How to Help Your Students by Teaching Chunks of Language
Improve their fluency, understanding, and enable faster learning.
It's not unusual for students to get frustrated multiple times when learning vocabulary.
The first is when they're told to memorise long lists of single words.
Second is when they realise just how many words there are to memorise and how long it will take.
The third is when they try to speak in the real world, and their memorised word lists don't help them communicate effectively.
There is a way to help your students: systematically teaching chunks of language.
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What are chunks of language?
Language chunks are patterns of words that are used regularly together in the same (or nearly the same) order. Collocations, phrasal verbs, fixed (and semi-fxed) expressions, verb patterns, idioms and more can all be considered ‘chunks’. ‘All of a sudden’, ‘at the end of the day', and 'heavy rain' would be examples.
Chunks have more than one word, they are widely recognized, the words are in the same order (or move around in a regular way), and are often learned as a phrase.
Why are chunks useful in language learning?
“It is easier to look up something from long-term memory than compute it” - Ellis et al, 2008.
Well, neuroscience tells us that the brain didn't develop to learn individual words, but instead evolved to remember short patterns of language in chunks.
Logically, if chunks are high-frequency items (i.e. learners are likely to encounter them regularly), then it would clearly be useful to teach them. As the quote from Ellis et al, above, says, it’s easier for learners to recall a chunk of language (“How’re you doing?”) rather than try to construct the parts of the sentence from the lego blocks of vocabulary, grammar and phonology.
So are chunks frequent enough to be worth teaching?
One study showed that 84 collocations are so frequently used they could qualify for a place in the top 1000 words (if you assumed each collocation is a 'word'). Another study showed that 500 phrasal expressions qualified to be in the top 5000 words.
From a learner's point of view, though, there are four reasons why learning chunks can be a real help:
1. Chunks help understanding of idiomatic language
Native and native-like speakers often use language that learners find baffling. A learner might say, "The weather is nice today", only to be met with "Don't count your chickens". If a learner hasn’t encountered this idiom, they might think the other person has gone mad. As chunks of language are often idiomatic language, learning them helps overcome this issue.
2. Chunks can improve fluency
Retrieving and using a chunk of language is much easier than retrieving several words and then using grammar to construct a sentence. Especially in real-time conversation!
3. Chunks help learners develop faster
I always remember teaching 'how are you?' to beginning students, who accept it easily as a chunk of language, without having to break it down grammatically - but then they further understand it as their learning allows them to.
Michael Lewis, who championed the 'Lexical Approach' (an approach to language teaching that uses chunks), considered that the process of learning a language was to learn chunks:
Michael Lewis himself made a similar point:
“The Lexical Approach claims that, far from language being the product of the application of rules, most language is acquired lexically, then ‘broken down’… after which it becomes available for re-assembly in potentially new combinations”
4. It increases motivation
Students respond well to quick wins in language learning. It's highly motivating for them to be able to use a chunk of new language fluently, in a short space of time.
A word of warning though: a student who uses chunks can briefly fake being at a higher level than they really are. This could lead to conversations falling off a cliff as the listener hears a high-level / native-like utterance (made of chunks), then responds at the same level, and the student is led out of their depth. This has happened to me as a language student!
It can be worth making learners aware of this.
Teaching chunks vs. teaching vocabulary, grammar and phonology
A chunk can contain pre-set vocabulary, grammar and phonology, which can be learnt together without breaking it down. This can be deconstructed at leisure, or we find that understanding comes later.
Chunks have vocabulary, grammar and phonology embedded in them. Phonology plays an important role in chunks - think of the chunk, 'yeah, right.' Without the pronunciation in it, the listener wouldn't know whether this was meant to be sincere or sarcastic!
Teaching phrases and chunks allows communication to happen faster. You can think of this as teaching bottom-up - usage and communication come first, and grammatical (and lexical and phonological) deconstruction can come later.
When the teacher does teach the vocabulary, grammar, and phonology, it allows students to understand the chunks, break them down, and reconstruct them in new and creative ways. You can see the students start to have ‘lightbulb moments’, where they finally realise why they use the language the way they do.
