Saturday, October 18, 2014

Corpora, concordances and collocations

The TEFL Greece collection of corpora links contains links to a wide variety of tools for exploring text, all of which are free to use at least on a trial basis.

There are two interfaces to access the British National Corpus, one hosted at Oxford and one at Brigham Young

The Oxford one offers a Simple Search facility that makes it ideal for novice users. Simply type in any word or phrase, and the site will give you a sample of fifty complete sentences containing that word or phrase. These authentic examples show the correct use of the language, and can be used for all kinds of activities with your advanced learners. For example, get them to analyse examples with "take part" and "take place" and they will quickly have a clear idea of the difference in meaning. This site also has brief introductory texts on What is the BNC? and Using the BNC.

The Brigham Young interface is slightly more complex as it offers more functions on the homepage, including the ability to perform a KWIC search which presents examples of the Key Word In Context, and the option to search only certain types of language such as spoken, fiction, newspapers and many more. The site also offers a five-minute guided tour which is a very useful introduction to the facilities.

The collection also includes links to a variety of smaller and more specialised corpora, including:
In addition to a selection of the most useful corpora, there is also a section with links to resources that list and describe numerous other relevant sites.

Finally, there are a few selected articles introducing the uses of corpora. Hopefully, these will give you additional ideas about the many ways in which these resources can be used to enrich your teaching.

The igloo paradox

In the previous post, it was mentioned that a vocabulary of 3500 words is considered sufficient to pass the Cambridge FCE. This irresistibly raises the question, which 3500 words are they?

Unfortunately, the answer isn't so straightforward. While it is claimed that the Cambridge Vocabulary for First Certificate "covers all the vocabulary First Certificate candidates need", clearly it doesn't cover all the basic vocabulary that candidates will be assumed to have acquired in their first years of learning, and it doesn't actually contain 3500 vocabulary items anyway.

One sensible approach to identifying the words that learners need is that taken by Michael Lewis and other advocates of the Lexical Approach. Building on the research of early corpus linguists which showed that 70% of our everyday conversation is made up of just 700 words, they designed a course that set out to teach those words in the first year. 

There are some practical problems with this approach, particularly because most of these very frequent words have several different meanings, so it isn't a simple matter to teach or to learn words like "get" or "take".

Nonetheless, teaching materials, particularly reference works such as dictionaries and grammar books, are informed by the principle that the most frequently used vocabulary items and grammatical structures are the most useful ones for learners.

And accessing the tools of corpus linguistics through a simple website searchbox, we can very easily discover which the most frequent items are. Conversely, for any given item, we can find how frequent it is. For example we find that the word "igloo" is ranked as the 26,896th most frequent word in English, compared to:

ice - 1234th
island - 1517th
iron (n) - 2294th

That would seem to indicate that if we're looking for a useful word to represent the letter "I" when teaching the alphabet, "igloo" wouldn't be a good candidate.

Of course, the relative frequency of a particular word depends on whose English is included in the corpora from which the frequency counts are derived. Most corpora are based on adult language. While analysing such corpora can accurately predict which words will be useful for adults, these aren't necessarily the same words that children need.

Looking at lists designed specifically for teachers of children, such as the Fry word lists, we find that there are several function words beginning with "I" in the 100 most frequent, including "in", "is", "it", "I", "if" and "into". The most frequent concrete noun beginning with "I" is again "ice", which occurs within the most frequent 700 words for children, whereas "igloo" doesn't occur in the lists covering the 1000 most frequent words.

This is hardly surprising. Imagine a Greek learner of English working as a waiter in a cafeteria, or using English while travelling abroad. Offering or requesting ice cream, or ice for drinks, would be a  pretty useful thing to be able to do, more useful than being able to ask for an igloo.

This is a word which most people are unlikely ever to use, and yet in many schools of English, it's one of the first words taught. Most authors and publishers of coursebooks are doing a great job, but we still owe it to ourselves and our students to reflect on the materials that we use and adapt them in cases where the contents aren't useful. A small but significant first step would be to consider the words that are used to teach the alphabet. And if you're using one of the many courses that include the word "igloo", replace it with "ice" or "ice cream", which are twenty times more frequent and twenty times more useful.

