The Value of Lexis Sets Versus Scripted Language Chunks
by David Horton
Across all language learning (especially for productive skills like speaking and writing), the learner desires to utilize her time in the most effective way, so that she can cover the most topics with the fewest study hours. At the basic and elementary levels, teachers often teach set pieces for students to memorize, utilize and adapt in real life situations. For example, a useful basic level class plan might include how to check in luggage at the airport. Repeating and rehearsing this will empower the student to go through international airports without problems or anxiety. And at the lower levels, when assessing the language, memorized chunks or scripted units are not only acceptable, but to be expected. The memorization of set pieces only becomes a problem when the learner is no longer at the very lower levels of the language. By the time students are at the upper elementary / lower intermediate level of a language, they should be looking for ways to adapt the language they have learned to meet the needs to the situations that are presented to them. This ability to adapt and utilize the learned language is what needs to be assessed at this point. The student above the lower levels who sets to learning set pieces via recitation and memorization is hindering her flexibility. Recent research has confirmed that shoe-horning set pieces in an attempt to address unfamiliar topics is an indication of lower productive ability. What this means in terms of standardized production skills tests is that memorizing large chucks of text is, in fact, being counter-productive to the desired goal of scoring better on these tests.
One way for teachers to better equip students for these tasks is to focus on useful sets of lexis and useful level-appropriate grammar that can be adapted to various situations.
Let’s take the example of a lexis set. For an elementary or lower intermediate class, the teacher could focus a lesson introducing basic parts of a car (tire, hood, steering wheel, bumper, etc). The teacher could elicit as many parts as students in the class know and then fill in a few extra items. Then the teacher could have students in different groups discuss different aspects or situations that are car related. For example, one group could discuss the cars of the future while another group discusses a car accident they have seen or heard about, etc. . . . After a set time, the topics could rotate to different groups, so that all groups have a chance to use the vocabulary in different situations. The next day might be a grammar class, where the teacher can introduce a car related theme to reinforce the lexis from the time before. In his way, the students are creating the ability to use and adapt the language they have to widely different scenarios. This ability to adapt is a signifier of higher-level language ability.
Memorized set pieces are scripted and cannot be used flexibly in a testing situation. For lower-level test takers, this is expected; however, for higher-level candidates, this indicates a problem with using the language and will work against her. Focusing student learning on applying lexis to various contexts will teach them strategies for adapting to the task and how to deal with the unfamiliar. Both skills will be an advantage to the student when it comes time for assessment.