Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Book Review: "The Company Words Keep" by Paul Davis & Hanna Kryszewska

The Company Words Keep
Lexical chunks in language teaching
Paul Davis & Hanna Kryszewska
Delta Publishing 2012
ISBN 9781905085200

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "The Company Words Keep is a practical guide for teachers, showing how the latest insights into 'language chunks' can lead learners to acquire natural and fluent English. Here is a new methodology based on the Lexical Approach: a theory of language, of learning - and of teaching."

Some girls are bigger than others, said The Smiths. Some girls' mothers are bigger than other girls' mothers, they concluded in the same song. And I never understood what they were on about. Well, not exactly. But I knew those lines by heart and could sing them from the imaginary sloping rooftops of my mind anytime.

Some ELT titles are also bigger than others, and I have a feeling that The Company Words Keep may be one of them. Slim as it is.

And therein lies the paradox. A little company like Delta Publishing (nibbled, but not yet digested, by a monster like Heinle-National Geographic) producing titles which can still include casual throw-away references to Deep Throat tossed in alongside weighty linguistic head-nods (see Nattinger and DeCarico (1992, Lewis (1993) and Hoey (whoee?) (2005)) and you'll see what I mean.

The Company Words Keep continues Michael Lewis' legacy and is all about chunks of words which we recognise and remember easily. In this much it is a joy, because it validates basically everything we've ever intuitively known or sensed when a really crappy learner one day comes out with a word and intonation-perfect utterance, against all the odds, because it's from one of their favourite songs.

But I'm rambling here, the beer must have got the better of me, which Paul Davis can surely understand, this being one of his declared back cover predilections.

The book comes in three parts. The first is pretty much summed up in its opening volley: "The company words keep. Not grammar. Not words. Word partnerships. Lexical density. Fixed expressions. Bits and pieces. Chunks." This leads into 14 fascinating pages covering all aspects of the topic such as what exactly a 'chunk' is and how long or fixed it is, along with sections on Chunks and language, Chunks and language materials, Chunks and language learners, Chunks and language learning and Chunks and language teaching. Chunks, you will have gathered, are very much the order of the day.

The basic premise is that almost over and above grammar there are more or less set expressions which we would do far better studying and knowing than taking part in your average English lesson. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. This last paragraph probably contains about five already: basic premise; over and above; more or less; would do far better; a lot of sense; etc. Oops, is my prose that clich├ęd, really?! Or just that natural. It makes you think, doesn't it?

The guts of the book consists of activities in classic recipe book style divided into sections thus: In the beginning, In the coursebook, In action, In authentic contexts, In data., taking learners through the process of discovering chunks of language for the first time right the way to doing their own research into the topic.

The thing all these activities have in common, over and above concentrating on chunks, is that they're pleasingly fun, for teacher and students, in a way which isn't necessarily habitual for this sort of work.

The last part of the book elaborates on what we know about... you guessed it, chunks, looking specifically and interestingly at Chunks and the coursebook, Chunks and classroom research, Chunks and feedback, Chunks and children, teenagers and adults, and The Web.

The Company Words Keep is one of those books which you can either take with a pinch of salt, or allow to spark an utter paridigm shift in your approach to teaching, which I'm sure Delta and Paul and Hanna would be pleased to hear me say. The middle road is more likely - a lexicalisation of your teaching - including and drawing attention to more expressions and 'off the peg' formulae which can be immediately used to beneficial communicative effect. The book gives you all the tools, both intellectual and practical, to allow you to do this, and with panache.

Go for it, I say. In a manner of speaking, believe it or not, at the end of the day, a large amount of what we say consists of those sacred chunks. Why fight them?


Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "English for Football"
© 2012 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

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