Chunks, exams and teachers

If language were all chunks, we could never say anything new, but the chunks help us to say anything at all (including the new). Listening to a learner trying to assemble component parts to express something often needs patience and at lower levels may also involve powers of interpretation on the part of the listener, so chunks have a role to play as sometimes a chunk would allow that thought to be expressed faster (and probably in a more instantly recognisable form). If the files that one occasionally comes across on the net with 500 IELTS compositions in them really are memorised by some language learners in order to get the points they need, would those learners not then be able to write better ? Perhaps not brilliantly, but if you had that many prefabricated phrases and pre formed thoughts lined up and ready to roll, would they not potentially be ready for use in what could be a criteria meeting composition ? But you need to have a sense of the whole as well or you get my all time favourite homework near miss line of ‘I am writing to enquire as to why I would like to borrow £50,000’. But surely if you have read and learnt all 500 you must be at a level that allows you to scan what you have written for coherence as well ? Or must you ?

You have to make it procedural, not just knowledge. You can get further by memorising the words, than by practising the grammar rules over and over (can you ? that feels true, but if someone wrote it in a background assignment I’d query it as a generalisation that needed reading support – need a way of marking things that I realise I should read about in here, so they all line up in a list somewhere for me to come back to) but you can’t get that far without combining the two and you actually need real interactive situations in which you deploy them (combined) to make it procedural.

A student who knows a lot of words and can manipulate the rules is going to manage better in a genuine interaction than one who doesn’t have that knowledge to draw on (aren’t they ? If you lack lexis you can’t say much). So what is the difference between that and the IELTS writer who has learnt 500 compositions by heart ? Is that the same as learning words ? Perhaps not, learning compositions by heart doesn’t necessarily involve understanding them (come to that does learning words by heart involve understanding them ? that’s a whole rabbit hole of exploration in itself). And where does learning to apply rules of grammar in an artificial gap fill environment fit into that ? Perhaps it depends whether a person can learn and reproduce an IELTS composition and reproduce it fairly faithfully without understanding it ? But is that even possible ? When I was trying to learn the national anthem here I couldn’t remember words until I knew what they meant (and sometimes not even then as some were really not high use words). Is that just because I come from a culture and am of an age where memorisation was neither practised nor prized ?

If they are memorising on top of a respectable working knowledge of lexis and structure it seems more logical – then they are in effect memorising chunks (that they can understand) that they can deploy, read back, ensure make sense when fitted together. That is like my higher level business learners who love it when they see a phrase in English that says something they have been building from the ground up with a smattering of direct translation from Turkish. They recognise the sentiment of it and rush to write it down (but then can they retrieve it when they need it ?).

Why ?

I’m still worrying about the Module One exam and approaches to studying for it.

I want teachers to work for the exam in ways that set them up to be able to answer questions through understanding what they are being asked and by drawing on what they know and applying it to this new situation. In Module One they need to understand, analyse, recognise what is relevant and prioritise. They don’t have to add shape to things or add their own voice though (do they ? I don’t think so – maybe someone else would disagree), both of those start to become a factor in Module Two and are key to Module Three. But given the order in which most people do things, it is in Module One that the question of how to study first comes up (and it feels as though the approach needs to be substantially different from that which would help most in Modules Two and Three). How to work out to what extent you have the required body of knowledge (of structure, lexis, discourse, phonology, skills, methodology, SLA and all the other things on the syllabus), how to extend it where you need to and being able to analyse, synthesise and prioritise using or drawing on that knowledge. So the tasks they do in the course are designed to address that, but then it comes back to how much of the information to provide (we provide links, projects, ideas for how to study and actual exam practice, but not much in the way of lists of things to ‘learn’, but the most popular forums posts (by Moodle view of activity logs) are ones where one of the teachers has found a document or web site on line that provides lists of things to learn and has shared it in a forum post.

