It has long bothered me that the use of inversions in speaking is largely seen as unnatural. Time and time again I would go to a training session or overhear other teachers speaking and inversions would come up in a mocking tone, as if using this particular structure in speaking is hilarious in itself. In my experience, inversions (and to be more specific, inversions after negative adverbials) are commonly presented in advanced course books (CEFR C1) as a formal structure that should only be used in writing.
After some thorough research (by which I mean watching loads of TV series), I realized that people use inversions in speaking all the time. You might argue that TV series are scripted and therefore the inversions did originate in writing, but they are quite common on reality shows as well. The more I paid attention, the more I would come across inversions, in podcasts and on the radio besides the ones I was seeing on TV. Here are three examples from TV shows you’ll probably be familiar with:
It is my belief, then, that students should be exposed to inversions in both written and spoken discourse. This can happen as early as Upper intermediate/CEFR B2. Like any chunk of language or grammatical structure, students will only be able to use inversions naturally if it is presented (and practiced) many times during the course of a semester or even multiple semesters.
The simplest way of using a snippet from a TV series to introduce or practice inversions is to approach it as you would with a regular listening activity followed by some sort of language work. Some snippets lend themselves to great personalized pre-viewing questions. Take, for example, this episode from The Big Bang Theory, in which Leonard and his friends are building a phone app.
1. Listening and speaking
You could begin by asking students lead-in questions such as:
Does your mobile have apps? Which is your favourite?
If you could create an app for your mobile, what would it do?
After students have discussed these questions and you have got some feedback from them, set some while-viewing questions, such as:
What kind of app are they trying to create?
Why is Sheldon banned from the group?
How does Penny propose he gets back in?
Check answers and then ask an after-viewing question to wrap up this part of the lesson:
Would you be interested in buying their app if it cost US$ 0,99? Why (not)?
2. Noticing and analysis
After you’ve made sure students have understood the story, you can then draw students’ attention to Leonard’s inversion:
“Not only can you store your favourite equations, but you can forward them to your friends.” (towards the end of the video)
Elicit from students how different this sentence is in terms of word order and emphasis. After that, you can introduce other adverbs / adverbials that are used to make this type of inversion, possibly using your coursebook.
A simple but effective way of practicing inversions is to write five sentences that are meaningful to your group of students. Ask students to rephrase the sentences using inversions that start with the words in brackets.
I have never been to England. (never)
I can speak English and Spanish. (not only)
I rarely send emails to my friends. (rarely)
I will only move out of my parents’ house when I go to university. (only when)
I don’t go to the beach very often. (seldom)
The key here is that the sentences need to be meaningful. Students are often able to do this type of activity without even reading the full sentences. By making them meaningful you can ask students to discuss in pairs/trios whether these are true of false for them, which will force them to actually read the sentences and think about them. In addition, when getting feedback, don’t let students say things like “number two is true for me”. Rather, ask them to say the sentence using an inversion.
Another way to practice inversions more freely is to give them a topic to talk about, such as their favourite city. Give them some time to prepare what they are going to say by asking them to think of the different reasons they like that particular place, how many times they have been there, what people can do there and so on. Now ask students to come up with two inversions to talk about that city:
Never before had I seen such great sights.
Not only are there great shops in London but also some of the best museums in the world.
In pairs, students take turns telling each other about their city. While doing so, they must use their two inversions. It’s important to give each student a time limit, say, 3 minutes. If students stop speaking before their time is up, their partner must ask him/her questions to keep the conversation going. When the pairs are done, rearrange students in different pairs and ask them to retell their stories (now with a little less time). You can finish it off by having students tell their story to a third person, with even less time and without looking at the paper where the inversions are written down.
In this type of activity the planning helps students focus on fluency and on using more sophisticated language. Repeating their stories in less time will help them gain confidence as well as allowing them to streamline their discourse.
Ricardo Barros is a teacher and teacher trainer in Jundiaí, São Paulo, Brazil. You can reach him at ricbarros at gmail dot com.