Review ~ The Company Words Keep

A book on the theory and practice of the lexical approach whose clear style and number of activities should make it useful for all teachers.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Vanessa Pasini
The Company Words Keep

The Company Words Keep

In The Company Words Keep the authors, Paul Davis and Hanna Kryszewska, put forward a strong case for adopting a more lexical approach to language acquisition. The title is divided into three main parts: part A outlines the theory behind the book, B sets out a number of exercises to be used in the classroom and the third encourages the instructor to reflect on his/her lessons and his/her learners. It also has suggestions of how to continue professional development in this area. To get the most out of this title in a language college setting, it would benefit from a workshop session led by someone who has read and cherry-picked activities relevant to the learners and equipment available. I found this book encouraged me to be more conscious of the elements of lexical approach that I was already incorporating in my teaching. Some of the exercises will probably be familiar to more experienced teachers (depending on the teaching methodology and coursebooks used) but there are so many activities that there’s bound to be something new.

With books like this, I’m inclined to go straight to the exercises to see how the material could be used in practice rather than wading through pages of theory. However, I really enjoyed reading the section on theory (Part A). Davis and Kryszewska argue that too much emphasis is placed on learning grammatical structures, especially in coursebooks where lexis thrown in as an afterthought and grammar is the main attraction. They claim that this should be reversed and present concise and straightforward arguments to support a more lexical approach with a strong emphasis on the necessity of contextualising lexis. The clarity in writing makes the theory behind this accessible to those who may be less familiar with the lexical approach but without being patronising or overly simplistic. There is a glossary of terms in part A defining expressions such “chunking”, “colligation” and “enallage”. This part of the book contains enough interesting pieces of information to engage most readers and uses margin notes to direct the reader to other parts of the book for further details.

Part B, the section full of classroom activities, is what interested me most. This is divided into five separate chapters; introducing learners to the idea of chunking, adding chunking to an existing coursebook, consolidating and practising chunking, applying this to authentic texts, and finally using the internet to develop the skills learnt. Overall, the activities listed are useful but I have a few complaints. Firstly, at around 70 pages and one to two activities per page, I feel there were almost too many activities and some of them seemed a bit repetitive, doing the same activity but using a song rather than a movie, for example. Secondly, the way the book indicates appropriate levels or timings is a bit unwieldy. It uses a system of grey and black dots at the start of each activity but the code for these dots are on the first page of Part B, so there was a lot of flipping back and forth. However, this wasn’t exactly a huge problem and I imagine most instructors will be able to figure out approximate levels and timings without any help.

Most of the ideas involve minimal preparation and can be applied to any level and at any stage of a language course or even a one-to-one lesson. The section exploiting coursebooks had some very simple yet effective exercises to consolidate vocabulary learnt previously. Some of the activities are things most teachers may already incorporate into lessons as a matter of course, like the “Vocab List” exercise (on page 41). In this activity students create five chunks/collocations based around a prepared vocabulary list. The idea of putting the learners in control of what lexical chunks they focus on like this encourages learner autonomy and is more meaningful for the learner. This approach could be a little problematic and some of my students wanted to be told what they should be writing, so there is obviously a need to guide learners towards more frequently used chunks.

The book acknowledges the importance of chunking in terms of speaking, reading, writing and speaking but most of the activities are based on conversation using, for example, “Ritual expressions” or fixed expressions used in everyday exchanges. This generally assumes the learner will be dealing with an English-speaking environment but there is always room to adapt each exercise to suit the learners. I found these activities useful as short warmers or 10-minute sessions – any longer and my learners lost interest. Similarly, the web-based exercises needed to be kept short.

The final part of the book is dedicated to reflecting on the lessons you have taught. To be honest, this is not something I usually do unless something goes terribly wrong. The time constraints and the need to prepare for the next lesson often get in the way for most of us, so monitoring and end of class feedback generally suffice. Davis and Kryszewska provide a list of questions to reflect on, some of which may seem obvious, such as learner motivation, but are still worth being reminded of. The best thing about this part of the book is the section on research. This provides a list of online resources which can be used as in class or as a research tool for teachers and learners alike.

In conclusion, this book brings the idea of chunking and the lexical approach to the fore in a way that is accessible to less experienced instructors while presenting exercises and theory in a way that would also appeal to more experienced teachers. Some of the activities may already be second nature to teachers but it is useful in encouraging learner autonomy, especially with the inclusion of newer technologies available. For the teacher, there is so much content and so many activities that it is highly likely there will be something relevant to your classes.

Reviewed by Vanessa Pasini for February 2013

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