Why and How to Teach Collocations?
Fatos Ugur Eskicirak, Turkey
Fatos Ugur Eskicirak holds a BA in American Philology from Ankara University and an MA in Educational Administration from Bahcesehir University, the CEELT, the COTE & the DELTA from Bilkent University and currently pursues her PhD studies in ELT at Istanbul University. She also designs & implements professional development activities for ELT teachers and works as the Teaching and Training Operations Coordinator at Bahcesehir University English Preparatory School.
As I completely agree with what David Wilkins said “Without grammar little can be conveyed; without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” in this particular research, I intend to analyse collocations, which make up much of written and spoken corpora. The reasons why I have chosen this particular aspect of the lexical system as the focus of this research are various. Firstly, collocations, which are assumed to make up 70 % of everything we say, hear, read or write in real life (Lewis 2000, 53) allow learners to process and produce language at a much faster rate. This might suggest that they can listen at the speed of speech and read quickly like native speakers provided that they can recognise multi-word units rather than process everything word by word. Similarly, using collocations will also enable them to think more quickly and communicate more efficiently. Thirdly, collocation is being recognised explicitly by examining boards as an element in assessing a learner’s overall proficiency. To illustrate, it is tested in the Cambridge First Certificate (FCE), Certificate of advanced English (CAE) and Proficiency (CPE). So, learning collocations will be a useful preparation for learners who need to take one of those exams. Finally, as far as I have observed, collocations have often been a source of student error. Therefore, to provide students with opportunities where they can understand the idea of collocations, and make use of them to their advantage in building their mental lexicons in a systematic way, the aim here will be to do the necessary research into them and adapt the findings into the classroom use.
Collocations are words that co-occur naturally in daily used language. (Lewis 2000) Examples range from two word combinations such as “difficult decision’” (adj. + noun), “submit a report” (verb + noun) “problem child” (noun +noun) to extended combinations such as “He is recovering from a major operation”.
According to Thornbury (2002) one significant characteristic of collocation is that even a slightest adjustment to them- like substituting one of its components for a near synonym- might turn the text into non-standard English. This might suggest that vocabulary should be learnt as chunks rather than individual words.
Collocations might be grouped into 4 categories according to the strength of the partnership between the words:
- Unique collocations: Words which have no other possible collocation
E.g.: “foot the bill”, “shrug one’s shoulders” etc.
- Strong collocations: the collocations, which are frequently used together.
E.g.: “trenchant criticism”
- Weak Collocations: They occur between two common words, each of which may co-occur with many other words.
E.g.: “white shirt”, “expensive watch” etc.
- Medium strength collocations: They are the ones, which are used with common words like make, do, keep etc.
E.g.: “Make a mistake”, “do someone a favour” etc.
Another group that can be categorised under collocations consists of “de-lexicalised words”. (e.g.: take, get, do, make, point etc.) Although they have little or no meaning on their own, the expression where they occur has an idiomatic quality. (e.g.: “get the door” means “answer the door”) For this reason, de-lexicalised words need to be learnt in chunks.
The last category consists of multi-word-expressions: idioms and phrasal verbs. It would not be wrong if we claim that all collocations are idiomatic and all phrasal verbs and idioms are collocations or contain collocations, as all are predictable combinations of different kinds. (Lewis 2000, 51)
As McCarthy (1990) also mentions knowledge of collocation appropriacy is part of the native speaker’s competence and can be problematic for learners in cases where collocability is language specific and does not seem solely determined by universal semantic constraints.
After explaining this characteristic of collocations, it would be good to analyse the most common problems that learners encounter while using collocations and investigate their possible causes.
