The impact of multi-word units in early FL learning and teaching contexts. A systematic review

by Johannes Schulz, Catherine Hamilton, Victoria Murphy & Elizabeth Wonnacott (University of Oxford, United Kingdom)


L1 research has shown that multi-word units (MWU) are integral building blocks in children’s L1 acquisition processes. Findings suggest that children can make generalizations from MWU input, abstract syntactic patterns and employ such schemata productively via slot-filling (Bannard & Lieven, 2012). L2 research reports similar findings as empirical work employing so-called ‘trace-back’ methodology has shown that MWUs are key catalysts of children’s L2 development (Myles et al., 1999). Congruously, the importance of MWUs in children’s L2 learning trajectories is acknowledged in curricula (KMBW, 2016, p.8) and MWUs are considered crucial in the L2 classroom (Kersten, 2015). Indeed, following from findings illustrating that primary school children’s L2 learning outcomes lack crucial productive knowledge (i.e. verb and structural knowledge (Engel et al., 2009)), researchers have argued for the implementation of MWUs in the L2 input to optimize teaching, and learning outcomes (Bredenbröcker, 2018). Although there have been initial promising scientific efforts in this direction (Kostka, 2020), a selective review of research yielded comparatively little research in this area, indicating that the effectiveness of MWU classroom instruction on children’s proficiency development is still under-researched. To provide an appropriate foundation for further work, it is critical to gain a comprehensive understanding of the extant work. The incentive of the current review, then, is to systematically report the state of the art of research regarding the impact of MWUs in early L2 teaching contexts. This pre-registered review (Schulz et al., 2022) covered English, German and French literature on typically developing monolingual children aged 5 to 12 learning a foreign language in instructed teaching settings. As a result of blinded in-/exclusion processes of 1673 papers by two independent researchers, eleven papers conformed to the inclusion criteria. Following blinded quality analysis using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT, Pluye et al., 2009), the remaining papers will undergo in-depth analysis. Results of this analysis will be presented and discussed with respect to reporting on the state of the art of research in this area, and importantly, on identifying fruitful avenues for further research so as to ameliorate language outcomes of young L2 learners in instructed settings.



Bannard, Colin / Lieven, Elena (2009). “Repetition and reuse in child language learning”. In Corrigan, Roberta / Moravcsik, Edith / Ouali, Hamid / Wheatley, Kathleen M. (eds.). Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing. 299-321.

Bredenbröcker, Martina (2018). A Corpus-Based Approach to English as a Foreign Language at Primary School Level: Collocations for Early Beginners. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovac.

Engel, Gaby / Groot-Wilken, Bernd / Thürmann, Eike (2009) (eds.). Englisch in der Primarstufe – Chancen und Herausforderungen. Evaluation und Erfahrungen aus der Praxis. Berlin: Cornelsen.

Kersten, Saskia (2015). “Language Development in Young Learners: The Role of Formulaic Language". In Bland, Janice (ed.). Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3-12 Year Olds. London: Bloomsbury. 129-146.

(KMBW) Ministerium für Kultus, Jugend und Sport Baden-Württemberg (2016). Bildungsplan der Grundschule. Englisch (ab Klasse 3/4). Accessible online: (21/01/2022).

Kostka, Nina (2020). Produktives Sprechen im Englischunterricht der Grundschule: Eine empirische Studie zur Bedeutung formelhafter Sequenzen. Doctoral dissertation. Giessen: University Library Publications.

Myles, Florence / Mitchell, Rosamond / Hooper, Janet (1999). "Interrogative chunks in French L2. A basis for creative construction?". In: Studies in Second Language Acquisition 21, 49-80.

Pluye, Pierre / Gagnon, Marie-Pierre / Griffiths, Frances / Johnson-Lafleur, Janique (2009). “A scoring system for appraising mixed methods research, and concomitantly appraising qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods primary studies in mixed studies reviews”. In: International Journal of Nursing Studies 46(4), 529-546.

Schulz, Johannes / Hamilton, Catherine / Wonnacott, Elizabeth / Murphy, Victoria (2022). The impact of multi-word units in early FL learning and teaching contexts. Protocol for a systematic review. International Database of Education Systematic Reviews (IDESR). IDESR ID: IDESR000016. Accessible online: (21/01/2022).

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