Combining collocations and pronunciation

By Alex Case

Collocations are words that naturally go together, such as combinations of verbs and nouns (“go swimming”) and idiomatic phrases (“run me ragged”). There are many articles bemoaning the fact that chunks of language such as these don’t get enough attention, but that is perhaps understandable when we see how uncommunicative and boring many common practice activities are. Much the same thing could be said for doing more pronunciation in the EFL classroom. Luckily, it is possible to combine the two in ways that kill two birds with one stone while being more useful than practising either of those two things alone.

Students often have problems with individual English sounds such as /v/, sometimes confusing them with other sounds like /w/, /f/ or /b/. The most popular ways of practising this is minimal pairs activities where students try to recognise and then produce pairs of words like “rice” and “lice”. Another common and more fun activity is tongue twisters like “Red lorry yellow lorry”. The problem with both of these is that they are incredibly unrealistic.

With tongue twisters, the chances of hearing “red lorry” and “yellow lorry” in a real conversation are next to zero, and certainly far less than hearing real collocations like “lorry driver”. With minimal pairs, they are often given as single words without any context at all, and attempts to create sentences where both words are possible create unlikely examples like “I don’t like rice”/ “I don’t like lice” (Who does??) In real life we are much more likely to have real clues about whether “rice” or “lice” is being said by which words come before and after, e.g. in sentences like “He is a rice farmer” and “I had head lice when I was a kid”. Even if you don’t do further work on these collocations, using sentences with common collocations will help teach students the useful skill of using context to help with comprehension of individual words.

Combining chunks of language and pronunciation as suggested above can be used if the main focus is individual sounds (e.g. minimal pairs), linking or weak forms in a pronunciation lesson, or idiomatic phrases, proverbs, or verb + noun etc combinations. Some classroom activities are given below.

  • Students listen to a sentence including one of a minimal pair (e.g. “sheep” and “cheap”) and try to write down which of the two words are being used, using the pronunciation tips the teacher has given them and the context. They can then maybe listen again and write down the words which helped them guess which word it was, i.e. the collocations.
  • Students listen to a common chunk of language including at least one example of a difficult sound and count how many examples of that sound they hear. They can then maybe listen again and write the whole chunk down.
  • Students do the same as above, but with a chunk of language that includes a difficult sound and at least one sound it is usually confused with, e.g. “I’ll do my very best” for “v” and “b”.
  • Students discuss how getting the sounds mixed up in such a chunk would make it amusing, e.g. “my berry vest”.
  • Students try to fill in the missing letters in a common collocation and then listen and check, e.g. “b _ _ _ with a silver spoon in his mouth” being “born” rather than the “bone” they might hear it as if they don’t think about the meaning.
  • Common chunks of language are split before or after words that students are likely to find difficult to pronounce and put on Student A and Student B worksheets. For example, for the sounds /r/ and /l/ you could put “follow the – ” on Student A’s sheet plus “leader” on Student B’s and “glam –“ on Student B’s worksheet plus “rock” on Student A’s. They read out the things on their worksheet and try to match up the chunks with their partner, without showing their worksheets to each other or spelling the words out. This can also be done as a Shouting Dictation or Running Dictation.
  • Students are asked to learn a common collocation for each difficult sound or pair of sounds, and must produce that from memory with perfect pronunciation in later classes from a word or letter prompt. The same thing can be done with one chunk to memorise for each weak form (e.g. “Fish and chips” and “Ten to two”) or linking sound (“Far and away the best” and “Sue and be damned”).
  • Students listen to chunks of language with two examples of the same sound (e.g. “kitchen bin”) or two different but easily confused sounds (e.g. “a tin of beans”). From the sounds and the collocation, they should guess whether they have heard the same sound twice or two different ones.
  • The teacher dictates a list of words which commonly form collocations with the word being studied, e.g. words that often go together with “take”, including some words with sounds that are difficult for the students. They combine their knowledge of pronunciation and collocations to write the list as it is dictated.
  • The same thing can also be done with two lists. Students have a table with two columns and write the words into one of those two columns (e.g. “make” and “do”) depending on what they hear and which word they think it goes with.
  • Students are given a list of minimal pairs. The teacher dictates a collocation or whole sentence that only goes with one of each pair and students should say which of the two words they think it is, e.g. “clam” or “cram” for “chowder”. They only get a point if they guess right and pronounce it in a way that is clearly the right one. The same thing can also be done with students having to choose from the whole list rather than just from a single pair.
Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET May 2011
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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