A review of recent instructional interventions to raise learners’ awareness of multiword units in english and some reflections on Vietnamese context

Abstract. Considerable research attention has been paid in recent years to the pervasiveness of multiword units (MWUs) such as collocations, idioms, or ready-made phrases in a language and the need to help second language (L2) learners acquire this aspect of vocabulary. However, in Vietnam, an English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) context, this phenomenon has not received adequate consideration in English classrooms yet. This may explain why Vietnamese learners’ knowledge of English fixed and semi-fixed expressions is far from impressive. This article reviews recent studies on raising (L2) learners’ awareness of MWUs in search of classroom practices that can be used by Vietnamese practitioners to help their students build a sizeable repertoire of MWUs.

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JOURNAL OF SCIENCE OF HNUE DOI: 10.18173/2354-1075.2016-0226 Educational Sci., 2016, Vol. 61, No. 11, pp. 136-142 This paper is available online at A REVIEW OF RECENT INSTRUCTIONAL INTERVENTIONS TO RAISE LEARNERS’ AWARENESS OF MULTIWORD UNITS IN ENGLISH AND SOME REFLECTIONS ON VIETNAMESE CONTEXT Bui Thi Bich Thuy English Faculty, Hanoi National University of Education Abstract.Considerable research attention has been paid in recent years to the pervasiveness of multiword units (MWUs) such as collocations, idioms, or ready-made phrases in a language and the need to help second language (L2) learners acquire this aspect of vocabulary. However, in Vietnam, an English-as-a-Foreign-Language (EFL) context, this phenomenon has not received adequate consideration in English classrooms yet. This may explain why Vietnamese learners’ knowledge of English fixed and semi-fixed expressions is far from impressive. This article reviews recent studies on raising (L2) learners’ awareness of MWUs in search of classroom practices that can be used by Vietnamese practitioners to help their students build a sizeable repertoire of MWUs. Keywords: Vocabulary, multiword units, English classrooms, EFL learners, instructional intervention. 1. Introduction The last two decades have seen a shift of applied linguistics researchers’ focus from single words to conventional word combinations carrying meanings of their own, namely multi-word units (MWUs) or lexical chunks [1] (Lewis, 1993). A growing body of research has repeatedly emphasized the ubiquity and pedagogical significance of this aspect of the lexicon ([2] Boers, Eyckmans, Kappel, Stengers, & Demecheleer, 2006; [3] Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992; [4] Sinclair, 1991, [5] Wray, 2002). However, mastering a sizeable repertoire of MWUs is still a real challenge to second language (L2) learners [6] (Nesselhauf, 2003), particularly those in a non-immersion setting, such as an English-as-a-foreign (EFL) context like Vietnam. In addition, “though L2 teaching no longer ignores the formulaic nature of language, the exact paths to follow to better teach it are still insufficiently lit.” [7] (Meunier, 2012, p. 123). However, there is widespread agreement among pedagogues that due to limited class time, what teachers should prioritize is raising learners’ awareness of the pervasiveness of formulaic sequences through a variety of classroom activities [1](Lewis, 1993), and training them to use strategies to independently accumulate the repertoire. This paper will look at recent studies on instructional intervention into L2 learners’ multiword unit acquisition from an EFL teacher’s perspectives and reflect on how Vietnamese teachers can help their students fill this gap in their vocabulary knowledge. Received date: 27/5/2016. Published date: 20/11/2016. Contact: Bui Thi Bich Thuy, e-mail: thuyspnn@gmail.com 136 A review of recent instructional interventions to raise learners’ awareness of multiword units... 2. Content 2.1. Definition of Multi-Word Units As posited by [4] Sinclair (1991, 110-115), language may either occur as a result of a large number of complex choices in the open choice principle or in prefabricated phrases that constitute single choices according to the idiom principle. These pre-constructed phrases were later defined by [8] Erman and Warren (2000, p. 31) as “combinations of at least two words favoured by native speakers in preference to an alternative combination which could have been equivalent had there been no conventionalization”. MWUs have been characterized in the literature as exhibiting qualities such as institutionalization, fixedness, and non-compositionality. They include compounds, phrasal verbs, idioms, collocations, lexicalized sentence stems and other ready-made units. Umbrella terms include “lexical phrases” [3] (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992), “chunks” [9] (Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009), and “formulaic sequences” [5] (Wray, 2002). Their functions range from conversational fillers (e.g. as you already know, by the way) and conversational routines to situation evaluators (e.g. Small world!) and discourse organizers (e.g. having said that). Twomain approaches commonly adopted by researchers to identify (and categorize) MWUs are the phraseological approach and the frequency-based approach. While the former looks at the restricted substitutability of a combination (heavy rain instead of big rain), the latter is more concerned with the more-than-chance co-occurrence of words statistically measured in large language corpora such as the 450-million token Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) [10] (Davies, 2008) or BNC (The British National Corpus). The two methods complement one another: while the phraseological approach will take semantic characteristics of MWUs into account and distinguish, for example, between non-transparent MWUS (e.g., idioms) and transparent ones, the frequency-based approach is useful to ensure that MWUs selected for teaching are ones that are common enough to be useful additions to the students’ lexical resources. 2.2. The significance of Multi-Word Units in second language acquisition It is widely acknowledged among pedagogy-minded linguists that acquiring a good-sized lexicon of MWUs is a strongly recommended step for language learners to reach a high level of proficiency. That is because a large proportion of spoken and written native-speaker discourse is formulaic or phrasal [8] (Erman & Warren, 2000). It is this formulaic dimension of language that is believed to foster fluency in the mother tongue, as native speakers retrieve MWUs from memory as prefabricated chunks, i.e., without the need to construct messages word by word [5] (Wray, 2002). There is growing evidence that L2 learners, too, stand to gain a lot from building an adequate sufficient phraseological lexicon. For example, learners who display good mastery of MWUs tend to be perceived as more proficient language users – all else being equal – in speaking tasks [2] (Boers et al., 2006) as well as writing assignments [11] (Dai & Ding, 2010). Moreover, knowledge of lexical chunks, idioms in particular, aids L2 learners’ comprehension of the discourse they encounter. It is also likely that, if L2 learners manage to proceduralize their knowledge of MWUs, this will facilitate both their receptive and productive fluency. Cowie (1992, p.10) even asserted that, “it is impossible to perform at a level acceptable to native users, in writing or in speech, without controlling an appropriate range of multiword units” [12]. Oddities at the level of collocation are indeed known to be one of the dimensions that distinguish L2 use from L1 discourse. It is therefore not surprising that high-stakes language tests (e.g. The International English Language Testing System, IELTS) emphasize skillful and natural use of idiomatic language in their descriptors for the highest band scores. Moreover, as reported by Crossley, Salsbury, & Mcnamara (2015) [13], collocational accuracy – more so apparently than 137 Bui Thi Bich Thuy lexical richness – , is a determining factor in expert assessment of L2 learners’ oral and written competence. While there is accumulating evidence that acquiring an adequate bank of MWUs is an essential part of successful L2 acquisition, there is, unfortunately, also ample evidence that, in the absence of pedagogic intervention, L2 learners in non-immersion settings are slow to pick up MWUs [6] (Nesselhauf, 2003) In the Vietnamese context in particular, Nguyen and Webb (2016) investigated knowledge of verb-noun and adjective-noun collocations at the first three 1,000 word frequency levels among 100 Vietnamese university students majoring in English [14]. The research findings indicated very limited knowledge of collocations. Although further studies still need to be carried out among Vietnamese EFL learners to provide a more profound insight into their awareness and knowledge of MWUs, these two explanations for Vietnamese learners’ shortcomings might be taken into consideration. First, they may not have sufficient exposure to MWUs and may have difficulty understanding them in authentic contexts [15] (Tran, 2012). Also, although some recently published textbooks have paid more attention to the collocational behavior of words, not all kinds of exercises are beneficial to learners [16] (Boers, Demecheleer, Coxhead, & Webb, 2014). Second, both Vietnamese teachers and learners may lack adequate awareness of the significance of MWUs in language acquisition. Consequently, single vocabulary items are still the main focus of English teaching and learning in Vietnam. It follows, then, that pedagogical interventions to stimulate the acquisition of MWUs in Vietnam would be welcome. 