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V O C A B U L A R Y

Noticing
and learning
collocation
George Woolard uses

I
n the ten years since the 1 Scientists are making research into the
publication of the Lexical causes of AIDS.
key words to unlock word Approach by Michael Lewis, 2 The result was an extreme
collocation, one of the central disappointment.
partnerships. ideas of the book, is beginning to
establish itself in English Language 3 We’ll experience many costs, and few
Teaching. This can be seen from the benefits will come.
growing trend in new coursebooks of In each case, the learner understands
providing vocabulary exercises on the highlighted word, but fails to
collocation, and setting tasks which collocate correctly. Each of these
encourage the kind of noticing that is miscollocations has something
essential to learning collocation. instructive to tell us about the nature of
As teachers, we need to raise collocation itself.
awareness of collocation and to provide In 1, make should be replaced by do.
activities and materials which help This example highlights the fixed nature
develop learner competence. My own of collocation. There is no reason why it
approach is guided by the following should be do rather than make, it just is!
principles: This is certainly true of verb–noun
● Learning new vocabulary is not just collocations where the verbs do, get,
learning new words, it is often have, make, put and take carry little
learning familiar words in new meaning. This de-lexicalised use of the
combinations. verb accounts for an extremely large
number of collocations in English.
● Practice must be directed towards Learning collocation, then, is knowing
helping the learner collocate words which words can go together.
and grammaticalise from word to In 2, extreme should be replaced by
sentence. big, huge or bitter. This example
● The noun provides the most efficient demonstrates that collocation is often
focus for learning collocation. learning about constraints on language
use. We can say The result was extremely
1 Familiar words in disappointing, but the simple grammar
transformation to The result was an
new combinations extreme disappointment is blocked by
A learner can know the meaning of a the speech community. Learning
word, use it in a grammatically well- collocation is also about knowing which
formed sentence and communicate words can’t go together.
effectively, yet still fail to produce Sentence 3 shows that collocation is
acceptable English. For example, subject-defining. The competent

48 • Issue 40 September 2005 • ENGLISH TEACHING professional • www.etprofessional.com •


business English user not only knows collocations and dominant grammatical
key business terms like costs and benefits, patterns. For example, from the If our aim in
but also the particular verbs that they utterance My mother holds very strong
collocate with. In 3, incur should views on the subject of marriage, the using language is to
replace experience and accrue should learner notices that you can hold a view, communicate meaning,
replace come. It is the learners’ ability to that a view can be strong and that view
use appropriate collocations rather than is followed by the preposition on. This it is more helpful to
particular grammatical structures which leaves the learner with a chunk of
determines their proficiency within a language: to hold very strong views on
focus on the noun in
particular subject area. (something). This kind of word these collocations
As teachers, we encourage learners grammar approach helps the learner to
to keep vocabulary lists, but the type of avoid the type of miscollocation we rather than the
error highlighted above demonstrates examined earlier. delexicalised verb
the need to raise awareness of the fact It should be noted that a word
that learning new vocabulary is not just grammar approach, as the term itself
learning new words, it is often learning suggests, tends to dissolve the strict
directed towards helping the learner
familiar words in new combinations. This dichotomy that we draw between
collocate words and grammaticalise from
means that learners need to return to grammar and vocabulary, as any focus
word to sentence’. It is this which is
the words on their lists at regular on the combination of words will
lacking in current materials and
intervals in order to extend their usually involve grammar. For example,
methodology and so we need to enrich
knowledge of their collocations. As with if learners apply a word grammar
our teaching by adding a word
grammar, learning vocabulary is not approach to success in the utterance I’ve
grammar dimension to it.
linear, but cyclical in nature. been looking for a job for some time now,
but I haven’t had much success in finding
2 Grammaticalising from one, not only do they note that success
3 Focus on nouns
collocates with have and is followed by If a word has ten or more significant
word to sentence the preposition in, but their attention is collocations, the size of the learning
Lewis states that ‘language consists of also drawn to a very common and task begins to look enormous. However,
grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised useful use of perfect tenses. adopting a noun focus helps to make
grammar’. The contrast he draws This particular combination of the the task more manageable.
actually reflects two different ways of present perfect continuous tense + The justification for such an
looking at language. present perfect tense is used to describe approach is twofold. Firstly, language is
Lexicalised grammar refers to the an activity with a particular aim, used to communicate meaning, and
traditional ‘slot and filler’ approach in followed by an evaluation of how far meaning generally centres on the noun.
which prominent structures such as the that aim has been achieved. From this Secondly, a word grammar focus on the
tenses are highlighted. For example, in a observation, the learner can easily noun will draw in significant verbs and
typical lesson on the present perfect generate further examples: I’ve been adjectives, leading to an efficient and
tense, the learner is presented with I’ve looking for a flat for some time now, but contextualised learning of vocabulary.
been to ........, but I haven’t been to ........ I haven’t had much success in finding For example, in the earlier sentence My
yet and is encouraged to complete this one; I’ve been trying to contact Boston mother holds very strong views on the
frame with suitable vocabulary items, eg for over an hour now, but I haven’t had subject of marriage, a word grammar
I’ve been to Greece, but I haven’t been to much success in getting through. In approach to view drew in the words hold
Italy yet. learning vocabulary, then, the learner is and strong as significant collocations.
Grammaticalised lexis, on the other also learning grammar. We could, of course, create
hand, refers to a ‘word grammar’ Rather than seeing the slot and filler collocation exercises with the adjective
approach in which the learner moves approach and the word grammar strong – strong coffee, strong opinion,
out from a word to discover its approach as in some kind of strong smell; or with the verb hold –
opposition, as the quote from Lewis hold a conversation, hold an opinion, hold
seems to suggest, I believe that, in a grudge. This is similar to the ‘make or
A word grammar relation to language learning, they are do’ exercises which are common in most
approach, as the in fact complementary, and further I current textbooks. My dissatisfaction
would argue that the learner needs to with these exercises is that the focus is, I
term itself suggests, adopt both approaches in order to feel, in the wrong place, as make has
achieve a full competence. The slot and little or no meaning when it collocates
tends to dissolve the filler approach enables the learner to with decision, appointment, noise, etc.
strict dichotomy that produce huge amounts of If our aim in using language is to
grammatically well-formed language, communicate meaning, it is more
we draw between while the word grammar approach helpful to focus on the noun in these
grammar and shows the learner how much of that collocations rather than the
language is actually acceptable. delexicalised verb – for instance to help
vocabulary Where Lewis is right, however, is in the learner say various things about
his insistence that ‘practice must be appointments: make an appointment, 

