Collocations are words that are commonly used together. Collocations are usually categorised according to the words that form them: adjective + noun, adverb + adjective, verb+ adverb, etc. The teaching and learning of collocations became more prominent with the advent of approaches that favour lexis and lexicalised grammar, such as the Lexical Approach and Communicative Language Teaching.
In this post, we are going to talk about some characteristics of collocations and how to help students learn collocations in an effective way.
Fixedness and strength
This defines the possibilities of variations that happens within a collocation. Idioms, for example, have a very high degree of fixedness. If the collocation has a lower degree of fixedness, it means that it is composed of words that can be more freely combined.
The pictures below show examples of collocations with a high degree and a low degree of fixedness:
Strong collocations are those in which words seldom occur separately, whereas weak collocations involve words that can co-occur with many different words. If we look at the word performance and its collocates above, we can classify them like this:
Good and performance can co-occur with many different words, whereas lacklustre is more uncommonly used with other nouns. This defines the strength of the word combination. Some authors claim that native and expert speakers of English are better at assessing the strength of the collocations. Learners of English, however, can rely on tools such as collocations dictionaries or corpora to find out how weak or strong the collocations are. Helping learners use these tools when teaching lexis is essential to foster independent and autonomous learning. Amongst others, some very useful and user-friendly corpora are The British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.
In the example below, I’m using the British National Corpus to find out adjectives that collocate with performance (the access to corpora website is free; however, after 10 searches, they require you to create a username and login).
First, you need to select Collocates in the search field and write the word you’re looking collocates for:
Using the dropdown menu, select the type of word you’d like to collocate with performance. In our example, we’ll be looking for adjectives.
When you hit Find collocates, the corpus will give you adjectives that collocate with performance. The first ones to show are high-frequency collocations – that means that they are more commonly used than the ones at the bottom of the list.
As you can see, high performance is a high-frequency collocation, whereas lacklustre performance, despite being a strong collocation, occurs in lower frequency.
When selecting which collocations to teach, it is important to consider how frequent they are both in spoken and written language. As roughly 80% of both written and spoken speech is made up of high-frequency words, it is believed that learners should first be taught vocabulary that is statistically more likely to occur. Developing learners’ collocational competence helps them not only improve fluency, as they can retrieve vocabulary more easily and quickly, but also accuracy – even though students might produce grammatically accurate sentences, the choice of vocabulary influences on their language use.
Here are some ideas to work with collocations in the classroom:
- Encourage students to keep a written record of the collocations they learn. Students can have a dedicated notebook to take notes on vocabulary or use a digital tool, such as a flashcard generator, like Quizlet. Remember to encourage students record the meaning, relevant aspects of pronunciation (such as word stress) and form of the collocations;
- Creating mindmaps: instead of working with lexical items in isolation, have students create mindmaps and find out possible collocates for the item they are learning. You can even encourage collaborative mindmapping with tools such as Mindomo;
- Creating pictionaries: one of the reasons why students struggle with collocations is the fact that the word combination would not occur naturally in their first language. One way of helping students with meaning is to have them associate the collocations with images by creating a Pictionary. One tool that might be helpful to create a collaborative Pictionary is Padlet;
- Gapped texts and Dictogloss: in order to raise learners’ awareness of collocations, you may present language in the context of a text and omit one part of the collocation. Have students figure out the missing words and/or provide them for students to match;
- Games and game-like activities: depending on your learners’ profile, you might introduce collocations in a more playful way by using memory games, bingo cards (having students listen to the teacher say a word and find an appropriate collocate), crossword puzzles and mazes.
McCarthy, M. 1990. Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McCarthy, M., O’Keefe A. and Walsh, S. 2010. Vocabulary Matrix. Hampshire: Heinle, Cengage Learning.
Andreia Zakime is an Academic Coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo and one of the co-founders of What is ELT?