The big debate continues – do children, who are learning English as a second language, acquire vocabulary better learning a single word or in lexical chunks?
Traditionalists would argue the former, but those who really understand the complexities of a language and how it is made up would advocate the latter. It’s said that children are adaptable and they learn fast. But what’s really beneficial to them and what are lexical chunks?
Lexical chunks could be simply defined by a group of known words that commonly appear together. Traditionally speaking, languages, English included, have usually been divided up into two sections: grammar and lexicon. Grammar rules would be automatically written down on the board, tirelessly copied into notebooks and every single word would be learned separately, memorized and inserted into their rightful places depending on the grammatical context of the sentence. While this rigid approach is rather simple and can be used in learning any language, it’s not the most practical. Let’s take the verbs “make” and “do” for example, two seemingly easy words for native speakers but two words that cause non-native learners a lot of grief, why is it we “make the bed” but we “do the dishes”? In order to learn words and work towards fluency, ESL learners need to understand when to use words in not strictly a grammatical sense but in a lexical sense too. It’s easy to sit down and memorize a list of words, anyone can do this, but to truly acquire a second language it needs to be learned in chunks, how it appears naturally in the English language and it needs to be implemented right from the very beginning of a child’s learning process. So, how is it we can effectively teach lexical chunks to children and promote fluency in the ESL classroom?
Promote Fluency by Using Lexical Chunks
Link Lexical Chunks in a Meaningful Way
When learning any aspect of any language, learning needs to be meaningful. Students young or old need to see how it’s used. Learning a language should be communicative and our students need to see and understand how the grammar and words taught in the ESL classroom relate to real life. When we teach with the idea of ‘real life’ in mind, we’re improving our students’ fluency. Instead of taking weeks or perhaps even months to learn how to string single words into sentences to form a dialogue they will be able to do this almost instantaneously.
To teach sequencing of lexical chunks it’s a great idea to use flashcards. Unfortunately for us teachers this means extra work because still today, no matter how many times communicative learning has been advocated we still receive flashcards with single words. However, lucky for us technology is on our side and these can be easily made on the commuter with simple clip art to accompany them. Place the series of relevant lexical chunks on the board that form a conversation e.g. ‘what time is it?’, ‘it’s time to start’, ‘are you ready?’, ‘just a minute’, ‘hurry up’. The lexical chunk flashcards should be placed in sequence as the natural dialogue would take place and have simple pictures to accompany them to express the meaning. After the teacher has modeled the dialogue, the students will take it in turns to practice the dialogue in pairs.
After practicing the sequenced dialogue a few times jumble the flashcards up and have the students put them in their correct order and have the remaining pairs practice them. Finally, it’s time for students to add a little bit of their own imagination through adding actions. The main purpose of this particular exercise it to promote fluency in speaking. It will also give the students more confidence and the feeling that progress is being made.
After practicing the sequenced chunks in speaking it’s then time for writing. Give your students a worksheet with the pictures in random order without the text. Afterwards have them decide which lexical chunk fits with the corresponding picture with the final exercise being sequencing them into their correct order.
Use Songs to Learn Lexical Chunks
Kids love songs and singing, rhyme and music are underrated and still not used enough in the ESL classroom as quite often as they should be or not teachers dismiss them as consuming too much of the precious lesson time. If songs are unrelated to the lesson, then yes, they are a waste of time but there’s a plethora of great children’s songs and nursery rhymes that include lexical chunks. Songs are great and should be used in the ESL classroom, especially for children, who generally have no inhibitions about singing unlike older learners – the songs just need to be chosen wisely. The great thing about songs and lexical chunks is that they stick. Play the song and as you play the song model the actions so the students understand the chunks. After modeling write the lexical chunks on the board for the students to refer to. Some great children’s songs that can be used are the classic nursery rhyme ‘This is the way we…’ or ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’.
Lexical Chunks and Comics
Lexical chunks are also great in conjunction with comics. Have a simple comic strip with the group of lexical chunks you want to learn e.g. classroom language. Form a short story with simple comic-like pictures to confer the message. If you’re not an artist, it doesn’t matter, simple stick figures will suffice. Have a short scene of pictures telling the story. Without having any words in the speech bubbles make up your own story dialogue that students can listen to as the look at each picture. Make sure you guide the students with the pictures and demonstrate with your fingers that you’ve moved onto the next scene. Repeat the story a few more times until the students have heard the basic lexical phrases a couple of times. Afterwards point to each picture and encourage the students to shout out the phrase e.g. raise your hand, be quiet. After the students have managed to repeat the phrases correctly write them on the board. The next step is to have your students use their imaginations with the pictures in front of them and write their own simple dialogue with the inclusion of the lexical chunks on the board. Even if your learners are of a low level, it doesn’t matter, they can just include some names to make the comic more original. Allowing the learners to make the comic more personal will also help in making the learning more meaningful.
A great way to practice lexical chunks for homework is to give your students a list of chunks that needed to be included in their own original comic – pictures and all.
Review Lexical Chunks
Lexical chunks are easy to review with children and almost the same approach can be taken as learning individual words – you just need a little bit more imagination when it comes to kids. Kids love to draw, so why not integrate it into the classroom? To simply review previously taught lexical chunks from prior lessons ask your students to open their notebooks and write the chunk e.g. ‘wash the dishes’. Under their writing have the students draw a quick sketch to visually show the meaning. This way you kill two birds with one stone – not only do the children get to review, but they will have a visual reminder of the chunk when it comes to reviewing for quizzes and tests. Drawing the chunks will help them contextualize the meaning and at the same time store it away in their memories.
Learning any language can be a long and arduous task if the aim of learning is fluency.
With the increased demand of knowing English as a second language, it is clear that students have the motivation to learn for both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. Working towards fluency needs to begin from when the student is of a young age, so they can gradually work towards natural sounding English. In short, chunks are more common in the English language than individual words, therefore, as teachers we should aim at helping young learning acquire English in chunks to promote fluency. When we hear the word fluency, boring and intense lessons immediately come to mind, this is not so and these are just a few ways of including chunks in your lesson to make it more fun.