2.3. What recent studies suggest and what Vietnamese teachers can do Influential publications in the 1990s that called for more attention to formulaic language in language teaching were [3] Nattinger and DeCarrio (1992) and [1] Lewis (1993). Since then, a growing number of studies have explored the effects of pedagogic interventions with a focus on various kinds of MWUs, including collocations and idioms (e.g., [17] Boers, Demecheleer, & Eyckmans, 2004; [18] Chan & Liou, 2005; [19] Peters, 2009; [20] Stengers & Boers, 2015; [21] Sun & Wang, 2003; [22] Web & Kagimoto, 2009). Many of the above-mentioned studies have evaluated methods of explicit instruction and the development of materials for intentional learning of MWUs. However, owing to the limited class time and the sheer number of MWUs, explicit instruction and intentional study alone cannot suffice. As is the case with vocabulary more generally, a substantial part of MWU acquisition will have to rely on opportunities for incidental learning, that is, learning as a by-product, so to speak, of communicative, meaning-focused activities, and on efforts to equip learners with strategies that foster autonomous learning. An essential feature of learner autonomy in MWU learning from textual input is a general awareness of the formulaic dimension of discourse. This general awareness can be fostered explicitly either during lessons or in small workshops and seminars. In an exam-oriented teaching and learning culture like Vietnam, learners will possibly feel the need to acquire a sufficient bank of MWUs and feel motivated to practice using them if they realize that this knowledge can improve their scores in various English proficiency tests. Alternatively, students’ attention can be directed to particular instances of MWUs during classroom activities. Quite a few such activities have been put to the test in literature and these are those I would propose to be further explored by teachers in Vietnam. a. Typographically enhance multi-word units in reading texts It has been argued that when learners encounter a new word string, it must be hard for them to determine on the basis of their intuition whether it may be a word string worth attending to. 138 A review of recent instructional interventions to raise learners’ awareness of multiword units... Besides, when learners decide to look up a word string in a dictionary or in online resources, such as a corpus, they may find this far less straightforward (even) than applied linguists (e.g., [23] Wu, Witten, & Franken, 2010). Therefore, it is suggested that a lot of time could be saved and more MWU learning may occur if instances of useful MWUs in texts are pointed out to the learners. A relatively straightforward way of doing this is the use of textual or typographic enhancement. MWUs can be made salient in texts through underlining, bolding, etc. A fair number of studies have furnished evidence that is favourable of this text manipulation ([19] Peters, 2009; [24] Szudarski & Carter, 2014). In the textbooks currently used in Vietnam such as Life, New Cutting Edge, English Files, or New Solutions, vocabulary items are not always highlighted or underlined, and very few of the typographically enhanced items are MWUs. Meanwhile, additional reading materials are chosen from different resources including both authentic ones and exam preparation books. Teachers can draw students’ attention to some MWUs worth learning in these reading texts by underlining or highlighting them. While Vietnamese learners’ exposure to authentic language is limited, the materials available should be made the best use of. Students are likely to be curious about items that are made salient in the texts and this curiosity may hopefully lead to more engagement with the items by trying to guess their meanings from contexts (in the case of non-transparent MWUs) or looking them up. This engagement, in turn, may help leave clearer traces of the phrases in learners’ minds. However, teachers should be cautious not to typographically enhance too much in a text. Otherwise, the effect of arousing students’ curiosity can be compromised. b. Organize ‘text-chunking’ activities to complement reading comprehension According to [25] Lewis (1997), learners’ awareness of MWUs can be fostered through so-called text-chunking activities, where students themselves screen authentic texts for instances of MWUs. The outcome of their MWU identification is then compared with their peers’ selection and/or verified by the teacher. Online dictionaries and corpora (e.g., COCA) are now available for learners to help ascertain the MWU status of encountered word strings. The effectiveness of regular text-chunking activities was investigated by [26] Jones and Haywood (2004), [2] Boers et al. (2006), and [27] Stengers et al. (2010), with rather mixed results. However, these studies did not explore the potential of the aforementioned online resources in helping learners themselves to identify MWUs. The benefits of learner-autonomous ‘text chunking’ might be enhanced if students were taught to test their intuitions against information sought in online dictionaries and corpora. For example, Vietnamese teachers may have students, either individually or in groups, identify possible MWUs in reading texts after they have familiarized themselves with their content (i.e., after having tackled comprehension questions, topic discussions, or information-gap activities). In this ‘text-chunking’ activity, students will have a chance to step back and peruse the texts for phrases that interest them and that they feel the need to learn to enrich their repertoire. When given proper guidance, students can then verify the quality of their resulting MWU lists