Collocation, or how words occur together in speech and writing, is an important part of speaking and writing fluently. To be able to produce native-like speech and writing, students need to know which words work together well.
For example, in English I “do exercise” not “make exercise”: “do” collocates with “exercise.” Words are learned and stored in memory in groups, not in isolation. Handing out traditional vocabulary lists of isolated words is of little value if students don’t know and haven’t practiced the context in which the word may occur. For example, teaching the word “regard” is more powerful if taught with the collocations and phrases that go with it: “in regard to,” for example. “Contrast” should be taught with its collocate, “in” as in “In contrast.”
Knowing the collocates a word occurs with like this will make students less likely make mistakes in grammar, word choice, and use of idiom and also contributes to fluid speech and writing as students are less likely to need to stop to search for the correct word.
Problems English Learners Have with Collocation
One of the biggest problems with collocation is its arbitrary nature: there is no “rule” or reason that it’s “in regard to” and not “on regard to”—it just is.
Lack of awareness: students need to have a problem brought to their attention before they even know it is a problem. They may be unaware that some words go together better than others, especially as this doesn’t tend to be emphasized in language instruction.
First language transfer is another ESL problem with collocation—students transfer the appropriate collocation from their first language. “Make” and “do” confusion is common, for example, among students of Latin language backgrounds: e.g., “make my homework” rather than “do my homework.”
Vocabulary instruction in general, and certainly the instruction of collocation, is not much emphasized. However, there are some general principles for teaching collocation:
Teach students the term “collocation” and the rationale for learning it. Once they know the rationale behind instruction, they become more motivated to learn.
Notice which words go together when giving out a new reading. Call students’ attention to key words and the words that “go” with them, and have them underline collocations. On any given page, for example, there is likely to be numerous collocates. Spend some time practicing and interacting with these collocations with each reading.
Focus on “salient language,” language students may use a lot or that is related to the curriculum: for example, the phrase “on the other hand” is used a lot in academic language, and students often make mistakes in it: “in the other hand,” “on the other hands,” etc. Explicitly teaching the phrase and practicing it is a valuable investment of course time.
Contrast two words:
list their collocates
Extend it: Have students make a list of things they need to accomplish that week, using “make “ and “do.” This establishes some of the differences between the two words (which are largely collocational).
Matching exercises/completion exercises: have students complete a sentence with the correct collocation or match words to their collocates: do homework, give a presentation.
Surveys: have students survey their classmates about their activities, including verbs and their collocations, for example.
Have students practice the phrases you’ve targeted. Once students been explicitly taught “in contrast to” and “on the other hand,” for example, have them practice these collocations in journal and essay assignments.
Write a sketch/dialogue. Put some collocates on the board learned from reading over the last week: e.g., “regular exercise,” “healthy diet,” “small portion size” and have students create a dialogue in pairs and practice it.
Write poetic descriptions of beloved person or place with adjective+noun combinations or adverb+adjective combinations. Again, give students some of the language for the task on the board or in a handout: “dear friend,” “old friend,” “passionately embrace,” “fond farewell,” etc.
Then have them create a poem with it.
Vocabulary instruction can be challenging as we have not received much guidance in it as ESL teachers, as language teaching has traditionally focused on the teaching of grammar.
The traditional vocabulary list may be of little value as words are not learned and used in isolation but rather with the phrases they occur in. By first raising students’ awareness of collocation and then practicing it, students can develop their vocabulary, grammar, and use of idiom in their second language.
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