Focusing on lexical chunks in business emails – a beneficial approach? by Rachel Lawson

Dear fellow teacher,

The 52nd IATEFL Conference was very profitable and here goes another piece of the Business English SIG (special interest group) showcase, a full day dedicated to matters related to BE teaching. 

The session ‘Focusing on lexical chunks in business emails – a beneficial approach?’ was presented by Rachel Lawson as a result of a study she conducted to investigate her own teaching, as well as to find out about the practices of other BE teachers. She was also aiming at checking her clients’ satisfaction and the results they were getting. Her questions were:

  • Will students improve their email writing skills?
  • Do they improve fluency, accuracy, and appropriacy of language?
  • Will production be speeded up?

Her research questions were:

  • Is this (teaching using chunks) relevant? Does it make sense?
  • Can I see an improvement?
  • What are the learners’ and teachers’ perceptions on the subject?

She started by clarifying the meaning of language chunks. Language chunk is a pre-fabricated piece of language, words that always go together, for example, ‘I would be grateful if you could…’ or ‘I look forward to /-ing’.

What can chunks help students with? According to Rachel Lawson, chunks can ease cognitive processing, help to achieve accuracy, increase pragmatic competence, be motivating to learn and also create effective/rapid results.

The speaker also presented some teaching approaches she uses in her courses:

  • Noticing/identifying chunks in authentic material.
  • Matching, gap-fill activities, re-ordering.
  • Categorizing formal/informal.
  • Error correction of chunks.
  • Output activities productions / Feedback

Then, she talked about the methods she used to conduct her study. She collected email writing samples from the students before and after the course, she provided BE teachers with a questionnaire and she conducted semi-structured interviews with learners pre and post-course.

For the email writing samples, Rachel got the following results:

  • Improvement in accuracy and effectiveness post-course.
  • Appropriate use of a range of chunks.
  • Attempt to use chunks as politeness markers.
  • Native speaker naturally used range of lexical chunks, effectively and correctly.
  • The speed of production did not increase.

From the questionnaire BE teachers answered she got the following feedback:

  • “The innate understanding of how we phrase things in English is always missing and virtually impossible to teach generally.”
  • “A lot of email language is formulaic. Hard to ignore it.”
  • “Usually take the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ approach to writing emails as learners are/feel operational more quickly.”
  • Efficiency – saves time and brain space to learn in chunks.”

The interviews she conducted with students pointed out the following:

  • Pre-course – heavy reliance on Google translate.
  • Minimal awareness of fixed phrases – Time constraints? Concentrated on information-rich words?
  • Some awareness of politeness markers, but lacking language.
  • Post-course – Learners noticed more chunks in emails.
  • Some learners had speeded up their writing – quicker to use chunks and be more precise.
  • But others took longer – more language and more care. However, it took them fewer emails to get results.

All in all, her findings were:

For students:

  • Some chunks learned/produced.
  • More confident and aware of politeness markers, macro organizers, and register. 
  • Communicative competence improved.
  • More proficient and professional emails.

For teachers:

  • Focus on chunks is obvious.
  • Chunks in BE emails are hard to ignore.
  • Using authentic texts and learner product is key to approach.
  • Build up email with chunks to promote a template.

My view on the subject: I realize how important teaching chunks is, but honestly, I had never thought of it as a way to speed up acquisition and increase student’s confidence on the use of language. But after this talk, I’ve been more focused on providing my students with more opportunities to identify chunks and reflect on how they can fit their language usage needs. While searching about it online, I came across an interesting article from the periodical The Guardian, it’s quite old, but it’s very relevant and related to BE teaching:

How about you? Do you teach lexical chunks in your BE classes? In which other contexts? Would you like to share how you approach chunks in your classes? Feel free to leave your comments and ideas.

I hope you liked this post. The next one will be about ELF – English as lingua franca, and some very interesting remarks on the CEFR – Common European Framework of References (this talk made me really rethink my teaching practice).

See you soon!

Marcela H.