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.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

The chunking approach challenges many of the traditions of English-language instruction.
Ben Zimmer and fellow linguist John McWhorter discuss chunking and other language-related issues.
Behold the Corpus
How corpus research is transforming the creation of dictionaries.