Mark left a comment on a recent post of mine (How Context Matters) that intrigued me, about using lexical chunks with his young learners. I asked him to expand on his comment in a guest post, and Mark was kind enough to agree. ~Barb
What are lexical chunks?
Lexical chunks are multi-word units of language. Some never change (like Good morning!) while others allow some substitution to convey different meaning (like Please pass the ___.) In The A- Z of ELT, Scott Thornbury suggests that lexical chunks or formulaic language might provide the ‘raw material’ for language acquisition. That is, “sequences that are first acquired as unanalyzed chunks (such as I don’t know) may be later analyzed into their component parts. They are then capable of generating original phrases, such as I don’t understand, You don’t know, I know …, etc” (pp.85-86).
Learning chunks is no more difficult than memorizing single words. In their paper, Language is a Complex Adaptive System, The Five Graces Group explains that “corpus analyses in fact verify that communication largely consists of prefabricated sequences” (p.6). Prefabricated sequences are lexical chunks that can often cause problems for our students. Combining lexical chunks (the raw material), pictures (content), and context (a situation), helps students learn language more effectively.
How I use lexical chunks in my young learners’ classroom:
I open class with an icebreaker activity using language chunks. For example, this month’s pack of chunks include: Yes I can, Excuse me. Where is the…?, That’s a good idea, Pass me the…, I need…, and How much is it? We sit on the floor practicing these patterns. I ask questions or make statements that will elicit the chunks. I always try to make this activity a bit silly, to help students make the transition from their Japanese environment into our English world in fun and interesting ways.
After the icebreaker, we do a drawing activity. I show the students more cards with lexical chunks, new or recycled from previous sessions, and make sure that all students understand the meaning. The students open their notebooks, write the chunk, and draw a picture that represents it. Doing this helps them to contextualize the meaning, like taking a snapshot to store in their memory for later use.
Next, we proceed with a sequence of lexical chunks. I try to choose language that is flexible or semi-fixed so that it can be recycled in different situations. I create a sequence with cards attached to a whiteboard. Each card includes a large picture that supports the meaning of the language. I make the pictures vague because I want students to form their own mental representation. The purpose at this stage is to practice fluency. The sequences become a short conversation between two people. Each student has no more than three turns in the conversation, because if the exchange is too long children can get discouraged.
Before we practice in pairs, we practice for fluency as a group. The students stand shoulder-to-shoulder. I am the conductor. I say the chunk using my body to express the meaning, snap my fingers, give a kick and the students repeat. First, we do a group chorus, next we do it individually, and finally the students become the conductors. In this activity, I can also have students practice substituting words in the flexible parts of chunks.
After pair practice, I give students a handout with the patterns and pictures printed across the top of the page. Below the patterns are blank squares. There are usually two sets of blank squares. In the first set of squares, students write the pattern exactly as they learned it, but draw their own pictures to show the meaning. In the second set of squares, students can change any part of the chunk to make it their own. The purpose here is to check to see if students understand the meaning of the language and can manipulate the language to make it personal.
In the final step, the students further manipulate and personalize the language. I place cards showing the lexical chunks on the classroom table. Students use the language to create original comic strips. At this stage, most of the support is removed, and students rely on their imaginations to create a logical situations using the chunks. In Barbara’s original post, she said, “the more students use words in context (and in different contexts) the more memorable the language becomes.” Moreover, the more decisions students make with words, the easier they will be to remember.
It’s a wonderful feeling when our students communicate with us naturally and in fun ways. This keeps the teacher fire burning. Cheers and don’t let the fire go out.
I make my home in Gifu, Japan, where I have a small English conversation school for both adults and young learners. I have been teaching EFL for 15 years. I’m interested in professional development and activity-based curriculums. You can find me on Twitter as @gifumark