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IELTS Teacher e-newsletter – February 2019

Idiomatic language in the IELTS speaking test
Part 2: Teaching idiomaticity?

By Damian Dwyer

As discussed in Part 1 of this article, in order to achieve scores of Band 7 or above in the IELTS speaking test candidates must use some “idiomatic vocabulary” and demonstrate an “awareness of… collocation”. This includes correctly using, for example, verb-noun collocations like blow one’s nose and adjective-noun collocations like strong tea, and most candidates know these are important. But in addition, candidates need more generally to say things in ways that sound natural to highly-competent English speakers. For example, the sentence I listen to music… after duties at my dwelling (Read & Nation, 2006, p. 19) is grammatically correct and its meaning is clear but it doesn’t sound natural. In Part 1 I referred to unnatural lexical usages like these, as inappropriacies. They need to be avoided throughout the test in order for higher-band Lexical Resource scores to be awarded. Higher-level candidates also use phrases that sound especially natural in certain contexts, phrases which would be difficult to guess without knowing how English speakers really talk about particular topics (e.g. the money factors come into play (Read & Nation, 2006, p. 17)). I referred to these as conventional expressions. These need to be appropriate and topic-specific. It isn’t enough just to know the expressions, they need to be used appropriately to help the candidate make their meaning clear.

In this second part of the article I will give a very brief overview of some recent research findings on how to improve learners’ use of collocations and conventional expressions, as well as their general lexical appropriacy. The volume of research in this area has increased substantially over the last decade or so (Boers & Webb, 2017; see also Boers & Lindstromberg, 2012; Wray, 2013), and owing to limitations of space there is a great deal I have not been able to cover. I have tried to summarise some of the most popular themes in the recent research, and where possible (it has not always been possible) I have tried to focus on results that have been replicated in multiple studies. Most importantly, I have aimed to include at least some of the studies most likely to be helpful for teachers whose students are around Band 6 level and need a higher score in Lexical Resource, though I hope others will find this useful also.

There are some important areas I have not discussed here, including in particular corpus-based classroom activities (e.g. O’Keefe, McCarthy & Carter, 2007). Publications on this topic are highly relevant and well worth consulting but can be quite technical and may not be of use to some teachers – my feeling was that the area probably deserves its own article. I also did not discuss which collocations and conventional expressions are easiest to learn (e.g. Peters, 2016), or cognitive linguistic teaching approaches to teaching (e.g. Boers & Lindstromberg, 2008), though both are prominent in the research. Finally, I have tried to organise my discussion around classroom-based rather than psycholinguistic studies, because I felt these would be of the most direct relevance to teachers.

Implicit learning

Learning to be idiomatic generally happens at least partly implicitly: when we have been exposed to a substantial amount of language, we develop a feeling for the way people say things in certain situations (e.g. Ellis, 2002, 2012; Ellis, Simpson-Vlach, Römer, O’Donnell & Wulff, 2015). For example, the fact that people rarely use the word duties with the word dwelling, and certainly rarely use these words together to talk about day-to-day activities, is something that competent speakers (including IELTS examiners) know implicitly from having heard a lot of sentences using each of these words, and from having heard a lot of sentences which talk about day-to-day activities (e.g. Ellis, 2002; Ellis et al., 2015). It is therefore difficult to see how learners could improve their idiomaticity without engaging with authentic texts, especially when it comes to avoiding inappropriacies. This is normally a slow process (e.g. Ellis et al., 2015; Li & Schmitt, 2000), so is there any way we can speed it up? For one thing, the way people use words together changes depending on a range of factors (genre, speaking or writing, etc.) (e.g. Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009; Martinez, 2013; Ellis et al., 2015), so for the speaking test it is important that learners encounter language as similar as possible to what would be appropriate in the test. So that learners can encounter topic-specific language, topics should also be similar to those that are common in IELTS speaking. For this, they will need to find authentic speaking texts.

Admittedly, finding authentic texts that fit the above requirements is easier said than done. Good language for the speaking test is often the kind of language spoken on university campuses, so university-based spoken corpora like the MICASE corpus (e.g. Simpson-Vlach & Ellis, 2010) (;page=simple) may be helpful – of course, you would ideally need to search for samples of language dealing with common IELTS-related topics. Band 8 and 9 model answers seem like ideal choices, and good ones may be, however my own experience is that model answers can vary widely in quality and are often not very authentic.

The research offers a few ideas on how teachers can improve incidental learning of conventional expressions, collocations and other lexical patterns. For one thing, implicit learning seems to work better when learners can read as well as listen to language (e.g. Webb, Newton & Chang, 2013), perhaps because this gives them more time to concentrate on the way words are used. In addition, activities in which learners identify groups of words in the texts they read which look especially useful may make them more aware of these features (Boers, Eyckmans, Kappel, Stengers & Demecheleer, 2006; see also Lewis, 1993, 1997), although the extent to which this contributes to long-term gains in idiomaticity is not clear (see below).