• www.etprofessional.com • ENGLISH TEACHING professional • Issue 40 September 2005 • 49


Noticing larger chunks of language such as the 4 It’s a very mild shampoo and doesn’t
much-neglected but common noun + dry your hair out. This makes it ideal
preposition + noun structure. The for everyday/widespread use.
and learning sample exercises which follow focus on
use as a noun and are aimed at the The third exercise type helps the learner
collocation higher-intermediate/advanced student. to notice larger chunks of language. In
this particular exercise, the focus is on the
 Practising collocation noun + preposition + noun structure.
cancel an appointment, keep an
appointment, miss an appointment, etc. In order to appreciate the richness Exercise type 3
As a general strategy, the learner ! of language that surrounds the key Complete the sentences below with a
should be encouraged to focus on nouns word, try to think of verb and adjective suitable preposition:
in texts and notice the language around collocations with the noun use, and any
them. Teachers can exploit the texts in 1 The steep increase .................... the
other significant chunks of language
their current coursebooks by directing use of mobile phones in recent years
containing use before you try the
their students’ attention to key nouns in has led to a dramatic reduction in the
exercises below. Not many higher-
these texts and by creating use of phone boxes.
intermediate/advanced students will
supplementary word grammar tasks produce this sort of language unassisted. 2 The stone steps in the old castle had
which help the learners to notice and been worn away by years ....................
record their significant collocations. The first exercise type uses the use.
traditional gap-fill format to focus on 3 Our organisation has to follow very
Teaching collocation verb collocations. strict guidelines .................... the use of
Even if teachers follow the above personal details on computers.
Exercise type 1
suggestions, the problem of coverage Complete the sentences below with 4 It’s very user-friendly. There is a large
remains, as key nouns in coursebook the correct form of the following verbs: handle at the front of the device for
texts are not revisited in the same ban have lose make ease .................... use.
systematic way that key grammar items
tend to be. By this I mean that the 1 I’m afraid she can’t walk. She
.................... the use of her legs in a

various collocations of words like
opinion and success are not threaded road accident.
Supplementary exercises of this sort
through the units in the coursebook to 2 In order to reduce pollution we need to provide rich and structured practice in
provide a fuller picture of the uses of .................... more use of the energy collocation and word grammar.
these words. Consequently, the learners’ provided by the sun and the wind. Furthermore, once the learner has
exposure to the significant collocations completed these exercises, they remain a
3 Let’s go for a drive. I .................... the
of a particular key word is unstructured reference source which can be revisited
use of my father’s car for the weekend.
and haphazard. How then can we and reactivated to develop fluency. ETp
improve on the situation? What 4 The United Nations should try to
materials can we provide? .................... the use of chemical George Woolard is an
weapons and get all countries to agree experienced ELT teacher
Designing a coursebook to satisfy and trainer who has
the above demands would be an not to produce them. worked in Greece,
enormous task and probably Malaysia and the UK.
He now teaches at
unmanageable. If each key word has ten The second exercise type offers the Stevenson College,
or more significant collocations then the learner two choices to complete the Edinburgh. He is the
author of Key Words for
number of items to be threaded through collocation. In this case, two semantically- Fluency, a new series of
the coursebook becomes unworkable. related terms are given, but only one is collocation practice books
published by Thomson
However, I do think that supplementary appropriate. This format is particularly ELT. His previous
materials which provide concentrated useful in helping the learner avoid publications include
Lessons with Laughter
and structured practice in collocation miscollocations. In the following exercise and Grammar with
can fill this gap and work alongside the the focus is on adjective collocations. Laughter, also published
by Thomson ELT.
coursebook.
Exercise type 2 gwoolard@stevenson.ac.uk
A further argument for this
approach lies in the fact that Choose the correct collocation:
collocation, by its nature, lends itself to 1 This entrance is in constant/full use.
independent language learning. It is the
kind of task the learner can perform
Please do not park in front of it. TALKBACK!
2 Your son is very clever, but he doesn’t
outside the classroom, and the kind of Do you have something to say about
make complete/full use of his abilities
activity that will help make maximum an article in the current issue of ETp?
in the classroom. He could achieve
use of the coursebook in the classroom. This is your magazine and we would
much better results.
One possible format for really like to hear from you.
supplementary materials is to provide 3 The sign next to the fire alarm said Write to us or email:
exercises which highlight significant ‘Penalty for wrong/improper use – talkback@etprofessional.com
verb and adjective collocations and £200’.

50 • Issue 40 September 2005 • ENGLISH TEACHING professional • www.etprofessional.com •