Optimizing a Lexical Approach
to Instructed Second Language Acquisition
Frank Boers
What parts of language is this about?
‘Chunks’
(a.k.a. ‘phrases’, ‘formulaic sequences’, etc.)
Fair trade coffee may be a familiar sight on
supermarket shelves, but a new study has found the
British do not practise what they preach when it
comes to buying it. While most people claim to take
social issues into consideration, their purchasing
behaviour shows little evidence of this. Although the
vast majority of consumers believe their choice could
make a difference to companies' ethical policies, they
are still failing to act on their beliefs.

Fair trade coffee may be a familiar sight on
supermarket shelves, but a new study has found the
British do not practise what they preach / when it
comes to buying it. While most people claim to take
social issues into consideration, their purchasing
behaviour shows little evidence of this. Although the
vast majority of consumers believe their choice could
make a difference to companies' ethical policies, they
are still failing to act on their beliefs.
More “chunking” practice
Are the numbers of boys and girls in our families
really down to the toss of a coin? In fact, it’s not quite
so simple. You as an individual may actually load the
dice towards a son or a daughter right at conception.
Especially the condition of mothers could be playing
a part according to some studies. Ruth Mace was in
Ethiopia when that country was hit by a severe food
shortage. As part of a study on nutrition she looked at
the birth statistics of women caught up in the crisis:
“Mothers that had a higher body-mass index were
more likely to have boys than girls.” Why this
happens is still open to debate. Valerie Grant says
dominance in personality may also tip the balance
towards male offspring: “I’ve come to notice that
dominant women tend to have more boys.”

Are the numbers of boys and girls in our families
really down to the toss of a coin? In fact, it’s not quite
so simple. You as an individual may actually load the
dice towards a son or a daughter right at conception.
Especially the condition of mothers could be playing
a part according to some studies. Ruth Mace was in
Ethiopia when that country was hit by a severe food
shortage. As part of a study on nutrition she looked at
the birth statistics of women caught up in the crisis:
“Mothers that had a higher body-mass index were
more likely to have boys than girls.” Why this
happens is still open to debate. Valerie Grant says
dominance in personality may also tip the balance
towards male offspring: “I’ve come to notice that
dominant women tend to have more boys.”
Plenty and varied
collocations (e.g. commit a crime),
social-routine formulae (e.g. Have a nice day),
discourse markers (e.g. On the other hand),
compounds (e.g. peer pressure),
idioms (e.g. take a backseat),
standardised similes (e.g. clear as crystal),
proverbs (e.g. When the cat’s away …),
genre-typical clichés (e.g. Publish or perish),
exclamations (e.g. You must be kidding!)
open-slot frames (e.g. it takes [time][for x] to …)
...
Principal function of chunks in L1
Receptive and productive fluency
As a matter of ___
On the other __
Through thick and __
Last but not __
It was two in the morning and I was still wide __
The difference was not statistically __
Cf. genre analyses by K. Kuiper
Cf. eyetracking studies by N. Schmitt & colleagues
Cf. work by J. Bybee
Principal functions of chunks in L2
• Fluency
• Idiomaticity and Accuracy
Avoidance of L1 interference:
? Do an effort
? With other words
? Realise a survey
? Let’s drink a glass
? Whose feet are you playing with?
Any evidence ?
Research procedure:
• Speaking task in L2
• Oral proficiency scores by blind judges
• Chunk-counts by more blind judges
• Calculating correlations: proficiency scores ~ chunk
counts?
• Results: coefficients up to .60 (highly significant)
• Conclusion: chunks are good for you !
Proposals for a chunk-oriented pedagogy
• Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992).
• Michael Lewis’ (1993, 1997, 2000) Lexical Approach.
Not really ‘new’:
e.g. Firth (1957):
“You shall know a word by the company it keeps”
Can you guess which verbs the following columns of nouns
are strong collocates of?
verb+
damage
trouble
pain
cancer
injury
harm
verb+
crime
offence
murder
adultery
rape
fraud
verb+
study
research
survey
interview
investigation
experiment
verb+
task
function
music
dance
song
role
Just a couple of challenges for the learner ...
