What Do Formulaic Sequences Exactly Mean for EFL Learners in China?

To date, researchers have not yet reached agreement about the definition, categories, and functions of formulaic sequences. By and large, that umbrella term refers to the wide array of forms of multiword expressions, including collations (e.g. say your prayers), idioms (e.g. teeth for teeth, eye for eye), and sentence stems/frames (e.g. I would like to…) (Castillo, 2020). Studies, therefore, commonly adopt different approaches to identifying and extracting formulaic sequences from the targeted corpus based on specific research questions. Durrant and Schmitt (2009) summarized four main approaches. The first one, most widely used, bases identification on the frequency of word co-occurrence within the corpus. The second one relies on proficient speakers’ intuitions about whether an expression is formulaic or not. The third approach includes all word combinations of a particular grammatical form, such as “-ly amplifier adjective”, regardless of whether they are formulaic. The last one (the phraseological approach) emphasizes the semantic relationship between two or more words, which, according to it, follows some selection restrictions rather than being random.

Our personal biography is useful for research design (Marshall & Rossman, 2016). My personal and now academic interests in Chinese EFL learners’ acquisition of formulaic sequences were sparked off by my 15 years’ participation and observation of English classes in Chinese public primary, middle, and high school as well as university. Whereas many times I have found that what formulaic sequences mean for my peers and me does not completely align with the way studies tend to define formulaic sequences. Assuredly, myriad factors have to be considered when designing an actual study, notably methodological feasibility and theoretical rigor. Therefore, in this article, I will be going to describe and analyze what “formulaic sequence” ( “固定搭配”in Chinese) exactly is and its role in the whole “mega project”, namely acquisition of English, in Chinese EFL learners’ eyes. I regard it as the first step towards a more precise and comprehensive understanding of the confounding yet enticing cover term “formulaic sequence” in the English learning context in China. For me as an “insider” who experienced all somewhat painful memories that learning formulaic sequences with most typical and most traditional pedagogy could ever cause to Chinese EFL students, it will be the proudest achievement if I can ameliorate numerous insiders’ similar difficulties through my research on the teaching and learning of English formulaic sequences in China.

I grew up in Guangzhou, one of the most prosperous megacities in Southeast China. My primary school is a public one located in the cultural centre of Guangzhou, and it is famous for its strength in English teaching. During the first three years, English classes were not serious where we just played games and sang some English rhymes. From Grade 4 onwards, however, English became one of the three tested subjects (the other two being Mandarin Chinese and Maths), so we started to have typical teacher-dominant, exercise-laden, and test score-driven English classes. The teacher translated passages in textbooks line by line into Chinese, demonstrated correct pronunciation of vocabulary on word lists, led us to finish grammar exercises, and finally assigned homework, mostly vocabulary and grammar drills. Usually, a single word was the basic unit of teaching, in- and after- class exercises. It was in writing class that I first became familiar with the Chinese term “固定搭配.”(As I just argued, the Chinese term only refers to some certain categories of the umbrella term “formulaic sequence” in relevant literature, but for the sake of convenience, I am going to use “formulaic sequence” for “固定搭配.”) The writing section of the English test in primary school only required at most 10 sentences. Most common topics include “my favorite animal”, “my favorite teacher”, “introducing Spring Festival to foreigners.” Because we were all at beginner level with highly limited exposure to English (at school only 5 40-minute classes each week), the teacher always wrote a sample and required us to memorize it. Sometimes she even randomly picked several students to recite it in class. Afterwards, she wrote down some “very important” formulaic sequences on the blackboard, “Learn them by heart. Remember, only in this way can you write like a native.” These include mostly simple semi-fixed grammatical patterns such as “one of the most…”, sentence stems “I would like to …”, and “There is /are…” 

I went to a key middle school in 2014. The English teacher graduated from a prestigious university specifically for pre-service teacher training in China. She told us she believed “words are learned as chunks.” Therefore, every time she introduced new words, she emphasized, “You should how to use them.” Collocations and phrasal verbs with the new words as the cores were focused on. For instance, (I am now leafing through a nearly 10-year-old notebook), “offer something to somebody”, “have difficulty in doing something”, “remind somebody of something”, “give birth to something/somebody”, etc. We had to take notes really carefully and memorize all of them, because we would be asked to translate Chinese sentences into English using them in tests. Gyllstad (2013) examined knowledge of collocations within the breadth and depth dichotomy, and noted that it should belong to vocabulary depth. Indeed, in middle school, teaching formulaic sequences was a way to deepen students’ grasps of new words.