One of the teachers who did well in the exam said:

About memorising. Unless you are a very experienced teacher who has done a lot of reading around the area, it’s very difficult to be able to answer those questions – explain why you are doing what you are doing. I mean, Sally, I did not have a body of knowledge to draw on. And it’s not easy to acquire in a couple of months. So, as well as the books, I learned this stuff from the keys.

Is that the same as a learner who memorises phrases that might come in handy ? It feels instinctively so. Swan (2006) says

To construct a novel utterance like ‘There’s a dead rat on the top shelf behind Granny’s football boots’, a learner only needs to know the words and structures involved, but such knowledge will not help him or her to produce a common phrase like ‘Can I look round?’– if the expression isn’t known as a whole, it can’t be invented.

Looked at in that way a lot of Module One is about finding ways to say things that you half knew but have not previously needed to articulate (learners are being asked to notice the difference in the two forms / this error is probably an over generalization from X / the task lacks face validity), In session people often work on tasks and find ways (often rather longer ways) to say things, then are delighted with (or sometimes irritated by) a key in which a phrase encapsulates it neatly. And once they have the phrase they can often identify more instances of the event. But to have just the phrase without a clear understanding of when and where they can apply it is to have (as Swan mentions) a danger of what they say proving to be all chunk and no pineapple. Working in forums where people are often discovering and trying these items out for the first time can often demonstrate that (as boundaries of use are established through teachers comparing how things could be applied and tutors intervening when that process leaves them wide of the mark. And that is a much more productive environment than working on a course where no one uses the forums (and what makes the difference – if I could just work that out – how to ensure people actually interact in the forums, instead of watching it vary hugely from course to course). In that case the only time they get to see if they have understood and can deploy the talk is in their individual exam practice.

In the same way that if you learn chunks then for them to be useful you have to know when they are or are not manipulable, when they don’t apply, so in a Module One task you need to know when you can use a ‘learnt answer’ and when you can’t. As Larsen-Freeman (2013) has it, for successful transfer of training you have to notice not only the similarities across tasks, but also the differences, so not just repetition, but iteration – which would involve doing the task (or things similar to the task) again and again and  the elements of the task being the same, but the context being slightly different each time.

And I still haven’t broken this down into manageable sized questions – though it feels as though I have brought more understanding to bear on it. Not least the discovery this morning that there a whole field to read about (transfer of training, what it is and how to think about it) and a book name I have seen sail past a few times in the last year or two (DeKeyser, R. (Ed.). (2007). Practice in a second language. Cambridge, UK, CUP) is one I should probably read soon as it sounds as though it addresses some aspects of this area.

Meanwhile, maybe there is not such a gulf as I think between my idea that preparing for the exam should involve gathering, sorting and analysing information and the idea of lists of things you can memorise being useful. Also the Larsen-Freeman perspective that you should do many similar things so you can see where there are similarities and where an idea can’t be applied sounds not unlike the pleas for more and more exam tasks (which don’t exist given the few papers that have been released publicly). Unwitting application of anything isn’t going to work (facts from linguistics dictionaries or learnt exam responses), but more opportunities to apply analytical skill should mean you are better able to do it on the day. But then as both the teacher I quoted

And it’s not easy to acquire in a couple of months.

and Michael Swan

‘since formulaic expressions have to be learnt individually, like other kinds of lexis, it is not immediately clear how the enormous learning problem can be addressed’

point out, time is probably the biggest limiting factor for most people. And Swan’s last line in that article seems to me to support the more analysis, not more memorisation position I instinctively want to hold (if you accept that analogies across learning language and learning to teach can hold):

‘… languages are difficult and cannot be learnt perfectly. Failure to recognise this may lead teachers to neglect important aspects of language teaching, in order to devote excessive time to a hopeless attempt to teach a comprehensive command of formulaic language – like someone trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon.’

So I should systematically think through the alternatives we are providing (alternatives to a teaspoon) and add to them.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2013  Transfer of Learning Transformed Language Learning, 63, s1, pg. 107-129

Swan, Michael. 2006. Chunks in the classroom: Let’s not go overboard. Teacher Trainer, 20/3: 5-6


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