Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Chunking: Another Perspective

We recently heard from Visual Thesaurus editor Ben Zimmer about the "chunking" approach to English-language instruction, which focuses on teaching students how stretches of words ("lexical chunks") tend to fall together in high frequency. Brett Reynolds, a professor of academic English at Humber College in Toronto, has long been somewhat skeptical of chunking, and we asked him to offer a contrasting perspective on the value of the approach for language teaching.

In his recent Word Routes column, Ben Zimmer takes up the growing use of chunking and collocation in language teaching. The gist is that rather than simply teaching the meaning of a bunch of vocabulary, teachers are taking the next step and also teaching the connections that words commonly have. These connections can take the form of chunks or multi-word items such as for the most part and give me a break, or they can be collocations, words that tend to co-occur, if not always contiguously. The pairs offer + condolences and regain + composure are examples of collocations.

I think Ben's assessment of the situation is fair. Indeed, teaching vocabulary is often seen as "simply" teaching word meanings. It's associated with mechanical drilling and rote memorization. Teaching connections between words, on the other hand, is often presented as being a new paradigm, modern and enlightened. Many of us experience a small pleasurable feeling of recognition the first time somebody points out to us that, for example, even though rest and break mean roughly the same thing, we say give me a break and give it a rest but not the other way round. It's the kind of tidbit you want to share with other people and teachers want to share with their students. Learning that daidokoro means kitchen in Japanese just doesn't produce the same reaction.

Of course, fun facts are great, but they need to be paired with useful facts, skills, and ideas. Unfortunately, few collocations are useful enough to bother teaching. Ben points out that to document collocations, researchers need massive corpora. That's because collocations tend to be rareā€”not nearly so rare that proficient speakers of a language will not recognize them, but rare enough that instances of particular collocations can be separated by hundreds of thousand, even millions of words. For language learners, that can mean years between encounters. It's difficult to imagine that something that you meet once every few years is going to be of much value to you, and it's certainly going to be very difficult to bring to mind if ever you do want to use it.

The solution is typically to present collocations to students out of context. But this pushes out other useful content. If you should bring up and teach strong wind, as one colleague suggested, then shouldn't you also teach wind's more common collocates: blow, power, solar, rain, and gust (query the Corpus of Contempory American English, or COCA). That's six. Multiply that by the 2,000 words, a pretty common target in countries where students learn English from grades 6 to 12, and you end up with something in the order of 10,000 items to teach. There's simply no way teachers could spend class time on more than a fraction of these.

Even if a class did focus entirely on collocation, the payback would be minimal. Assuming the COCA is representative of English as a whole, then the strong + wind collocation is literally a one in a million occurrence. In contrast, a "difficult" word like compromise (which is not even in the top 2,000 words of English) occurs singly about 30 times per million words. In fact, there are some 10,000 word families that are more common than strong + wind. So, is it more worthwhile to enrich students' understanding of wind by looking at collocates, or to have them study a basic meaning for compromise? Wouldn't "big wind" or "heavy wind" get them by just fine?

The fact is that knowing many collocations may make a language learner's speech and writing more idiomatic, but it won't do much for their listening and reading ability. It doesn't have the bootstrapping function provided by learning words and their meanings. Knowing more words makes it easier to understand the language you read and hear, which, in turn, makes it easier to learn more words. Knowing more collocations is of little value since they are provided in the input.

None of this is to say that chunks or collocations are never worth teaching. Certain expressions, like how are you and on the other hand are common enough to deserve attention. (An Academic Formulas List has just been published.) But these are the oddballs numbering in the low hundreds. In almost all other cases, teaching chunks and collocations will simply displace the more basic teaching and learning of word meanings. Lexical chunks may have entered the house of language teaching, as Ben says, but they shouldn't be given the run of the place.


Brett Reynolds is professor of English for academic purposes at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. His interest in language blossomed in Japan, where he lived, taught, and was humbled by the language for ten years. He has published various language teaching materials and currently writes the English, Jack blog.


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Monday September 27th 2010, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
Thanks for offering an opposing viewpoint, I guess, but this article leaves me more convinced than ever of the value of teaching chunks. Strong wind is a perfect example of the value of teaching words in chunks.
Monday September 27th 2010, 11:15 AM
Comment by: Brett R. (Caledon Canada)
Ravi, maybe you could explain why you think 'strong wind' is something worth teaching.
Monday September 27th 2010, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
It's not easy to follow those comments! I thought of absquatulating, but decided to try to write something...