Based on what I have read and observed, both in my own learning and teaching experience of English, I can say learning collocations might be quite challenging for most learners. When I was at university, during translation lessons where we had to get everything right by making sure the words we put together in English both felt “comfortable” in each other’s company, and were grammatically right, was not an easy task. This was due to the lack of rules for collocations to provide guidance for acceptable word combinations. Even words such as “big”, “large” and “great” could be tricky. Take, for example, the phrase “a great deal”, which means “a lot”. A near equivalent would be “a good deal”, but if we say “a big deal”, the meaning changes. Moreover, “a large deal” is quite unlikely to occur at all. Consequently, taking into consideration that there are many more collocations than words, as many words occur in several different collocations, it is quite understandable why our students, especially at lower levels, fail to produce “natural” sentences most of the time. Below you will find more reasons why students encounter problems while using collocations:
- L1 interference might be a cause of student mistakes. Firstly, some de-lexicalised words such as “make” and “do” have the same meaning in Turkish, and this leads to many incorrect collocations.
E.g.: Students tend to say “*make homework” instead of “do homework” or “*do mistakes” instead of “make mistakes”.
Secondly, the same collocation sometimes does not exist in the same form.
E.g.: Some Turkish students tend to say “* to be friend with” rather than “to make friends with”
- Some learners might over-generalise some structures and make mistakes.
E.g.: As “beautiful” is common and may collocate with many nouns such as “woman”, “child”, “day” etc. students tend to say “*beautiful man”.
- Learners sometimes may translate word-for-word rather than chunk-for-chunk, which leads to collocational mistakes.
E.g.: “*ski station” for “ski resort” (A mistake made by a French student who translated the phrase “station de ski” word for word)
As teachers, to help our students overcome the above-mentioned problems we need to design instruction to focus on what they need. That is, our instruction should help learners avoid incongruity while assisting their fluency in production. At this point, it would be useful to present the rationale and activities that incorporate teaching collocation into our lessons, all designed to help our students develop collocational competence. (i.e. the skill to select, store and retrieve chunks).
As I have also observed in my own classes, I agree with what Hill (1999) suggests that most learners with “good” vocabulary have problems with fluency because their collocational competence is very limited. For this very reason, I believe we should introduce the idea of collocations to our students at earlier levels, and therefore adopt classroom strategies which constantly remind learners of the importance of collocations. While doing so, we might employ the rationale and activities suggested by the Lexical Approach which places vocabulary acquisition in a central role within language learning process. For example, Lewis, the father of the Lexical Approach, defends the use of “real” and “authentic” material from the early stages of learning, because the “acquisition is facilitated by material which is only partly understood.” (Lewis 1993, 186) He also suggests that it is better to work intensively with short extracts of authentic material, so they are not too daunting for learners and can be explored for collocations. Most of the activities and ideas here are also taken from this approach for which collocation is a key element.
Noticing is the means by which teachers introduce and encourage learners to make use of the various word combinations in English. Through noticing, learners can develop an appreciation for the range and patterns of collocation, and transfer this knowledge to subsequent collocations they encounter in their language learning studies. Lewis (2000) claims that “make and do” collocations provide a useful starting point for introducing the idea of collocations to learners. What is important is that teachers should tell the students these relationships are arbitrary- there is no reason why it should be make a decision rather than do a decision. We need to make them aware that this is simply the way we say things in English.
- Give students a text, and ask them to chunk it, so they can recognise which words co-occur. ( pre-int and above)
- Take a common word in a text students have already been exposed to and ask them to find as many words that go with that word as they can. (all levels)
- Give learners a collocation in English that is likely to be inaccurate when translated word-for-word into their L1. Then provide them with the accurate translation and have a class discussion on that. (pre-int and above)
This will show students that lexis is an area where literal translation is not always possible as a collocation in English may be totally different in their L1. Moreover, it will encourage them to translate chunk-for-chunk rather than word-for-word.
Practice has a crucial role in learning. However, it is more crucial for collocations as there is no rule for students to refer to. The only way to help learners to remember collocations is to expose them to collocations through practice and revision activities.
- Learners need to fill in the blanks in sentences taken from authentic contexts with words which are similar in meaning but have different collocates. (e.g.: say, tell and speak) (pre-int and above)
This will help students understand that exploring the collocational field of a word is far more helpful than any explanation of the supposed differences among words. Moreover, problems occurring due to L1 interference can be minimised in this way.
