In traditional classrooms, the focus has always been on teaching words in isolation. As a result, learners know the meanings of many words but they do not know how to use the words appropriately in context. Of late, enhancing learners’ knowledge of chunks of language is emphasised.
What are chunks? Chunks are groups of words or fixed expressions. When we speak or write, we use a lot of phrases, such as by the way, for example, as a result, on the other hand, a kind of, a lot of, at the moment, I mean, you know, at the end of the day, etc. These groups of words or phrases are called chunks of language. Why should learners be taught words in chunks? Research has proved that those who learn vocabulary in chunks learn a language better than those who learn words in isolation. Learners retain vocabulary better when they learn chunks.
Michael Lewis, known for advocating the lexical approach to language teaching, says that native speakers of any language have memorised hundreds of chunks to produce fluent and accurate speech. It is important to expose learners to real communication or authentic speech exchanges in order to help them develop their communication skills.
Knowledge of individual words is essential but what is more important and useful is the knowledge of how to use the words in appropriate contexts. Take the word ‘take’ for example. This word has over a hundred different meanings though the basic meaning is ‘to move something or somebody from one place to another’.
When ‘take’ collocates with different nouns, the meaning of ‘take’ in each ‘take+noun’ collocation is different. Look at these examples: take a bus, take a minute, take a test, take advice, take steps, take offense, take pity, take cover, take heart, take the axe to. Here are the meanings of some of the above ‘take’ collocations:
• take offence: to feel upset because of something someone has said or done
• take pity: to show sympathy for someone because they are in a bad situation
• take the axe to something: to make drastic cuts, particularly in workforce
In the English language there are many phrases and idioms in which the word ‘all’ is part of them. Here are some of the set phrases with ‘all’ and their meanings:
• all balled up: stuck or confused...
• all day long: during the length of the entire day...
• all set: ready: prepared
• all shot to hell: broken; damaged
• all skin and bones: too thin
Chunks appear in many ways: as collocations and idioms, in set phrases (good luck, all the best) and in ‘discourse markers’ (‘as far as I know, by the way).