What is chunk learning?

by Dave
(Kunming, Yunan, China)

Question - What is chunk learning and how is chunk learning useful to the ESL teacher? Can you give me some examples? I will appreciate it.


Answer - Chunking is putting many small steps together as one action, moving from clunky to smooth. This is an basic part of learning any skill. When learning to play the guitar, the student learns chords, which at first are learnt individually, and sometimes with difficulty. Later they become automatic chunks which flow together effortlessly. Learning to drive, learning a martial art or learning to cook, all involve learning larger and larger chunks.

In language learning and ELT teaching it's the same. Students learn phrases and sentences, and then learn to piece them together more fluently. Any basic dialogue the students learn can be a chunk. When I taught children, I'd often teach the chunk: "Yesterday was Monday," or whatever day. At this stage the students had not learnt the past tense. I was seeding the idea with a chunk. They learnt the sentence as a chunk, before they had studied the grammar. Later, when they did come to learn the simple past tense, they already had this, and other, chunks to help them, and to help me teaching them.

When I learnt Spanish I did the same thing. I learnt phrases such as: "Hay una cafeteria por aqui?" ('Is there a cafe near here?') or "Se puede comer aqui?" ('Is it possible to eat here?'). I didn't understand the grammar, but I found the phrases immediately useful. I've done the same with every language I've studied since. I recommend doing the same type of thing with your students - and with yourself.

Learning the art of teaching is also, in part, a matter of putting chunks together. When I first planned a lesson it was a slow process. Everything was new to me, and I had to think about every part of the class. Now I use my pre-learnt chunks to (more) smoothly teach classes.

A simple example is how to practice a basic question and answer pattern with children. For example: "How often do you ____?" "I usually/sometimes ___." My chunk for this is to have the children chorally ask me (or other students) the question (I will have taught it first, of course), then I move to open pairs, and then to closed pairs. Finally I ask for feedback. "Tom, what did Sue say," for example. I can simply write 'DOCF' in my lesson plan, and I know what I will do for that particular 15-20 minutes of my class. A chunk of teaching technique.

Without using chunks of pre-learned activities, lesson planning would take up a lot of time. Of course, chunks can become bigger with practice. I sometimes have to give demonstration classes in my university to students in different departments. They are not my regular students. I no longer need to think too much about this as I have a single (more than one actually) 'chunk' in my mind. I just think demo class, and about an hour of smoothly fitting activities appear.

One criticism to chunking in ESL is that if you regurgitate chunks semi-consciously, then the teaching could become stale. One example would be a teacher who makes beautiful power point presentations of their year's teaching, then repeat the same formula for the next twenty or thirty years. This is a negative use of chunks.

Good teachers can maintain freshness in their teaching while using and adapting chunks of pre-learned activities. Chunks also give a lot of room for spontaneity and creativeness. When you no longer have to worry about details of the activities, you become freer to think more about your students, and freer to make any alterations to fit in with the particular needs of the particular class of students you are dealing with.

At this stage EFL teaching is no longer about thinking how to fill that long hour up, it's about enjoying and using the time you have to the best advantage of your students.

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