IATEFL 2012: Revising and recycling lexis

Just seen Leo Selivan talking about revising and recycling lexis.  Here’s what happened…


As we came in, he gave each of us a pink or orange slip of paper.  Like this:


Each slip of paper had one half of a collocation and as a warmer, we had to find the person whose slip completed ours (pinks finding pinks and oranges finding oranges).

A definition clarification:

Leo uses lexis instead of vocabulary – the first including chunks, formulaic language, individual items, etc; the latter seen as big long lists of this stuff.

You need anything from 6 to 16 encounters with a new item before it gets into your memory and your lexical repertoire (!).  Maybe this is a bit much… if students really engage with the items, they shouldn’t (hopefully!) need as many as 16.

Another definition:

Collocation: a combination of words that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance.

We brainstormed in groups some different types of collocation: verb-noun, adjective-noun (sweet dreams, etc.), adverb-adjective (ridiculously expensive, perfectly normal, fully aware, etc.); adverb-verb, noun-noun (reality show, tourist attraction, etc.), binomials, trinomials….. we got a bit carried away.  Here are the answers, according to Leo:



1. Matching collocations in pairs (like in the warmer activity).  You can do an example of such an activity online here: bit.ly/GHBMyT (created with Hot Potatoes).  Here’s how it looks:


And here’s how we did!  Woo!


2. These collocations came from 2 texts – 2 groups of 6.  We (or in class, students) have to work out which 6 came from which text.  Then scan and find the collocations in the texts.  (In this case, the top six came from a text about Da Vinci; the bottom six came from a text about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.)

An extra comment from Leo at this stage – sorting in general is a good way to get students to engage with collocations.  In this case, they’re sorting based on which texts they appeared in.  But (here’s a mix of his, my and the audience of delegates’ ideas…) they could also categorise based on form (e.g. adjective-noun collocations versus adverb-adjective collocations), based on their familiarity with them, based on which ones they just like/dislike, which ones have similar meanings/reference, which have positive/negative connotations, ones which have direct equivalents in their L1 versus ones that don’t, and so on.

GREAT IDEA ALERT (credit to Leo): Furthermore, students could do grouping activities like these in pairs, then move around the class and look at other pairs’ work, trying to guess which categories they were working with.

3. Next, we (students) have to try and recall how the collocations were used in the texts (which we’ve presumably read previously in this lesson or another earlier one).  (Note: you could do the same activity as a pre-reading activity – what context do they think these collocations appear in?)


One possible tool – a “collocation fork”:


e.g. impressive- performance

– achievement

– result

Importantly, this shows students that if they try to translate each combination literally, they often end up with different “handles” (using the fork analogy).  Whereas in English (or whatever language, but here English is our example), all these noun ‘tines’ or ‘prongs’ are joined to the same ‘handle’.

This works especially well on an interactive whiteboard (IWB) because you can move stuff around, easily match up.

As a follow-up with collocation forks, you can remove the ‘handle’ and see if students can remember what it was (e.g. ‘make’, ‘learn from’ and ‘avoid’ = (a) mistake(s)).

As a follow-up to THIS, students can pick a selection of collocates and make up a story from it.  My example, with @sandymillin:

“When I speak English, I always make lots of mistakes but I don’t always learn from them… I really need to avoid mistakes if I want to be understood.”

Some more good examples from the audience:

“He always asks for advice, but when he’s given it, he never follows it!”

“My teacher always gives me homework, but I never do it, and when I do, I hand it in late!”

Some tips for using collocation forks:

– provide at least three collocations, and ones which are appropriately graded, to help scaffold the learning and not overwhelm them with unknown words

– get students to translate whole expressions

– similarly, remind students that words do not (always/typically) correspond on a one-to-one basis between languages


Leo gives the example that students first match up collocations (e.g. shrug your shoulders, honk your horn, achieve a goal, reach a compromise, etc.), then rank them from ‘weak’ to ‘strong’ based on the first part of the pair (in this case, the verbs).


To get students to pay attention to things you want them to notice in texts, you can abandon the old “highlight something you find interesting/useful” strategy (Leo says it hasn’t worked for him and his students!) and instead, you can direct students to which collocations to highlight, e.g. find a phrase in the text which means… (examples below in brackets, prefaced with the collocations we found).

have half an eye on (not watch with full attention)

hardly turned a page (almost did not touch books)

avid (describes a person who’s very interested in something and does it regularly)

points of view (noun+noun collocation which means ‘opinions’)

hunted out (2-part verb which means ‘searched’)

dead (adverb+adjective collocation, part of which usually means ‘not alive’ but here means ‘very’)

AND/OR you can replace collocations in a text with abbreviations (e.g. gtk instead of “good to know”).  Students try and work out what they are (alone, in pairs, whatever).  For feedback, the teacher reads out the text, occasionally making mistakes – the students shout out the right collocation when the teacher’s wrong!

(An aside: I’ve done this kind of feedback many times before and it’s always a huge hit.  Students love correcting the teacher, at all ages.  Works like a charm for spicing up otherwise-dull feedback on all sorts of tasks.)

And some other important points summarised from various moments in the talk:

Why teach collocations?  Some suggestions from the audience:

– tips learners over intermediate plateau (says @sandymillin)

– helps listening! often you don’t hear something, but if you hear another bit, you can guess at what you missed.

– it kills two birds with one stone – learning two words at once, effectively!

– builds awareness of patterning, not only isolated parts in language

More reasons from Leo:

– allows learners to process and produce language at a faster rate

– helps learners bridge the gap between receptive and productive knowledge

– difference between near-synonyms is often in their collocational fields

“Many words are used in a limited set of collocations and knowing these is part of what is involved in knowing the words.” (missed attribution, sorry…)

Some other points for consideration, based on three studies:

Study 1 (attribution?): Revealed that learners at all levels produce far fewer collocations than native speakers.  Errors persist even at higher levels and are mainly due to L1 transfer.

Study 2 (attribution?): Production of delexical verb (e.g. take, do, put) + noun collocations (e.g. do damage, take account of) shows that learners’ errors are similar despite very different L1 backgrounds.  Their mistakes are caused by intralingual factors (i.e. it’s not only L1 that affects learners’ production of collocations – there’s something in the target language itself causing problems).  Furthermore, errors can be teacher-induced!

Study 3 (Nesselhauf 2005): Essays written by advanced learners and judged by native speakers reveal considerable difficulty in producing collocations.  Most mistakes occurred in medium-weak collocations.  Medium-strong collocations showed the lowest number of mistakes (presumably because there are fewer options for students to muddle up here?).

Leo (leo.selivan@britishcouncil.org.il) has put his presentation online here – a much clearer, prettier, more thorough way to learn about what he was talking about today! 🙂


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: