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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 3; May 03

Seth Column

Collocations and Associations: Examples of teaching Vocabulary at Phrase Level

Seth Lindstromberg

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  1. Introduction
  2. Review using associations and collocations
  3. Introducing vocabulary-in-context cards

1 Introduction

In the March 2003 issue of HLT I expressed the view that the Lexical Approach ought to be confined to the dustbin of history (Major article 1: My Goodbye to the Lexical Approach) —I mean not the one or two important observations about language that proponents of the Lexical Approach have emphasized…most especially, that people seem to recall and process language in multi-word chunks as well as in word and morpheme-size bits…but rather the name Lexical Approach. We don't need it. In its strong form (i.e., that trying to achieve insights into underlying grammatical and semantic systems is largely a waste of time), the Lexical Approach is wrong. In its moderate form (i.e., that teachers should help students learn multi-word chunks and become aware of common collocations) it describes not an approach but an emphasis within any approach whatsoever. (My absolutely anti-Communicative Approach Latin coursebooks of some forty years ago were full of highlighted 'lexical phrases'.)

Something else I have noticed about much that has been published under the banner of the Lexical Approach is how methodologically uninteresting it is, often being pretty much the same kind of dry-as-dust, non-communicative pattern practice favored by Audio-Lingualists back in the days when it was widely thought (well, at least in American psychology and linguistics departments) that mimicry and repetition were the key factors in language learning.

Before turning to of how one might work a little more interestingly on vocabulary above the level of word, I'll…

  1. offer this brief distinction between a 'collocation' and an 'association'—

    1. A (textual) collocation is two or more words that occur together in speech and writing with much greater than chance frequency—e.g., wage war, look at, burning desire, greater than chance, What have we here?.

    2. An association (in mind) is a relation between two or more concepts, these being betokened by words which may or may not actually occur together an any particular text—e.g.: 'rain' => 'fertility', 'tiger' => 'stripes', 'tears' => 'sadness'.

  2. propose that it is not just collocations that are worth the attention of teachers and learners.

2 Review using Associations and Collocations

Ages 11 and up
Levels Pre-intermediate–Advanced
Time 5–10 minutes
Focus Reviewing vocabulary in batches of 12 to 20
Materials For the main activity: poster paper or A3 sheets, blue-tack or cello-tape, split lists of target vocabulary and associations (see below); (optional) crayons or markers of various colors. (Some variations require no materials)

Students receive both a list of target vocabulary and a matching list of collocates and associations. Then, using the list of collocates and associations as clues (students are temporarily deprived of the first list), they try to remember the target items and write them down in poster form. Both lists are referred to in short review sessions in one or more later lessons,


  1. On a sheet of paper, make a two-column list as follows. In one column write the vocabulary items you want to review; in the other, collocates or loose associations as shown in the examples just below. In general, the collocates/associations should be ones that were linked to the target vocabulary in recent classwork. For instance, if students have recently encountered the phrase try on a jacket, you might put try on in the first column and a jacket (which is a collocate) in the second. Or if they have read about a vain person who often looked in a mirror, put vain in the first column and mirror (an association) in the second. Let's call the collocates/associations 'prompts'. Perhaps add (or earlier): 'These prompts may be elicited from the students themselves.'?

    Target vocabulary: Prompts:
    [pre-intermediate examples]
    try on __ __ a jacket
    vain mirror
    a __ gap wide
    a refund Whoopee!
    [advanced examples]
    a(n) __tip off anonymous __
    a crack down ___ __ on crime
    a rip off a £10 banana
    __ scales fish __

  2. Make a class set of sheets and then cut them in half vertically.

Lesson one

  1. Hand out the two-column sheets (both halves), ask students to line the halves up, and check that everyone understands the target vocabulary plus the matching prompts. For instance, ask what it means to 'try on a jacket'; ask what the connection could be between vain and mirror (e.g., a vain person may often look in a mirror and think, “Good-looking!”).

  2. Divide the class into pairs or threes and give each pair/group a large sheet of blank paper, a bit of blue-tac or cello-tape and (optionally) markers or crayons. And take back the half sheets that have the target vocabulary on them.

  3. Say that each pair/group should produce a poster readable from a distance showing all the matching target vocabulary that they can remember. Encourage them to write and arrange the vocabulary 'artistically'. Add that they—

    • can consult their notes and use dictionaries if they want

    • should put their team name somewhere on the poster.

