Teaching young learners lexically

We’re very pleased to be able to offer you another in our series of occasional guest posts by teachers and writers we admire. This time, a young teacher from Moscow called Masha Andreivitch, who we first saw speak at a conference over there last year, outlines her thoughts on how to apply a lexical way of looking at language to the teaching of young learners. Be sure to follow her on Facebook here as well. Over to Masha . . .

Lexical chunks and collocations are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about teaching very young or young learners – the central role is usually given to games and movement-rich activities which support the learning of single words. However, offering young students target language in the form of chunks rather than single words seems an easy further step to take, and an extremely efficient one too. Here’s why – and how.

Why chunks and not just single words?

When children learn English as a foreign language outside of the L2 environment, the process comes down to learners ‘collecting’ vocabulary and structures in the early stages of their learning, and then practising in order to manipulate these. Focusing on chunks of language rather than single words provides young learners with bigger building blocks, thus allowing them to avoid mistakes, sound more natural and generally express their ideas more precisely – all with the same effort they would just put into learning single words.


A great tool for helping young learners remember collocations or longer chunks (and even sentences!)  is stories or, for younger learners, storyboards. Basically, a storyboard is a short story consisting of 6-8 sentences, each of which is represented by a picture, usually accompanied by an audio recording. Such stories can be found in most of mainstream YL coursebooks (Kid’s Box, Playtime, Tiger Time, Academy Stars, Playway to English, etc), are aimed at different levels and built around various vocabulary sets.

The greatest benefit of such stories is that they offer a variety of lexical chunks on a particular topic, including noun and verb phrases, and set expressions, rather than traditional target language in the form of single nouns, verbs or adjectives.

In class, a teacher can talk to their learners about the story, introduce the setting and, perhaps, help young students relate to the topic or the characters in the story. Students can then listen and order the pictures, engaging with the whole story. With their straightforward visual support, storyboards are really accessible to young learners, even when stories include what might be seen as more advanced chunks.  Having checked the order of the pictures with the learners, a teacher can then focus on language and in most cases, learners would be able to gradually learn the story sentence by sentence. This is best done when sentences are repeated by the teacher, supported by mime or gestures to help learners anchor the story in their memory. Ideally, in one lesson, young students move from meeting a story for the first time to reproducing it themselves while using complete sentences.

What this type of language work demonstrates clearly is that for young learners it makes very little difference what language they are given to memorize (single words or lexical chunks). This happens firstly because children’s learning capacity at a young age allows them to commit longer lexical items to memory, and secondly because when supported by emotional and physical engagement (mimes and gestures), language learning happens naturally for children. So moving onto teaching chunks to young learners can be just a small step for a teacher, and a great opportunity for their students.

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5 Responses

  1. Elena Nikulina says:

    A very sophisticated approach, thanks, Masha, and good to hear from you)

  2. Vincent Kizza says:

    All this seems to boil down to a sort of “talking classroom”?

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Wel, there’d obviously be plenty of talking going on, but there’s a lot more than just that going on here. There’s a focus on meaning and on whole language – grammar and vocabulary in combination; there’s the use of pictures and actions to clarify meaning; there’s engagement and entertainment for the students as the teacher tells the stories; there’s plenty of repetition; there’s the scaffolding of student attempts to reconstruct the sotry themselves, and so on.

  3. Michael Murray says:

    I agree that learning language in usable chunks, as against single words, is particularly beneficial to all students, even beginners. They learn about the natural connections between words.
    I love the suggestion for using storyboards to support the learning.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Me too. And I couldn’t agree more with the comment about this approach being relevant not only for young learners, but also for absolkute beginners too.

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