Improve your English speaking at home, without a teacher - Part 2

Recording language in chunks

Learn language in chunks (or collocations)

Welcome to the second blog post in this four-part series to help you develop your speaking skills.

Having taught IELTS for many years now, one of the most common questions I’m asked by my students is:

I don’t speak English at home or with any of my friends. How can I improve my speaking?’.

I’m here to help you answer that question by providing you with tips and advice you can put into practice at home without the need for an English teacher.

In last week’s post we looked at using a recording device, such as an app on your phone, to assess and improve on your current levels of speaking. In this follow up post, we’ll be focusing on the whys and hows of learning new vocabulary in chunks or collocations.

A page from a vocabulary notebook

Many language experts believe that learning language in groups of words (chunks or collocations) rather than individual words can speed up the vocabulary learning process and help learners to become more fluent. I’m a firm believer that it does help and use this approach in all of my IELTS courses.

What is a chunk, you might ask? A chunk, or collocation, is essentially two or more words that are often used together. A chunk might be a fixed phrase or idiom such as ‘I’ve got a lot on my plate’ (I’m very busy), a commonly used structure such as ‘I’ve been travelling / working / talking on the phone all day’ or just combinations of adjectives and nouns, verbs and adverbs or other words that are often found together. Examples of the latter could be ‘heavy rain’ (whereas we don’t say ‘powerful rain’ or ‘strong rain’) or ‘take an exam’ rather than ‘appear in an exam’).

To help you learn new language in chunks, you can do the following:

  • Make sure you keep a vocabulary notebook where you record new items of vocabulary, possibly organised by IELTS topic area. Write example sentences using this new language and try and incorporate it in your speaking or writing practice on a regular basis.

  • When you learn a new word, use a good collocations dictionary or an online collocations finder to help you find other words that are commonly used with it., and the collocations function on Oxford Learner’s dictionary are my go-to tools – and they’re all free to use.

  • When you’re reading articles and books or listening to spoken English, take note of words that are commonly used together and write them in your vocabulary notebook.

Collocations dictionary

You can also build on your vocabulary really easily by changing chunks. So, for example, you might have written the chunk ‘celebrate my friend’s birthday’ in your vocabulary notebook. Perhaps you understand the world ‘celebrate’ but rarely use it when you’re speaking. In that case, you could challenge yourself to come up with more chunks that use the verb ‘celebrate’.

A quick look in a collocations dictionary has brought up the following matches:

- celebrate the opening of [a new hospital]

- celebrate an event

- celebrate an [important] occasion

- celebrate a [major] achievement

- celebrate the life of [this important person]

- celebrate with [my family]

- celebrate by [throwing a surprise party]

By doing this on a regular basis and writing example sentences with some of these new chunks, you’re quickly expanding your vocabulary.

You can find out more about collocations here .

Visit this blog next week when we’ll be continuing with our series on ‘Improving your speaking at home, without a teacher’ by looking at how you can use some listening strategies to help with your spoken English.

Laura Plotnek Jones is an experienced English language teacher, specialising in IELTS. She runs Home English - a private language school in Birmingham, The UK – where she helps to prepare 100s of students for the IELTS exam every year. As part of her work, she produces her own teaching materials to address her students’ areas of difficulty, particularly in writing. Laura holds the Diploma in English Language Teaching for Adults (DELTA) and is the National Coordinator for NATECLA (the National Association of Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults).

If you have any comments on or questions about this blog post, she’d love to hear from you!