Teaching lexically or how to deal with chunks

It goes without saying that learning different types of chunks can help develop fluency and build confidence even at low levels as learners will remember meaningful lexical items that are easier to put into speech than single word items.

Corpus research has shown that a large part of communicative language is predictable because the choice of words that go together is restricted and can be a result of grammatical rules or simply usage. When words regularly appear together in a language, we call these words lexical phrases or collocations. The developments in corpus linguistics and research into word frequency have proved the importance of teaching lexical chunks rather than grammar rules which Lewis proposed in the Lexical Approach.

Michael Lewis developed The Lexical approach in 1993. It’s an alternative to grammar-based approaches. Lexis is the basis of language and plays central role. Language consists of grammaticalised lexis. Rather than trying to break things into ever smaller pieces, there is a conscious effort to see things in more holistic way.

What are chunks?

Chunks are multi-word units that can be put into several categories. The author of the Lexical Approach suggests that teachers should help learners expand their phrasal lexicon, which include:

  • different kinds of collocations, fixed and free,
  • the patterns in text of de-lexicalised verbs,
  • fixed expressions and idioms,
  • formulaic language, etc.

Here is a list of terms that teachers can keep in mind when they decide which chunks to teach.

Some types of fixed expressions and chunks

If you are interested in understanding and learning these terms, follow this link and use the Quizlet set I created for our trainees at BKC IH Moscow. If you need examples, have a look at this image:

Examples of chunks

We may start teaching a group of beginners by introducing some functional language that they will need in the following classes. I’m sure many teachers do that. Raising the learners’ awareness of classroom language can help teachers deliver lessons in English from the first stage of the course. This will also help develop learning strategies as learners will be able to ask for clarification or express preferences if teachers supply them with phrases like ‘How do you spell …?’ or ‘I would like you to write this down’.

When we teach functions, it’s worth teaching them in logical groups. For example, if you ask ‘how are you today?’ the most natural response might be ’I’m fine, thanks.’, which is silly to teach separately. These phrases are called an adjacency pair, a unit of conversation that contains an exchange of one turn each by two speakers. 

Teaching implications

To help learners extend their range of lexis, we can use a variety of visuals such as mind maps and remind them of certain important chunks. For example, before a speaking activity you can brainstorm ‘opinion phrases’ or you can ask the learners create a classroom poster with useful expressions on the topic of the lesson.

a classroom poster with useful language

Record keeping is another important skill that our learners need to develop to become more successful learners. We may take a pause and let them copy the whiteboard prompts, consolidate and reflect on their learning experience at the end of the lesson and we can create a set of routines to revise and review what has been learnt.

What is important for us to keep in mind?

  • teaching chunks rather than single words
  •  get maximum benefit from text
  •  dictionary as a resource for active learning
  •  record keeping to aid retrieval

References and useful resources

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., Finegan, E. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited. 2007

Brown, G. and Yule, G. Teaching the Spoken Language. Cambridge University Press. 1997

Gairns, R. and Redman, S. Working with words. A guide to teaching and learning vocabulary. Cambridge University Press. 1999

Lewis, M. Teaching Collocations. Further Development in the Lexical approach. Heinle: Thomson Learning. 2000

Lewis, M. Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications. 1997

Thornbury, S. How to teach vocabulary. Essex: Pearson Education Limited. 2002

Willis, D. Rules, Patterns and Words. Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press. 2009

Rebuffet-Broadus, C. Wright, J. Experimental practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side. Smashwords Edition. 2013