  4. When a few sheets have been more or less completed, call a halt, and ask someone from each team to stick their poster on the board/wall.

  5. Bring the class together, call out the collocates/associations one by one and elicit the target vocabulary.

  6. Ask the everyone to walk around and look at all the posters and decide which are the top two posters in each of the following categories—

    • the most complete

    • the most accurate

    • the most artistic

    • the most legible from a distance

  7. Tally the votes and congratulate the winners.

  8. Re-distribute the lists of target vocabulary. I think lesson two could be an optional follow-on – stages 1-8 would be sufficient for some classes/ teachers.

    Following on thereafter (optional)

  9. Before the next class, make sure one or more of the students' target vocabulary posters is conspicuously displayed.

  10. Hand out chalk/markers to the first few students to come in, draw their attention to the posters, ask them to write the corresponding prompts on the board (from memory).

  11. When all your students have come, ask everyone to sit down.

  12. Take down the posters.

  13. Ask students to work in pairs and write down the target vocabulary. (They refer to the prompts on the board.) Students are typically surprised by how much they can remember.

  • Variations

    • Steps 2-6: Instead of asking students to write on paper, allot each team a portion of chalkboard or whiteboard to congregate in front of and write on.

    • Hand out uncut lists of target vocabulary and prompts, check that everyone understands them, and allow students a couple of minutes to study them. Collect the sheets. Divide the class into two teams. Call out target vocabulary and elicit prompts (or vice versa). The first person to call out the correct answer wins a point for their team.

    • There are many alternatives to Steps 9-13. For instance, form groups of three. In each group one student has a copy of the original two-column list. Playing the role of 'teacher', this student tests the other two by calling out items one-by-one. Each time s/he does so, the other two students (or one of them) has to say the matching item in the other column.

    • Start the activity by asking students both to choose the target vocabulary and think of the prompts.

    3 Introducing vocabulary-in-context cards

    Ages 13 and up
    Levels Intermediate–Advanced
    Time 15 minutes
    Focus Independent vocabulary learning
    Materials Two index cards for each student

    In this two-lesson activity—

    • you lead the class in production of a batch of vocabulary cards which can serve as examples of how to make vocabulary learning cards on their own.
    • show/elicit ways of using the cards
    • elicit ways of varying them to focus on various kinds of vocabulary.

    Bring enough index cards so that everyone can have two. Bring a few spares so replace cards that are done wrongly.

    Lesson one

    1. Hand out two cards to each student.

    2. Ask them to take one and number the sides '1' and '2' in very small writing in one of the corners.

    3. Ask them to write a metaphorical expression in the centre of side 1 (e.g., a swayable child) and ask them to underline or highlight the verb (i.e., sway).

    4. On side 2 ask them to: a) write the bare verb (e.g., sway)
      b) draw a pictorial or note down verbal association--e.g., for sway, they sketch a tree in the wind, or they write the word wind because trees sway in the wind
      c) write an English paraphrase of the whole phrase (e.g., a child that is easily influenced) or, better yet (because English paraphrases may be hard to think up), the phrase's mother tongue translation. Add that this is important because the verb alone may not have an exact translation.

    5. Ask everyone to look through their notes, find another metaphorical expression, and produce a new card of their own along the lines indicated in Steps 3 and 4.

    6. Collect the cards. Before the next lesson, look at them all, and comment and edit as appropriate.

      Lesson two

    7. Hand the cards back.

    8. Remind the class what is on each card and elicit/explain how learners can use a set of such cards in independent study—e.g., a) Learners (or study pairs) each need their own complete set.
      b) Studiers go through a set of cards one by one looking at Side 1. As they do so, they try to recall the information on Side 2. After going through the set, they shuffle the cards before going through them again.
      c) When it has become fairly easy to remember the information on Side 2, they turn the pack over and go through it looking at Side 2, trying to recall the English metaphorical expressions on Side 1.

    9. Ask students how they could make vocabulary cards for other kinds of vocabulary beside the kind(s) already worked on.


    • Nation (2001) provides a comprehensive argument for the use of vocabulary cards and indicates a few basic options.

    • The two procedures above were prepared in connection with work on Language Activities for Adolescent Learners (working title), S. Lindstromberg, ed. Forthcoming. Cambridge University Press. Thanks to Penny Ur for making them much more readable than they had been. (But Penny has not read this particular article and cannot in anyway be blamed for any of the opinions in it.)

    Nation, I. S. P. 2001. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge University Press.

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