When we speak, listen and even think, our brain does not process language word by word, dealing with individual meanings one by one. In fact, many of the words that we use to add grammar to our messages do not have meaning at all, in a strict sense. Rather, the brain works with language in larger units of meaning – phrases, collocations and sequences of words, processed as larger units of meaning: chunks.
A lot of the vocabulary teaching that is done in language classrooms focuses on the meanings of individual words, often presented in lists or tasks to focus on one by one. However, this may not be the most effective way to help our students’ brains to retain or use what they are learning in their speech or writing.
Chunking is a technique to present language in a more contextualized way, which takes students beyond the level of individual words, and helps them to put ideas together in a more fluent and connected way. Here are some examples of how we can chunk language for more effective language work:
Chunking for vocabulary
A vocabulary chunk can be any group of more than one words which represents a single unit of meaning. For example, the word ‘ice-cream’ is a chunk which has come together from the original two words ‘iced’ and ‘cream’. As ice-cream got more popular and commonplace, the two words joined together over time into the present-day word ‘ice-cream’. The fact that this has evolved into a the single word that we now use shows that words which hang together (collocations) are processed so strongly as individual
chunks, that they can even become single words. Other examples compound nouns which have evolved from two-word chunks into a single word like ‘billboard’, ‘keyboard’ and ‘motorbike’.
These examples show the difference between a word as a single unit of meaning, and a chunk as a single unit of meaning. So why is this important? Well, if language is processed naturally in chunks, then it follows that it should be taught in chunks. One way of doing this, especially at lower levels of study, is to take time to teach collocations along with simple words - why just teach the word ‘school’, when this forms a natural springboard into collocations like ‘school bus’, ‘school uniform’, ‘school teacher’, etc. As students are engaged in the concept of ‘school’, they are more likely to pick up and retain associated words in chunks.
Chunking for Grammar
Many grammatical items naturally come together in chunks. Tenses, for example, often include auxiliaries and verbs together. Negative grammar usually involves adding a negative auxiliary, and there are even longer chunks which relate to grammar structures, as in conditional forms (if I were you,… / I would never have… / If only we’d…) which are so frequent that it is worth teaching them as units in themselves.
Other high-frequency phrases are important to include in grammar lessons, to relate the abstract grammar rules to the real world. The higher the frequency of a phrase, the more likely it is that learners have heard it, or will hear it in the future, so by teaching relevant phrases for the grammar you are addressing, you are preparing learners for the real-world contact that they are likely to make with those forms, for example:
Present continuous tense: ‘What are you doing?’
Present perfect simple tense: ‘I’ve never seen anything like it’
Present perfect continuous: ‘What have you been doing?’
Passive voice: ‘I’m tired’ / She was so surprised’ / ‘They are not interested’
Conditional grammar: ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you’
The more complex the grammar, the more likely students are to retain it as a chunk, rather than attempting to process the whole structure word-by-word, which leads to a loss of the wider meaning.
Chunking for pronunciation
When focusing on pronunciation, chinking is also important. Just as we don’t process the words we say individually, we don’t pronounce the sounds of words individually. We don’t even pronounce words individually - they join together into a continuous flow of connected speech.
For these reasons, working with pronunciation at word level is fine for establishing the accurate sound of a word, but until learners put it into the context of a phrase or sentence, they are unlikely to be able to use it with confidence (the fist time we use a word in a connected chunk of language is very different to the restricted repetition of individual words with a teacher).
‘Back-drilling’ is a great way to make students aware of how words sound when they are pronounced together: If a student has issues with pronouncing a longer chunk of speech, take a moment to get inside the chunk and isolate the part which is causing the learner to stumble. For example, the ‘th’ sounds cause issues for many speakers of other languages than English, so imagine an issue with the word ‘sixth’. The last part of this word is very complex, containing a cluster of consonants ‘k’ ’s’ and ‘th’, one after another. Back-drilling for this issue would mean breaking the word down from the end, and building the word up backwards, by asking the student to repeat the following sound sequences:
Thinking of this word as a fraction (rather than ‘the sixth person’), means that it can also be pluralised, with a -s ending, meaning the back-drill becomes:
6) ‘five sixths’
By building the previously challenging sequence as chunks of sound, it becomes more manageable, and more pronounceable in the context of the full word.
Another way of chunking for pronunciation is to ensure that when drilling, you model and get students pronouncing more than one word in a connected unit. Rather than drilling individual words and leaving silence between them, overpronouncing or being too careful in your own example, say it naturally and at speed, and students are more likely to pick up features of connected speech across words. Try back-drilling the words present continuous question ‘what are you doing’, for example, to focus on the weak schwa sound in the word ‘are’:
and so on - the relationship between the schwa sound and the weak words in the chunk will become clearer.
There are many ways that we can bring words, sounds and phrases together for work in the classroom, and by doing this, the language we study becomes more authentic to how it is really spoken, and how it is processed in natural communication.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.