative grammar. This was the only category in which the taxonomy of the parts of speech (POS) was really used to structure language (all the captions and explanations on the sketches are in French).

Sketch 4a. A tree structure representation of a sentence

Sketch 4a. A tree structure representation of a sentence

Sketch 5a. Syntax and its composition

Sketch 5a. Syntax and its composition

32However, these sketches did not give an accurate representation of the English syntactic system either. This category of visual representations highlighted trainee teachers’ difficulty understanding the structure of English syntax.

Functional sketches

33In this category, the students drew how syntax functioned to make complex sentences out of clauses but did not focus on parts of speech:

Sketch 6a. Sentence structure in the form of a necklace

Sketch 6a. Sentence structure in the form of a necklace

Sketch 7a. Sentence structure in the form of a snake

Sketch 7a. Sentence structure in the form of a snake

Sketch 8a. Sentence structure in the form of paths

Sketch 8a. Sentence structure in the form of paths

34The metaphor used here is linear: a necklace, a snake or a path, but there were also trains and buildings. These were mostly based on instances of specific sentences and did not use grammatical taxonomy.

2.2. Syntax class

35After the class, during which trainee teachers shared and described their sketches to the group, eight classes were dedicated to the study of the English syntactic system. The study of syntax was grounded on journalistic and literary texts. Sketches were used but not exclusively, because as the trainee teachers knew they would have to improve their own drawings at the end of the semester, the class could have influenced their own visual representations. Nevertheless, they still needed to be given an example of a class organised around drawings for them to experiment with what it felt like as students to be taught with visual representations, and how difficult it was to understand someone else’s visual encoding.

36Here are some of the sketches that were exploited to explain the structure of complex sentences when they include a relative, an adverbial or a nominal clause.

Figure 8. Syntax-class sketches.

Figure 8. Syntax-class sketches.

37Teaching with sketches occurred three times out of the eight classes they were given on syntax.

2.3. End of semester drawings

38After those eight grammar classes, two classes were then dedicated to improving their first visual representations and to explaining them to their colleagues. Most trainee teachers gave up real drawing because they did not feel confident in their artistic skills, and asked for permission to compose their own sketch or visual representations out of ready-made pictures found on the internet.

39Once again, 18 representations were collected. They were arranged in three new categories, defined according to their first drawings:

  • representations which completely differed from the first drawings,

  • those which respected the principle of the first drawing but changed the kind of representation,

  • those which kept their original idea and improved on it.

40I took notes again during the presentation.

2.3.1. New systems of representation

41The version presented at the beginning of the semester is on the left-hand side, and on the right is the second version:

Table 1. Definition of a new system of representation.

Table 1. Definition of a new system of representation.

42The first striking feature with this category is that although trainee teachers abandoned their first system of representation, they did not reproduce the sketches they were taught with in class. They invented a new personal system.

2.3.2. Same principle with different kinds of representations

Table 2. Different visual representations based on the same principle

Table 2. Different visual representations based on the same principle

43What these sketches illustrate is that the trainee teachers changed some of their representational principle only, and also introduced more abstract concepts which they had not used before, such as parts of speech (inclusive rectangles in Sketch 10a against cakes organised in rectangles in Sketch 10b, isolated cubes in Sketch 11a against Lego constructions in Sketch 11b, one example of sentence in Sketch 12a against POS in Sketch 12b). One possible explanation is that their first representation did not offer enough conceptual possibilities to represent what they had learned during the semester.

2.3.3. Same principle with complexification

Table 3. Representational complexification

Table 3. Representational complexification

44In this group, they all kept to their first principle of representation but complexified their system (a simple row of pearls in Sketch 6a against a multi-branch necklace in Sketch 6b, one simple snake in Sketch 7a against a composition of snakes in Sketch 7b, wagons in Sketch 13a into trains in Sketch 13b, etc.) to include what they had learned in the course of the eight syntax classes, as explained in the next part.

3. Analysis

45We are now going to highlight how these sketches proved an excellent form for bringing to light important aspects of the teaching-learning relationship. First, we will show how sketching may help the teacher reduce the cognitive load related to a subject such as syntax for the pupils. We will then examine how the trainee teachers’ sketches showed they found it difficult first to describe and conceptualise the English syntactic system and then to explain this conceptualisation to their colleagues, and how in that way the sketches could be considered assessments. Most of the visual representations displayed were not accurate enough to be used as metalinguistic devices in class. And eventually we will investigate how sketching helped the authors acknowledge their lack of proficiency and in that way became negotiation spaces to manage the cognitive load that syntax represents.

