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Lonely Word Seeks Like-Minded Partners for Possible Collocation

By Paul Meehan
How understanding word relationships is the key to successful vocabulary acquisition

It was some considerable time before vocabulary managed to establish itself as an area of language study in its own right. A succession of past methodologies ranging from the Grammar Translation Method of the 1920s-30s, the situational and structurally based Audio Lingual Method (1940s-50s) through to approaches arising from the functional and notional syllabuses(1), in vogue in the 70s, viewed the study of lexis from a narrow perspective, very much as a subordinate discipline to that of grammar. It was not until the mid 1980s that these constraints were swept aside. This was due to innovations in classroom practice whose influences were no longer in thrall to the behaviourist doctrine that had previously held sway. Teachers now became concerned with promoting greater student mental engagement with the language, focusing on student needs and individual learning strategies, encouraging greater learner autonomy and self-reliance. A more practical approach to the development of receptive and productive skills emerged, with the study of vocabulary seen as integral to nurturing these – endorsing Wilkins’ dictum that “without grammar very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”(2). Vocabulary, at long last, saw its importance placed on an equal footing with both grammar and phonology. The inception of COBUILD(3) in 1980 testified to this new-found status.

However, there is still some way to go as vocabulary remains an under-exploited resource. Japanese research findings, based on the experiences of 1,000 students in Kyoto and Osaka(4), revealed that, although their language study programmes recognised the importance of vocabulary study for L2 acquisition, more often than not the way lexis was tackled involved learning by rote, with no systematic approach or well-defined learning strategies. At university level, it was generally assumed that students could expand their vocabulary stocks “incidentally”, merely by being exposed to reading and listening materials. Also highlighted was a general perception that the main obstacle to effective writing was the lack of adequate words and expression rather than grammar and content. This has general significance, as there is a widespread, low-intensity complacency in the way we teach vocabulary, in my view. This applies to both teachers and course books. Although, it must be said that in recent years, the latter (and teachers, too, for that matter) have extended their treatment of lexis – and now focus much more on word partnerships, such as collocations. Nonetheless, the reality is that a lot more still needs to be done. In fact, we need to move towards a more comprehensive treatment of lexis, i.e. one that fully addresses the underlying nature of vocabulary.

Lexical relationships are key to understanding and replicating the way the English-speaking community uses the language. It is vital, therefore, to develop the students’ awareness of these in a way that goes beyond the scope of the standard course book. To begin with, we need to provide the L2 learner not only with the means of recognising these relationships and the variety of their forms, but also with a workable framework for classifying them. Once this has been done, we need to encourage a continuous process by which students build up and extend their vocabulary banks, and make sure that they are provided with opportunities to use them productively. Above all, this classroom practice needs to lead to autonomous student behaviour where he/she is able to develop and deploy his/her own vocabulary resources when interacting with the world beyond. Tasks that emulate this kind of interaction in the external world need to be a prominent feature of the classroom experience.

Tabulating new vocabulary items can be an effective way of focusing students on the aspects of lexis they need to know. This not only provides the context for a systematic examination of new lexis, but also a ready-to-use reference. The following is a possible framework(5):

Vocabulary Item Formal, Informal or Neutral Lexical Category:
(1) collocations (2) function (3) fixed phrases (4) sentence heads (5) discourse tool (6) idiom (7) phrasal verb (8) single item (9) frequent questions
Uses/ Meaning Examples Extension
Why don’t we…? N 2, 4 To suggest ideas for doing something.
[This can be in the student’s own language.]
Why don’t we see a film? We can also say: How about seeing a film? How about a film?
do exercise N 1 I don’t like doing exercise. do exercise, sport(s), aerobics, weight training, keep fit
play tennis N 1 I play tennis regularly. play tennis, football, rugby
break up I 7 To finish a relationship We broke up last week.
I broke up with my boyfriend.
break up (with someone)
break off (an engagement)
break down (in tears)

The aim here is to create a context for the teacher to help the students develop their skills in acquiring vocabulary (by helping them to evolve a more detailed view of lexis as well as a proactive response to its acquisition) and to provide a model for autonomous vocabulary acquisition beyond the classroom. This can be done initially by constructing the table in class, with the teacher directing receptive skills tasks towards lexical features of reading and listening texts. Natural-sounding, teacher-scripted conversations, (with or without an accompanying recording) containing a range of useful lexis, can also be used as platform for building up vocabulary awareness. It is essential the language is framed in a real context, as this provides the means by which students develop the vital ability to examine contextual features/clues to work out meaning. The students’ ability to analyse and categorise vocabulary items can be honed and reinforced through use of guided discovery, discussions and concept questions and lots of examples.

