Learn >> Improve English fluency with chunks!

What are chunks and how can they help improve my fluency in English?
Knowing the meaning of a word is useful, but knowing how to use it in context is vital. Words aren't used in isolation and will often form part of an expression or fixed set of words. Being able to call on these 'chunks' of vocabulary will help you to improve English fluency skills.

Take the word 'thing' for example. We know 'thing' means a nameless object, such as in the expression: 'a thing for peeling potatoes'. However, you will also find the word used in 'ready made' phrases. Listen to these examples:

'the thing is', 'all sorts of things' and 'there's no such thing' are three very common chunks well worth remembering.

What kind of chunks should I look out for?
Chunks appear in all sorts of ways: as collocations and idioms, in set phrases such as 'I was wondering if' and 'all the best' and what teachers call 'discourse markers' like 'as I was saying' or 'as far as I know'. Let's look at each of these in more detail.

1) Collocations and idioms
Chunks include common collocational phrases, idioms and phrasal verbs. For example, which prepositions are missing from the sentences below?


A) Driving the influence of alcohol is a serious offence. (collocational phrase)

B) You're not old and you really should not think that you're the hill at 60. (idiom)

C) The thief made with valuable personal possessions and a great deal of money. (phrasal verb)

Well done!The correct answers are 'under the influence', 'over the hill' and 'to make off with'.Your answer has been saved.Check your answer


2) Common polite expressions
Chunks like 'See you later' or 'Take a seat' are often used in everyday communication and learning them can help you improve English fluency. Which of the following do you regularly use?

'All the best'
'See you soon'
'Mind how you go'
'Have a nice day'
'How do you do?'
'You're welcome'

3) Discourse markers
Discourse markers are used in both written and spoken English to link what has come before to what comes next. You'll already know of discourse markers used in written English such as 'on the one hand', 'turning now to' or 'in conclusion'. Typical single word discourse markers in spoken English include 'now', 'so' 'actually' and 'well'. As your English fluency skills improve you'll find yourself using informal discourse markers such as the following more often:

'I see what you mean but'
'By the way'
'Sort of'
'Mind you'
'You know'
'Let's see'

How can I learn chunks?
First of all you'll need to notice them. As you listen to our recordings follow the speech in the transcripts and underline anything that looks like a set expression. For example, you'll find below extracts from Splendid Speaking Interview 13 with some example chunks highlighted:

Jonas: ... And then I came up with the … the thought that maybe a … a communal stretching session would be appropriate as well … or maybe I don’t know ... a yoga lesson in the evening.

Ana: Yes but … yeah … yeah maybe … a few more breaks would be good. What about … introducing breaks of about 15 minutes one in the morning and one in the afternoon … during which people can go to the gym … and I mean you mentioned some stretching …

Ana: I just had the idea of … I mean maybe there are some exercises certain exercises people can do in a very short time even if they stay in front of their computers but … yes … just a little bit of stretching … standing up every now and then ...

Jonas: Yes … that’s quite right … if you … I mean it would be pretty realistic to organise something like this … between … in breaks or I don’t know and it would be of course all on a voluntary basis you wouldn’t … wouldn’t be forced to do yoga or anything like that.

Read interviews in English magazines which feature direct speech and make a note of any chunks you come across. The most frequent - and therefore most useful - chunks will consists of the most common words, not specialised or less frequently used vocabulary.

Try grouping new chunks into categories depending upon how you would use them. For example, the following can all be used to indicate that you have something else to say:

'By the way'
'While I remember'
'And another thing is'
'Before I forget'

Say the expressions out loud to get a feel for the rhythm. For example, listen to the chunks above and note which words or syllables are stressed

Did you notice that each chunk had two stressed syllables?

'By the way'
'While I remember'
'And another thing is'
'Before I forget'

Using new chunks of vocabulary rather than always the same phrases you're 'comfortable' with will help you improve English fluency.

Try this exercise. Work with a partner, come up with a list of 10-12 chunks and challenge each other to use the phrases during a discussion.

Related pages
Splendid Speaking recordings
Splendid Speaking Newsletter (for transcripts)

Would you like more help like this?

For weekly tips to help you improve English fluency, to receive our colloquial expressions worksheet plus updates on our new materials and promotions, sign up to our free newsletter.


Sign up for the FREE 'Splendid Speaking' newsletter
First Name: