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Teaching tips - Aiding accuracy and fluency

As busy teachers, it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips articles are aimed at those of you who are teaching or training and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes. We hope that these articles will inspire you to try something new with your students.

If you have any teaching tips or ideas that you would like to share with us, or questions please send them to Georgina.

Aiding Accuracy and Fluency: Extending beginner students' lexis from individual words to collocations

Bill Farquharson

Introduction

Ever since Michael Lewis produced “The Lexical Approach” in 1993, there has been a growing awareness that language is not typically learned ‘grammatically’, and that language schools and courses do not necessarily have to centre on a series of grammatical structures that learners are required to master. Instead, a shift in perspective has focused on the practical benefit of basing language courses on the role that lexis plays in language learning and acquisition.

In this article, I aim to encourage teachers to consider introducing a healthy component of lexis into their teaching, first by discussing exactly what is meant by lexis, and secondly, by showing how studying lexis can make language teaching and learning both economical and efficient.
Rather than trying to cover everything that the vast interconnected network of lexis includes, I’ve chosen to focus on the role of teaching and learning collocation as a means of accelerating both accuracy and fluency in students’ receptive and productive skills.

What is meant by lexis?

Lexis incorporates far more than simple vocabulary and long lists of words that require rote-learning and endless drilling before students can ‘acquire’ them. Scrivener (pg 228) defines lexical items as words, collocations like shrug your shoulders, fixed or semi-fixed expressions such as to and fro, without a doubt and ‘ready-made’ chunks, such as idioms which have non-literal meanings e.g. he flew off the handle and I’m all ears.

Typically, teaching lexical items requires a focus on meaning, including denotation and connotation, and relationships such as synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms and so on. These meanings and relationships are useful aspects to make students aware of as they help with storage and retrieval of items, through categorization and association. Essentially, by helping students to form a lexical ‘network’ rather than a linear chain, we can aid learning by imitating how the brain likes to categorise information – in neural networks. In addition to meaning, its important learners understand form. Word form includes spoken and written form, as well as inflection, derivation, knowledge of root words and the use of affixation. So really knowing a word can imply a vast amount of data that needs to be mastered by learners. If we include other relationships between lexical items such as homographs and polysemes, and extend from individual word vocabulary into lexical items including compounds, collocations, idioms, fixed or semi-fixed expressions, we soon realise that the scope of lexis is vast, compared with say grammar, which has, at least, a limited number of structures. Learning lexis therefore becomes quite a formidable task, given students are expected to continue to expand their mental lexicon indefinitely.

So why use lexis as an organising system?

It seems there is consensus among language pedagogy experts that lexis deserves specific attention in the classroom. Because “language emerges first as words, both historically and in terms of the way each of us learned our first and any subsequent languages” (Thornbury, 2002), lexis is a crucial system for learners to develop, regardless of their level. Scrivener notes that, “Lexis is important and needs to be dealt with systematically in its own right; it is not simply an add-on to grammar or skills lessons.” (pg 229). “Vocabulary acquisition is the largest and most important task facing the language learner.” (Swan and Walter, in Thornbury pg1) These views express belief that the study of lexis requires its own place in a syllabus, not merely as a poor relative to grammar.

Collocation, however, offers an opportunity to accelerate the acquisition of lexis. Native speakers speak at the speed they do because they are calling on a repertoire of pre-formed language, that’s available from their mental lexicons (Hill pg 55).

What exactly is collocation?

Jimmie Hill defines collocations as simply, “a predictable combination of words.” (In Lewis, pg 54). Collocations are combinations of words which are used together with greater than usual frequency and can take a number of forms as in these examples:

breaking news | adjective + noun
have a shower | verb + noun
beach holiday | noun + noun
float serenely | verb + adverb
have a nice day | verb + adjective + noun
hand out flyers | verb + preposition + noun
utterly disgusted | adverb + adjective

Collocation allows us to think and communicate more quickly and efficiently. So if we can assist learners to recognise multi-word units such as collocations rather than processing everything word-by-word, this may aid both accuracy and fluency. As Hill(pg 55) mentions, one of the main reasons learners find listening or reading difficult is not because of the density of new words they encounter, but the density of unrecognised collocations as they process individual words rather than chunks. “The main difference between native and non-native speakers is that the former have met far more English and so can recognise and produce these 'readymade chunks', which enable them to process and produce language at a much faster rate.” (Hill, pg 55).

Collocational strength refers to how fixed or unique word combinations are. Strong collocations such as nuclear fission are unique or strong in that fission only combines with nuclear. However, such a collocation is probably not frequently used unless you work in a nuclear reactor (another strong collocation). Conversely a collocation like warm water is weak, as both words can collocate with a lot of other words; however it is probably quite a frequently encountered collocation. Medium strength collocations represent those that are both strong, without being fixed, and frequent. Take as an example football, which collocates with team, American, field, player, tournament, association to suggest a few.

Thornbury points out that learning lexical chunks, such as collocations, plays an important role in the acquisition of language and achieving fluency (pg 14). It appears that learning collocations speeds up not only storage of new language, but also retrieval. This contributes to both accuracy and fluency, as it shortcuts the number of word selections and combinations a student makes when producing output. In addition, as Lewis point out, “Actively introducing collocations recycles half-known words and, while this doesn’t directly cause learning, it accelerates it.” (pg 64).

So what do we teach?

Teaching collocation involves expanding learners’ awareness of the collocation fields that surround each word. Lewis (pg 13) uses the example of wound and injury, two words that are often used synonymously. However, their collocational field is what influences native speakers to say things like internal injury, and flesh wound rather than internal wound and flesh injury. Lewis argues that, “A great deal of time is spent in many classrooms explaining what things mean… I suggest that at least some of that time is better spent showing students what words do - how they are actually used and how they collocate - rather than explaining what they mean. Explaining and exploring is surely better than either alone.”  So he seems to be encouraging a move away from the dreary techniques of memorising word lists and engaging in recognition of patterns.

De-lexicalised verbs (get, have, make, do, put, take) deserve a special mention. These verbs are important when teaching collocation because although they may have a lexical meaning (make = create/manufacture, have = own/possess), they are more commonly used in combinations with nouns or other words as a chunk of meaning (Hunt). For example, make an excuse, take an exam, do a good deed, have a nap.

Problems and issues with the teaching of lexis

There are a number of issues around the teaching of vocabulary and lexis that make it either unappealing or unrewarding for teachers and learners respectively.

  • Learners’’, especially beginners’, capacity for taking in and retaining new words, structures and concepts is limited. Overwhelming learners with volumes of lexis, without opportunities to use it, is unlikely to endear them to the process of learning a language. Repeating lists onerously is also tedious.
  • Learners, including beginners, may know quite a lot of individual words, but they lack the ability to use those words in a range of collocations which pack more meaning into what they say or write.
  • While some collocations seem to make lexical ‘sense’ e.g. play chess, watch T.V, others aren’t obvious to learners, and can require some conscious noticing by the learners before they can be acquired.
  • Students often use incorrect collocations, e.g. “let’s take a drink” possibly as a result of applying a strategy like L1 transfer or generalization from another collocation they already know, so even their best attempts at speculating may prove mistaken.
  • It may not be obvious to beginner learners when encountering collocations in context that individual words belong to each other’s collocational field. So noticing which words collocate is not that obvious to learners.
  • Students cannot store items correctly in their mental lexicon if they have not identified them correctly; incorrectly chunked, the input will either not be stored at all or will be wrongly stored. In either case it cannot be available for retrieval and use - put simply, students cannot learn from input which they mis-chunk (Hill Pg 56).

Teaching Issues associated with lexis and collocations

  • The most significant feature of collocation is the sheer number of individual collocations needed for a mature adult lexicon. With limited class time teachers can only teach some of the most common. If, as methodologists tell us, we should teach no more than 10 new words per lesson, given that half might be learned, a normal school year of lessons will only add 500 words to a student's vocabulary. (Hill pg 61). Knowing which collocations to teach is not necessarily obvious.
  • Teachers still need guidelines about how best to introduce lexis, whether the study of lexis should be incidental or intentional, and, if intentional, how many items we should include in any particular lesson.

Suggestions for teaching

  • Present material to beginner learners in simple segments that don’t overwhelm them. Engage in plenty of repetition of a limited number of words, phrases and sentences. So short, simple techniques must be used. A variety of techniques is important because of limited language capacity. (Brown, pg 113)
  • In the same way that we teach individual word vocabulary, we need to teach collocations. Rather than wait for students to meet common collocations for themselves, we need to present them in context just as we would present individual words.
  • Continually bring useful collocations to your learners’ attention and help them to remember them. Instead of trying to improve their grammar or giving them a lot more new words, which can so easily mean obscure, rarely used words, show them how their existing words collocate.
  • Incidental teaching in response to mistakes is important to learners as it reveals the state of their interlanguage. When a learner makes a collocation mistake when trying to talk about something, this provides an excellent opportunity to extend and organise the learner's lexicon in a very efficient way. Morgan Lewis (pg 26) recommends not just correcting the mistake, but giving some extra collocations as well - three or four for the price of one.
  • In addition to the above recommendation, Brown (pg 435) cites evidence that intentional vocabulary focus accounts for significant gains in acquisition. This suggests teachers need to retain procedures and techniques such as regular revision of lexis and rote learning, particularly at beginner and intermediate levels.
  • Teachers should read texts aloud in class so that students hear the text correctly chunked. For beginners this may require the teacher to slow speech somewhat to aid students’ comprehension, but retain its naturalness (Brown pg 112). Alternatively, teachers could draw attention to collocations that appear in a text, in a pre-teaching stage in order to help them notice the chunks as they occur in the text they work with during the lesson.
  • Learners need strategies for recording lexis effectively. Acquiring vocabulary and lexis involves a process of categorizing and network building (Thornbury, pg 18), rather than a linear process of simply labeling or listing. So introducing learners to organizing techniques is important.

Conclusion

Whether teaching beginners or advanced learners, lexis is a language system that deserves a specific focus in a syllabus. This is great news for those teachers and learners who want less grammar in the class. Building a mental lexicon requires far more than memorising individual words, and evidence supports the view that chunks, such as collocations should be taught as lexical items, not as individual words. Collocations and other chunks of language aren’t obvious to learners as they often focus on individual words in order to attempt to extract meaning. The implications are that teachers need to point out chunks, including collocations, to learners and be prepared for both intentional and incidental teaching of collocations. This should include a focus on meaning as well as spoken and written form.

Bibliography

Brown, D. 2007. Teaching By Principles, an Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy, 3rd Ed. Pearson Education. New York: USA
Hadfield, J. Hadfield, C. (1999). Basics. Oxford University Press. Oxford: UK
Hill, J. (2000) Revising Priorities: From Grammatical failure to collocational success. In Lewis M. (Ed). Teaching Collocations (pg 47 - 67). Thompson Hienle. Hove: UK
Lewis, Morgan (2000). There’s Nothing as Practical as a Good Theory. In Lewis M. (Ed). Teaching Collocations (pg 10 – 27). Thompson Hienle. Hove: UK
Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching. MacMillan, Oxford: UK
Thornbury, S. (2002). How to Teach Vocabulary. Pearson Education Ltd. Harlow. U.K.
Ur, P. (2002) A Course in Language Teaching, Practice and Theory. 9th Printing. CUP, Cambridge, UK