An ongoing class focus for vocabulary work can be provided by the setting up of a vocabulary box. The contents are built up from student contributions (things they have come across, heard, etc) and any language arising in class. At periodic intervals, the contents are analysed by the class and added to a class grid, set up as a permanently visible feature of the classroom. This also has the effect of creating tangible links to the world beyond the classroom where the students use English in ways that are real and relevant to them – clearly, there is a potential pay-off here in terms of increased learner motivation. However, to ensure this the teacher must also provide regular activities that recycle this vocabulary and allow the students to put it into practice.

The understanding of lexical categories will not only enhance the students’ capacity to acquire vocabulary, but also provides an alternative perspective, other than a grammatical one, for making sense of new structures. That is to say, students and indeed teachers learn to view these in lexical terms, rather than grammatical ones, which can very often hinder and limit a learner’s linguistic development. This is because, when approached from a grammar angle, the language the students are exposed to needs to be subjected to a rigorous filtering process – effectively, the learner is shielded from any language featuring structural and conceptual complexity beyond the grammatical knowledge being built up, in class, through a pre-established set of graduated steps. So, for example, the structures

If I had the time/money
If I didn’t have to/have a
I’d come/go/stay.

wouldn’t be encountered until a lower intermediate level when, conventionally, the students are seen to have evolved sufficiently, in grammatical terms, to cope with the notion of what is apparently a past form to refer to a present/future time. However, if this is focused on as a way of saying “sorry” and saying “no” in a friendly way to an invitation, i.e. as a functional exponent and involving a set pattern, it can be accessed much earlier on in the learning process – given, of course, clear contexts and adequate practice (covering a range of useful substitutions).

Getting students to develop a perspective of language that places lexical relationships at the centre of the learning process will provide a substantial motivational boost – as this will provide them with the necessary tools to access the language in a more practical way, one that bypasses that deeply engrained and onerous notion of language as a set of complex grammar rules that need to be mastered before one can be considered an effective communicator in a foreign language.


  1. Though this did represent a significant change in syllabus design, which now became more practical (featuring a range of useful language suited to a variety of social situations) and became less constrained by the strict structural sequencing that governed earlier syllabus design, it did not really challenge the notion that vocabulary was subordinate to grammar.
  2. D.A. Wilkins, Linguistics in Language Teaching – Edward Arnold, 1972.
  3. i.e. Collins Birmingham University International Language Database – a project set up in 1980 that saw the creation of the world’s first electronically stored corpus of modern English (built up from authentic sources: books, magazines, newspapers, transcribed natural speech etc.) and designed as a reference for language learners, teachers and linguists. The content is descriptive, not prescriptive, and is a record of how the language is actually used, in all its richness. Both the research findings and the dictionaries that have emerged from the project have shed a great deal of light on such things as the relative frequency of different uses of language item; and not only have they caused a reappraisal of how vocabulary is tackled in teaching materials, but they have proved to be an invaluable resource for both teachers and language learners. The current corpus, known as Bank of English, runs to tens of millions of words.
  4. English Vocabulary Recognition and Production: A Preliminary Survey Report, K. I. Shihara, T. Okada, S. Matsui. 1997.
  5. Lexical Categories:
    1. Collocation – i.e. words that go together/word partnerships, e.g: arrange a meeting; make an appointment; strongcollocates with coffee, tea, drink, cheese etc; however weak collocates with all these items except cheese (it’s mild cheese)
    2. Function – the social purpose of an utterance. The answer to the question Why did the speaker say that? will reveal a function, e.g: he/she was apologising, making a request, giving advice.
    3. Fixed phrase – e.g: Don’t mention it… What a pity… These are mainly phatic (used to express sociability) social phrases.
    4. Sentence head – e.g: Have you ever…? The thing that annoys me is… What I find interesting is… and all the main question words. These are set foundations to be built on.
    5. Discourse tool – moderates the flow of communication. Can speed it up (anyway…); ensure a smooth flow (well, you know… well, actually…); signal a change of direction such as digressing, returning to the point etc (but that’s another story… by the way… where was I? Ah yes…); be used for sequencing (first of all… a bit later… in the end…): act as signal of what’s to come (luckily, fortunately, unfortunately)
    6. Idiom – the meaning is not deducible from the words that make up the phrase/expression (I’m feeling under the weather)
    7. Phrasal verb – a multi-word verb (to get on with [someone])
    8. Single item – a single word
    9. Frequent questions – What’s it like? How long does it take?
Written by Paul Meehan for Tefl.NET April 2017
Paul Meehan is a London-based EFL/ESOL teacher and freelance writer.
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