- Students work in two groups. Provide students with 2 nouns and stick one on the right hand wall and the other on the left-hand wall. (e.g.: “do” vs. “make’). Then read out a selection of 10 or more collocates. One member from each group should be ready to go and stand by the word she thinks the word the teacher reads out collocates with. The group who can guess most collocations correctly wins. (pre-int and above)
If you choose words of similar meanings, you should be prepared to discuss possibilities and this will help sort out possible confusion over some words. This will also reduce errors resulting from L1 interference.
- Any kind of filling in the blanks, matching, error correction and odd word out type of activities can be used to practise collocations at all levels. For example, error correction activity would be useful both for writing and exam practice (e.g.: FCE, paper 3) For this, you might use students’ own written pieces. You might choose sentences containing collocation mistakes and write them on an OHT to share them with the whole class. Students themselves correct them and this may arouse a whole class discussion on mostly confused ones. This is good both for giving feedback after a writing activity and for exam practice. Moreover, this activity will also remind us of the importance of negative evidence.
- Provide students with two words. Give them also 5 collocate verbs, which suggest a “story” or a “dialogue”. Students can put the former on the wall for others to read and perform the latter in groups.
E.g.: place, get, process, despatch, and receive an order
Enter for, revise for, take, fail, and re-sit an exam
The difficulty of the nouns and verbs might vary according to the level.
- To prepare students to write an essay, first ask them to look up the collocations of a noun that they will need for a specific essay. Then they write a paragraph using the collocations.
This will help them lessen their collocation mistakes in their writing. Moreover, it will help them brainstorm about the topic.
- Ask students to think of 5 collocations (e.g.: adj. + noun) they already know in pairs. Then, each pair comes and writes their collocations on the W/B. Next, ask them to choose 5 collocations from the W/B to write a story. Then, erase the collocations on W/B. After pairs have written their stories, they erase either the adjective or the noun collocation in 5 collocations to create a cloze test for their friends. Then, pairs swap their cloze stories and try to fill in the blanks. The group who gets the most answers wins.
With the help of this, they will have a chance to revise and use the collocations they have already studied in context. This will enhance their accuracy and fluency of their production of collocations.
Ideas for self study
As we cannot cover all the collocations students need or meet in the classroom, we should refer them to the resources with the help of which they can identify, organise and record significant collocations outside of the classroom. Furthermore, as a vast amount of learning is needed for proficiency in acquiring collocations, learner independence is vital.
To start with, “collocation dictionaries”, which provide a comprehensive account of a word collocates can both guide and enrich the students’ production of language especially while writing outside the classroom.
Today’s learners of English in non-English speaking environment are no longer restricted to the limited amount of language provided by the course-book and classroom. They now have an endless amount of real English to explore and exploit outside “concordances”. They are the only way to expose students to large numbers of collocations in authentic contexts. In short, concordancing is another essential tool for effective independent learning.
Last but not least, we need to train our students to record, revisit and re-activate any significant vocabulary they meet. One simple way for this is by keeping a vocabulary journal, where they record words in collocational tables, mind maps and word trees for later reference. In this way, vocabulary journals, which mirror an individual’s uniquely developing mental lexicon, are not just a decoding tool but also a resource where they can use as an encoding instrument to guide their own production of language.
Although I had some idea about it and its philosophy before I started to do this research into collocations, the Lexical Approach never had a central role in my own teaching. However, during this research, I felt challenged to consider both my own experiences of learning and teaching English: When I was a learner, although, I could communicate meaning, the language I produced was different from what a native speaker would produce. The reason for this was that I lacked the necessary “chunks”, which would make my language sound more natural. Realising this, I revised my own priorities in teaching and made some changes in the light of the things the Lexical Approach suggests. Now, seeing that the source of most of my students’ errors is lack of their collocational knowledge, I apply activities focusing more on collocations. In short , as far as I am concerned the Lexical Approach is here to stay as I can see how much my students benefit from it.
Gairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. Working with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hedge, T. 2000. Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lewis, M. 2000. Teaching collocations. London: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. 1993. The lexical approach. London: Language Teaching Publications.
McCarthy, M. 1990. Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, J., and M. Rinvolucri. 1986. Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Please check the Methodology for Teaching Spoken Grammar and English course at Pilgrims website.