The Company Words Keep by Paul Davis and Hanna Kryszewska Delta Publishing

Reviewed by Dan Cornford, IH Valladolid

Twenty years after Michael Lewis popularised lexical chunking in The Lexical Approach, Paul Davis and Hanna Kryszewska take the lexical chunk and corpus analysis as the basis for their impressive addition to the Delta Teacher Development Series, The Company Words Keep. In the introduction, Kryszewska poses the question ‘Does a new language description have to result in new methodology?’  In this book, the authors put forward a convincing argument for the affirmative answer in the case of a lexical approach to language teaching.

As with other Delta publications, The Company Words Keep is divided into three sections – Part A gives a sound theoretical foundation for the methodology, Part B provides a plethora of teaching ideas which take the lexical chunk as their starting point, while Part C focuses on teacher development, encouraging reflection and further research.

In the opening pages, Davis and Kryszewska give a concise and readable justification for the book, not only defining chunking in detail but also relating the approach to language learning and teaching, the learner and materials. Useful side notes direct the reader to specific activities in Part B which build on the theory being discussed. A comprehensive glossary of terms is also provided. The authors cast their net wide with discussions on learner training, awareness-raising, course book adaptation, ESP, EAP, exam classes and authentic materials.

Reassuringly, Part B backs up the broad scope of the opening chapter with over a hundred different activities spread across five sections: In the beginning, In the coursebook, In action (consolidation and practice of chunking), In authentic contexts and In data (working with online resources to promote learner autonomy). Each activity comes with detailed information on purpose, preparation, procedure, extension ideas and connections to other tasks in the book. While many are designed as stand-alone activities, several can be bolted on to existing teaching ideas and classroom routines to exploit resources for more language. While the focus is always on lexical chunking, the activities undoubtedly develop speaking, listening, reading and (to a lesser extent) writing skills as well.

However, most activities (bar those in the In the beginning section) make a central assumption: that both teacher and students are familiar with and are comfortable manipulating  and talking about chunks. If this is not the case, I fear many otherwise excellent teaching ideas may fall flat. To take one example, Listening for chunks requires students to listen to a song and write down any chunks they hear. Not only is this a challenging listening task, but it also assumes a detailed understanding of chunking before the activity starts. Other activities seem rather de-contextualised and would require significantly more work to clarify the meanings of quite random lists of language chunks.

Whilst the inclusion of ideas for use with authentic materials and online resources is valuable, some of the later activities feel less focused on learning and using chunks and more on cultural awareness and entertainment. For example, I would question the value of knowing whether the chunk ‘Christmas Day’ has more hits on Google than ‘Christmas Eve’ in the Fight for culture activity, while some of the ideas based on novels, songs and films seem to require an unrealistic amount of preparation. However, overall this is an impressive bank of varied activities and the majority of which I can imagine including in my classes.

Finally, Part C encourages the teacher to reflect on their own knowledge of chunking, on their lessons, and on their learners by asking thoughtful questions designed to get teachers thinking about chunking on both a practical and theoretical level. It also provides a helpful list of online resources and a bibliography which encourage further reading and research.

By including the theoretical background to the proposed methodology as well as an intelligent focus on professional development, The Company Words Keep avoids being just another resource book. To get the most out of the book, teachers should perhaps take time to read the opening and closing sections as well as to sift through the myriad of interesting activities to find what will work best for their learners. A Guardian article in March 2013 by Leo Selivan asked why the lexical approach has been so long in coming – The Company Words Keep will certainly aid its progress.