with the aid of resources such as (online) dictionaries and – as part of collaborative learning – share these lists with their peers. There are not necessarily right or wrong answers in this task as long as students are engaged with the linguistic aspects of the reading texts. Another thing worth mentioning is that this activity can be made a homework task with listening transcripts which probably contain more potential MWUs. In Vietnam, although this method has, to a small extent, been carried out by some teachers, either the phrases are pointed out by the teachers themselves or there are no discussions afterwards. Organize ‘phrases-of-the-week’ sharing sessions in speaking or writing lessons. Students may think harder about the right choice of words when they write in the target language. With EFL students, writing may ignite more consideration as the pressure for 139 Bui Thi Bich Thuy spontaneous production is less. Therefore, it is possibly beneficial if each week a proportion of class time is devoted to students’ sharing a certain number of phrases they find interesting in different texts they encounter throughout the week. This sharing may include various aspects of the MWUs such as their forms, their meanings, their translations in Vietnamese (if possible), some contexts they are used in, and the presenters’ sentences with the MWUs. Geluso & Yamaguchi’s [28] (2014) study employed a data-driven learning approach in which students were free to choose authentic materials of their favorite topics in preparation for created conversations. Besides, students were asked to use COCA to investigate words and phrases they encounter in the reading materials. Intriguing combinations were noted down and shared in weekly 30-minute student-led lessons. The findings indicated that this was a useful and effective classroom practice. It is worth noting as a word of caution that corpora may not be optimally user-friendly and may thus be off-putting to language learners. Proper prior training in the use of such online resources is probably essential. One objective of this sharing activity is to make students take more responsibility for their ownMWUdevelopment and learn from one another. At the same time, it contributes to the forming of students’ habits to mine language resources at hand for fruitful vocabulary items, especially MWUs. c. Exploit available multi-word unit lists It may be a convenient choice for EFL teachers in Vietnam to take advantage of available lists of MWUs that have become available in the literature. Examples are Liu’s (2011) [29] list of most frequently-used multi-word constructions in academic written English, or Simpson-Vlach and Ellis’s (2010) [30] academic formulas list. These lists have been made on the basis of frequency in large corpora like BNC or COCA. In other words, these are collections of the most common phrases and constructions in contemporary English. Such lists may inform teachers about which MWUs will be particularly useful to their students, and thus help them select MWUs for inclusion in their course materials. One of the drawbacks in using these lists is the lack of meaningful contexts including the MWUs. However, teachers may create tasks in which students study the lists and produce either spoken or written sentences with the phrases or constructions they find intriguing. For example, for academic writing, students may consult the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester ( for academic discourse devices. d. Use text reconstruction activities, such as dictogloss, with an added focus on multi-word units Dictogloss is known as a classroom dictation activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down key words, which are then used as a base for reconstruction. In some cases, the listening activity may be changed to a reading one. Lindstromberg, Eyckmans & Connabeer (2016) [31] compared the effectiveness of two different conditions of dictogloss. In the standard condition, students read a text four times and re-built it on a blank page. In the modified condition, each student received a worksheet with targeted MWUs from the text in the order of their occurrence. A post-test indicated better recall of the MWUs in the latter condition. This study may encourage Vietnamese teachers to organize more dictogloss activities in English classrooms, especially when this practice can be beneficial both as an individual, a pairwork, or a groupwork activity. 3. Conclusion Innovative ideas for classroom practice in fostering learners’ awareness and ultimately autonomous learning in MWU acquisition are in no way limited to those mentioned in this article. 140 A review of recent instructional interventions to raise learners’ awareness of multiword units... It is hoped that more suggestions will be proposed and put to the test by Vietnamese practitioners to improve their students’ language comprehension, fluency and accuracy through an enriched repertoire of MWUs. Acknowledgements. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Associate Professor Frank Boers from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand for all his invaluable suggestions and review du