Teaching ELLs the common expressions of the native speaker

ELLs can benefit greatly by knowing the formulaic sequences that comprise more than 50% of th

ELLs can benefit greatly by knowing the formulaic sequences that comprise more than 50% of thMore than 50% of our spoken and written language is made up of common expressions such as by the way, all of a sudden, right away, tomorrow at the latest, piece of cake that are completely unfamiliar to English Language Learners (ELLs).

It’s important for ELLs to gain mastery of this familiar shorthand, according to a recent article in the TESOL Journal . If memorized correctly, this formulaic language provides “zones of safety” that help ELLs feel and appear more proficient in the language.

“Formulaic sequences are just as significant as individual vocabulary items and should be given equal attention in the language classroom,” writes author Sarvenaz Hatami.

One difficulty in teaching these common expressions to English Language Learners is that it is hard to know which sequences of words are truly formulaic.

“Formulaic sequences can be very diverse, ranging from simple fillers (e.g., kind of) and functions (e.g., thank you) to collocations (e.g., take an exam) and phrasal verbs (e.g., fall apart) to idioms (e.g., kick the bucket) and proverbs (e.g., waste not, want not) and lengthy standardized phrases (e.g., there is a growing body of evidence),” according to the researcher.

Based on her review of the limited research on teaching these common expressions to ELLs, Hatami recommends a 3-part strategy. The strategy incorporates the 3 important psychological conditions for successful vocabulary learning: noticing, retrieving and generating.

A good resource for selecting sequences is the PHRASE list, a list of the 505 most frequently used sequences in English, the researcher writes. Another good resource is the Academic Formulas List (AFL) which includes sequences commonly used in academic language such as in terms of, at the same time, from the point of view, in order to, as well as, etc.


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Noticing—The first step in teaching sequences is to direct learners’ attention toward these strings of words to make them aware of their usefulness. Read a text containing common sequences in class then have students reread the text with the sequences highlighted. Ask your learners to guess the meaning of the formulaic sequence from the context.

Knowing the meaning of individual words can make it harder for learners to understand the expression. To help them, listen to recorded native speaker corpora or samples of real world conversations, or read transcripts of such conversations that include the use of many sequences.

Retrieving—Provide your students with repeated opportunities to retrieve the expression. Retrieval can be receptive (listening to or reading the sequence) or productive (communicating a sequence in speaking or writing).

The “disappearing text exercise” prompts students to fill in the blanks with a sequence. Select a passage of about 50-60 words containing a number of formulaic sequences, write it on the board and ask one or two learners to read it aloud. Then delete some of the sequences and ask another learner to read the passage aloud and supply the missing words. Delete more sequences and continue the process until there is nothing at all on the board and the learners are repeating the passage and the sequences from memory.

Role play is another exercise  that can help students learn formulaic sequences.  Give students a scenario to role play and ask them to exchange information using the target sequences. (e.g., Would you like to come to my party? Yes, thanks a lot.)

Generating—The third and most effective process for learning vocabulary is to have students use the expressions in new or different contexts. One receptive exercise is to read or listen to a longer passage that uses the same vocabulary in different contexts, or study concordance lines from native corpora and pay attention to meanings and grammar in the different contexts.

Ask learners to identify formulaic sequences in sentences and create new texts around them. Students can also engage in discussions and negotiations while using the terms in different forms and contexts.

“It is the teacher’s responsibility to raise learners’ awareness and make clear to them that formulaic sequences are just as important as individual words, and to boost learners’ motivation to learn these sequences by emphasizing that these sequences have an intrinsic connection with fluent, communicative language production,” the researcher writes.

“Teaching Formulaic Sequences in the ESL Classroom,” by Sarvenaz Hatami, TESOL Journal 6.1, March 2015, pp. 112-129.

4 Responses to “Teaching ELLs the common expressions of the native speaker”

  1. janicebrown1965

    I have enjoyed reading several papers on this site. Currently I am working on submitting an overall study tour around the world that focusses on these studies. As an ESL teacher in Sydney I am passionate about studies in ELL.

    • Larry Sterne

      Sounds interesting, Janice. Would love to get some recommendations from you on other programs and studies that you find interesting! Our readers would appreciate it!

  2. Lynne Barker

    Very interesting article. I am a middle school art teacher who visited Cambodia this past summer with a group of 14 educators for one month on a Fulbright Hayes Scholarship. I traveled to study the arts and culture, as the district I teach in has the 2nd highest population of Cambodian students in this country.We visited the Cambridge Cambodia School (cambcamb.org) and they had signs around the room with idioms written out in Khmer and in English. I know the ELL teacher in our school also teaches idioms to the kids. This article has inspired me create a lesson plan on this topic and displaying them around our school for all of the students to see. Thank you!


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