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Teaching Collocation to

Higher Level Learners of


Word Count 2470

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Teaching Collocation to Higher Level Students of English
LSA 1 Systems - Lexis

Table of Contents

An Analysis of Collocation 3








Collocations are arbitrary .


Issues with form .




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Teaching Collocation to Higher Level Students of English
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In this essay, the focus is on teaching collocations to higher level learners. It covers an
analysis of collocations of a variety of forms. This area has been chosen because the
teaching of lexis has often lagged behind the teaching of grammar in the classrooms of
those teaching English. Regarding the importance of lexis, it is hard to argue with Wilkins
who wrote (cited by Lewis, 1997, p.16), Without grammar little can be conveyed; without
vocabulary nothing can be conveyed or Sinclair who said, A lexical mistake often causes
misunderstanding, while a grammar mistake rarely does. Where does one start when
teaching lexis in the classroom? Lewis lays out two major areas that he says merit
attention: collocation and fixed expression (Lewis, 1997). In my experience, learners at
higher levels often have trouble with forming and using collocations. This is evident either
because they tend not to use them or they use them incorrectly. Native speakers make
wide use of collocations when speaking. Because it is a feature that is widely used by
native speakers, leaners need to be able to use collocations so their speech sounds
natural and so they can communicate their message in the most accurate way. Of further
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Teaching Collocation to Higher Level Students of English
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benefit to learners is the fact that by using collocation as chunks of speech it will make it
easier for them to construct sentences.
An analysis of collocation
The British linguist J.F. Firth (cited by Wikipedia, 2015, para. 2) said, You shall know a
word by the company it keeps This is essentially the definition of collocation, the
company a word keeps (ibid.). For the purposes of this essay, we will use the definition
given by Lewis (1997, p.25), Collocations are those combinations of words which occur
naturally with greater than random frequency. Collocations co-occur, but not all words
which co-occur are collocations.
We most likely recognize that each individual collocation will have a meaning that needs
to be taught individually. Meanings of collocations are, at times, not obvious from the
individual words they contain. The complete phrase carries the meaning, for example
being on pins and needles, fit and finish, or white noise.
An additional area of meaning that merits attention is appropriacy. In defining appropriacy,
Thornbury (2006, p.14, 15) says, If you use language appropriately, you use it in a way
that is suitable for the context, including the cultural context, and in a way which meets
the expectations of the people you are communicating with. Essentially, we need to use
the right words at the right times without causing offence and hindering our intended
message. Upon meeting the president or prime minister, we dont greet them with Hey
man or Whats up? That would be inappropriate language for the person and situation.
Given the wide variety of words that can co-occur, collocations can take many forms.
Collocations have been separated into various different groups over time. In a research
paper by Parisa Farrokh (Farrokh, 2012) we are given a good overview of these. He
begins with Benson et al. who set out two main categories of collocation with subcategories below those. The first main category is lexical collocation. A lexical collocation
could be made up of nouns, adjectives, verbs, or adverbs, like warmest regards, strictly
accurate, and etc. The second category is grammatical collocations, a grammatical
collocation is made up of a dominant word, such as a noun, an adjective, or a verb, and a
preposition or grammatical structure like an infinitive or a clause. Some of these
grammatical collocations are (ibid., p.59, 60):
noun + preposition
noun + to inf
preposition + noun

Apathy toward
He was a fool to do it
in advance, at anchor
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adjective + preposition

They are afraid of him.

