Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

Last week, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Betty Lanteigne from LCC Klaipeda as a guest lecturer at the university where I work. She gave a talk in our ‘English Linguists Circle’ with the title “Unscrambling jumbled sentences:
An authentic task for English language assessment?” and it got me thinking about several questions… and so I thought it might be time for a new blog post. 

(You can read more about Dr Lanteigne’s work in the article I’ve linked to at the end.)

In this post, I’ll be writing about:

 – Are these types of tasks entirely inauthentic?

– For whom could they be helpful?

– How do/should ELT materials writers jumble sentences?

Authentic

Dr Lanteigne first showed us a few jumbled sentence tasks to see if we could unjumble them. It was quite fun(ny): We could do them, but even the ‘correct’ answer gave us rather nonsensical sentences! Here’s one for you to try, and also so you know what I / she mean/s with the term ‘jumbled sentence’:

a want Paris to do you banana take to

This amusement was followed by a quick survey of some voices from the literature that, probably quite rightly, criticise this task type with such unrealistic sentences as being inauthentic, and therefore of low value for ELT. Dr Lanteigne counters that ‘authentic’ can be taken to mean that anything about the activity is real; the people, the text/input, the situation, and/or what learners need to do with the language are aspects that could be found outside of the classroom. And by this definition, she argues, interactions in some contexts where English is used as a lingua franca do, in fact, sometimes include unjumbling sentences. To underline her argument, Dr Lanteinge has collected ‘jumbled sentences’ that she has heard in her time in Dubai and the UAE – sentences used “in the wild”, as she called them, as opposed to having been invented precisely for such unjumbling tasks. Two of the examples she provided were:

  1. How you would feel if it to you happens?
  2. Want taxi Dubai you?
Useful

Dr Lanteigne argues that because such jumbled sentences are authentic in ELF contexts, they can be a valuable part of ELT and language assessment. If someone needs to communicate in an ELF setting, ‘decoding’ such sentences and deducing meaning and knowing how to respond are very important skills; thus such tasks are authentic. This is especially true for English learners in areas where English is used as a lingua franca, such as Dubai and UAE, where Dr Lanteigne was working. I teach EAP (B2+ level) and train EFL teachers in Germany, and many of my students’ career goals are often focused on Germany. Still, the chances are fairly high that they will at some point be in a situation where the person doesn’t speak their L1 and they don’t speak the other person’s L1, and so they may need to use English as a lingua franca, and thus also use these ‘decoding’ or ‘unjumbling’ skills.

Dr Lanteigne has therefore developed some useful testing materials based on the example jumbled sentences she had gathered. These tasks are very interesting, for tests and in lessons, I think: They involve learners showing they can understand the meaning of a jumbled utterance, reconstructing it into a grammatically correct sentence or selecting the correct version from a list, and then responding to it in some way, for example ‘What would be a suitable reaction to this sentence?’. I find this kind of adaptive and reciprocal task valuable, as it moves beyond simply putting words into a correct order, or producing an utterance for no further purpose. And so I’m basically convinced that including tasks like this in my EAP materials for my German students every so often could be a helpful thing to do.

Task Differences

However, you might have noticed, as I did, that there is a bit of a difference between the two example ‘jumbled sentences’ she gave. The first of these examples includes all of the ‘elements’ needed for a grammatically correct sentence in a Standard English. Thus, the task really is unjumbling the words to get to the standard word order for the sentence. Also, the information structure is intact, meaning it’s really just the word order that’s the problem. The second example, though, requires a bit more than that – you need to insert an article, auxiliary and preposition, and rearrange the words to get to a grammatically correct sentence in the standard sense. You might also need some contextual clues, such as who said the utterance to whom, and where. I’d therefore call it something like ‘reconstructing sentences’ rather than ‘unjumbling’, and I feel like these two task-types should be treated as different in any research or discussion on their authenticity and effectiveness.

