Sep 14, 2013

The highway to fluency and a roundabout way to grammar

Photo by @GoldsteinBen via eltpics on Flickr
A second lesson with two new pre-intermediate (A2) students (I usually put my private students in pairs). In the first lesson we read three stories about immigrants (from Innovations Pre-Intermediate) and underlined useful bits of language (I hadn't introduced the word "chunk" yet). For our second lesson they were asked to prepare a short talk about their lives using as much "useful language" as they could – no writing! They did a pretty good job and successfully integrated some chunks into their stories:

Back home…
When I came over here…
I didn't have enough money
To support my family

Naturally, their attempts to produce their own, novel utterances almost invariably caused disfluency as they searched for the right words to express their ideas and the right grammar to frame their words.

Fluency is not so much speaking fast as pausing less, as Thornbury (2005) aptly observes. To avoid pauses, competent language users draw on a range of multi-word combinations, i.e. chunks, stored in the brain as holistic units. Rather than building sentences from scratch every time every time we want to say something we retrieve from memory (often fully grammaticalised) prefabricated sequences of words. These can range from short fixed phrases (e.g. in brief, all in all) to collocations (e.g. book a ticket, vastly different) to long lexico-grammatical chunks (e.g. I haven't see you for ages, How can I help you?)

Dechert (as cited in Schmidt 1992) refers to these formulaic sequences as "islands of reliablility" using which the speaker can save processing effort and concentrate on what they want to say without losing the turn in conversation. In the last 20-30 years their role has been recognized in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research as being central to fluent and appropriate language production.

Photo by @InglesInteract via eltpics on Flickr
Leonardo Gomes, who goes on Twitter by the nick @leoxical – a play on words similar to the name of this blog, recently started a discussion on Facebook about the role of chunks in the language classroom and referred to chunk learning as "the highway to fluency". You can see the discussion here (Facebook login required, sorry!).

Whereas there seemed to be an agreement on the crucial role chunks play in promoting fluency, the sticking point of the debate was whether chunks can aid acquisition of knowledge of grammar. There have been suggestions in the SLA literature that chunks first learned as unanalyzed wholes are eventually analysed and generalised into rules, thus providing a roundabout way into mastery of grammar.

For example, a beginner learner of English may learn "Let's go!" holistically, i.e. understanding its meaning and use without necessarily understanding the role of let's in the imperative form or even the meaning of the verb let for that matter. After subsequent encounters with other imperative sentences with let's, e.g. let's do it, let's get some pizza etc they can abstract the rule for the imperative form. Then, later, they may understand that let's is a contracted form of let us. Similarly, I don't know can be taught as a chunk without delving into the role of do+not in the formation of the present simple negative. In brief, internalisation of chunks precedes analysis.

This is what has been convincingly and abundantly shown to be the case in L1 acquisition. Evidence that the same is true in L2 learning is less plentiful but nevertheless convincing. Some studies – most of them focusing on early childhood learners – have shown that new language is often learned as unanalysed chunks and broken down for analysis later on. For example, Myles, Mitchell & Hooper (1998) tracked spoken output of English learners of French over a period of two years and concluded that learners relied heavily on memorised chunks (for example "Comment t’appelles-tu?" – What's your name? or literally What are you called?) in early production but gradually broke them down into constituent parts. Moreover, they used parts of the chunks – often inappropriately in the early stages (e.g. "Comment t’appelles-tu, le garcon?" –*What are you called, the boy? instead of what is he called?) – to construct novel utterances.

Perera's (2001) findings also support the view that chunk learning can aid grammar acquisition. She studied four Japanese learners of English who created new phrases by using memorised chunks as templates rather than combining individual words.

Turning to my personal experience, a student of mine once learned the Past Perfect as a chunk "…better than I'd expected" before starting to slot in other verbs: "better than I'd hoped for", "better than I'd imagined". Or a group of students who first learned the expression Mind you as part of a longer chunk "Mind you, it is convenient" and later went on to unpack Mind you and start using it in other situations, e.g. "Mind you, it's cheap"

Do you have examples from your classroom where learners memorised a chunk and later used it to generate new sentences? Were they adult or young learners? Do you do anything to encourage this habit?


Myles, F, Mitchell, R & Hooper, J. (1999). Interrogative chunks in French L2: A basis for creative construction? Studies in Second Language Acquisition 21, 49–80

Perera, N.S. (2001). The role of prefabricated language in young children’s second language acquisition. Bilingual Research Journal 25(3), 327–356

Schmidt, R. (1992). Psychological mechanisms underlying language fluency. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 14, 357-385

Thornbury, S. (2005). Appropriation and autonomy. English Teaching Professional, 40, 11-14


  1. i saw a video recently on construction grammar by nick ellis which threw a lot of light for me on a more comprehensive theory of learning grammar from lexis than the lexical approach as it were.


  2. Hi Mura
    I haven't seen this video (but will check it out) but what Nick Ellis writes is pretty much consistent with the lexical approach, thus providing a more cognitive psychology underpinning to it.
    Thank you for stopping by!

  3. The role of let's in the imperative form or even the meaning of the verb let for that matter. It was a pretty good job and successfully integrated some chunks. In the first lesson I read three stories about immigrants and underlined useful bits of language.

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