(Ben, that absquat word relates to something I asked finally in ManUp)

My husband learned English when he arrived in New York from France, just plunged into school at 15 or 16. He'd not got anything much from his American dad who always spoke French to him, nor from his English class in France.

He kept a book where he wrote words. Understanding idioms and prepositions was extremely hard.

I think that's where the chunking can be very useful. I had limited experience with ESL and Vietnamese youngsters, and we did some chunking but without calling it that, I guess. It just seemed normal to teach a word in context. And I was aware of the problems that prepositions presented, so gave special attention to those, especially when they function as a part of a verb with another word.

Learning English isn't easy when you don't grow up with it used well. In its long and storied history, it's acquired so many quirks.

Beautiful it is, and adaptable. But complicated.
Monday September 27th 2010, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY, NY)
Wow! Excellent commentary on the subject.

For me what sums it up is your comment, "It doesn't have the bootstrapping function provided by learning words and their meanings."

Maybe throw in a chunk for fun once in a while... and they do likely show up, as the teacher explains their own colloquial use of the language.
Monday September 27th 2010, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Chunking is an interesting concept, one that I've never thought of in quite this way. What you and Ben call chunks I think of "expressions" or as "idiomatic phrases." And it certainly is true that everybody says, "How are you?" not "You are how?"

And, yes, we are more likely to say "heavy rain" and "strong wind" than "strong rain" or "heavy wind."

But we also say, "bitter wind," "biting wind," "light wind," "gusting wind," "east wind," or "pelting rain," "cold rain," "nasty rain," "gentle rain," etc.

And instead of always saying "How are you?" we say, "What's up? "How're you doing," "'Sup?" or "What's cooking, good looking?"

So chunks or idiomatic phrases are always there to be used, but each word maintains its identity, and we use or modify chunks, or invent new ones, to suit our immediate situation or purposes.

Also chunks like "weapons of mass destruction" become cliches that come to be used only with implied quotation marks to show that we've seen the hollowness this particular chunk.

Final point: I know that in learning foreign languages, thinking in chunks can be very helpful. Beginning French students soon learn to say "Est-ce que" or "Il me faut" or "S'il vous plait" as unitary sounds that get the job done rather than focusing on each word and its meaning.
Monday September 27th 2010, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
I think Ben Zimmer is making an assumption which millions of English speaking people make and have made since the nineteenth century. Brett rather deflates the assumption, though sadly he never quite spells out what that assumption is and why it is wrong.

Why do people want to learn English? The assumption is that they want to know the language in order to talk to us, and in order to do that with as much credibility as possible, they want to sound like us (us being the nativ speakers). But they don't. Most talking in English is done by non-natie speakers to each other. The European Medicines Agency in London is a typical example: gathered together in one workplace are people from 27 countries speaking , at last count, 20 different languages, and the only language they all share is English. There are a few native speakers in the building, but the overwhelming majority of encounters - meetings, conversations, phone calls, email - are between people who are all speaking English as a foreign language

So does the accuracy of their collocations really matter? If their language chunks are strange, do their hearers care, or even notice?

I'm the language editor of Modern English Teacher (pub. UK), and would love to hear opinions on this fascinating topic.
Monday September 27th 2010, 7:14 PM
Comment by: Brett R. (Caledon Canada)
I think Nick makes an excellent point. Though there are certainly places, such as English-medium universities, where the students can expect to be judged on the naturalness of their English, most of the time, even with native speakers, somewhat unidiomatic output will get the job done.
Monday September 27th 2010, 7:24 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think that many, many people learn English, not simply to talk to other English speakers, but, as in Brett's post about a European Agency, to have a common language to 'get together with'. English has become it. Part of the reason might be that while some people might resent having to learn French to communicate with -- say a Portuguese company, they would feel less 'put off' by needing English.

It isn't that English is superior, or more exact. I think it's just that it's become more adaptable.

People are able to pidgeon it, to make their own blocks or chunks. I think we've had quite a few columns here about this, right?

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