S is for Substitution table

12 11 2017

H V GeorgeIn 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 examples in a number of coursebooks. I disagreed.

Before I describe how we resolved this argument, a little bit of history.

The use of substitution tables to display the interchangeable items of a grammar pattern have, according to Kelly (1969), been around since the early 1500’s.  Here’s an example from a French course of 1534.substitution table 1534But, of course, they really came into their own with the advent of structuralism – the view that language (and not just language, but any cultural artefact) could be construed as a network of relationships. This view, in turn, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that there are two ways in which language elements relate to one another: syntagmatically (as chains) and paradigmatically (as slots). Thus, in the table below (from George 1967),  cheaply reproduced is a syntagmatic relation (it forms a chain), while maps, charts, and diagrams share a paradigmatic relation (they fill the same slot).

George 1967 sub tableSubstitution tables, then, nicely display these kinds of relations, and can be used to generate a great many sentences based on a single pattern. As George himself wrote:

‘With these Substitution Tables you can speak and write many thousands of English sentences, without making a single mistake… After you have made a large number of sentences you will find that you have learnt the sentence pattern.’

Accordingly substitution tables featured prominently in materials that subscribed to an audiolingual methodology – i.e. one that was predicated on the belief that language learning involves internalizing the patterns of the language through processes of habit-formation, so that they might be reproduced accurately.

But substitution tables (as we have seen) pre-date audiolingualism. In 1916, Harold Palmer was already singing their praises, recommending that each sentence produced by the substitution table should be ‘examined, recited, translated, retranslated, acted, thought and concretized.’ There are more than enough suggestive ideas in this little (paradigmatic!) list to keep an imaginative teacher busy for many hours of productive classroom time. Let’s see.

Examined? Here’s how H.V. George suggests using his tables (having drawn one on the board or, nowadays, projected it):

‘The teacher starts by reading sentences from the table, choosing items which are easy to follow and reading slowly, but without halting at the columns. When most of the items have been used to the teacher increases the speed of begins to take items from widely separated positions. At this stage the teacher brings out a good student. As the teacher reads, the student points with a ruler at each item in turn. Following is not too easy if speed and range of items increase as the student becomes more proficient. One tries to keep the student under pressure without actually causing them to break down. Of course the other students are watching to see whether he does, and their interest is maintained. One or two students have a turn, then a student may replace the teacher, himself be replaced and so on.

A lively use of the table is for the teacher to point a ruler at one item in one column, at the same time reading aloud an item from another: and pointing to (or naming) a student anywhere in the room; the student having to form a sentence which includes both the spoken item in the one pointed to.’

Recited?  Jazz chants, of course. Substitution tables share some of the characteristics of song and verse: short, repeated lines, with minor changes. Think of

The knee bone connecka to the thigh bone;
The thigh bone connecka to the hip bone…etc

Translated and re-translated? Students in paired groups A and B: each translates sentences from a substitution table and sends them (written or spoken) to the other group, who translate them back again.

Acted? TPR, naturally. A student (silently) chooses a sentence from a substitution table (like the example below) and acts it out: the others guess what it is.

TPR subs table

Thought?  Have students construct their own table out of the jumbled elements (like a jigsaw puzzle), or out of a collection of sentences.

Concretized? Give the students a substitution table and get them to make as many sentences as possible. If this sounds too mechanical, insist they be true sentences. Or, ‘true for your group’.  Then for fun, the activity can be turned on its head, by the substitution of the word ‘false’. Or ‘funny’. Or ‘surreal’. And so on. A competitive element can be added by giving a time-limit: How many true sentences about your group can you produce in three minutes?

Oh – and the argument I had with my editor? It seemed to me that she was conflating substitution tables with tables like this:

fake substitution table

which is not a substitution table at all, in the sense that you can generate new sentences by combining any of its elements: *Who is your sister singer? *Are your favourite married? ???  Moreover, what often look like substitution tables are simply tables of verb paradigms: I am. you are. he/she/it is etc. In the end we compromised, and rather than saying ‘they have fallen out of fashion’, I wrote ‘they are less common nowadays’. And I added, ‘but there are few clearer ways of displaying a structure’s parts, and – with a little ingenuity – they can also provide a model for creativity and personalization.’

References

George, H.V. (1967) 101 Substitution Tables for Students of English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

George, H.V. (1967) 101 Substitution Tables for Students of English: Teachers’ guide and advanced students’ guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, L.G. (1969) 25 centuries of language teaching: 500 BC – 1969. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

Palmer, H.E. (1916) Colloquial English, Part I: 100 Substitution Tables. Cambridge: Heffer.