Advice and suggestions on teaching collocations.

How can I help my students with collocations? Advanced students need to be aware of the importance of collocation.

Media Shojaee

Hi Media,

There seem to be two parts to the question to answer here:

  1. How can I help my students with collocations?
  2. Advanced students need to be aware of the importance of collocation

It’s probably most helpful to begin with the second premise – that students need to be aware of the importance of patterns such as collocation. With the rise and rise of the Lexical Approach, there is a lot of support for this viewpoint. I agree with you that advanced students need to be aware of the importance of collocation, and I would go further and suggest that we, as teachers, need to start raising awareness of collocations early in their English learning career so it is not just something that appears later in the curriculum for more advanced learners.

One of the key points to consider is the kind of ‘chunks’ you are going to focus on at lower levels. Rather than learning ever lengthening lists of new rare words, students may become more effective communicators by combining the words they already have in new and useful ways.

At elementary level, I would suggest simply teaching in chunks, those to be decided on by you, according to the usual criteria of frequency and usefulness. That we have a meal rather than take a meal is essential to the elementary learner being able to express himself. Get into the habit of including useful collocations at the write-up stage of a lesson – showing on the whiteboard the typical partnerships that students need to be aware of. The use of columns and substitution tables is very helpful here and gives a model for students to follow in their own vocabulary notebooks.

At advanced levels, as you suggest, students really need to be aware of collocation if they are to be effective in English. And here at higher levels, there is the possibility of students discovering useful word partnerships themselves. Rather than focusing on grammar, they need to be looking at patterns in a more general sense. Texts are a great way in to noticing collocations. The choice of text will depend on your students’ needs – newspaper pages and novels tend to throw up different varieties, for example. It’s important to let your choice be guided by what kind of English your students are going to need when choosing what to focus on - are they going to be speaking to native speakers, using English in formal situations? Students of general English should be exposed to a wide variety of both written and spoken texts. Drawing students attention to patterns, phrases and semi-fixed expressions within these texts and helping them record them effectively is important. George Woolard in ‘Teaching Collocation’ suggests training students in the following process:

1) Isolate key nouns in the text

2) Look for (unexpected) verb collocates

3) Look for (unexpected) adjective collocates

4) Look for (unexpected) adverb collocates

An unexpected collocate is an adjective like ‘close’ when applied to friend, but not an adjective like ‘big’ or ‘good’ when applied with a predictable meaning. Underlining and highlighting are useful techniques here. You will need to help students by showing them which parts of the expression are changeable are fixed. Whole class discussion of what is useful or woth noting down is a helpful exercise as it allows your students to actively participate in the process of what they notice and record. You should also be prepared to check their vocabulary notebooks to see if they are recording items correctly. Your students could usefully record items according to key word or topic, or both. It goes without saying focuses students on word class and parts of speech early on is also very important as this will help them identify collocations much quicker. In addition, if we presume that meaningful chunks exist in their own language, some translation can be helpful to their records.

So, first of all you need to build awareness through noticing, then maintain the practice of record keeping. Revisiting aids acquisition so recycling and further practice become crucial to students actually retaining any of these neatly noticed collocates. Sorting and matching are key techniques for students to develop. There are a lot of possibilities to help students with these activities. All kinds of card games can be devised to promote awareness of collocation:

Sorting activities: Students group words according to collocate such as make/do

Dominos: Students match collocations end to end

Pelmanism: Sets of cards where students match up pairs – these can be laid face down for challenge/face up for a first time exposure

Mingling activities: Matching pairs being distributed and then students wander to find their partner

I expect you can think of more yourself. The same cards can be used over and over in a variety of ways. Students can be encouraged to make these card sets themselves, perhaps taking turns at the end of the week to select and write up the sets. These can then be stored in the classroom for early arrivals/fast finishers to access.

Written exercises focusing on ‘slots’, where one or two options may not be correct are also effective, particularly where one of the options is a false friend or common miscollocate:

She likes light/weak/strong/milky tea
It rained hard/heavily/gently/strongly

Sometimes it is especially meaningful if these miscollocates can be drawn from students’ own work – without attributing them to particular students - or predicted based on your own knowledge of their language. Or try simple ‘gap fill’ exercises where you are careful to prompt the most appropriate slot to fill, perhaps helping students recall with additional contextual clues:

It was bitterly _______ that morning.

If your students are preparing for UCLES examinations these formats can easily be applied to the collocates you and your students have spotted. Matching word lists can be another effective way of encouraging students to explore collocation, as can arranging words into groups that take the same verb/noun adjective/noun etc. collocate. Again, this can become more challenging if a few false friends are sprinkled in there. Think also about how these can be recorded memorably – word spiders and columns are useful techniques to promote. You’ll find lots more ideas for devising exercises that focus on word partnerships in Implementing the Lexical Approach, and Teaching Collocation.

Finally then, just a note on materials. For your students to develop their awareness of collocation, exposure to naturally occurring language is very important. You don’t mention what kinds of texts your students are working with, but in a typical EFL coursebook, texts are likely to be authentic or quasi authentic - certainly so at higher levels. Even if the textbook does not have a focus on noticing, you can apply these techniques to it, usefully developing the students’ awareness of collocation and helping them build their word pool. If you are working with textbooks that do not contain naturally occurring language, other options can be for you to source authentic material yourself or for the students to bring in their own texts.