When you see a great movie with friends, what is the first thing you do afterward? Most people will break into animated conversation about the places where the plot shifted, or great moments of acting or action.

If we see a sports event with friends, we'll talk about the great plays, whether a certain player was or wasn't playing up to expectations, how the team is doing in the standings. Spending a great day with family at a theme park generates stories for days to come.

Shared events are ripe opportunities for connection and bonding. We want to extend the experience, maybe even improve it, by retelling it with expressive language. We instinctively debrief to validate our thoughts and check on how they mix and match with others'.

Typically, we don't stop in the middle of the great movie, game or day at the park to debrief along the way. However, in education, that is exactly what we need to do to deepen the content and the language learning of emergent bilinguals. We know it as chunking.

What is chunking?

The term "chunking" was first used in 1956 by George A. Miller at Harvard in studies on memorizing codes and musical tones. He found people could only hold — or chunk five to nine bits of information in their short-term memories.

In order to increase memory and be able to use more than 5-9 bits of code, letters, numbers, words, etc., we "recode" or combine small chunks into larger chunks. Other researchers have said four bits is all we can store.

There is some evidence the seven-digit phone number was introduced because of this research. Think about it: Are those phone numbers really seven digits, or are they chunks of three and four digits, now three-three-four with area codes?

More recent researchers argue there is no magic number for chunk holding, but the ability to hold chunks in short-term memory depends on many factors, especially in language. Factors include the phonological and morphological complexity of the words, whether the person knows the words, and how long it takes to speak them. This implies that the more knowledge of language one has, the larger the size of chunks he/she can hold in short-term memory.

What does that mean for English learners, and their knowledge of their first language?

There are numerous studies that show people who have academic fluency in their first language have a quicker ability to transfer those skills to a new language. Some research indicates the transfer is more dependent on literacy than on oral language, but those studies do not specify whether explicit academic oral language was required.

If a teacher knows the student's proficiency in the L1, it is possible that student could grasp larger chunks of English, but that is a question to be confirmed by further study.

Why chunk?

The research differs in the methods by which the brain holds chunks, but all of it indicates that chunking is a natural process of building short- and then long-term memory. Therefore, it makes sense to use it intentionally as a tool in education to help students build understanding.

Chunking in education has a slightly broader definition than in clinical psychology. It is generally understood to be the process of dividing input into manageable pieces whether it be students reading to themselves, the teacher reading to them, students viewing or listening to video or other recorded input.

Throughout most of their day at school, English learners need to process new information and language simultaneously, matching vocabulary, syntax and register with the content.

Even with fluent students, we typically don't wait until the end of the book to check comprehension, or the end of the algebra problem to check a student's process or progress. We pause throughout the lesson and monitor the skills and clarify misunderstandings. We want to provide useful strategies and accurate information. We want to know what's going on!

And yet, time is valuable — for both you and your students. If you've started your group or class on a reading, listening or viewing activity, for what reasons will you stop it? You just got them going and now you want to interrupt?

The benefit of chunking is to give students that animated "after game" processing time before the game is over. Done at the right time with the right prompts, students will remember that lesson just like the home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Size and placement

The size of the chunk depends on the age and language ability both first and second language of your students, and on the lesson objectives. With fluent students, consider their years of age and give no more than that many minutes of input before a break, capping at about 10 minutes no matter the age.

This even applies to adults. Shorten that as needed for emergent bilinguals at lower levels of acquisition and support the input with visuals and movements.

Consider the key points of content where clarification or conversation almost starts by itself. What is the sweet spot between just enough input to talk or write about, but not so much that key details are getting lost? Identify the key plot points for fiction or information points for nonfiction that contribute to the main ideas of the text or lesson. Plan a chunk break at each key point.

All this chunking will extend the time it takes to read, see or listen to the input. Pacing is a constant and real concern June is always just a few months away.

The question is, do you want your students to deeply understand key points of the lesson knowing that you might have to forfeit some details, or can you live with them missing vast pieces that went by too fast? It takes time to learn language and content at the same time. Pull that line too fast, and you'll lose the fish.

Specific input skill: Reading or listening

There are many resources available on how to get the input in. Partner reading, reciprocal reading, choral reading, sustained silent reading and read-aloud are just a few.

Partner cloze reading is a powerful strategy in which each partner prereads a separate chunk of the same text, and decides which words to omit when he/she reads it aloud to the partner. The partner silently reads the same text being read to him/her and fills in the missing words when they come up.

The words omitted must be key words, not articles or prepositions. Input can also be video or audio recordings, pictures with narration or any other media as long as it can be paused for discussion and writing breaks.

Specific output skill: Academic conversation and/or writing from questions with frames

After the input phase, the partners discuss what they read with academic language frames and skills. They are directed to use specific language frames that build the explicit vocabulary and academic language connected to the content.

Frames can be designed to help students express the content ideas and learn specific language skills, or in the best case, both at the same time. The following frames are taken from chunks in these lessons:

From frames to conversation

Frames are useful to help students formulate and express complete thoughts orally in in writing. As students become more fluent, they can restrict the flow of the conversation. We want students to use academic language, and we also want the flow of ideas to run freely.

It's the same with the writing process. We don't pick on mistakes in the early stages of developing a piece, because the ideas are new and need to be developed. Later on we focus more on grammar, improving word choice, spelling.

It's the same with the speaking process. After we are confident students can use the frames reasonably well, we ask them to blend them with the conversation skill (elaboration, making a claim, paraphrasing, citing evidence, adding with relevance).

Going back to the examples above, one partner might ask the other:

  • "What else can the duck to with its beak?"
  • "Right, and magma also causes ________."
  • "I disagree. I think the ______ had a better plan because ________."
  • "The Japanese also thought the Koreans _________________."

Paved with good intentions ...

"Turn-and-talk" and "think-pair-share" were beneficial and revolutionary in their time, when a silent classroom was the mark of good management. Both strategies got students talking about content, but they were short on the explicit practice of academic language.

The next generation of classroom talk is much deeper and more specific. We must move beyond having good intentions to being intentional about how we structure and support academic conversation.