Posted on

Learning in Chunks – just a question of lexis?

It is not exactly revolutionary of me to mention the word “chunk” within the subject of ELT. It has been long established that vocabulary needs to be presented less as individual discrete items, but horizontally, so as to include and acknowledge collocation. Words are indeed the key to communicative language, but prepositions, adjective / noun or noun / verb combinations, and high-frequency connections are the glue that holds it together. Without these things, it is impossible to achieve any real level of productive fluency. None of this is in debate.

There is a particular part of this that is starting to interest me, though. It isn’t the fact that we ought to draw attention to collocation, or words “in chunks” though. It’s the implications of “chunking” for a learner. Chunking isn’t, in fact, just a method of expansion, for as it encourages learners to observe vocabulary in groups rather than individually, it also facilitates the breaking down of full, multiple-clause sentences, in to manageable, bite-sized chunks (Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach). Again, not a new observation. But is the idea of “bite-sized” usable in other skills?

At this point, I’m going to switch to reading tasks, specifically, academic reading. As an IELTS teacher, I watch a lot of struggle. Students are faced with daunting amounts of text, answers hidden amongst technical terms and “distractors”, and a time limit that would have most native speakers struggling. Often, the sheer volume of text is enough to guarantee demotivation, and, ultimately, failure. I’ve looked at techniques, of course. We’ve scanned, skimmed and inferred until blue in the face, but often it just isn’t enough. Perhaps they aren’t up to it yet. Or perhaps they encounter problems because the task, not the text, isn’t “bite-sized”.

Let’s look at a typical task in an IELTS reading exam. True / False / Not Given questions typically present themselves in order in the text, and require the student to scan and skim in a linear fashion, albeit not necessarily having a clue about the percentage of the whole text covered by the task (unless there is a clear, “scannable” keyword). In general, students are presented with about seven questions, and 800 words of text. They then proceed to read question 1, scan the text, find the answer, write the answer, and repeat for question 2 et cetera. Of course, if they can’t find an answer, they don’t really have a point of reference from which to continue moving forward through the text. In other words, it is difficult to establish linear movement, and can result in time-costly rereading and doubling back. In an incredibly time sensitive exam (1 hour, 3 texts, 2400 words, 40 questions), this is not exactly ideal.

Now, let’s say that a student approaches this in a slightly different way. Upon receiving the task, they break the questions, and then the text, in to bite-sized chunks. They draw a line under question four, and look at questions 1-4 as a separate task. They are not only breaking the task down, but they are also immediately acknowledging that they are likely to be looking at less of the text; the first four-sevenths, roughly. Granted, this is still not exact enough to be comforting. The next stage then, is to isolate the text in a more precise way. The student scans for a keyword match in question 1. They aren’t looking necessarily to find the exact answer at this stage, merely to highlight the area of text in which the answer lies. They draw a line indicating where the text relating to questions 1-4 starts. The next part is to do the same again, but instead of doing this for question 2, they do it for question four. Once they have drawn this second line, they have created a text box, in which four answers lie. The text box is considerably smaller, and therefore less daunting, than the original text, and task, as a whole. They then go through the standard question-answering techniques as they are usually taught. This process is then repeated with questions 5-7, again focusing on isolating “answer-heavy” text, and eliminating time-wasting and a general feeling of being overwhelmed by volume.

While early in my research in to the benefits of this, results so far have been good. Not only have 100% of my students responded positively to this concept, which I believe is more than half the battle (for I am a disciple of the affective filter), but success rates in linear tasks have also gone up considerably in over 80% of these students. I am keen to acknowledge that reading methods and techniques are very much individually subjective, and, as a result, it is difficult to say that there is a “right” way. However, if learners feel that they can approach a task with more confidence than before, I am positive that this will directly contribute to an improvement in results alone, as so many learners are beaten before they step on to the pitch, to use a famous sporting analogy.

I’d love to hear from teachers and students who would like to give this a go. My contact details are on this site. Get in touch, and help me answer the following question: “Can we use the idea of chunking as a reading test technique in general English and exam settings?” And, even more interestingly: “Is there a practical use for a technique like this outside of the environment of comprehension-based tasks – could chunking improve reading ability as a whole?”

 

Simon Richardson

Posted on

IELTS Reading (mini-tip) – what order do you answer questions in?

Let’s think about tasks such as True / False / Not Given, sentence completion and short answer questions. You will find that the answers can be found in the text in order. But are you using this fact to your maximum advantage?

