In short, lexical chunks (or lexical phrases), are a collection of words that often appear together.

If you think about collocations like “take a nap” or phrasal verbs like “pick someone up,” you’re thinking of chunks.

But chunks can be longer, too. Low level students learn chunks like “Nice to meet you,” and “Where is the toilet?” before they even learn any grammar, and higher level chunks can include phrases like “It was just simple escapism” or “It never ceases to amaze me!” or “at no extra cost.”

Some chunks appear in very specific situations. When someone’s telling you a joke, you might hear the chunk, “Have you heard the one about …?” When someone’s making a request, it’s very common to hear the chunk, “Would you mind …?”

Research strongly supports the position that the mind learns language most efficiently this way. Rather than learning the grammar rules, learning vocabulary and sticking it all together, we can more easily recall language in these commonly occurring chunks.

[image 01 – jigsaw]

You can imagine chunks like parts of a jigsaw puzzle. The individual words are pieces and sometimes don’t make much sense by themselves, but when put together, they mean more than the sum of their parts.

As teachers, the trick is to make sure our students can recognise these chunks.

What does this mean for listening skills?

Listening is hard! For many learners (myself included), it is the most difficult one to acquire.

It can even be demotivating. You spend time learning new phrases and reading books and even having conversations in English, then you go out in the “real world” and suddenly you feel like you know nothing.

[image 02 – confused listening]

The problem with listening is that, compared to reading, writing or even speaking, there’s absolutely no control over the speed and clarity that the language hits you at. You’re completely at the mercy of the speaker!

So how do we help our students overcome this?

One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching listening skills is that all the students need to do is listen out for the “key words.” However, the vast majority of words in English don’t carry much meaning by themselves – you need to look at the context to make sense of them.

Instead, encouraging our students to listen out for “key chunks” will give them the tools to be able to extract more meaning from what they’re listening to and will enable them to develop their listening skills more effectively.

Here’s one way you can exploit this in the classroom:

Boosting students’ listening through chunks

1. Select a listening text

Of course, the first step is to have a listening text. Whatever you choose, make sure you have a transcript.

2. Study the transcript and extract key chunks

[image 03 – writing chunks]

Look through the listening script and try to identify the chunks. These could be collocations (“take a walk”), discourse markers (“on the other hand”), or more elaborate lexical phrases (“and that’s putting it mildly”).

3. Give the chunks to the students

Make sure the students have the target chunks in front of them, either in a list or even on different pieces of paper.

Have the students discuss what they think the chunks mean and then, give feedback, clarifying the meaning.

4. Students listen and identify

Remind the students that their initial aim isn’t to understand the whole text, but simply to be able to identify the chunks when they hear them.

The students listen to the audio and when they hear one of the chunks, they cross it off their list (or remove the piece of paper with that chunk on it).

Remember – the only aim here is that the students can recognize the chunks when they hear them.

5. Discussion

Ask the students how they felt about the exercise. Try to elicit from them how it would’ve gone if they were only listening out for individual words and not chunks – how much harder it might have been. This will allow them to understand the power of chunking and encourage them to “think in chunks” when listening in the future.

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