Later, Sinclair divided collocations into, what I find to be, two rather confusing groups downward collocation and upward collocation, based upon the concept of nodes and
collocates, and the frequency of the collocate (ibid., p. 61) Lewis himself divided
collocations into twenty different types similar to Benson et al. but making mention of
several other categories such as binominals like, backwards and forwards, trinominals,
hook, line and sinker, and discourse markers, To put it another way (ibid., p. 61, 62) to
mention a few. Distinction of collocations is also made based on fixedness. Some
collocations have a more fixed pattern. Some examples of more fixed collocation are
aptitude test, and drug addict. If we want to use the word aptitude or addict, there are few
other words that will naturally collocate. Other collocations are semi-fixed, such as what
I'm saying/suggesting/proposing. There are a few options of collocates to use but not
many (Lewis, 2000, p.50). A final area of collocation has to do with de-lexicalised verbs.
These are verbs that have little meaning on their own; put, take, make, and have.
However, these words can take a large number of collocations (Lewis, 1997, p.116) A
moment spent considering just the word have will reveal a very wide variety of possible
collocations. These de-lexicalised verbs and their collocates are quite the opposite of
fixed or semi fixed collocations. From this brief overview of collocations and their forms
and categories, we can see that collocation involves a high variety of forms.
Correct pronunciation of collocations is important. Each collocation will have an individual
pronunciation and stress that goes along with it. Collocations will frequently show features
of connected speech, such as linking, intrusion, elision, weak forms, and rhythm.
Learner Issues with Collocation
Collocations are arbitrary
The main area that I have found learners to have trouble with is how arbitrary collocations
can be. Learners can be put off by that arbitrariness hoping for some rule about how to
create and use them. When deciding to use a collocation, learners may also have no
information or very little information that can help them know what will collocate with what
in a way that will seem natural to native speakers. For example, while describing the
weather, a class of Korean speaking learners asked me why in English we could say
there was a hard rain but not a hard snow. Other examples of collocation that I have seen
higher level learners have difficulty with are why we drive a car or drive a truck; ride a
bicycle, ride a motorcycle, or ride a horse; pilot/fly an airplane; and sail/pilot/skipper a
boat. While we may be able to come up with some general description to explain these
collocations, for learners, they are not intuitive choices and can present a great deal of
confusion. Some additional examples given by Lewis (1997, p.196) are these:
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Why can you say a close friend but not a near friend?
Why cant you say Its forty past three?
Issues with Meaning
Focusing on individual words
When looking at new collocations, learners may focus too much on the meaning of
individual words and ignore the words that occur around each. These words that they
ignore are the potential collocations. Learners may not realize that the meaning is carried
by the full phrase. This can be particularly true when looking at a text. (Hunt, 2012). We
can see this exemplified with the collocation a heavy smoker. A learner focusing just on
the two individual words may end up with the idea that we are talking about an overweight
smoker. They may miss that these two words form a collocation meaning to smoke a lot.
Appropriacy is an area that can present difficulty for learners. When learning a new
collocation there may not be enough, or any, context that could signal appropriacy.
Additionally, learners may not be aware that, like their L1, all English language is not
appropriate for all situations. For example, if a group of learners are describing what they
did over the weekend in English, they may need to know that collocations like: have a
blast, get pissed, and smoke a fag are words much more appropriate for an informal
context such as telling some fellow friends about the weekend. An example of
inappropriate language was seen while teaching a group of learners in Peru. On the first
day of class, a man entered and greeted his classmates and me as the teacher with Yo,
dude!, and Whats up man? It provoked a few laughs, but it was an honest mistake by
the man who had picked it up from teaching English speakers how to surf. He needed to
be made aware that those collocations were, likely, inappropriate for the classroom.
Learners need to be made aware of and sensitized to appropriacy and that not all
collocations are appropriate for all situations.
Issues with Form
Learners first language is different than English
Learners L1 may come into play while learning collocations. A perhaps natural
assumption is sometimes made by learners that words behave in the same ways in
English as their L1 (Hunt, 2012). For native speakers of Korean or Spanish, it is common
hear a reversal of adjective + noun collocations to noun + adjective. Learners even at
higher level can be heard, at times, talking about a car blue (color (added by Korean
learners)) or a building tall.

