Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Book Review: 'Teaching Chunks of Language' - Lindstromberg, Boers

Teaching Chunks of Language
From noticing to remembering

by Seth Lindstromberg & Frank Boers
Helbling Languages 2008
ISBN 9783852720562
From the introduction:
"Teaching Chunks of Language is an original new resource book for teachers of EFL/ESL students at intermediate-advanced level. It shows how to help students work out the origins and reasoning behind the choice of words that occur apparently at random in so many chunks of language in English. This not only helps the students remember them but also work out the most likely choice of words in semi-familiar chunks. So students can make real progress in this traditionally challenging area of language - highly satisfactory for them, and for you as their teacher.
Well, I think that appropriately chunky introduction pretty much sums everything up nicely, so I can just dive right in to describing some of the interesting activities Messers. Lindstromberg and Boers have dreamt up for our greater teaching pleasure.

Whenever I get sent a new ELT book, and particularly one like Teaching Chunks of Language,  from the Helbling 'Resourceful Teacher Series', which generally approaches things from a little left of centre, I'm like a kid in a candy store. With so many inventive activities, it's quite difficult to know where to start.

The book is divided into four sections, after a very comprehensive nine-page introduction explains just what chunks of language actually are, and how we can easily introduce activities into our lessons to help our students learn them.

A chunk of language, by the way, just in case you were wondering but too scared to ask, is simply a bunch of two or more words that often go together. Examples from this paragraph so far which would probably qualify as chunks include by the way, just in case, and too scared to ask. To be honest (there's another one), chunks of language are everywhere. These may be typical linguistic structures (as far as I can tell), common collocations (attend a meeting) or the familiar idioms and similies which already have a place in many coursebooks (go through the roof, sick as a parrot). Chunks are apparently stored in the brain as a single unit and can therefore be produced with as much ease as a single word, thus making our speech more fluent and efficient.

Current teaching wisdom generally considers it a good thing to include some of these word chunks in our lessons explicitly to help learners gain an additional measure of the fluency enjoyed by native speakers.

The first section of Teaching Chunks of Language deals with getting our learners to actually recognise chunks as chunks, and start to find ways to efficiently learn them. The second section takes it to the next level and looks at grouping chunks into thematic areas to help increase memory retention. The next unit is about the vital area of reviewing what has been studied to fix the word groups more firmly into long-term memory. And finally, there is a very useful 60-page collection of photocopiable materials and handouts to go with the earlier exercises.

The inside presentation is fairly sober - this is  a black and white teacher's resource manual, not a singing and dancing course book - and it's for the teacher to make the activities sing and dance off the page I suppose. There are a few drawings and pictures to cheer things up a bit, and the handouts are varied and reasonably clearly designed, if, perhaps necessily, wordy.

A handful of activity titles will give you a rough idea of some of the content:

From the Basic chunk teaching activities section: Priming with Chinese whispers / Remember my change / Filling in a story skeleton / Between listening gap fills

From the Teaching sets of chunks section:
Things that make sounds / Weather phrases / Body idioms / Seeing the deep logic of word partnerships / Noticing patterns of sound repetition

From the Reviewing and Quizzing section:
Memory slips with hints / Review posters / Guess my chunk / Test me easy, test me hard / Blanks with big fat hints

What Teaching Chunks of Language attempts to do is make the Lexical Approach - that of focusing on words and word groups in particular - more accessible and applicable to the modern communicative language classroom, and I feel it is rather successful in that with this well thought out range of activities to compliment other parts of the language lesson.

Michael Lewis, author of the original The Lexical Approach, did actually suggest ways of focusing more on prefabricated multi-word chunks in class with his more practical Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice, but it is fair to say that there isn't an enormous catalogue of books which approach this important aspect of language learning in a thoroughly practical way.

Although we can all recognise the existence of set phrases such as for what it's worth or from time to time as legitimate and frequently occurring word groups, it is still considered somewhat subversive to construct a lesson exclusively around multi-word chunks. Some of Lewis' original 'dangerous ideas', such as language being grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar, the grammar/vocabulary dichotomy being invalid, and the need to replace the good old Present-Practise-Produce paradigm with an Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle still prove difficult to swallow by many, even after all these years.

I sometimes smile to myself as I hammer home the obligatory PPP approach on the TEFL Paris certificate course I run, thinking how simple it all seems at the start of this wonderful career called English teaching, and how much more there is to discover if you really want to delve deeper. Bye bye for now.

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