3.1. Reduction of the cognitive load

46At the beginning of the semester, drawing their own mental maps of the concept of syntax allowed some of the trainee teachers to free themselves from the necessity to resort to academic knowledge. It gave them the possibility to give an account of their own understanding of syntax without using all the metalinguistic terms expected, which usually generates some confusion.

47Sketches 11a, 12a and 14a, presented below, epitomise three different trainee teachers’ behaviours in relation to the cognitive load. Most of them either ignored all necessity to use academic knowledge or used only the basic metalinguistic terms they had learnt at school. A very small number included a few linguistic terms.

48Five subjects out of 18 produced a visual representation that was entirely free of any metalinguistic terms. These representations often relied either on very generic terms or on examples which stood for sentence structure, like this one:

Sketch 12a. Culinary representation of sentence structure

Sketch 12a. Culinary representation of sentence structure

Sketch 11a. Block representation of sentence structure

Sketch 11a. Block representation of sentence structure

49In Sketch 11a, size and colour stand for the natures and functions of the various elements in the sentence. This visual modularity might prove very efficient with secondary-school classes, because the relationship between nature and function, when needed, generates a great deal of confusion. Regrouping words, which intuitively may be in the same category, under the same colour could save a lot of cognitive load. However, this system of representation does not refer to syntagms for in and France do not regroup under an identical code, it only takes POS into account.

50Ten subjects used very simple terms, resorting to traditional school grammar. Sujet, verbe and complément du verbe were the terms most frequently used by trainee teachers:

Sketch 14a. Brick wall representation of sentence structure

Sketch 14a. Brick wall representation of sentence structure

51Here, in Sketch 14a, colours reassert function: the grammatical subject is depicted in black ink, the verb in red and complements are either green or blue. But, contrary to Sketch 15, the relationship between words is symbolised by their position along the horizontal axis and the modular character of the sentence, by an increase in the number of the components on the vertical axis, even if clauses are still not considered.

52Only two subjects authored sketches that included metalinguistic terms and considered clauses, but very parsimoniously. In Sketch 13a below, the relationship between clauses is efficiently symbolised by brackets, with yellow ones delimitating clauses and green ones delimitating sentences, and hooks, blue for coordinators and pink for the relationship inside clauses:

Sketch 13a. Points and brackets representation of sentence structure

Sketch 13a. Points and brackets representation of sentence structure

53With these sketches, trainee teachers were able to visually and then orally describe their own conception of English syntax with only minimal academic knowledge, relying on visual devices to make the relationship between the different units more explicit.

54However, this first exploration sheds light on the second phenomenon mentioned in the introduction to this analysis, i.e., that they provide the instructor with an opportunity to assess the proficiency of each sketch author.

3.2. Assessing the author’s proficiency

55In this part, only two sketches will be analysed; each of them is at one end of a continuum ranging from total absence of knowledge to an almost accurate conception of syntax.

Sketch 15a. Castle door representation of sentence structure

Sketch 15a. Castle door representation of sentence structure

56Sketch 15a is very interesting, in that it pinpoints the difficulties of its author very efficiently. This trainee teacher could have been tested with a traditional sentence analysis, and she would have proved ignorant in syntax, but more specifically she would at least have shown some fragility in the use of the metalinguistic terms. However, with this sketch the instructor gained access to the root of the problem; it looks as though she does differentiate nature from function, since she wrote all nature-related terms on the left-hand side of her picture and function-related terms on the right-hand side, but she drew no visible link between the two parts of her wall.

57When she described her sketch to the class, she was neither able to explain why she had drawn two different parts, nor was she able to name these parts. Likewise, she was unable to explain how the terms on each side related to one another. So, it appeared that she conceived syntax as the use of a host of scattered terms she had learnt at school but whose scope she did not master. Had she not been obliged to draw and explain her sketch, the point of her lacking command of the whole system might have been missed.

58One last interesting fact is that clauses do not feature on her picture. One can conjecture about her conception of clauses.

59

Sketch 7b. Complex snake representation of sentence structure

Sketch 7b. Complex snake representation of sentence structure

60At the other end of the continuum, this trainee teacher had a good conception of clauses and of their composition in POS, as well as of their relationship inside complex sentences. However, a close look at his last sketch will shed light on his difficulty understanding the concept of nominal clause. Instead of replacing one of the arguments in the utterance, the pink rectangle featuring a nominal clause comes as an addition to the arguments of the main clause. This might not have been uncovered had he only been asked to analyse a complex sentence.