• About 50% of native-speaker discourse is estimated to
be chunky (cf. Erman and Warren 2000)
• The native speaker’s repertoire contains thousands of
chunks (cf. Pawley and Syder 1983)
Lewis’ Lexical Approach in a nutshell
• The aim = learner autonomy: equip students with
strategies to pick up L2 chunks outside the classroom.
• Class time is best spent on awareness-raising; not by
focussing on individual items. The key activity is
chunking of texts.
• Lexis is arbitrary  teachers must not waste precious
time on trying to give ‘explanations’ about chunks.
“Why” questions should be answered by “That’s-just-theway-it is” answers.
Does that work, then ?
Learner autonomy?
Set-up:
– Experimental group: a school year of text chunking
– Control group: same texts, but no chunking
Post-test: both groups underline ‘chunks’ in a new text.
Results: Experimental students underlined significantly
more bits of text
... But not more chunks ...
 Catch 22: how can you recognise a chunk if you
haven’t encountered it several times before?
Likelihood of incidental acquisition?
Incidental uptake of vocabulary is very slow.
Why?
- Requires multiple encounters (cf. Paul Nation)
- Insufficient ‘noticing’
Any more hopeful when it comes to chunks?
- Is a given chunk likely to be frequent enough?
- Are chunks (e.g. make an effort) likely to attract
attention?
Verb-noun collocations in 120 pages of a popular novel
Verb-noun collocations occurring more than once:
make a point (p. 10; 61; 90); make a move (p. 26; 32; 78); make
sense (p. 47; 73; 107); make a decision (p. 39; 50); spend time (p.
71; 88); pay attention (p. 91; 119); tell the truth (p. 28; 119).
Verb-noun collocations occurring only once:
complete a mission (p. 3); fulfil a task (p. 3); bend the truth (p. 6);
spend the night (p. 15); lose your mind (p. 18); see the point (p. 21);
clear your throat (p. 22); speak your mind (p. 23); make
conversation (p. 26); do your duty (p. 28); shake hands (p. 32);
practise a religion (p. 41); commit suicide (p. 44); waste time (p.
48); climb stairs (p. 52); pay a price (p. 54); take notice (p. 59);
having a laugh (p. 63); do the right thing (p. 63); read your mind (p.
75); make a start (p. 82); give pause (p. 85); make an impression (p.
90); do your best (p. 92); shed light (p. 94); serve a purpose (p. 94);
make a statement (p. 100); make no difference (p. 101); pay tribute
(p. 102); spend the evening (p. 103); watch TV (p. 105); have a drink
(p. 107); crack a joke (p. 112); take a look (p. 119); take a picture (p.
119).
Eye-tracking
Eye-tracking experiment
• Procedure: comparison of reading behaviour
real words versus pseudowords
e.g. [...] push boundaries [...]
versus [...] push paniplines [...]
• Results: longer contemplation of pseudowords
But: NO evidence of any attention to immediately
preceding or succeeding words (i.e. potential
collocates)
But surely chunks attended to in class
stand a good chance of retention ?
Hmm...
• Treatment:
- experimental groups: a school year of text chunking
- control groups: same texts, no chunking
• Post-tests: speaking tasks; chunk-counts by blind judges
• Results:
NO differential uptake from the course materials! (in fact,
very limited uptake altogether)
Now what ?
Let teachers do what they are good at: teach!
• Do something with the chunks encountered in class
• Help students remember through ‘elaboration’
Pathways for elaboration?
First port of call: exploiting imagery
Example
What domain of
experience do you think
the following idiom comes
from?
“to show someone the
ropes”
•
•
•
Prison/torture
Boats/sailing
Games/sports
Feedback:
a novice sailor needs to be taught by a experienced
sailor which ropes he should handle
What domain of
experience do you think
the following idiom comes
from?
