In this post, we’re going to think about collocations, and look at some practical classroom activities we can use to help students communicate better through their use.
Vocabulary or lexis?
When we think about the teaching and learning of vocabulary, we tend to think about individual words. In many classrooms, students are encouraged to memorise lists of words to increase their vocabulary. While knowing a lot of words is undoubtedly going to help, particularly when it comes to reading and listening, it’s also important that we help students use this vocabulary appropriately and understand it in more depth.
Here, it could be helpful to think about the difference between vocabulary and lexis. Lexis includes how words work together in ‘chunks’. We can learn a lot of individual words, and this will definitely help us, but perhaps of greater help is to look beyond each word in isolation and notice which other word or words frequently go together with that word. When people speak fluently, they make use of these chunks. In other words, the speaker is not usually constructing the sentence word by word, but chunk by chunk; calling on a store of word partnerships. When words go together in these partnerships, we call it collocation; the words ‘co’ ‘locate’ – they are found together. This goes all the way from two words together, right up to longer fixed expressions.
Here are some examples.
Think about why these sentences don’t sound quite right / natural. How would you change them?
- I’m sorry I’m late, I became lost on the way.
- I can’t come out, I’ve got to make my homework.
- Don’t forget to take your umbrella, the weather forecast said there would be strong rain this afternoon.
- He was found to have done the robbery.
Here are the more natural sentences. Did you change the sentences in the same way as me?
- I’m sorry I’m late, I got lost on the way.
- I can’t come out, I’ve got to do my homework.
- Don’t forget to take your umbrella, the weather forecast said there would be heavy rain this afternoon.
- He was found guilty of robbery.
In the first sentences, there is no grammatical problem, but they either don’t ‘sound’ right, or they aren’t the most efficient way to say what we mean. That’s because the collocations aren’t correct – the words used don’t ‘go together’. So, what are the rules for collocation? Basically there aren’t any! There isn’t really a ‘why’ when it comes to which words go together, it’s more a case of ‘they just do’, or that’s ‘just what we say’. Unsurprisingly then, students will need some help noticing and using correct collocations.
Ways to help students
If we agree that increasing their ability to use collocation will help students express themselves more effectively, we need to provide them opportunities to notice and practise them in lessons. Here are nine ideas.
Noticing collocations in texts
1. Students re-assemble a cut up text.
The text provides context for the meaning of the collocations and the division highlights where words go together.
E.g. They need to re-order this text, which is an advert for a housemate.
|distance from the university and local shops. There is off-street parking and it’s also convenient for public transport. The house has a spacious living room, fully equipped|
|income who is willing to do|
|We have a double room available in our three bedroomed, semi-detached house. The house is in a residential|
|kitchen and a private garden. There is central heating and double glazing. We are looking for a quiet, friendly, non-smoker with a steady|
|their fair share of the cleaning.|
|area within walking|
2. Predicting text
Students are shown a text bit by bit on a projector. The teacher reveals the text up to the middle of the collocation. At this point, in pairs or small groups students predict the next word. The next bit of the text is then revealed so they can check. At this point the teacher can also highlight other collocations if more than one is possible. This can be followed up by practice of the highlighted collocations.
3. Gapped text
The teacher gives a standard gap-fill but ensures that all the gaps are one part of a collocation. Students either have to guess what fills the gap, or choose from a list of supplied words. Other possible collocations can be highlighted by giving students more than one possible answer.
4. Better text
Give students a text and where there is a useful collocation, remove it and replace it with a less natural word or expression. Underline this. Ask students to see if they can replace / re-write the underlined part using a better word or phrase from the box, which goes with the word in bold.
|walking their fair share area income fully equipped|
We have a double room available in our three bedroom, semi-detached house. The house is in a residential place, a short distance from the university and local shops. The house has a good kitchen and a private garden. We are looking for a quiet, friendly, non-smoker with steady salary, who is willing to do an equal amount of the cleaning.
Using a learners’ dictionary
5. Try putting students in groups and getting each group to research a particular word and its collocations.
For example, one group is given have, another do and another get. They are allotted an amount of time to discover 5 new collocations including example sentences. When they are finished, regroup them and get them to peer teach each other.
Practice tasks / games
Incorporating a variety of tasks which help students to meet and practice collocations is important in aiding memory.
Write whichever collocations you want students to work on onto blank dominoes, then cut them at the appropriate point. Each student gets a series of dominoes and they take turns to put one down in the correct place to make a correct collocation. To add a level of creativity and use, if the collocations are related by topic, each time they put one down, they must use it in a sentence and carry on a story. The first student to use up all their dominoes is the winner. Students could then retell the story to a partner from another group and compare.
Pelmanism is the posh TEFL word for the game pairs or memory. The teacher creates a series of cards. Each card has half a collocation on it. The cards are put randomly, face down on the table. A student turns over one card and then another. If the two form a correct collocation, the student gets to keep them. If they don’t, he or she turns both the cards back over and the next student has a try. The student with the most cards at the end is the winner. If you want to get students to do more of the work, before the game, give them blank cards and get them to create the collocation cards themselves in groups. They then give them to another group to play the game with. Twice the practice!
8. Odd one out
Students must choose which word cannot collocate with all the others in a group
Which word does not go with ‘come’?
to an agreement to a decision to an answer to a conclusion
Again, if we want to involve students even more, they could write questions such as this for another group. We could also extend the activity once we have checked their answers by getting them to add any other words they know that can collocate with come.
9. Guess the word that collocates
The teacher dictates a series of words one by one (e.g. strong…weak…milky…black). In groups, students try to be the first to guess which word they all collocate with. This can be made into a game by giving, for example, five points if they guess after one word, 4 points if they guess after two words etc.
- point out the common forms of collocation (e.g. verb + noun) so students know what to look for
- include authentic texts and encourage students to get into the habit of looking for collocations themselves
- give students practice tasks to help them remember collocations
- encourage students to record more than individual words and to work at the lexical level rather than always at the level of individual words