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.
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-fixed) 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, 20081.
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 2 .
Logically, if chunks are high-frequency items (i.e. learners are likely to encounter them regularly), then it would clearly be helpful 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’)3. Another…