Materials – jumbled sentences

‘Unjumbling sentences’ tasks, then, could be useful for practising word order, verb forms, colligations, collocations, etc. Helping learners to practise ‘unjumbling’ in their head may assist them in understanding such sentences when heard ‘in the wild’. There are of course different ways of presenting the activity in materials. For example, you could leave in the punctuation, as in the second version below (which many jumbling apps seem to do), and there are many different orders you could jumble the words into, keeping the information structure intact or not (it is often not intact in coursebook/app versions of ‘jumbled sentences’). This really interests me – how do materials writers decide how to jumble sentences? And is this reflective of authentic jumbles? I asked on Twitter just got responses that said ‘alphabetical’ or ‘I use an app/website for that’. I think it would be interesting to think about jumbled orders which are likely to help with specific problems with word order or sentence structure that learners have, for example due to their L1s. In example 1 above, for example, I recognise some word order issues that my German students might have due to interference. This kind of unjumbling, then, could help to remind them of English word order rules – something similar to an error correction task. Since many of my students are studying to become EFL teachers in the German state sector, this kind of activity could be seen as authentic for them – especially with these real utterances, rather than alphabetically ordered jumbled words. The example I’ve invented below focuses on collocations, alongside word order for questions with an auxiliary – but I don’t suppose this is a realistic example of anything any language learner would say; it’s just a collection of words! Although I don’t necessarily think ‘artificial’ is the polar opposite of ‘authentic’, this one is definitely not an authentic example of a jumbled sentence in the way Dr Lanteigne understands the term, and is more akin to the kinds of sentences that are most often criticised in this task type for exactly this reason. Perhaps it still has value in ELT, but again, it would be more interesting to discuss which jumbled orders are most helpful for students in which cases. Since different jumbles would probably check different things, such as lexical, morphological or syntactical knowledge, it probably depends on the specific language point you want to check, as well as students’ L1s. This sounds like something that someone who has more time than me should research 😉

ceilings men legs tall long high like do with 

ceilings? men legs tall long high like Do with 

Materials – sentence reconstruction

With example 2 above, the syntax makes me think this is not an L1 speaker of a European language; at least I don’t know any Indo-European languages that separate the subject from the verb in this way. And, as I said before, reconstructing this sentence to understand the speaker’s meaning is more than just an unjumbling activity – it will require contextual and maybe also cultural knowledge to determine the speakers’ meaning and intention, as well as knowledge of grammar and lexis. Still, as an authentic utterance and thus potentially authentic task, learning to reconstruct it would seem to have value, as Dr Lanteigne argues, especially for learners who are likely to communicate in an ELF context. In order to produce materials that help to train this competence, then, we would either need to collect more authentic examples “in the wild”, or investigate the patterns behind omitted words and ‘jumbled’ word order, in order to create our own artificial, but authentic, examples to work with. Here again, I believe that context is key – depending on the speaker’s L1, the patterns are likely to be different, so we’d need to know a lot about who said what in order to create a suitable sample base of sentences for our materials, and might then also need to select relevant examples for the materials based on the specific learners, their context and reasons for learning English (e.g. where are their future ELF interlocutors likely to come from?).

So what?

I’m slightly torn at this point, though I can’t formulate my evaluative thoughts very well. I’ll try: This sounds like very interesting and insight-rich research to do, and I’m sure the results would be valuable for ELT materials writers. But it does seem to presuppose that such decoding and understanding skills are rather high-level in terms of English language competence and need to be trained. I wonder if that’s always true? I mean, what if a few words, some gesture and context, and a willingness to negotiate meaning are enough for communication in ELF contexts? Do the conversation partners need to reconstruct a grammatically correct sentence in their head to understand or be able to respond? Again, more research… please let me know if you do it! 🙂

Further Reading

Lanteigne, Betty. 20 17. “Unscrambling jumbled sentences: An authentic task for English language assessment?”. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching (7/2). 251-273. Accessible here: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1149764.pdf

 

 

 

One thought on “Jumbled sentences: An authentic ELT task?

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking post. You make a good point that jumbled sentence tasks could be quite useful for students to prepare to decode others’ language in ELF contexts. That, combined with error correction-type jumbled sentences – and they are not unrelated – seems to me like a relatively authentic use of such a task. Thank you for sharing!

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