What problems do learners have with collocation, and how can we help?
Types of Collocation
1. De-lexicalised Verbs De-lexicalised verbs (get, have, make, do, put, take) are important when teaching collocation because although they may have a basic meaning (make = create/manufacture, have = own/possess), they are more commonly used in combinations with nouns or other words as a chunk of meaning:
make a mistake
do your homework
take an exam
In my experience, a lot of mistakes in collocations are made with de-lexicalised verbs, probably due to L1 interference (see below).
2. Nouns I feel that it is very useful to teach learners those collocations with a noun as a key word. This is because the majority of general nouns usually require further qualification:
Nouns are also important because they are usually the words that carry the most meaning within a sentence.
Strong/Weak and Frequent/Infrequent Collocations
There is also a difference between strong/weak and frequent/infrequent collocations. A collocation that is frequent (e.g. a warm day) is not necessarily strong, as either word in the partnership suggests a number of other collocates:
In the same way, a particularly strong collocation may be used very infrequently (e.g. bat your eyelashes). The most useful combination for teaching purposes, then, seems to be a combination of strong (but not completely fixed) and frequent. A strong/infrequent collocation may be worth mentioning to draw the learners’ attention to its existence, but little, if any, class time would need to be spent on collocations at the weak/infrequent end of the spectrum.
Nation also makes the point that, in a classroom situation, frequent collocations only deserve attention if: “their frequency is equal to or higher than other high-frequency words.” This puts a greater pressure on the teacher when making the decision about whether to spend time on a particular collocation. I feel that if there are enough potential frequent collocations of one of the nodes, it is worth spending some class time on:
put (yourself) at
With the second two verbs in this example, the unpredictability of the combination is also a factor. Most learners at intermediate level or above would be familiar with all three of the verbs, but few would realise that it is possible to collocate ‘run’ and ‘risk’. Moreover, this would be a difficult collocation for learners to work out just by knowing the meaning of the individual parts, so would therefore merit some class time.
What problems do learners have with collocation, and how can we help?
1. Quantity/Arbitrariness A major stumbling block to most learners is the fact that there are so many possible collocations and that the choice of which word to collocate with, say, a noun is completely arbitrary. This leads to the question: “Well, why is it have a coffee not drink a coffee?” and the inevitable reply (hated by teachers and students alike): “It just is.”
If students are encouraged to record collocations as they occur, they have a permanent record of which combinations are possible. Class time can be given for learners to revise and practise the collocations they have learnt (see below for suggestions) or to add new ones.
There are various ways for learners to record new collocations in their vocabulary notebooks. I have found that the most effective is to use a box format such as:
For lower level learners it might be helpful to organise their collocation boxes by topic (in the same order as their coursebooks) – jobs, family, food etc. Intermediate learners may prefer to organise by keyword – work, holiday etc – and advanced students by grammatical structure – verb + noun, noun + adjective etc. Organisation is really a matter for individual learners, though, as it should be done according to personal preference to minimise the learning burden. Learners can leave some entries in the boxes blank to be completed at a later date with other collocates that they have noticed independently.
2. L1 Transfer Many learners expect that because they collocate something a particular way in L1, it will translate directly (and correctly) into English. A quick survey of my current learners produced the following verb + noun collocations:
take the car
Arabayla gittim (Turkish)
Jet autem (Czech)
Go by car
have a coffee
Prendere un café (Italian)
Minum kopi (Bahasa Indonesian)
Take a coffee
Drink a coffee
do your homework
Napsat úkol (Czech)
Write your homework
pay attention to
Stai attento (Italian)
Memberikan perhatian (Bahasa Indonesian)
Faire attention à (French)
Give attention to
Do attention to
go on holiday
Hu-ga jung ip-nida (Korean)
Mach Urlaub (German)
Partir en vacances (French)
Leave on holiday
Bahns argues that because of this untranslatability teachers should focus on collocations which can not be translated directly, pointing out contrasts to students instead of similarities.