“to cut no ice with
someone”
• Boats/sailing
• Games/sports
• Food/cooking
Feedback:
Ice skating: if the blades of your skates are too blunt,
they will not cut into the ice, and so …
What domain of
experience do you think
the following idiom
comes from?
“to jump the gun”
•
•
•
Jurisdiction /
punishment
Games / sports
War / aggression
Feedback:
Athletics: a contender who jumps the gun sets off before
the starting pistol has been fired.
What domain of
experience do you
think the following
idiom comes from?
“to run the gauntlet”
•
•
•
food / cooking
games / sports
jurisdiction /
punishment
Feedback:
Running the gauntlet used to be a form of punishment in
the military in which the wrongdoer was forced to run
between two lines of men armed with sticks, who beat
him as he passed.
Next stage
What is the figurative
meaning of the following
idiom:
“to show someone the
ropes”
•
•
•
To disclose the truth to
someone
To give someone a
severe penalty
To teach someone how
to do a task
Next stage
What is the figurative
meaning of the following
idiom:
“to cut no ice with someone”
•
•
•
To have a
misunderstanding
To get on well with
someone
To make no impression
on someone
Next stage
What is the figurative
meaning of the
following idiom:
“to jump the gun”
•
•
•
Defend someone
at your own peril
Do something
before the
appropriate time
Be startled by an
unexpected event
Next stage
What is the figurative
meaning of the following
idiom
“to run the gauntlet”
•
•
•
Run away from
your hometown
Be in a position of
power
Go through an
unpleasant
treatment
consolidation
When I started working
here as a novice, nobody
bothered to teach me
how things were done
around here.
I had to find out all by
myself how to do my new
work properly. You could
say that nobody showed
me the _____________
consolidation
Scientists argue that high
voltage power lines
increase the risk of
cancer, but their
arguments cut no
____________ with the
big bosses of the
electricity industry.
The scientific evidence
does not seem to make
any impression on them.
consolidation
Although we had agreed
not to tell anyone about
my pregnancy until we
were absolutely certain
about it,
my husband jumped the
___________ and told
his parents straightaway.
consolidation
When her fellow-students
found out she had started
a relationship with one of
their lecturers,
she had to put up with a
lot of verbal abuse. Her
fellow-students really
made her run the
_______________.
Summing up the procedure
• Stage one: awareness of the origin of the idiom
Purpose: dual coding (association with images)
• Stage two: figuring out the meaning of the idiom
Purpose: deep processing (from image to meaning)
• Stage three: consolidation
• Stage four to stage n: revision
Synopsis of experiments
Does it help?
Control group:
1) Meaning MC
2) Gap fill
Experimental group:
1) Origin MC
2) Gap fill
Exp > Ctr
p < .001
Across the idiom board?
Yes, but below-average scores in case of:
• Explanations longer than five lines
• ‘Culture-specific’ source domains (e.g. cricket)
Which sequence helps most?
Control:
1) Meaning MC
2) Origin MC
3) Gap fill
72%
Experimental:
1) Origin MC
2) Meaning MC
3) Gap fill
81%
p < .01
Long-term effect?
Gap-fill scores after two-year lapse  mean 85%
followed by origin MC
gap-fill scores ~ origins scores: rs .8
A bit of a dampener on our enthusiasm:
Troublesome standard deviations
 Cognitive-style variables ?
Correlation analyses
‘Imager’ cognitive style ~ Gap-fill scores ?
high imagers:
mean 78%
low imagers:
mean 72%
p < .05
So what? Let’s fix this …
What domain of
experience do you think
the following idiom
comes from?
“a carrot-and-stick
method”
•
•
•
Religion/superstition
Animals/wildlife
Food/cooking
Feedback:
Donkeys can be urged on by dangling a carrot before them
and at the same time by hitting them with a stick.
What domain of
experience do you think
the following idiom
comes from?