Three years later, I was admitted into a high school well-known for its English teaching like my primary school. Formulaic sequences took up a large part in the original exercise books written by our English teachers. The vocabulary teaching pedagogy was similar to that in middle school, but formulaic sequences began to play an important role in another way: to improve writing scores. The writing section accounted for 25 out of 150 in the English test of National University Entrance Examination, so both students and teachers attached great importance to it. Particularly, the key to getting satisfactory writing scores was working hard on language rather than content. After all, those topics such as “the person I respect most”, “my weekend”, and “an letter to my foreign teacher introducing the music festival in school”allowed limited opportunities of in-depth or innovative argumentation. The teachers thus printed out highly-scored writing samples by our peers after every test or writing exercise, and asked us to “learn from these good samples especially the useful and beautiful formulaic sequences.” Meanwhile, the usual mode, namely “from new words to related formulaic sequences” was not the only method of teaching and learning formulaic sequences. In the exercise books edited by our teachers, there were exercises following another mode, “from meaning to formulaic sequences”:

请写出表示下列意思的固定搭配: (Please write down formulaic sequences of the following meanings:)

  1. 众所周知 (It is widely acknowledged that…)
  2. 因为 (because of; due to; owing to, etc.)
  3. 所以;因此 (as a result; in consequence; as a matter of fact, etc.)
  4. 归咎于…… (attribute something to something; ascribe something to something; impute something to something, etc.)

During these three years, we were constantly indoctrinated that “using more correct formulaic sequences in writing will greatly increase its scores.”

From the aforementioned description, it can be concluded that formulaic sequences Chinese EFL learners make great efforts to learn mainly fall into two categories: collocations and sentence stems/frames. There are two modes of teaching and learning them: “from new words to related formulaic sequences”, for deepening knowledge of vocabulary depth, and “from meanings to formulaic sequences”, for using more different formulaic sequences in writing to improve scores. Whereas they cannot be identified solely by relying on the most common frequency-based approach. For example, Kim and Kessler (2022) explored the relationship between uses of lexical bundles and writing quality at a Chinese university. Many of the bundles extracted from the corpus, such as “cellphone use while driving”, “e-cigarettes are safer than”, “and it is”, “do not have”, “e-cigarettes are safer than regular” were not what Chinese EFL students worked hard to acquire and tried best to use in writing tests. Certainly, methodology varies due to research questions. I am inclined to believe, therefore, that if research aims at investigating issues including effective methods of teaching and learning formulaic sequences in Chinese EFL context, Chinese EFL students’ self-regulated strategies of learning formulaic sequences, and comparing the effect of teacher code-switching with English-only explanations on the formulaic sequence acquisition of Chinese EFL students, a revised approach of targeting formulaic sequences will be undoubtedly necessary.


Castillo, J. T. (2020). Modality and nature of speaking task as mediators of the effects of collocation knowledge on perceived speaking proficiency in English as a second language (Unpublished EdD Thesis). University of Hong Kong.

Durrant, P., & Schmitt, N. (2009). To what extent do native and non-native writers make use of collocations? International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching47, 157-177. https://doi.org/10.1515/iral.2009.007

Gyllstad, H. (2013). Looking at L2 vocabulary knowledge dimensions from an assessment perspective—challenges and potential solutions. In Bardel, C., Lindqvist, C., & Laufer, B. (Eds.), L2 vocabulary acquisition, knowledge and use: New perspectives on assessment and corpus analysis (pp. 11-28). John Benjamins.

Kim, S., & Kessler, M. (2022). Examine L2 English university students’ uses of lexical bundles and their relationship to writing quality. Assessing Writing51https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asw.2021.100589

Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (2016). Designing qualitative research. Sage.