61The main objective of this experiment was not to assess these trainee teachers. However, their sketches foregrounded structural — or even for some of them fundamental— problems.

3.3. Sketch-noting as a personal negotiation space

62Presenting and explaining their sketches to their colleagues helped the trainee teachers acknowledge how they visualised syntax and how their intellect functioned. To that extent, the sketches worked as negotiation spaces as stated by Feunteun and Simon (2009). Furthermore, their difficulty explaining them to their colleagues also made them realise that they were not yet able to use their sketches to teach their own classes.

63The student whose drawing is reproduced below epitomises the phenomenon. When she raised her hand to speak, she was sure that she knew how syntax worked.

64However, once she stood up in front of the class, ready to detail her sketch, she remained speechless, and the fact that she was unable to explain her representation led her to explicitly accept that she was not knowledgeable in the domain. Like most of her colleagues’ sketches, her first visual representation is very impressionistic and suggests a rapid jotting down of emotional perceptions in relation to syntax, which can be compared to Sketch 15a. It accounts for a partly unconscious perception of the structure of language, somewhere between an epilinguistic and a metalinguistic activity (Leroux, 2021, Lecolle, 2015). This emotional perception needs objectivation (Reichler-Beguelin, 1990) to reach a metalinguistic level, and drawing might be the right space for that.

65Observing more precisely the evolution of their productions, different processes of negotiation through sketching may be identified.

3.3.1. From simple notes to a complete system

66For example, the producer of Sketches 9a and 9b first enumerated a number of scattered metalinguistic terms related to syntax and eventually focused on the elaboration of a system at the end of the semester. At the beginning of the semester, this trainee teacher said she did not like to draw. She nevertheless drew and started with a very simple sketch composed of principles and constituents, all on the same plane. However, she found her own representation difficult to explain for she could not account for a relationship between the principles (respect, rules, order) and the constituents (subject + verb + complement):

Sketch 9a. Sun representation of sentence structure

Sketch 9a. Sun representation of sentence structure

Sketch 9b. Botanic representation of sentence structure

Sketch 9b. Botanic representation of sentence structure

67In her second production, she tried to represent the various levels of syntactic links between the clauses, first featuring the role of parts of speech in simple sentences, then representing their role in the construction of complex sentences.

68However, her representing parataxis – the juxtaposition of clauses – with fallen leaves (they do not have a stem as complex sentences do) suggests that they should belong to the main clause, although in discourse construction they stand as independent sentences. She realised this while explaining her sketch and went back to imagining how she could better represent parataxis and its semantic dimension.

69The student who produced both visual representations below explicitly acknowledged her improvement after the syntax class. She wrote that she was going to put syntax on the right track. There are still some problems with her representation, most of all if she wants to teach.

Sketch 3a. Sweet machine representation of sentence structure

Sketch 3a. Sweet machine representation of sentence structure

Sketch 3b. Train representation of sentence structure

Sketch 3b. Train representation of sentence structure

70However, had she not first been obliged to produce a sketch or a visual representation and explain it, she might never have realised how difficult it was to give an extensive view of syntax.

3.3.2. Progressively improving a system

71Two different types of progression will be shown here. First, a very modest improvement of a sketch, and secondly a more decisive modification in the design, involving the role played by the speaker.

72This first trainee teacher retained the same principle from one design to the other: embedded boxes. However, her second proposition (Sketch 10b) shows that she is gradually assigning functions to the meta-linguistic terms she had indiscriminately scattered about her first embedded rectangles. Even if she might have progressed without drawing, objectivating her conception of syntax through sketches helped her acknowledge her own progression and negotiate further improvement.

Sketch 10a. Embedded squares representation of sentence structure

Sketch 10a. Embedded squares representation of sentence structure

Sketch 10b. Birthday cake representation of sentence structure

Sketch 10b. Birthday cake representation of sentence structure

73This other trainee teacher partly gave up the functional representation he had first presented.

74On his first sketch, he drew a link between the use of different types of POS and the construction of meaning. He explicitly said that meaning was the result of the path chosen by the speaker.

Sketch 8a. Path representation of sentence structure

Sketch 8a. Path representation of sentence structure

Sketch 8b. Sports representation of sentence structure

Sketch 8b. Sports representation of sentence structure

75After the eight syntax classes, he produced a very abstract representation of what syntax is for him, featuring the strength of the link between the clauses. Although this second sketch looks quite different from the first one, it revolves around the same principle —the construction of meaning. While describing Sketch 8b, he acknowledged that the human figure had to take responsibility for the strength of the link between clauses and as such is the main source for the elaboration of the meaning of the utterance. This design shows how he progressively rearranged the role of the speaker, from a word picker to an utterance designer. The choice of the javelin as the tool for pinning down the final style of the sentence leaves open the possibility of misunderstanding, for an athlete might miss their target.