“to be at the end of
one’s tether”
•
•
•
Prison/torture
Animals/wildlife
Games/sports
Feedback:
A tether is a rope that is used to restrict the movement of
grazing cattle. One end is fastened around the animal's
neck and the other to a stake.
 no more correlation with cognitive style
high imagers: mean 70%
low imagers: mean 73%
 Hooray for pictures ?
Performance new cohort vs previous cohort ?
Meaning MC:
without pictures:
with pictures:
…
Gap-fills:
without pictures:
with pictures:
mean 77%
mean 81%
mean 75%
mean 71.5%
looking good
hmm…
Semantic elaboration # structural elaboration
Contemplating a picture
#
Contemplating precise lexical composition (“form”)
What domain of
experience do you think
the following idiom
comes from?
“to go for the jugular”
•
•
•
Entertainment/public
performance
Animals/wildlife
Food/cooking
The jugular is a vital vein in your neck. Predators (e.g. lions
and tigers) tend to kill their prey by biting into this jugular.
Picture-superiority effect?
Does the picture distract?
Within-subjects experiment
• Matched pairs of idioms, targeting unfamiliar content
words (e.g. trumps, tether, gauntlet, roughshod)
• Half presented with a picture
• Results: recollection in gapfill better after
presentation without pictorials (p .03)
• After presentation with pictorials: recollection of the
concept, but not the word (violin instead of fiddle;
rope instead of rein; throw instead of toss
in the middle instead of halfway, etc.)
Any pathways for
structural elaboration ?
Motivation for lexical composition ?
• Why steer clear of rather than “sail clear of” ?
• Why cut and run rather than “cut and sail away” ?
• Why left high and dry rather than “left up and dry” ?
 phonological motivation ?
e.g. rhyme:
brain drain; fair and square; a fat cat;
horses for courses; an eager beaver;
drunk as a skunk; when the cat’s away …
Scope of rhyme ?
Only about 2% of the English idiom repertoire …
Hmm...
How about other phonological repetition ?
For example: why …
Time will tell rather than “Time will show” ?
It takes two to tango rather than “It takes two to waltz” ?
 Alliteration
Scope of alliteration ?
About 17% of the English idiom repertoire
“Coverage” by alliteration + rhyme ?
19% of English idioms overall
23% of ‘frequent’ English idioms
28% of binomials (chop and change; part and parcel)
41% of similes (cool as a cucumber; fit as a fiddle)
Alliteration across phraseology
Compounds: baby boom; baby buggy; baby blues; ballot box;
bargain basement
Collocations: tell a tale; wage war; commit a crime; make a mess
vs. do damage
Proverbs: curiosity killed the … ; where there’s a will …; he who
pays the …; that’s the way the cookie …
Discourse markers: first and foremost; It is safe to say that
Exclamations: Good God! Trick or treat!
Miscellaneous: by common consent; a sight for sore eyes;
publish or perish
‘Statistical’ evidence ?
On-line collocations sampler data
Inviting strong collocates:
• Seek + sanctuary; settlement; solution, solace,
solitude, support; asylym; advice.
Look for + /s/-nouns ? Only 1 (solution).
• Fulfil + function, fantasy, prophesy, life.
Satisfy + /f/-nouns ? None.
Good old Google
Fundamentally flawed:
Fatally flawed:
Badly flawed:
Basically flawed:
Mortally flawed:
1,130,000 hits
851,000 hits
143,000 hits
23,100 hits
550 hits
Multiword dictionary entries
Beach bums, beer bellies and the big bang
B_
D_
B_
D_
+ B_
15%
9%
+D
4%
10%
+ other
85%
91%
+ other
86%
90%
p < .001
p < .001
More multiword dictionary entries
Peer pressure on penny-pinching party poopers
P_
T_
P_
T_
+ P_
14%
8%
+ T_
5%
10%
+ other
86%
92%
+ other
95%
90%
p < .001
p < .001
Many more multiword dictionary entries
force-feeding French fries and fish fingers to fullyfledged flip-flops: far-fetched fact-finding?