If there are particular collocations or conventional expressions which it is important for learners to remember, it is likely learners will need to see these items used a number of times in the text (e.g. Durrant & Schmitt, 2010; Sonbul & Schmitt, 2013; Webb et al., 2013; Szudarski & Carter, 2014). One way to make sure this happens is through input-flooding – altering texts so that certain collocations or conventional expressions are used repeatedly (Sonbul & Schmitt, 2013; Webb et al., 2013; Szudarski & Carter, 2014). This would seem to diminish the authenticity of the text, and it seems possible that presenting multiple short extracts of text using the target expressions would work just as well (extracts could be taken from a corpus search (e.g. Cobb & Boulton, 2015)), as might having learners look through a corpus themselves (Sun & Wang, 2003). Another strategy which can make learners focus more on the collocations or conventional expressions you want them to learn is input enhancement: using highlighting, bold text or different coloured text to draw learners’ attention to important words or phrases (e.g. Peters, 2012; Szudarski & Carter, 2014; Choi, 2017).

Explicit teaching

Researchers suggest many useful conventional expressions and collocations are unlikely to occur frequently enough in authentic materials (e.g. Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009, Chapter 2), or even in textbooks (Tsai, 2014), for learners to remember them. Explicitly teaching some of the most helpful conventional expressions and collocations learners encounter in texts can strengthen learners’ memory of them, and learners will therefore (hopefully) be able to remember them and use them in speaking (e.g. Nation, 2001; Schmitt, 2008; Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009). Remembering new sentence patterns may also help with the process of generalisation needed to avoid inappropriacies (Ellis, 2002). A range of explicit teaching practices have been shown to help learners remember conventional expressions and collocations, from simple repetition (Alali & Schmitt, 2012) to cued output activities (like gap-fills) (Boers, Dang & Strong, 2017; Peters & Pauwels, 2015), translation activities (Laufer & Girsai, 2008) and concordancing activities (Liou & Chang, 2005) (activities which learners complete by doing corpus searches and comparing the ways a particular word or expression has been used).

Which activities work best? It is difficult to say. The most important factor seems to be the number of times learners encounter or use the expressions we want to teach (e.g. Alali & Schmitt, 2012; Webb, Newton & Chang, 2013; Peters, 2014). Producing the expressions when we encounter them seems to be more helpful than just reading (or hearing) them (Peters & Pauwel, 2015; Zhang, 2017). For example, Zhang (2017) achieved relatively good results presenting collocations like this:

gain insight: 了解、洞悉To gain insight into the needs of language learners, reading this book is necessary.

(Zhang, 2017, p. 160)

At the end of each item, participants wrote their own sentence using the collocation. This exercise achieved significantly better results than just writing or just reading the collocation, and in a classroom setting this activity would also allow the teacher to provide feedback on how the target item had been used.

One final point to make is that, if you are going to teach some expressions explicitly, it is not enough for learners to remember the expressions – they need to be able to use the expressions appropriately.

Inappropriate use of conventional expressions is not only unidiomatic, it may make learners’ speaking look memorised to examiners (Burton, 2018). Presenting the expressions in context (e.g. Bardovi-Harlig & Vellenga, 2012) (ideally, showing uses in multiple contexts), examining the different contexts in which they are used in a corpus (e.g. Liou & Chang, 2005) and providing feedback on learners’ production all seem like sensible ways to do this, however it has to be said that there is so far very little research evidence on how (or even whether) learners use the expressions they are taught, or on how to increase appropriacy.

Choosing collocations and conventional expressions to teach

It would appear that many Chinese IELTS candidates do explicitly learn phrases and expressions to use in the speaking test (e.g. Burton, 2018; and c.f. Wray & Pegg, 2009). Anecdotally, part of the problem with many of the expressions candidates learn is that they are not very appropriate ones for the test. Some phrases may be more appropriate to written than spoken English (With the development of technology…) or may not be appropriate for conversation (a sentence like perfect blue skies and crystal-clear waters might appear in advertising but sounds extremely odd in an interview) (c.f. Martinez, 2013). And many phrases (for example, those “textbook idioms” like raining cats and dogs) are simply not used much in contemporary spoken English at all. Accordingly, it may be that the best approach is to teach phrases taken from transcripts of authentic speaking similar in genre and topic to the language needed for the test (see above). For example, explicit teaching could follow on from a meaning-focused activity using transcripts (e.g. Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009, p. 56), and explicit instruction could focus on expressions learners are likely to find useful, which learners might not know, or which may be difficult to learn implicitly. Some researchers also recommend using appropriate corpora to find useful phrases to teach (e.g. Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009, Chapter 3;

A number of researchers have also compiled lists of common phrases in English, intended for use by teachers and materials designers. For IELTS speaking, it is worth drawing attention in particular to Simpson-Vlach and Ellis’ (2010) Academic Formulas List (AFL). The AFL was based on the language used in an American university and includes phrases common in academic speaking. Input from teachers was used to exclude phrases that might have been unhelpful for teaching. However, the AFI does not contain all the conventional expressions candidates will need for a higher-band IELTS score. The expressions on the list are not specific to IELTS topics, and many of the higher-frequency ones are already used by candidates at around Band 6 level. It seems unavoidable that some phrases will need to be taken from authentic texts.