76However, the strength of the syntactic relation – parataxis, hypotaxis and subordination – and the different clauses are on the same level. Even if he actually understood the difference in scope of these terms, this point might still be confusing for teenagers if he wanted to use his representation in class. When he had to explain his sketch to his colleagues, he realised this, and went back to reflect on his own understanding of the English syntax system.

77Those analyses consistently highlight the fact that, notwithstanding their progression, most of the drawings were not sufficiently accurate.

78However, this experiment could be considered a piece of meta-teaching, a class which epitomised the class they could give, for they began to conceive drawing as a way for pupils to access their own personal understanding of a system. Thanks to the descriptions of the sketches and the questions they triggered, the syntax class eventually became a grammar-didactics class.

3.3.3. Explaining or teaching: the next stage after understanding

79To highlight the path taken by the trainee teachers from understanding to explaining, I will use the case of one specific student.

Sketch 13a. Points and brackets representation of sentence structure

Sketch 13a. Points and brackets representation of sentence structure

Sketch 13b. Complex train representation of sentence structure

Sketch 13b. Complex train representation of sentence structure

80The author of Sketches 13a and 13b had already understood English syntax at the onset of the experiment. However, when it came to explaining it to her colleagues, she did not feel so comfortable, because her sketch was too synthetic and corresponded to a very conceptual conception of syntax that her colleagues were not yet able to understand. She took the whole semester to revise and complexify the system she had chosen and produced a modular system based on the train metaphor. Far from making it more difficult to explain, this complexification allowed her to give more detail to her visual representation and to make it more explicit. The metaphorical dimension of her choice would anyway have made it easier to teach. However, the other person who used the same metaphor (Sketch 3b) had not travelled so far, for she was still in the process of a personal reflection over the concept of syntax. With this author, the most striking feature of her visual representation is its modularity. She made the most of the obligation to draw to focus her reflection on teaching issues. Drawing became her space for personal negotiation over the teaching process.

4. Discussion

81All the analyses presented so far tend to show that asking a class of trainee teachers to resort to drawing to explain a metalinguistic concept is a good way to gain at least some access to their cognitive functioning. Very personal difficulties were then pinpointed and specific remediation, adapted to each personality, could be implemented.

82In addition, they were offered a personal space within which they could freely improve their conception of the issue at stake, following their own rules. They could literally draw another path to access academic knowledge, using first an instinctive and emotional means to assert the state of their own proficiency. They could free themselves from the fear of absence of metalinguistic knowledge and improve their own conception within a system they had created, thus reducing the cognitive load. In so doing they created metalinguistic devices, whose principle they might later use in their own teaching.

83However, one essential question remains with regard to teaching training: throughout this experiment, were they offered a space within which to create a personal metalinguistic device to be used to teach their own classes, or were they invited to reflect upon the possibility of using drawing as a teaching device? To put it in a nutshell, were they taught how to teach with sketches or with sketching?

84In asking that question, we are trying to close the loop we opened in the first part of this paper – many visual representations have been implemented in relation to grammar; what can sketch-noting add to these?

85Sketch-noting or scribing is not about using somebody else’s sketches, it is about visually representing one’s own conception of a topic to enhance one’s understanding of a phenomenon. If we take it so far as to create a metalinguistic device with trainee teachers, the question should be asked, whether they should use their own device in class or guide their pupils into creating another device that would reflect their own cognitive functioning. The syntax class they attended might contribute to their training as teachers in two different ways:

  • On the one hand, it made them better understand the way they function in relation to the conceptualisation of English syntax;

  • On the other hand, it showed them how to implement a class around drawing.

86The outcome of this dilemma appears to lie in the basic principle of sketch-noting, which should always favour the discovery of one’s own functioning to enhance understanding and learning. If trainee teachers share their own sketches with their pupils, they will reproduce the drawbacks of the academic system so far, i.e., imposing a preconceived sketch on their pupils, which will remain totally obscure to them.

87However, if they choose to guide their pupils through this hermeneutic process, trainee teachers need to be proficient in the subject they teach, and the experiment presented here shed light on their own difficulties, for out of 18 subjects, only one was able to design a correct system.

