Lexical Chunks for Kids (by Mark Kulek)

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.

Notebook practiceAfter 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.

Sequencing practice

Sequencing practice

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.

Speaking practice

Speaking practice

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.


Note: This article by Mark Kulek originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

You may also like...

21 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you so much, Mark, for sharing this in such great detail!

    I really want to see you conducting that fluency practice. I’d be tempted to try it, but know that I’m way too uncoordinated to pull off a little kick before each repetition. But I will try to incorporate the sense of fun that I get from your suggestion!

  2. Mark Kulek says:

    Barbara, I have no doubt that you could do it. I know that you have skills. I saw your underwater photography. Next time we see each other, we’ll do some kicks and snaps.

  3. Kathleen Kampa says:

    Great article! Your lessons sound like they gently scaffold the new language with group practice, individual practice, and personalization. Love your “kicks” and “snaps”–love to join the party with Barbara! I’ll be there at JALT.


    • Barbara says:

      That’s three! A few more and we’ll have a bonafide snapping and kicking chorus line at JALT 🙂

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Thanks Kathleen. Your comments mean a lot to me. Especially, coming from you.

      I’m pretty sure that the first JALT presentation I attended in Hamamatsu was yours. I remember thinking then, could I ever come close to conducting a class with your energy level? I’m still trying. However, I have come a long way since then.

      Thanks again Kathleen.
      P.S. I’d love to meet you

  4. Carmen says:

    Hi, I teach english as second language and I use lexical chunk. the older children write and draw the cards for the youngest students. I agree it really works.
    Your post is great!

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Carmen, I like that your older students are producing language for the younger students. Sounds like you are creating a wonderful dynamic for peer learning.

      Thank you for your positive feedback.

      Much appreciated.

  5. Paul Dickinson says:

    Really great article! There is nowhere near enough attention given to lexical chunks in ELT generally, despite the ever-increasing body of evidence about their importance. So, it’s great to see that not only are you teaching them, but are doing so in such a creative, fun way!

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Hi Paul. Thanks for your support. You are so right. Lexical chunks are how we speak. It’s so basic. My students feel an accomplishment by using chunks. They are able to express more and more clearly. We have a lot of fun together. Especially, right at the beginning of class, when we are sitting on the floor playing with patterns and sharing small talk, if you will.

  6. This is an exemplary blog post – practical, well-grounded, beautifully illustrated. Well done, Mark!

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Thanks so much Scott. I got much of my inspiration from your wonderful books.

  7. Breathyvowel says:

    I can only echo Mr Thornbury’s sentiments above. This seems like a wonderful way to teach young learners. I love the progression from group to individual, supported to free practice, and fixed to creative. It echos a lot of my thoughts about teaching young learners, especially the drawing activites. One thing I would add, with all the kicking and snapping, the group practice phase seems ripe for some TPR oriented stuff too.

    Your writing is great Mark, I will be saving your post and hoping to learn from it in my own scribblings. Thanks.


    • Mark Kulek says:

      Thanks Alex. You are right about the potentional for more TPR. However, I do apply a gesture before the kick and snap and require the students to do the same.

      I feel drawing serves many useful purposes: it gives the students ownership of the language, it allows them to be creative, it scaffolds their talk during the sharing phase (as well as for the listeners), it gives them an image to bridge the language to deeper memory and it helps to balance the lesson with some quiet time.

      I can’t take full credit for the writing. Barbara did a fantastic job of editing. Like language learning, writing is a life long endeavor. Hopefully, one day I will feel confident in my writing.

  8. Hi, Mark,

    I love the way you teach lexical chunks using lots of visual aids (including your cute gestures!) in various group formations to make the whole lesson meaningful for children. Also I like the way you gradually give them communicative pressure – in a fun way!

    I’ve learned so much from this article. Thanks for sharing!

    Oh, and can I join your ‘kicks’ and ‘snaps’ party at JALT, too? 🙂


  9. Mark Kulek says:

    Thanks Mari for your positive input.

    I can show you how I do an advanced TPR woven to make sentences with snaps and kicks, If you would like. We can do it at the My Share at JALT 2011.

    Have fun.

    Mark in Gifu

  10. Kristi says:

    I was wondering where you got all the chunks? Did you just come up with them on your own or is there a list somewhere of chunks that should be taught? I am a veteran elementary teacher in the U.S., but I’m new to the ESL classroom. Thanks for your help.

    • Mark Kulek says:

      Hi Kristi. I came up with them myself. At my school, I do theme cycles. From these themes, I think of useful phrases in which students can practice short dialogues. In addition to their usefulness for the topic on hand, the chunks can also be carried over to other topics and situations. In other words, the chunks must be flexible and interesting for the students.

      You might want to check out the various corpuses on the Net to see what chunks are used in different situations. This is something that I’m interested in, but haven’t had the time to do yet.

      I hope this helps. Please feel free to follow up with other questions. I would love to hear how you are planning to use lexical chunks in your ESL classroom. As you know, I’m in an EFL classroom. Keep me posted.


  1. July 16, 2011

    […] how to exploit these lexical chunks can be a real help for teachers. Check out Mark’s post, Lexical Chunks for Kids, and see for […]

  2. March 15, 2014

    […] Using 'lexical chunks' in the classroom https://bit.ly/jJmd8A #tesol #esl #ELT…  […]