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Issues with Pronunciation

Learners sound unnatural using collocations
Learners may not know how the pronunciation of the collocation connects together into
one, using features of connected speech and stress. This may lead to learners sounding,
according to Hunt (2012, para. 25) very stilted when speaking. She goes on to say,
There are three main reasons for this:
1. they pronounce every word with equal stress
2. they fail to notice how the sentence could be chunked
3. they dont link the chunks together
This can be seen in the collocation you and me. A learner may pronounce these as
separate pieces such as /ju: nd mi/. A native speakers pronunciation though would
have a linking /w/ sound and a weak form of and, as in /ju:wnmi/ (Marks, 2007)
Teaching Suggestions
To address the issue of arbitrary collocation, I have found that raising learners awareness
of collocation through the use of texts is valuable. This can be accomplished by having
the learners read a text, perhaps a news article or a text from their course book. After
reading the text, learners go back through the text and underline the collocations they
see. At times, especially when the activity is new for learners, I have had them look for
certain types of collocation, such as adjective + noun. At others, I leave it up to the
learners to find them on their own. After getting feedback from the learners about what
collocations they have underlined, I point out any that they have missed. I have found that
even higher level learners are likely to miss collocations in a text. Finally, I have the
learners record any collocations that are new or unexpected for them in their vocabulary
notebooks. I have found this activity to be effective because when done regularly it helps
learners to become aware of what collocations normally exist in English. It is effective
because over time they develop their instincts for creating natural collocations. When I
have consistently done this type of activity with higher level learners over a period of time,
I have seen good improvement in collocation usage. A possible drawback I have found
with this type of activity is that it can take a considerable amount of time until learners are
aware of even a somewhat wide variety of collocations. It needs to be done consistently
over a period of months or longer.
Focusing on individual words

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When dealing with learners focusing on individual words, I find it effective to point out to
learners the collocations that are all around them in an English classroom. This may be
through using a text or listening activity in a way similar to above, pointing out the
collocations that exist in it. Another method that I have found useful is to use the learners
own language from a speaking activity, taking examples from what they have produced
and putting it on the board. I may put up the word smoker and elicit from learners what
could collocate with it (heavy, cigar, passive, etc...). Doing this activity has helped my
learners to see that often words dont exist in isolation. This activity is effective and
valuable because learners begin to realize that they need to focus not on individual words
but on the company words keep (Firth, cited by Wikipedia, 2015).
To focus on the matter of appropriacy with higher level learners, I have used videos,
particularly of comedy programs. This idea originally came from the British Councils
website (Appropriacy, 2008). Frequently, comedy programs contain a level of
inappropriate language. After selecting a suitable program, I show about a minute of it to
learners. While they are watching and listening, I have them note some of the phrases or
collocations that they hear used. After watching a few times for note taking, this language
can then be used to have learners discuss what they think would be appropriate in a
formal or informal situation or what they would use with a good friend and what they
would use with their parents/grandparents. I have found this activity is effective because it
sensitizes learners to levels of appropriacy. Learners see that various types of phrases
and collocation are used in different situations depending on the formality of the situation
and who we are talking or writing to. Care does need to be exercised when selecting a
program to watch. Teachers need to select a program that is suitable in terms of the
learners level and in content so as not to cause offense.

Unnatural Pronunciation
When teaching learners how to pronounce collocations with naturalness, I have found
success with teaching correct pronunciation of the individual phonemes, stress, and
linking as a package for each collocation. When a new collocation is encountered in
class, I put it up on the board in phonemic script. I then have the learners mark where
they think the stress is. After they have marked the stress, I say the collocation to have
them check what they have marked. Continuing, I have them listen to me and mark any
linking sounds that may go with the collocation. Finally, I drill the collocation chorally and
individually, checking that the learners sound as natural as possible. I have found it
effective to drill the collocation in a sentence, so they can get a sense of how it all fits
together in a longer utterance. I make sure this pronunciation information goes into their
vocabulary notebook along with the collocation. This activity is effective because learners
leave a class not just with a greater knowledge of a collocation but also the correct
pronunciation so they can use it in a natural sounding way.
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Word count 2470

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice,
Heinle, Cengage Learning
Lewis, M. (2000) Teaching Collocation Further Developments in the Lexical
Approach, Thomson Heinle Language Teaching
Thornbury, S (2006) An A-Z of ELT, Macmillan Education
Farrokh, P. (2012) Raising Awareness of Collocation in ESL/EFL Classrooms, Journal
of Studies in Education Vol 2/3 Aug 2012
Appropriacy. (2008)
Hunt, R, (2012) Grammar and Vocabulary: Teaching Students Collocations.
Wikipedia, (2015). John Rupert Firth.
Course Book:
Marks, J (2007) English Pronunciation in Use, Cambridge University Press

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