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Spotlight on collocations

Category: Lexical Approach

I’ve been thinking it’s time to change the channel and turn the spotlight on the Lexical Approach and on my favorite in-class activity, picking out collocations from texts.

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Finding interesting collocations and chunks of language is certainly time well spent. Actually I do my best to train my students to find (“notice”) them themselves. This can actually take a bit of doing because they usually view language as a string of isolated words rather than as words that often go together. It’s so typical: you’re looking at a text and they ask you what this or that word means, but they fail to notice useful groups of words that will help them express themselves better.

Just today in class there was what I consider a classic. In a recorded dialogue someone said, “it’s difficult to get a word in edgeways”. (By the way, that’s “edgewise” in my neck of the woods.) So one of my students asks me what “edgeways” means. I’ve only ever heard that word as part of that idiom. A better-trained student would have asked me what the whole expression means. But give me time.

I read a good metaphor in one of Michael Lewis’s book: meaning is like a chocolate bar. Students unpackage the meaning and go for the chocolate, but forget about the package the chocolate / meaning came in. They try to understand the message, but forget the way it was expressed. This needs to be pointed out to them, or better yet, they need to be trained to notice these language items for themselves. I view this as a large part of our job: helping students notice how words go together. It’s not easy, but it’s gratifying when it flies.

If you want to, just for fun, reread this post up to here and decide what collocations you think might be worth highlighting for an advanced-ish class. Then we’ll compare notes.

Finished? OK, here’s what I came up with. The first sentence, “I’ve been thinking…” or “I’ve been thinking it’s time to…”. This can be treated as a chunk of language, with no or minimal grammatical analysis. You can also personalize it: “I’ve been thinking it’s time to do a listening. Do you agree?” Try to draw the students in.

Also, “change the channel”. You could mention the literal meaning, actually changing channels on a TV, and the metaphorical meaning here, to do something different. Ask your students if they think it’s time to change the channel in class, or in other ways.

The collocations just go on and on: “turn the spotlight on”, “time well spent”, “do my best”, “take a bit of doing”, “They usually view … as …”, “It’s so typical”, “this or that”, “what I consider a classic”, “get a word in edgeways”, “By the way”, “in my neck of the woods”, “give me time”, “chocolate bar”, “go for…”, “language items”, “I view this as…”, “a large part of my job”.

In the Lexical Approach, I’d say more time is spent on collocations than on traditional grammar, but I do like the current trend of having a quick look at a grammar item, then moving on. Actually grammar can often be treated as a chunk of language as we did with the present perfect continuous above (“I’ve been thinking…”). You could do the same for verb plus infinitive: “fail to notice”, “needs to be pointed out”.

And there’s more you could do with it, buy obviously you don’t have to point everything out to them, but I will confess I do relish getting my hands on a lexically rich text and ripping it to shreds. It’s demanding on the students’ memory, but who said learning English is a cakewalk?

I find myself having to explain to them again and again why we’re highlighting so many language chunks: “This is very practical language. This is how people really speak. Do you want to improve your level or not?” They moan they can’t possibly remember so much lexis. I tell them to study and revise as much as possible, and just do the best they can.

A lot of this ends up being passive knowledge (they recognize it and understand it, but can’t produce it), but that aids comprehension and is dead useful for Cambridge exams. I also encourage students to choose their “favorite” collocations: the ones they think are the most useful for them, or just the ones they like, and to try to use them in follow-up fluency activities, which helps them activate at least some of the lexis.

By the way, a highly-recommended book with excellent practical examples is “Teaching Collocations”, edited by Michael Lewis and published by LTP. For a more theoretical view, get “The Lexical Approach” and Implementing the Lexical Approach”, both excellent but more academic.

There’s more to say about all this, but I’ll wind things up here. This post is already about twice as long as I’d intended. Anyway, if you’re not already doing so in your classes, turn the TV to the lexical channel and put the spotlight on collocations.
Rob in Madrid

Good! Now can you explain phrasal verbs?

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