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English doesn’t seem so hard until you’re staring down a list of hundreds of phrasal verbs. Then it gets a bit intimidating.
Are you supposed to actually remember the difference between “to break off”, “to break out”, “to break through”, and “to break up”? And what the heck does “to chicken out” mean?
Unfortunately, yes: you’ll probably have to learn them all at some point. That’s a lot to remember.
But in this article, I want to explore another strategy: chunking. I’ll explain what chunking is, why it's relevant for learning English, and how you can use chunking to learn English more effectively.
What is chunking?
Chunking is a bit of a strange word. The root word is “chunk” which means a “piece” or “part of something”. “Chunking” is the process of grouping things together into larger meaningful “chunks” so they’re easier to remember.
The concept originated in psychology in a famous paper by George Miller.
In that paper, Miller suggests that our short-term memory has a capacity of about 7 “units” of information, plus or minus two. You might have heard that before: that you can remember about 7 things at a time before your memory gives out.
Later researchers came to find that the 7 “units” of information could be expanded. You could remember more if you sort of attached units of information to each other in larger parts or “chunks”.
So, for example, it would be quite hard to remember the numbers 8 7 3 4 2 0 1 9 5 6. But it would be easier to remember if you broke it up into chunks: 87, 34, 20, and 1956.
The idea is that our brain has a propensity to notice patterns and make connections. Those patterns and connections help us reduce the amount we have to learn. In fact, it appears that we naturally group our sensory perceptions together to more quickly process the world around us.
Chunking as a memory strategy
Since the 1950s, we’ve developed strategies for chunking things together to make them easier to remember.
For example, you might use this method to remember the groceries you need to get at the store.
Instead of remembering eggs, carrots, oranges, milk, bread, onions, tomatoes, cheese, cereal, and flour, you might group them together into “fruits and vegetables” (which contains carrots, oranges, onions, and tomatoes), “Dairy products” (which includes butter, milk, and cheese), and “Grains” (which includes bread, cereal, and flour).
Chunking the information together into categories makes it easier to remember.
Chunking is used in a number of contexts. As just one example, expert chess players use chunking to see groups of moves and make better decisions.
Chunking in language learning
Chunking can also be used in language learning.
Other researchers estimate that about 20% of the speech of young English-speaking children are “frozen phrases”—phrases of words that tend to come together in a single chunk. They suggest that children remember and use several words together as a single unit.
The researchers suggest that chunking words is easier. It uses fewer cognitive resources.
Why should you care?
Beyond understanding a bit better how we process and remember information, why should the English language learner care about chunking?
Well, it might help guide you towards more effective methods for remembering vocabulary.
In school and in many language classes we focus on memorising individual words, often out of context. That may not be the most effective way to remember words.
Instead, it might be more effective to learn words as they actually come in context with the other words they usually come with.
For example, learning “Can I have...” is a useful phrase for beginners, even if they’re not exactly sure how to use the modal verb “can”. Learning it simply as a chunk that comes together might actually be easier than learning each of the individual words.
More generally, chunking can help you:
- You can speak more naturally. Words often come together in common phrases. If you learn groups of words together, it can help you speak more like a native.
- Chunking can help you remember more effectively. Putting words together in context with other words you already know may reduce the cognitive load of learning new vocabulary.
- You will make fewer mistakes. You will have to worry less if this word goes with that one because you’ll know that they do go together in this particular chunk.
Chunking may also help you to understand better when native speakers are talking.
- It helps you understand where sentences naturally break. Understanding better how words connect together into groups can help you hear where one word ends and another begins.
- It can help you with connected speech. Pronunciation of words in English can depend on what comes after it. Remembering each combination of sounds would likely be impossible to memorise by itself, but if you remember how the words in common word chunks sound, the connected speech part will come more naturally.
Common “chunks” in English
So thinking about vocabulary in terms of groups of words, rather than just individual words, can be helpful for a number of reasons.
To leave you with something concrete, I want to give you some examples of common words that you’ll hear come together in English. So, here’s my short, non-comprehensive list of some common chunks in English. For members of Leonardo English, I encourage you to share the ones you notice on the community forum!
1. Common polite expressions
These are just a few of the things you’ll constantly hear English speakers say when they’re beginning or ending interactions with others. You’ll likely be familiar with most of these, but the point of including them in this article is thinking about them as a single chunk of words, rather than as a number of individual words.
- “How do you do?”
- “Hi, how are you?”
- “I’m good, thanks.”
- “See you soon”
- “Have a nice day”
- “You’re welcome”
- “I’ve got to go”
2. Common expressions in conversation
Here are a few of the expressions you’ll hear peppered throughout typical English conversations. These are used as discourse markers to guide the listener through the conversation.
- “Do you know what I mean?”.
- “I see what you’re saying.”
- “Let me see...”
- “That kind of thing.”
- “But having said that…”
- “I see what you mean, but...”
- “By the way...”
- “Just a sec…”
- “Sort of...”
- “Mind you...”
- “You know?”
- “Let’s see.”
3. Common idioms and expressions
And of course, there are some full expressions and idioms that you’ll hear come together as predictable chunks of words. Here are just a few:
- “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
- “Better late than never.”
- “My hands are tied.”
- “First things first.”
- “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
- “Beat around the bush.”
- “Give the benefit of the doubt.”
- “Hang in there.”
How podcasts can help with chunking
So chunking can help you remember vocabulary more easily, it can help you speak more fluently, and it can help you better understand native speakers when they’re talking.
How can you get better at noticing common chunks of English that come together? You have to expose yourself to lots of English. That means doing lots of listening exercises and reading lots in English.
Podcasts are a particularly good way to notice and learn English in chunks. Here’s one way you can use English podcasts to get better at English through chunking:
- Find a podcast that uses real native speech. Our favourite English podcast is, unsurprisingly, English Learning for Curious Minds.
- If you have a transcript, read along with the podcast. Try to find the exact “chunks”—groups of words that come together and that may even be said as a single unit.
- Repeat the words yourself. You might shadow the podcast to practise saying the chunks out loud.
- Record yourself. Recording yourself is an effective way to go from passive learning to developing an active vocabulary—a vocabulary you’ll actually use when you’re speaking.
- Use it in conversation. Try to learn new chunks that you learn when you’re speaking with your English teacher or a conversation partner.
Use chunking to speak English more fluently
The point of all this is just to get you thinking about English as more than a series of individual words.
Words often come together in predictable groups. Getting a feeling for what these groups are can make it easier to understand English and speak it.
Learning individual vocabulary words is, of course, very important. The better your vocabulary, the better you will be able to express yourself in English.
But when native speakers are speaking, we’re actually piecing together our speech with larger chunks of words, not a single word at a time.
Noticing common chunks, and how English speakers say them, is a great way to speak more fluently in English.
Bannard, C., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. (2009). Modeling children's early grammatical knowledge. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(41), 17284-17289.
Grimm, R., Cassani, G., Gillis, S., & Daelemans, W. (2019). Children probably store short rather than frequent or predictable chunks: Quantitative evidence from a corpus study. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 80.
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81.
Simon, H. A. (1974). How big is a chunk? Science, 183(4124), 482-488.