Alternatively, teaching vocabulary, lexis and grammar can be thought of teaching as ‘top down’ - understanding the parts of language comes before communication (or if lucky, at the same time). Once the student knows enough parts, the idea is that they'll be able to assemble language to communicate effectively.
Unfortunately, this leads to many errors and low fluency as students struggle to process and construct in real-time.
4 ways to teach chunks of language
1. The phrasebook approach
This is really based around memorisation - much like a traveller memorising phrases from a phrasebook. As you'd expect, techniques here aren't flashy and would include basic activities like rote learning/memorisation, drilling and shadowing.
2. The awareness-raising approach
As it sounds, this approach is based on getting learners to notice chunks of language from a large amount of language listening and reading. Of course, this input should be at roughly the learners’ level, and the teacher should run activities that encourage noticing, such as:
Lots of extensive reading and listening tasks.
Asking students to notice patterns, and check them in an online corpus (this could also lead to substitution drills if possible with certain chunks).
Keeping notes of chunks for learning and re-using.
I notice that when I learn another language, I often pick up on high-frequency chunks around functional language - especially low-level language such as used for shopping, finding my way around, and so on.
I hypothesize that this approach works well for lower adult levels where learners will often run into patterns and the same chunks.
3. The analytic approach
This approach takes the view that chunks should be taught more explicitly than the awareness-raising approach, above. A cycle of teaching, called ACCESS, was suggested by Boers and Lindstromberg that looks like the diagram at the start of this newsletter:
Teach - teach chunks you want students to know, explicitly.
Select - choose the chunks you want students to learn based on frequency, usefulness and ease of teaching.
Reveal - show students what's interesting about the chunk to make it easier to remember.
Complement - make it even easier to remember by encouraging students to break down the chunk into grammatical, lexical and phonological aspects.
4. Communicative approach
This approach encourages teachers to choose communicative activities that have chunks of language embedded in them. Students must repeat the chunk several times for practice to complete the task.
An example would be a mill drill activity, where students mingle and ask questions of other students. Students could plan a day with friends, and the chunk they use could be 'what do you fancy doing?' The chunk would then need to be repeated each time they asked a new person.
It's useful to be aware of how much ambiguity our students can accept.
Some students are fine with not knowing what some words mean, or why these words are placed in a certain way. Other students feel uncomfortable not knowing what every word means, and the grammatical rule behind every construction.
If this is the case, then take the time to help students understand why and how chunks can help them learn, and increase their tolerance of ambiguity. You can also take the time to break down the meaning, form and pronunciation of chunks to your learners, if you feel this is appropriate for the class.
Top tips to teach chunks
Teaching chunks effectively follows the same principles as teaching vocabulary well. So when teaching chunks, remember:
Teach chunks in context.
Review items regularly (using spaced repetition is ideal)
Let them pick up chunks of language from you, unanalyzed, but that they understand from context (i.e. classroom language - 'how're you doing? / Pass the scissors / Put your hand up / etc.).
That’s all for now - good luck integrating teaching chunks into your lessons. Tell me how it goes!
If you’d like to learn more, you might like to go into more depth with my books:
1. Plan better, faster and stress-free with Lesson Planning for Language Teachers (125 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
2. Develop calm students and a classroom full of learning with Essential Classroom Management (24 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
3. Improve your teaching in five minutes daily with the Reflective Teaching Practice Journal (10 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
Ellis, Nick C., Rita Simpson‐vlach, and Carson Maynard. ‘Formulaic Language in Native and Second Language Speakers: Psycholinguistics, Corpus Linguistics, and TESOL’, September 2008. http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/89473.
Bor, Daniel. The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning. Basic Books, 2012.
Shin, Dongkwang, and Paul Nation. ‘Beyond Single Words: The Most Frequent Collocations in Spoken English’. ELT Journal 62, no. 4 (1 October 2008): 339–48. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccm091.
Martinez, Ron, and Norbert Schmitt. ‘A Phrasal Expressions List’. Applied Linguistics 33, no. 3 (July 2012): 299–320. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/ams010.
‘Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice’. Accessed 4 November 2022. http://tesl-ej.org/ej09/r10.html.Ellis, Nick C., Rita Simpson‐vlach, and Carson.
Boers, F., and S. Lindstromberg. Optimizing a Lexical Approach to Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Springer, 2009.