IATEFL 2012: Using corpora to supplement coursebook vocab

In the first post-plenary timeslot this morning, Ken Lackman gave a very enjoyable workshop on how teachers can use corpora to supplement vocabulary in coursebooks.

The general atmosphere of the workshop was interested, intrigued, light-hearted.  Ken’s sense of humour and jokes about familiar classroom collocates (e.g. when our students pretend to listen!) kept his audience engaged.

Before I go on, a brief definition (collapsed from Google’s and Ken’s):

A corpus (plural: corpora): a collection of written or spoken material in machine-readable form.  Used to do statistical analysis, hypothesis testing, checking occurrences or validating linguistic rules.

And I should also note that I won’t explain in this post (for obvious reasons of time/space restrictions) how to navigate corpora.

Anyway, using the Brigham Young Corpus, he gave various examples of activities and explained some advantages of using the corpus, which I’ll attempt to summarise below…

Some activities

1. Search the corpus for noun collocates of a particular verb (Ken’s example: “take”).  Copy and paste the results, creating a simple list from 1-20 of the most frequent collocates.  Give 10 to one student and 10 to another (no peeking at each other’s!); they have to work together (using synonyms, definitions, whatever) to guess each other’s collocates.  So for example, one student says “this one means ‘to happen'” and their partner says “take place”.

2. Ranking activity (1): students have to put the following 10 verbs in order of how common we think they are in present continuous forms (this is my attempt with my partner – we got first place right!): going, getting, coming, saying, trying, working, being, doing, looking, talking.  Afterwards, of course,

3. Ranking activity (2): what nouns are used with the expression “get a handle on”?  By searching the corpus, you can find out the most common collocates, give students a mixed-up list, and they have to sort them into order according to which they think are the most frequent collocates.  My (& partner’s) guesses at the top 9: situation, things, issue, problem, subject, costs, budget, debt, numbers.  We didn’t do too badly! 🙂

4. Students given a list of adjectives/adverbs from a coursebook (shown in bold in example below); teacher dictates a list of collocates (which students quickly write down); in pairs students then work out which words collocate with which.  My partner and I had a go, and here was our final matched-up (and correct! :)) list:

hastily arranged/assembled/constructed/written/called

accelerating inflation/growth/expansion/pace/rate

deemed acceptable/appropriate/worthy/necessary/essential

wounded animal/soldiers/bird/pride/men

new-fangled devices/gadgets/ideas/ways/things

5. Exploiting coursebook reading texts for collocations.  Use the corpus to find alternative collocates that will fit in collocations in the text (just a short extract).  Give short lists of these alternative collocates beneath the text; students have to find the point in the text which could be substituted with these alternatives.  This trains students to notice and process collocations in a text, but also giving them other ways to use the collocations they are noticing in a text!  (Ken’s example: a phrase “get along with your friends” in the coursebook reading text in which “friends” could be substituted with “mother-in-law”, “family”, etc.)

Advantages (albeit with some overlap)

1. You can find extra context for vocab in coursebooks, and you can choose which context you want to search (e.g. by searching only within data from fashion magazines).

2. Ken gave some humorous coursebook examples of language like “so-and-so is standing up” or “so-and-so is painting” for present continuous practice.  He asks, when’s the last time you said “”Sorry, can’t talk right now, I’m painting” or “Guess what I’m doing right now!  I’m standing up!”  Corpora can help us see how vocab or structures given in coursebooks is really used.

3. Similarly, coursebooks without context really don’t give students the info they need to use collocates – corpora can help here.  Examples of real use from a corpus can clarify meaning and form, plus give students something they can actually use.

4. What’s important isn’t whether students get all the answers right – process is more important than product.  Students are talking about these things, discussing them, reflecting on them.

All in all, it seems you can’t necessarily trust your intuition when dealing with linguistic structures, and corpora are a great way to check your ideas and find out how these things are really used.

This workshop provided a great bunch of practical ideas for helping students really learn about real language use.  Right up my alley.

Post-script: apologies for any unclear bits in this post – typing in a rush to keep up with all the great ideas flying around the conference so far!  Leave comments below if you want clarification on anything…


About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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