Human Sentences

‘Human Sentences’ is a sentence scramble activity which involves collaboration with the whole class, or a whole group. This activity works well with young and/or beginner learners, although it could work with older and intermediate students when introducing new grammar structures. I’ve had particular success using this strategy with young beginner learners of Japanese (as per my example photos), who often struggle for some time to memorise the characters of the new writing system. However, this activity would work well with any language to help build knowledge of basic sentence structures, as well as helping students to develop a metalanguage to assist them to create new language for themselves.

How does it work?
First, prepare the parts of a sentence as flashcards. Next, choose students to hold up the parts of the sentence at the front of the room. They should be in a random order to begin with. My photo shows false beginner junior high students, holding up parts of a Japanese sentence. Some students can read the script, but even those who can’t can deduce meaning using other cues (including visual cues as nouns are presented alongside images, grapho-phonic cues such as word length and style of writing, knowledge of sight words, etc).


Next, the other students in the class direct their classmates to move around so that they create a correct sentence. The important step in this activity is that every time a student gives an instruction (Tim moves to the end of the sentence), it needs to be followed by a justification (because it’s a verb and verbs go at the end in Japanese). If a student is incorrect the teacher shouldn’t interfere, but wait to see if other classmates will make a correction, again, giving justifications. In this way, students become teachers who help out their classmates, and their explanations are often much better than a teacher! Through this process students compare and contrast the L2 with their L1, and develop a metalanguage which helps them to talk about and make sense of new concepts.


Once students have created a sentence, the whole class can read it together. Students can then make multiple new sentences using the same structure, limited only by their vocabulary. This shows students the power of a wide vocabulary, as they replace certain parts of the sentence to create their own sentences.

Once students have a solid understanding of the sentence structure, then the teacher can guide them to build on it to create more complex sentences, such as by turning the statement into a question, changing the tense, adding adjectives to nouns, etc. When students start from a solid foundation and then practice manipulating the language, they gain confidence in applying their developing knowledge and skills to create their own new language, instead of reliance on the teacher (‘Miss, how do I say …?!).

As a variation which adds an element of competition, get students into groups and get them to race to create sentences. Groups need to be the first to get in the correct order, and read their sentence out loud as a group, requiring students to work together. Have groups complete the activity one at a time and use a stopwatch to find the fastest team, for a less noisy and easier to manage alternative.

Give it a try!
All you need to begin this activity is a set of flashcards with the words needed to create the sentences you want students to create. I have mine printed on bright coloured paper and laminated for longevity. Nouns, verbs and adjectives may be presented with images if you wish.

Free resources
Human sentence cards for learners of Japanese
Human sentence cards for learners of English


*Have you tried human sentences in your classroom?
*What variations do you have on the humble sentence scramble task?
*What other activities do you have for introducing and reinforcing sentence structures?

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