TBT: Teaching Inversions in Speaking

In anticipation of this year’s Braz-Tesol international convention, I have decided to have my first Throwback Thursday. Back in 2012 I delivered a talk at Braz-Tesol for the first time, about a topic that is near and dear to my heart: inversions after negative adverbials.

I also published something similar at Luiz Otávio Barros’ blog many years ago. The link to the main video is dead, so I though it was worth posting it again.

The thing about using inversions in speaking is that although they are very common, coursebooks generally relegate inversion to the realm of formal writing. After some thorough research (by which I mean watching loads of TV series and listening to podcasts), 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 some examples from TV shows you may be familiar with:

During my research I also noticed that inversions with ‘not only’ are by far the most common, but many other adverbs are also used. If you like to read more about the rules of inversions and which adverbs are used, click here.

I believe 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)?
  1. 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.

  1. Practice

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.

Thanks for reading

7 thoughts on “TBT: Teaching Inversions in Speaking

  1. Dear Ricardo,

    I loved this activity and I was looking for speaking activities to work with discourse markers/ connectors ( although, despite…) and I believe I can perfectly adapt this activity for the same purpose, I mean the “practice” part. I’m not sure If I can adapt the TBBT activity! Is that correct? Do you have any suggestion to work as funny as this activity with discourse markers?
    Thank you very much for posting and sharing your brillant inversion activity.


  2. Hi Juliana,

    The practice activities can definitely be used for connectors as well – in fact, I used them. As for the video, you may need one where discourse markers appear. Do you have a series in mind that your students like watching? I can try to create a lesson using that (and share it on the blog).


    • Hi Ricardo,

      That’s nice! I’ll put into practice this activity then!
      Exactly. I was looking for a series like that, but I couldn’t think by hear of any of them that could appear discourse markers in a way I could use it.
      Wow, It would be awesome If you create something as great as the TBBT’s activity with it. Thank you a lot.
      Well, I don’t know yet their favourite series (I will ask them exactly that next class, on Thursday), but one I always try (and LOVE IT) and my students love it and become as fans as I’m is Modern Family.
      By the way, they are teenagers ranging from 15 to 19 years old.

      Thank you a lot, Ricardo.
      I can’t wait for your next tips.


  3. Ricardo, I just love this post! It made me realize I must study inversions more, as I do not use them very often. However, it reminded me of a game Ellen Degeneres plays: “Never have I ever”. Have you seen it? Here is one of the shows she played this game!


    • I haven’t seen Ellen do it, but I have seen this game in TV series and films. I recently saw it in House of Cards. I’ll be sure to check out Ellen do it, though. Thanks for the link 🙂


  4. Pingback: Teaching grammar without a book: third person singular | ricardo barros elt

  5. Pingback: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish | ricardo barros elt

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