Turn phrasal verbs into an interesting lesson

Phrasal verbs are an essential part of everyday speech, as they are much more common than the Latinate verbs with equivalent meanings – it’s much more usual to say “turn into” rather than “transform”. As phrasal verbs are notoriously difficult for students to learn, we need to find ways to teach them more effectively.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the verb + particle combination often has a meaning quite different from the sum of its parts. But there are also lots of cases where the meanings are quite predicable, even if they're not immediately obvious. For example, phrasal verbs with up often have the meaning of coming together, as in meet up, team up, gang up, etc. Getting students to notice systematic patterns like this will enable them to learn more easily and also increase their motivation by removing the frustration of trying to memorise what sometimes seem to be random combinations.

Another part of the problem is that students are often required to memorise long lists of phrasal verbs out of context. As a result, they're likely to confuse the meanings of the phrasal verbs, and in any case this rote learning doesn't enable students to use the phrasal verbs naturally. This treatment has the same effect as the "Words often Confused" sections that feature in so many coursebooks, a feature that is itself the cause of the confusion.

As with all areas of vocabulary, the key to successful teaching is to create memorable lessons, with clear and accurate definitions and examples that are also interesting and authentic. We should also consider the amount of vocabulary that students can learn in a single lesson. If they learn about a dozen words in each lesson, that's well over a thousand words a year for learners who have three lessons a week. As long as we continue to recycle the vocabulary to aid retention, this number is more than enough - a vocabulary of 3500 words is considered sufficient to pass the Cambridge FCE.

So instead of trying to teach all the phrasal verbs with turn in a single lesson, teach just one, but teach it thoroughly in the context of interesting activities that also develop other skills. Songs are always a great way to introduce language. There are many well-known songs that contain turn into in the lyrics or even the title. Choose one of these as a lead-in to the lesson.

You think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money

Focus on the use of turn into in the song lyrics and ask students what they think it means. This inductive approach to introducing the meaning is far more memorable than simply telling the students what it means.You might also ask students if they can think of any other songs with turn into in the lyrics.
Ask students for their interpretation of what turning rebellion into money means, then get them to think also what other things can be turned into money, or what other things rebellion can be turned into.

This could be a good opportunity for a quick and painless introduction to a corpus like the British National Corpus or, for a simpler interface and broader range of styles, one of the Leeds corpora. This allows you to select from a variety of sources, in this case a random selection of internet sites.

This query, using the wildcard .* returns examples of all forms of TURN (turn, turns, turning, turned) followed immediately by into, with results looking like this:

The query can be amended by adding two dots between the two search terms:

This will return results including examples where there is an object between turn and into:

These searches only take a moment to perform, and getting students to look at the results, either printed out or online will enable them to notice the kind of words that typically collocate with turn into, and the difference between the transitive and intransitive use:

Transitive: He's really turned his campaign into a weapon of mass deception.
Intransitive: Wembley has turned into a financial disaster.

The same technique could also be used to highlight differences in the meaning between separable and inseparable uses of a phrasal verb (She turned him on / She turned on him), sensitising our learners to the ways in which meaning and grammar inter-relate.

Analysis of authentic examples is the most immediate way to determine how frequently a structure occurs, which can help our students to speak and write more naturally. So here's a quiz question to finish with - which one of the four structures below is far less frequent than the other three?

 "Subject + [turn] water into wine"
 "water + [turn] into wine" 

 "Subject + [turn] water to wine"
 "water + [turn] to wine"

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Online activities for young learners

In addition to teaching practice with classes at local schools, we also provide opportunities for our trainees to teach individuals and small groups. Here are some of the online resources that we have used with our young learners during the past month.

TEFL Corinth trainee feedback

"We were guided during lesson preparation and the feedback after the teaching was always helpful. The practice both in the school and in private lessons helped me to become more confident, which enabled me to enjoy all the parts of the course."

Beatrice Vecchio

"The practice, the diversity and variety of activities, the different teaching levels, the input of grammar and methodology were all appropriate and useful."

Brahim Ben Brahim


"All the input sessions are very interesting and stimulating. It is very useful to review grammar etc. We started to teach from the beginning, which is a good point because we can improve our teaching during the following weeks."

Virginie Ruiz

"The material covered was all highly relevant to English Language Teaching, and was presented in a pleasant, thorough, practical setting conducive to learning. The practical teaching exercises were very useful, especially the feedback. A very good overview of all the materials, methods, exams, the market."

John Stratiotis