F_
M_
+ F_
11%
2%
+ other
91%
98%
p < .000
Last but not least …
Hard evidence from Harry Potter!
Salazar Slitherin; Helga Hufflepuff; Godric Griffindor;
Rowena Ravenclaw;
Bathilda Bagshot; Dedalus Diggle; Dudley Dursley;
Piers Polkins; Dinky Duddydums; Bertie Bott;
Severus Snape; Parvati Patil; Pancy Parkinson; ...
About 1/3 of invented names alliterate
About 1/3 chapter titles alliterate
And how about adding less salient kinds of
consonance and assonance to the mix?
Examples:
off the cuff
above board
stark naked
Hit and miss
say a prayer
false dawn
Combined scope
In a sample of 508 “frequent” English idioms
Type
N
Example
Word repetition
3
Shoulder to shoulder
True rhyme
6
Fat cat
Allit + Asson
9
Rule the roost
Alliteration
58
Too close to call
Assonance
52
A false dawn
Total
128
= 25 %
Combined scope
In a set of 106 English binomial idioms
Type
N
Example
Word repetition
1
Neck and neck
True rhyme
3
Fair and square
Allit + Asson
2
Part and parcel
Alliteration
38
Spick and span
Assonance
13
Airs and graces
Total
57
= 54 %
Mnemonic effect
Long assumed in advertising
(Guiness is … for you; Probably the best … in the world; Now
probably in the best …)
And entertainment
(Mickey … and Donald …, Peter …; Bend it like …; Pride and …)
But surprisingly little empirical evidence.

Experiment 1
26 target phrases:
Ring road
Lamplight
Sea salt
Green grass
West wind
Fast food
[…]
Key hole
Hilltop
Bath soap
Grey hair
Right hand
Fresh air
Procedure
• Presentation in random order
• Sorting: alliteratives vs. unpatterned phrases
• Recollection
Results
• Immediate recall:
Alliteratives > No-pats
p .008
• Delayed recognition:
Alliteratives > No-pats
p .004
Experiment 2
24 paper slips:
e.g. home phone; sea breeze, queen bee, right size;
school lunch, storm cloud, good taste, bad luck.
Sorting: assonance vs. unpatterned
Recollection
Results
• Immediate recall:
Assonant phrases > no-pats
p < .002
• Delayed recognition:
Assonant phrases > no-pats
p < .000
Question
But don´t learners notice phonological repetition
autonomously anyhow ?
Answer:
No, they don´t
Next question:
Does alerting learners to these patterns help retention?
Answer:
Sure enough
•
•
•
•
Two groups of language majors
Teacher alerted experimental students to alliteration
End of course test
Results:
– Alliteratives: Exp > Ctrl
– No-pats: Exp = Ctrl
Summing up
•
•
•
•
The chunk-learning task is formidable
Incidental acquisition is bound to be slow
Noticing has to be complemented by elaboration
Non-arbitrary features of chunks provide pathways for
teacher-led elaboration
• If productive mastery is the aim, then structural
elaboration is called for
High time for questions
thanks
Afterthought on idioms
Teaching idioms?! You must be kidding:
they’re just the icing on the cake!
Well, no ...
• Issue of comprehension: even when embedded in
‘exemplary’ context  61% misinterpretations.
• Non-negligible ‘pragmatic’ functions
• More common than you might think:
e.g. 1/40 instances of a preposition = in an idiom.
Idioms in 120 pages of a popular novel
Occurring more than once:
keep _ at bay (p. 21; 28; 31; 55); on the same wavelength (p. 19, twice); _ up to
speed (p. 19; 98); take the piss (p. 19; 72; 76); caught on the wrong foot (p. 31; 97);
keep you on your toes (p. 41; 78); call it a day (p. 72, twice); cut the mustard (p. 42;
108).
