How to Learn Collocations: Independence from Teachers and Dependence on Resources

Another teacher recently asked about ways to teach collocations to upper level students. The inquiry reminded me of what I took away from a TESOL session in Portland this past March. A team from  Academy of Art University, San Francisco focused on building learner independence. They recommended showing students how to work with COCA and Vocabulary Profiler when reading academic texts. I agree with this idea of putting tools in the hands of our students. They will not always be taking our lessons, but they will have the information given and the skills practiced in our lessons.

While learners are studying with us, I believe in using a very valuable resource: one another. Whether it’s a group lesson or private lesson, I see value in practicing vocabulary through conversation and student-generated texts. Vocabulary is mastered through multiple encounters, but repetition must be meaningful. That’s why context is so important. But how can we be certain  that content will be engaging and target language will be retained? That’s where using students’ own ideas comes in. This personalizes the lesson and can increase learner engagement and retention of material.

I’ve shared classroom activities in the past to practice collocations:

These kinds of activities teach students best practices for learning vocabulary now and in the future:

  1. Don’t try to learn too much at one time.
  2. Don’t just learn the meaning of the word. Learn how it’s used. Learn the collocations.
  3. Pay attention to context.
  4. Don’t just look at the information. Practice using it. Try using collocations in your own speech.
  5. Listen to others and pay attention to their use of collocations. When in doubt about what you hear, check a learner’s dictionary.

As for the future, we can allow students to get ready for independent learning by practicing different approaches under our guidance. If they are wondering which words to learn, they could be told about high frequency word lists, like the AWL. You can visit the site together and explain how the sublists identify the most common words. Also, students could select a text and focus on high frequency words identified by Vocabulary Profiler. TESOLers Jill Ballard, Laurie Frazier, and Shalle Leeming of Academy of Art University suggested this and the use of COCA to discover collocations. COCA can be intimidating, though, so I’d offer a list of questions to help make sense of the results displayed on COCA:

  • What kind language are you looking at — spoken, fiction, academic, etc?
  • Do you see repeated phrases (e.g., adjective + noun “statistical analysis”) or repeated structures (e.g., noun + preposition “analysis of”)?
  • Can you confirm collocations with a learner’s dictionary?




4 Comments Add yours

  1. mamingental says:

    Thank you Jennifer

  2. pamelash says: is also a somewhat more manageable interface for COCA.

    1. Great addition to the list of possible resources! Thank you for sharing that one.

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