Conclusion

88This experiment echoes another one implemented in class by a teacher who was also a research Master’s student in linguistics (Leroux, Plessis, 2021). The pupils were then guided through the elaboration of their own metalinguistic device under the guidance of a teacher who had already explored the linguistic issue at stake. It appeared throughout the process that the teacher’s excellent proficiency was essential to a successful outcome in EFL class. However, even if sketching first evidenced the lack of proficiency of most of the trainee teachers, this analysis has highlighted the numerous advantages of resorting to sketch-noting in EFL class. It allows learners to take their time to reflect on an issue, relying on a medium that keeps track of the evolution of their reflection, within a system from which they do not feel estranged. Their visual productions may be used as assessments to implement remediation as well as metalinguistic devices to enhance learning processes.

89Nevertheless, the complexity of its implementation in a secondary-school class, and the emphasis which must be put on the process rather than on provisional results, suggest that it should be considered an interdisciplinary meta-cognitive activity.

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Bibliographie

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Classbook

Gabilan, Jean-Pierre, Grammar section of « E for English 4ème older version », Éditions Didier, Paris, 2013.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Syntax trees
Crédits Source: cute-language-learning.blogspot.com/2014/04/syntax-tree-for-compound-sentence-my.html
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-1.png
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Titre Figure 2. Underlying structure of a question
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-2.png
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Titre Figure 3. Time intervals – (Leroux, 2018)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-3.png
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Titre Figure 4. Verb processes in relation to time intervals – (Leroux, 2018)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 15k
Titre Figure 5. J.P Gabilan, e for English 4ème, 2016.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-5.png
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Titre Figure 6. Transformational model – Aspect of the Theory of Syntax (1969) (Kirsch 2018)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-6.png
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Titre Figure 7. Three levels of representation proposed by Culioli (Culioli, 1990: 21-22), reformulated by Dufaye (Dufaye, 2008: 31)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-7.png
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Titre Sketch 1. Depiction of English syntax by a trainee teacher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-8.png
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Titre Sketch 2a. Metaphoric drawing by a trainee teacher
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-9.png
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Titre Sketch 3a. Trainee teacher’s representation of how sentences are made
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-10.png
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Titre Sketch 4a. A tree structure representation of a sentence
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-11.png
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Titre Sketch 5a. Syntax and its composition
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-12.png
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Titre Sketch 6a. Sentence structure in the form of a necklace
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-13.png
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Titre Sketch 7a. Sentence structure in the form of a snake
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-14.png
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Titre Sketch 8a. Sentence structure in the form of paths
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-15.png
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Titre Figure 8. Syntax-class sketches.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-16.png
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Titre Table 1. Definition of a new system of representation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-17.jpg
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Titre Table 2. Different visual representations based on the same principle
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-18.jpg
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Titre Table 3. Representational complexification
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-19.jpg
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Titre Sketch 12a. Culinary representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-20.png
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Titre Sketch 11a. Block representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-21.png
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Titre Sketch 14a. Brick wall representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-22.png
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Titre Sketch 13a. Points and brackets representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-23.png
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Titre Sketch 15a. Castle door representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-24.png
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Titre Sketch 7b. Complex snake representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-25.png
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Titre Sketch 16a.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-26.png
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Titre Sketch 9a. Sun representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-27.png
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Titre Sketch 9b. Botanic representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-28.png
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Titre Sketch 3a. Sweet machine representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-29.png
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Titre Sketch 3b. Train representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-30.jpg
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Titre Sketch 10a. Embedded squares representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-31.png
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Titre Sketch 10b. Birthday cake representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-32.png
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Titre Sketch 8a. Path representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-33.png
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Titre Sketch 8b. Sports representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-34.png
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Titre Sketch 13a. Points and brackets representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-35.png
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Titre Sketch 13b. Complex train representation of sentence structure
URL http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/docannexe/image/10590/img-36.png
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Référence électronique

Agnès Leroux, « Can you draw English syntax? How to ask trainee teachers to draw, in order for them to understand and to explain English syntax »Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues [En ligne], Vol. 42 N°1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 04 avril 2023, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/apliut/10590 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/apliut.10590

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Auteur

Agnès Leroux

Agnès Leroux is an associate professor (HDR) at Paris Nanterre University, who does her research and teaching in English and French contrastive linguistics and EFL didactics. She presented her thesis in 2001 and her full professor qualification (habilitation à diriger des recherches) in contrastive linguistics and didactics in 2016.
Her main themes of research revolve around the construal of duration and causation in language, and the possibility of teaching EFL grammar with visual representations of linguistic models. She works within the framework of the Theory of Enunciative and Predicative Operations (théorie des opérations prédicatives et énonciatives, TOPE).

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