Occurring once:
laid at the door of _ (p. 1); the rough and tumble of life (p. 1); He knew it in his bones
(p. 4); a king’s ransom (p. 5); gone head to head (p. 15); the nuts and bolts (p. 19);
thin on the ground (p. 20); stopped in her tracks (p. 21); off the hook (p. 32); make a
face (p. 32); water off a duck’s back (p. 37); reaping what she’d sown (p. 37); for
good measure (p. 39); hammer home a message (p. 42); gone far out on a limb (p.
42); run the gauntlet (p. 45); keeping me posted (p. 45); off the wall (p. 46); set the
wheels in motion (p. 47); down the line (p. 47); screaming from the rooftops (p. 48);
put my reputation on the line (p. 48); eyeball to eyeball (p. 52); the bottom line (p. 53);
by the skin of his teeth (p. 62); for a song (p. 62); for peanuts (p. 62); rub shoulders
with (p. 62); on track (p. 63); fit the bill (p. 67); on a platter (p. 68); run out of steam
(p. 69); keeping tabs on (p. 70); keep on a tight leash (p. 70); at sea (p. 71); play the
field (p. 72); a stay of execution (p. 75); up your street (p. 75); cut both ways (p. 79);
hot on their heels (p. 79); raise the stakes (p. 80); make the grade (p. 85); put your
foot in it (p. 88); chopping and changing (p. 91); a bone to chew on (p. 93); make
headway (p. 94); rattling their sabres (p. 97); get up to speed (p. 98); at face value (p.
98); hang out to dry (p. 98); hidden agenda (p. 98); on the ground (p. 99); on the
page (p. 99); cover your back (p. 99); run yourself into the ground (p. 103); fire on all
cylinders (p. 105); have your wits about you (p. 105); footloose and fancy free (p.
106); carry a torch for someone (p. 106); make a dent in something (p. 107); look for
a needle in a haystack (p. 108); get your hands on something (p. 108); keep _ at
arm’s length (p. 110); not give a toss (p. 113); get in on the act (p. 113); shoot your
mouth off (p. 113); put your oar in (p. 115); not miss a trick (p. 116); get your head
around something (p. 117).
Also a window on ‘culture’
E.g. Abundance of idioms from seafaring in English
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
Steer clear of something
On course for something
All hands on deck
In the doldrums
On an even keel
Miss the boat
Learn the ropes
Plain sailing
• Show your true colours
• A steady hand on the tiller
• Be left high and dry
• Walk the plank
• Run a tight ship
• With flying colours
• When your ship comes in
• Clear the decks
Etc.
Crosslinguistic variation
• SAILING idioms:
English > French
• GARDENING idioms:
English > French
• FOOD idioms:
French > English
‘Productivity’ of source domains across languages
SOURCE DOMAIN
• agriculture & gardening (e.g., Nip something in the bud);
• commerce & accounting (e.g., Wipe the slate clean);
• entertainment & performance (e.g., Play to the gallery);
• food & cooking (e.g., On the back burner);
• games & sports (e.g., Keep your eye on the ball);
• handicraft & manufacturing (e.g., Break the mould);
• health & medicine (e.g., Keep your finger on the pulse);
• religion & superstition (e.g., Fall from grace);
• vehicles & transport (e.g., Miss the boat);
• war & aggression (e.g., Break ranks)
• Etc.
&
ag
fa
un
a
sp
or
ts
gr
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f
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percentage of repertoire
Figure 1: Source domains of English, Dutch and Spanish idioms
20
18
16
14
12
10
8
6
4
2
0
source domains
English
Dutch
Spanish
Some references
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
Boers, F., J. Deconinck & S. Lindstromberg (forthcoming) Choosing motivated chunks for teaching. In: S. De
Knop, F. Boers and T. De Rycker (eds.), Fostering Language Teaching Efficiency through Cognitive Linguistics.
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Associates
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Optimising a Lexical Approach to Instructed Second