Does it work?

Do teaching methods like these (which I will refer to as lexically-oriented instruction) really make learners’ speaking more idiomatic? Unfortunately, relatively few studies have examined this question, and the evidence so far is mixed.

Do learners really use the conventional expressions and collocations they have learned in class in free production? Some studies have reported positive gains of lexically-oriented instruction in fairly controlled production activities like cloze tests (e.g. Schmitt, Doernyei, Adolphs & Durow, 2004). But few studies have examined free production and results so far have been less encouraging. Jones and Haywood (2004) and Peters and Pauwel (2015) examined leaarners’ use in essays of conventional expressions they had been taught. Post-tests in both studies indicated that the learners used some of the phrases, but the effect was relatively small. It seems possible that including production activities may help learners to use some conventional expressions and collocations they know (Peters & Pauwel, 2015). Pushed output activities – for example, showing learners some of the phrases they have learned and asking them to use these in a speaking task – may be effective, however so far there is relatively little research on productive tasks to encourage idiomaticity.

Some writers suggest that another goal of lexically-oriented instruction is for learners to get better at noticing the way people use words together, and that this will lead to more efficient incidental learning from input encountered both inside and outside class (e.g. Lewis, 1993, 1997). It does seem to improve noticing (Jones & Haywood, 2004; Boers, Eyckmans, Kappel, Stengers & Demecheleer, 2006). Significantly, Boers et al. (2006) also found that compared to a control group, learners who had been instructed lexically for 8 weeks (22 hours) were more able to recycle (i.e. use in speaking) phrases from input they had just encountered, which some researchers believe is an important step towards productive use of lexis (e.g. Nation, 2001).

In Boers et al.’s (2006) study, an oral proficiency interview (similar to the IELTS speaking test) was used to compare the spoken performance of the experimental group with the control group. Before the interview learners spent 10 minutes reading an article, and in the first part of the interview they discussed the article with a rater (like an examiner). In the second part they had a freer discussion about a familiar topic. In the first part, learners who had been instructed using lexically-oriented techniques used phrases from the article they had just read in their speaking, while learners from the control group did not - as a result of this, the experimental group were assessed as more proficient by the raters.

The problem is that, when they don’t have a text to recycle phrases from, learners who have been instructed using lexically-oriented noticing activities don’t seem to be much more idiomatic than those who have not (and recycling language from prompts is not a good strategy for IELTS). Essays written by the experimental group in Jones and Haywood’s (2004) study were not judged by raters to be more idiomatic than those written by a control group, and in Boers et al.’s (2006) study, the experimental group were no more idiomatic in the second part of the interview (a conversation unrelated to the article) than the control group. Boers et al. (2006) was replicated (with a longer instruction period of 8 months) by Stengers, Boers, Housen and Eyckmans (2010) – in this study, the oral proficiency interview did not include an article which learners could recycle phrases from. This time, the lexically-oriented group did not use significantly more idiomatic language, and was not rated higher by raters, than the control group.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Noticing on its own is unlikely to lead to productive use – learners might not remember the expressions they notice or might not use expressions they remember. The teaching activities used by Jones and Haywood (2004), Boers et al. (2006) and Stengers et al. (2010) were heavily receptive in focus, and as Thomson et al. (2017) suggest, including more productive activities may have led to better results in terms of production. What kinds of productive activities would work best? More research is needed in this area, however given that the learners in Boers et al.’s (2006) were able to recycle phrases from the article they had just read, activities which allow learners to practice using phrases in a text they have just read or listened to may be effective (c.f. Zhang, 2017). One example of an activity like this is content retelling, in which learners summarise a text they have just encountered. For example, Nguyen and Boers (2018) had learners summarise the content of a TED talk orally (following the summary task, the talk was played again). Learners re-used words in their summaries that they had encountered only once (along with an explanation of their meaning) prior to the activity, and this seemed to improve their recall of the words. At the very least, it seems likely that activities like this would help learners remember the expression they use during the activity. Could a focus on productive recycling also improve the rate at which learners incorporate phrases they hear in input outside class into their productive repertoire? The current research does not answer this question, but it seems worth investigating.


So, does the research tell us how to teach learners to speak more idiomatically for the IELTS test? Not entirely, but it does give some useful suggestions, and perhaps teachers’ practical knowledge, experience and intuition can go some of the way towards filling the gaps. Firstly, it is important to engage with authentic spoken texts (i.e. transcripts) in which the language used is as similar as possible to the kind of language that is appropriate for the test. Secondly collocations and conventional expressions can be taught, both explicitly and implicitly, and it is possible to train learners to get better at noticing lexical patterns. In order to see improvements in spoken idiomaticity, however, productive activities may be necessary, and while it is possible to glean some interesting suggestions, the research does not establish which kinds of productive activities work best. We might speculate that activities in which learners combine reading or listening (or, perhaps even better, both together) with production may well have a positive effect.


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