Lexical chunks: identifying frequent phrases, classifying and teaching them

Jane Willis

Aston University

Language Studies Unit, Aston University, Birmingham, B4 7et, Uk

Tel: 0121 359 3621 Ext 4238

Fax: 0121 359 2725

There is a growing awareness among FL teachers of the importance of lexical chunks both in spoken and written discourse. Becker (1976), Pawley and Syder (1983) and Widdowson (1989)  have pointed out, along with many others, that lexical chunks play a vital part in everyday communication, contributing to the ease,  fluency and appropriacy with which someone speaks or writes.

It is generally agreed they form a cline between totally fixed expressions, e.g. of course, by the way  to semi- or partially fixed expressions, e.g. Looking (I look) forward to hearing from you (seeing you) soon. In language syllabus terms, lexical chunks fill the gap between grammar and lexis.

This paper begins by exploring various definitions of the term 'lexical chunk' and outlining reasons why they are important for language learners.

I will then address the problem of how to identify frequently used chunks, first through intuition, and secondly through computer analysis. My recent research has shown that language teachers vary tremendously in their ability to identify intuitively such chunks from texts and transcripts, but that with some awareness training, they do improve.

We shall then explore some computer-generated lists of around 200 of the most commonly occurring three, four and five word clusters drawn from a 20 million word spoken corpus. We shall discuss the implications of such data for pedagogic use and language awareness activities.

Another problem is how to provide learners with a pedagogically accessible and systematic classification procedure for chunks. I will offer some draft suggestions for a pedagogic classification based on a Hallidayan approach, which might help students recognise, record and organise phrases so as to aid acquisition and retention. I will welcome audience participation and feedback at this stage.