Student in class.

"The ability to deploy a wide range of lexical chunks both accurately and appropriately is probably what most distinguishes advanced learners from intermediate ones." (Thornbury 2002:116)

  • Textual analysis activities
  • Preparation activities
  • Speaking activities
  • Dictionary and matching activities
  • Conclusion
  • Further reading

Textual analysis activities

  • Students can analyse texts to heighten their awareness of collocations. Depending on the text, you might ask the students to find, for example, five useful collocations that occur around a certain topic. Or you could give students a list of words or phrases and ask them to find what collocates with them in the text. You could also go further than the text and ask them to find further possible collocations with certain items in the text using a collocation dictionary.
  • Make up gap-fills based on authentic texts, particularly deleting verbs from verb + noun collocations.
  • Get the students to carry out prediction exercises, using a kind of word association technique. You could reveal a text gradually (using an overhead projector) and get the students to predict the next word or phrase.
  • Asking the students to reconstruct the content of a text from a few words only serves to highlight the central importance of collocations as against individual words. (There are software programmes which are good for this but you can also do the activity using an overhead projector: put a dash for each word you want to blank out and a number against each dash. Get the students to suggest words and phrases that are missing and write in the correct answers as they come up.)

Preparation activities

  • Ask the students to brainstorm nouns on a particular subject, perhaps for a writing task. Then get them to suggest verbs and adjectives that collocate with those nouns, then adverbs with the verbs, thus building up a number of lexically dense collocational fields.

Speaking activities

  • Get the students to do creative drills. For example, devise a 'Find somebody who...' activity for them to practise collocations. For example,Find someone who.....has been on a strict diet.....has found themselves in an embarrassing position...has made an inspired choice etc.The students themselves could make up similar activities.
  • Get the students to repeat the same activity, for example giving a short talk or telling a story, perhaps three of four times. This has been shown to boost fluency by activating collocations.

Dictionary and matching activities

  • Get the students using collocation dictionaries to find better ways of expressing ideas, including replacing words like 'new' and 'interesting' with better, stronger words to create typical collocations, or finding the 'odd verb out'. For example,
    • Which verb does not go with 'answer'? come up with, do, get, require
    • Spot the odd verb: Can you find the verb which does not collocate with the noun in bold? 1. acknowledge, feel, express, make, hide, overcome, admit shame 2. apply for, catch, create, get, hold, hunt for, lose, take up job 3. acquire, brush up, enrich, learn, pick up, tell, use language 4. assess, cause, mend, repair, suffer, sustain, take damage 5. beg, answer, kneel in, offer, say, utter prayer 6. brush, cap, drill, fill, gnash, grit, wash teeth 7. derive, enhance, find, give, pursue, reach, savour, pleasure 8. disturb, interrupt, maintain, observe, pierce, reduce to, suffer silence Answers: 1. make 2. catch 3. tell 4. take 5. beg 6. wash 7. reach 8. suffer (only with suffer in silence)
    • Devise some matching games, such as dominoes or pelmanism which require the students to match up split collocations. For example, focus on adjectives that go with nouns, like 'bitter' and 'disappointment,' or 'inspired' and 'choice'
    • Give the students a number of words which collocate with the same core word; the students have to guess this word. For example saying 'year, loss, haven, evasion' to produce 'tax'. This could be made into a game by awarding points. The teacher reads out the words one by one and the students in teams gain, for example, 10 points for the answer after one word, 8 after two, 6 after three and so on. Which word collocates with all the words given? 1. fried, poached, fresh, raw, frozen, grilled, smoked _________________ 2. summer, warm, winter, tatty, shabby, trendy, second-hand _____________ 3. dangerous, desperate, common, born, hardened, master _______________ 4. massive, huge, crowded, packed, outdoor, indoor, sports _______________ Answers: 1 = fish, 2 = coat, 3 = criminal, 4 = stadium
      • Get the students used to recording collocations in a variety of ways - in boxes, grids, scales, matrices and word maps. Learners can add new words in the appropriate sections as they come across them in texts, during lessons etc.
      • Raise students' awareness of collocation by using translation where possible and appropriate to highlight differences and similarities between their L1 and English.
      • Use songs to give examples of typical collocations, and in a memorable fashion, perhaps through prediction, filling gaps and so on. This would help with intonation and pronunciation too, as could recorded radio news items, or TV advertising.


      In all these activities, any chance should be taken to enhance deep processing of the language. Strong personal recollections and identifications tend to lead to greater semantic networks and associative links. The focus should be on the integration of new material into old. Language learning is, after all, not linear but cyclical.

      Rosamund Moon calls just looking at words "dangerously isolationist" (1997:40), and goes on to say that "words are again and again shown not to operate as independent and interchangeable parts of the lexicon, but as parts of a lexical system" (ibid:42). An understanding of collocation is vital for all learners, and for those on advanced level courses, it is essential that they are not only aware of the variety and sheer density of this feature of the language but that they actively acquire more and more collocations both within and outside the formal teaching situation. It is only by doing this through increased exposure that they can be assured of leaving the intermediate plateau behind.

      Further reading

      • Coe, Norman 'Vocabulary must be learnt, not taught' MET Vol 6 No3 July 1997
      • Ellis, Nick C 'Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class, and meaning' in Schmitt and McCarthy
      • Gough, Cherry 'Words and words: helping learners to help themselves with collocations' MET Vol5 No1 Jan 1996
      • Hill, Jimmie 'Collocational competence' ETP April 1999 Issue 11
      • Hunt, Roger 'The Iron, the Which and the Wardrobe' IH Journal Issue No2 Nov 1996
      • Lewis, Michael and Hill, Jimmie Practical Techniques for Language Teaching (LTP 1985)
      • Lewis, Michael The Lexical Approach (LTP 1993)
      • Lewis, Michael Implementing the Lexical Approach (LTP 1997)
      • Lewis, Michael Teaching Collocation (LTP 2000)
      • Lewis, Morgan 'Setting a good example' ETP Issue 22 Jan 2002
      • Moon, Rosamund 'Vocabulary connections: multi-word items in English' in Schmitt and McCarthy
      • Newton, Jonathan 'Options for vocabulary learning through communication tasks' ELT Journal Vol55/1 Jan 2001
      • Read, John Assessing Vocabulary (CUP 2000)
      • Schmitt, Norbert and McCarthy, Michael (eds) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (CUP 1997)
      • Sökmen, Anita J 'Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary' in Schmitt and McCarthy
      • Thornbury, Scott 'Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote noticing' ELT Journal Vol51 October 1997
      • Thornbury, Scott 'The Lexical Approach: a journey without maps?' MET Vol7 No4 Oct 1998
      • Thornbury, Scott How to Teach Vocabulary (Longman 2002)

      This article originally appeared in 'In English' - The British Council magazine for teachers of English in Portugal - in the Autumn 2002 issue.

      Bruce Williams, teacher, British Council, Lisbon, Portugal 

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