Have a look at this short example text below.

Chilies

Chilies originate in South America and have been eaten for at least 9,500 years. Organised cultivation began around 5,400BC. Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter chilies, when he landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. He thought it was a type of pepper and called it the “red pepper”, a name still used today. After their introduction to Europe they were an immediate sensation and were quickly incorporated into the diet. From there they spread to Africa, India and East Asia.
The reason for the chilli’s “hotness” lies in a chemical called Capsaisin. Capsaisin causes temporary irritation to the trigeminal cells, which are the pain receptors in the mouth, nose and throat. After the pain messages are transmitted to the brain, endorphins, natural pain killers, are released and these not only kill the pain but give the chili eater a short lived natural high. Other side effects include: an increased heart rate, a running nose and increased salivation and sweating, which can have a cooling effect in hot climates.

The reason for the presence of Capsaisin is thought to be to deter animals from eating the fruit. Only mammals feel the burning effects; birds feel nothing. As birds are a better method of distributing the seeds, which pass intact through their guts, Capsaisin would seem to be a result of natural selection.

The smaller chilies tend to be the hottest. This may reflect the fact that they tend to grow closer to the ground and are therefore more vulnerable to animals. The heat of a chili is measured on the Scoville scale. The hottest types such as the Habenero and the Scotch Bonnet rate between 100,000 and 300,000, the world famous Tabasco sauceÒ rates at 15,000 to 30,000, about the same as the Thai prik khee nu, while the popular Jalapeno is between 5,000 and 15,000. Powdered chili is 500 to 1,000 and the mild capsicins and paprikas can range between 100 and 0.

People have started to breed and grow chillies specifically to find hotter and hotter varieties, and what was once a pastime or the labour of practical joke production, has now become a competition worth a lot of money, particularly in the States. Not only is production big business, but the ability to consume and digest these spicy monsters has also become a gateway to fame and (small) fortune, with eating competitions on the rise year on year. While there is no direct link between eating these mutant chillies and ill-effects, there have been instances of hospitalisation on several occasions in the last few years, with this figure also on the rise.

 

Questions 1-4

1. Chilies became popular as soon as they were brought into Europe.
2. Capsaisin damages the mouth.
3. Chilies can be part of a birds diet.

 

4. Smaller chillies are generally hotter than larger chillies.

 

OK, so of course, we start off looking for information for question 1. (You can find it in line 3: “immediate sensation”) – so we mark it TRUE (not T, not Yes!)

But what next? In a longer text, I find that sometimes students perform better when the next question they answer is question 5, not question 2.

WHY?

Pretty simple, really. Sometimes, the final answer can be found a long way before the end of the text. (In this case, you can find the answer in line 1 of the second-to-last paragraph – “The smaller chillies tend to be the hottest”) If you can find the final answer position, you can then trap the remaining answers in between questions 1 and 5, so that you reduce the area of text that you have to scan. See below: Blue – question 1 answer / question 5 answer. BOLD = text containing answers 2-4.

 

Chilies

Chilies originate in South America and have been eaten for at least 9,500 years. Organised cultivation began around 5,400BC. Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter chilies, when he landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492. He thought it was a type of pepper and called it the “red pepper”, a name still used today. After their introduction to Europe they were an immediate sensation and were quickly incorporated into the diet. From there they spread to Africa, India and East Asia.
The reason for the chilli’s “hotness” lies in a chemical called Capsaisin. Capsaisin causes temporary irritation to the trigeminal cells, which are the pain receptors in the mouth, nose and throat. After the pain messages are transmitted to the brain, endorphins, natural pain killers, are released and these not only kill the pain but give the chili eater a short lived natural high. Other side effects include: an increased heart rate, a running nose and increased salivation and sweating, which can have a cooling effect in hot climates.

The reason for the presence of Capsaisin is thought to be to deter animals from eating the fruit. Only mammals feel the burning effects; birds feel nothing. As birds are a better method of distributing the seeds, which pass intact through their guts, Capsaisin would seem to be a result of natural selection.

The smaller chilies tend to be the hottest. This may reflect the fact that they tend to grow closer to the ground and are therefore more vulnerable to animals. The heat of a chili is measured on the Scoville scale. The hottest types such as the Habenero and the Scotch Bonnet rate between 100,000 and 300,000, the world famous Tabasco sauceÒ rates at 15,000 to 30,000, about the same as the Thai prik khee nu, while the popular Jalapeno is between 5,000 and 15,000. Powdered chili is 500 to 1,000 and the mild capsicins and paprikas can range between 100 and 0.

