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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – April 2019

Teaching collocations

By Barry Lee

Collocations are a lexical feature. What should we know about them? Why is it important? How can collocations be taught? Knowing all this will increase your body of knowledge about this topic. A collocation is a combination of words that are often used together. Michael Halliday, the linguist, gives an example of ‘strong tea’ which is a common expression as opposed to ‘powerful tea’. Native speakers consider collocations as a pattern of usage that forms a conventional way of saying things. If one wants to be a competent speaker, collocations can make one express different ways of saying things. We learn them to sound natural and to be easily understood.

But what are some challenges? Students often have good ideas but they sometimes do not know how to use collocations of a key word. The result is the risk of making more errors. For instance, ‘drive bikes’ instead of ‘ride bikes’ is an example of how a listener might get confused. Only by acquiring large amounts of collocations with quality input can students recognize what word comes before and after in any lexical chunk. Perhaps another challenge is when students compare collocations. Whether consciously or unconsciously they compare with their first language. If a collocation is unknown, the student will borrow a substitute from his/her native language. This often results in error. The structure and ways of building words in the first language is not often the same as in English. To reduce these challenges, here are some activities.

Activities for the classroom
•Classify the collocation types. Introduce the types of collocations to students. Some collocation types are: adjective + noun (regular exercise), adverb + adjective (completely satisfied), noun + verb (dogs bark), verb + adverb (walk slowly), and verb + expression with preposition (burst into tears), noun + noun (window frame), adjective + preposition ( happy about). Classifying the collocations will let students understand how collocations are made.
•Choose an article. Any IELTS textbook has a variety of topics to choose from that can give ample practice. You can also go online and find articles about your chosen topic.
•The topics can be, for example, weather, communication or business. When selecting the article make sure there are enough collocations that are related to the topic so that enough examples are given.
•Identify collocations that are related to the topic. Introduce the article to the class and the word that you want to make collocations with. Have students identify all the collocations that is made with that particular word. If the topic is about business, you might have collocations like small business, business goals, business will flourish and business opportunity.
•Have each student make a collocation of their own. This will let them use their own creative thinking. Use a collocation dictionary to get information on more senses of words. This dictionary is better than a regular dictionary.
•Pair-off. Use the collocations in the article and the collocations students made to create a story.
•Present the story. In pairs, the students present their story to the class. Students can also write a paragraph about the story presented.

Teacher’s role
The teacher’s role is to facilitate learning collocations. Providing this platform will engage students to be more productive. After introducing a topic, teachers must guide the students in identifying, creating, and writing collocations. Facilitating these activities will give students more opportunity to produce their own material. In fact, the role of the teacher can be measured by the students’ response to the activities.

Raising awareness is important. Teachers must make students aware of collocations at an early stage. Clear instruction and emphasizing that collocation is an important feature in English is a must. Teachers should not only make a conscious effort to introduce activities in class but they should also let students know what words that often go together are acceptable. Noticing collocations is to acquire language.

To answer the questions at the beginning, I can say that learning collocations produces natural-sounding language. What is important is that being understood should be effortless and having flexibility in expressing ideas would be more precise. With classroom practice, the challenges of stating ideas and using first language collocations can be softened. A corpus of IELTS materials and a collocation dictionary will achieve this. Remember that the role of the teacher is essential for bringing awareness. Incorporate activities in any of the four skills taught. Finally, to borrow some words from John Firth, the British linguist, he said “you shall know a word by the company it keeps”. Competent speakers know what words go together habitually. Knowing this is to know the restrictions of putting words together. Such is the basics of collocations.




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