If learners fail to use a correct collocation, even if their utterance is grammatically and contextually correct, their English will still sound unnatural and ‘foreign’, to the extent that their addressee may not understand them at all. Compare the following (from a selection of my learners’ written work):
He survived *very *strongly (from a Japanese student)
We *own a shopping centre (from a Swiss student)
I *took a good decision (from an Italian student)
He knows what he’s *speaking about (from a German student)
I can’t see any *problem why (from a Czech student)
If we substitute the asterisked words for miraculously, have, made, talkingandreason, these utterances become more natural and nativelike.
Collocation grids can be useful in helping learners to understand which words are possible collocates and which aren’t, by simply ticking the correct combination. These grids can be made from the students’ own written (or spoken) work as a correction exercise as well as more general ones in textbooks:
Such grids are also very useful for showing the difference in meaning or use between two or three words that appear almost the same. The grid may then be used to contrast with L1 possibilities for collocation.
3. Meaning and Noticing Especially when dealing with text, many learners (especially those at lower levels) tend to focus on individual words that they don’t know, rather than on the collocation. This is because the usual way of noticing and recording vocabulary is to write the word (out of context and without its collocates) in a vocabulary notebook with its L1 translation. Alternatively, more advanced learners will say, “I know that word” and move on without checking for any collocates in the text. Both of these problems arise from poor learner-training: learners need to have collocations pointed out to them before they can be expected to notice them for themselves.
When working with text, it takes very little time to point collocations out to learners – or, alternatively, with higher levels or classes experienced in noticing to ask them to find collocations for themselves. In this opening paragraph , six collocations can be identified (my underlining):
When Clifford met Annie, they found one thing in common. They both love lists. So together they have written the ultimate list, a list of rules for their marriage. This prenuptial agreement itemizes every detail of their lives together, from shopping to sex. Timothy Laurence met them in Florida in the apartment they share.
Newspaper articles, opening paragraphs of books and videos of TV soap operas or sports commentaries also lend themselves to this kind of noticing activity. The advantages of using such authentic material are obvious – the language is used in a natural way and in context. However, we should be careful to choose which collocations we focus on in terms of frequency, level and suitability for our particular group of learners.
Phonology (Chunking and Linking)
A direct result of this inability to recognise collocation is that many learners (especially at lower levels) sound very stilted when speaking. There are three main reasons for this:
1. they pronounce every word with equal stress 2. they fail to notice how the sentence could be chunked 3. they don’t link the chunks together
Without a knowledge of collocation, learners are unable to chunk, link and stress longer sentences correctly, making them sound unnatural.
Even with advanced classes, choral drilling is the best way to give students extra time to work on this aspect of collocation. A demonstration on the board of where the linking and stress occurs (plus any schwas) can help students who learn more visually.
Activities to help students with collocation
Once the collocations have been pointed out, several activities can be produced to help the students become familiar with them.
· Matching activities in which the collocations are divided and written on separate cards: These can be used as the initial part of a test-teach-test approach to see what the learners already know, or to revise collocations from a previous lesson. This form of recycling is a good way to help learners remember the collocations .
· Board races where the teacher calls out one half of the collocation and the students work in teams to write the other half on the board. This activity can be extended by asking students to suggest other possible collocates.
· Cloze activities such as a gapped transcription of a listening text, or sentences in which half the collocation has been deleted.
I have used surveys, reports and stories with different levels of learners to practise previously-learnt collocations in context more communicatively.
With collocations organised by topic, learners can conduct a survey among their classmates and follow it up with a written or oral report. In the topic of household chores, for examples, learners survey the following:
In your house, who:
does the dishes?
makes the beds?
takes the rubbish out? (etc)
With collocations organised by key-word , learners can be given a set of cards with the collocations written on them which they have to put into some kind of chronological order. They can then use the cards to write a story :
got in trouble
got into debt
The Bank of English
The online Bank of English from Collins COBUILD and The University of Birmingham has a search engine where collocations can be looked up and checked (in order of frequency of use) . The search can be refined and limited by the use of parameters such as:
make + NOUN
I have found this very useful, especially when dealing with de-lexicalised verbs, with higher level and FCE classes, by taking the class into the computer room, having them look through their written work for mis-collocations, searching the database and then using the results to record the correct collocation (with other additions if appropriate) into their vocabulary notebooks. This is both an autonomous and personalised way of correcting written work.