People have started to breed and grow chillies specifically to find hotter and hotter varieties, and what was once a pastime or the labour of practical joke production, has now become a competition worth a lot of money, particularly in the States. Not only is production big business, but the ability to consume and digest these spicy monsters has also become a gateway to fame and (small) fortune, with eating competitions on the rise year on year. While there is no direct link between eating these mutant chillies and ill-effects, there have been instances of hospitalisation on several occasions in the last few years, with this figure also on the rise.

 

Have a try of this next time, and remember: IELTS is about finding a technique that you are comfortable with. There is not one “correct” way – if this tip works for you, that’s great. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. There will be another way that you are happy with.

 

Simon

Posted on

IELTS Reading – Paragraph completion (word choice)

Here is a step by step guide for completing this kind of task. Remember to practise these steps until you have memorised them! Take a look at the task below.

It is a common 9 ……………….. that only men suffer
from colorblindness. On average 10 ………………..
than ten percent of men have this problem. Women
have two 11 ………………..  For this reason it is 12………………..  for a woman to suffer from  colorblindness.
myth a little less
X chromosomes defective genes
fact slightly more
exactly less likely
more probable

Often, the first thing you think is “what shall I read first?” In this case, the first thing to do is think about your grammar knowledge – just like you do in the listening exam during your preparation time. What kind of words do I need? What are the most logical answers?

9 – must be a singular noun

10 – something related to the percentage – must be “more” or “less”

11 – a plural, countable noun

12 – needs an adjective

Does this knowledge help you? Now look at the text here http://www.ielts-exam.net/ielts_reading/119/#P6b What you want to do is pick a keyword from the first sentence of the question, and match that to something in the text. Look at the beginning of paragraph B and you can see “men” and “colorblindness”. Now all you need to do is match a word or a synonym to one of the possible answers (you can see the word “myth” very early on – the answer to question 9).

Now complete the other three questions.

Summary

  1. Read the question and look at the grammar first
  2. Match a keyword / keywords from the first sentence to a location in the text
  3. Match synonyms or exact words to words in the box

So, in this task you don’t need to understand very much at all – you are just matching a few words and synonyms! Good news!

Simon

Posted on

IELTS Reading – Heading Matching

Here is a step by step guide to answering these questions. I think that heading matching is the easiest task, so I always advise you do it first if you see it in the exam!

Heading Match

1) Have a look at the attached document http://www.ielts.org/pdf/115016_Academic_Reading_sample_task_-_Matching_headings__2_.pdf

2) With a heading matching exercise, the first thing to do is read the first two sentences of each paragraph and try to match any keywords / synonyms to the questions. Do this for each paragraph.

3) At the end, if there are any you still can’t match, then go back and read two more sentences.

4) Be quick! If you can match two keywords or an idea, you don’t need to read any more, so don’t! Remember, if you’ve read four sentences and you still don’t know the answer, don’t waste your time – go to the next question and leave this one.

Have a look at the first two sentences of each paragraph. I’ve underlined the key words that show you the answers:

A: The role of governments in environmental management is difficult but inescapable. Sometimes,
the state tries to manage the resources it owns, and does so badly

(Answer v)

B: No activity affects more of the earth’s surface than farming. It shapes a third of the planet’s land
area, not counting Antarctica, and the proportion is rising.

Here, the answer isn’t clear, so I started reading the third sentence, and found World food output per head

(Answer vii)

C: All these activities may have damaging environmental impacts. For example, land clearing for
agriculture is the largest single cause of deforestation;

(Answer ii)

D: Government policies have frequently compounded the environmental damage that farming can
cause. In the rich countries, subsidies for growing crops and price supports for farm output
drive up the price of land.

(Answer iv)

Here’s the example:

E: In poor countries, governments aggravate other sorts of damage. Subsidies for pesticides and
artificial fertilisers encourage farmers to use greater quantities than are needed to get the
highest economic crop yield.

(Answer vi)

F: A result of the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations is likely to be a reduction of 36 per
cent in the average levels of farm subsidies paid by the rich countries in 1986-1990.

(Answer i)

Good luck – remember to give yourself one minute per question, and don’t overread – match ideas, be confident and move on to the next question!

Simon