What’s in a chunk? Enhancing vocabulary learning in the EFL classroom

Marcin Lewandowski

In this article Marcin Lewandowski looks at processing and memorising data in chunks, to aid vocabulary learning in the EFL classroom.

Let’s try a little experiment. Look at the following letters for a few seconds: R, O, Z, R, Y, W, K, A. Now, look away and write the letters on a sheet of paper from memory.

How did you do? Unless you know Polish, you might have struggled.

Let me explain. In order to remember the letters you have to keep all of them in your working memory. Chances are that you tried to remember the letters as letter names rather than phonemes. This puts a strain on your working memory which for an average person has a capacity of about 7 items (plus or minus two). This capacity to hold bits of information in your working memory is called a memory span (or a digit span when it’s tested on numbers).

Now, what if I told you that the letters above compose a word roughly pronounced /rozrɪvka/ and that this word means ‘entertainment’. Suddenly, the seemingly meaningless stream of letters is not so meaningless anymore. Instead of eight sounds, you now have to remember only one word or three syllables at most.

This minimises the cognitive load on your working memory releasing some of this processing power to allow you to process even more information.

Not convinced? Consider this.

In their excellent book Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, authors Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz give an example of a similar challenge, except you’re expected to remember numbers rather than letters. Ready?


Remembering this stream of numbers is very challenging until you realize that this number is made up of three significant (in American history) dates. Namely, the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1492), declaration of independence (1776) and the 9/11 terrorist attack (2001). You have ‘chunked’ the seemingly unrelated items and imposed a meaning onto them. Now, instead of twelve meaningless items, you only have to contend with three facts.  In fact, I could add another four (or more) digits, say, 1945, and you’d have little trouble remembering it either. Chunking therefore allow us to expand our memory span.

So how can we apply this knowledge to vocabulary learning in the classroom?

Enter Michael Lewis.

Michael Lewis, the author of ‘The Lexical Approach’, argues that we acquire language in chunks such as fixed phrases (e.g. all of a sudden) collocations (e.g. a big mistake), frames (e.g. have you ever been/seen/had ____) and proposes that similar approach be adopted in an EFL classroom.

In the light of what we’ve discussed above, this suggestion seems to make sense.  Memorising chunks of language as meaningful units reduces the strain on our working memory and makes them more readily available and retrievable when needed. This, in turn, adds fluency. Learning chunks of language promotes more natural pronunciation as it encourages connected speech. It also minimises possibility of error when producing language (speaking or writing).

Take the way we give advice for example. We commonly tend to use expressions such as:

  • If I were you, I’d…
  • You’d better…
  • Why don’t you…?


Learning them as formulaic phrases, will not only reduce the load on our working memory but will also allow us to introduce them earlier in the curriculum. Because they’re fairly fixed, such phrases can be introduced as a whole without much analysis of their constituent parts. This means that we don’t have to wait until we’re covering the second conditional to introduce ‘if I were you,…’.

And that’s indeed what we do at early stages of teaching. Expressions such as ‘what’s your name?’, ‘where do you live?’, ‘my name’s….’, I live in…, etc. are often taught as formulaic sentences without much focus on auxiliary verbs, word order or morphology. Learners learn them as lexical chunks and get on with communication without being hindered by thinking about grammar. To clarify, I’m not suggesting that we should do away with teaching grammar and focus exclusively on teaching lexical chunks instead. Quite the contrary, I’m inclined to say that in the long run, such an approach is unsustainable – it’s impossible to learn an entire language in chunks alone (although Lewis might argue otherwise).

Example activity

Providing learners with activities that focus on collocations or fixed phrases will make them more aware of the interdependencies between words and lead to automatic associations available for a quick recall.

One such activity might include an exercise like the one below which draws learners’ attention to collocations:

Underline the weakest verb and noun collocation:

Example: Exam take / pass / fail / study for / sit / revise

homework do / forget / lose / prepare / finish / hand in

trouble be in / expect / make / discover / get into / ask for

(adapted from Islam & Timmis)

(Incidentally, elimination (‘odd one out’) activities as the one above also require a deep (semantic) processing which will lead to better retention.)

Read Marcin’s last post on Enhancing memory in the EFL classroom.


Islam, C. & Timmis, I. Lexical Approach Classroom Activities

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. The State of ELT and a Way Forward. LTP

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