This article gives an overview of the topic of collocation in English language teaching and shows how this is a key area of study for advanced level students.

Collocation with advanced levels 1 - not entirely...proper/appropriate/good? - vocabulary article

This is the first of two articles on the topic. The second article - Collocation with advanced learners 2 - provides classroom activities for the study and practice of collocations.

"The ability to deploy a wide range of lexical chunks both accurately and appropriately is probably what most distinguishes advanced learners from intermediate ones." (Thornbury 2002:116)

  • Problems with advanced levels
  • Types of collocation
  • Why is collocation important for advanced learners?
  • The teacher's role
  • Implications
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

Problems with advanced levels
Many advanced students tend to have a number of distinguishing (negative) characteristics. First, they often lack motivation, especially if not working towards an external examination. This is compounded by the fact that they know, or feel they know, English grammar, having recycled the major structures countless times in previous years. In addition, they usually possess a good enough active vocabulary to get by in most everyday speaking situations, and so do not see the necessity for acquiring a lot of new items. Similarly, as many have managed to pass the Cambridge First Certificate exam, they see little need to improve their writing skills. Unless specific lexis related to an individual's work or leisure interests surfaces, novel vocabulary or ways of expressing oneself seem of only passing interest. If teachers content themselves with recycling hackneyed grammar points, or introducing increasingly irrelevant and tortuous new ones, along with rarely used or over-specific lexis, there is a real possibility that learners will simply switch off. Most, according to Lewis, will in fact remain stuck on the 'intermediate plateau' (2000) and tend to continue producing both spoken and written language containing unnatural-sounding elements which grate on listener or reader, as words that do not usually co-occur together are thrown up unexpectedly. For example 'in the shell of a nut' (instead of in a nutshell) and 'I have overtaken the fear of driving' (instead of 'I have overcome the fear of driving') are recent examples from my students. If the reader (or listener) is confused, then the writer or speaker is likely to be at best frustrated or at worst completely misunderstood.

Types of collocation
Learners need to be aware of the fact that words, in Thornbury's phrase, "hunt in packs." (1998:8) That is to say, all words have their own, unique collocational fields.Collocations can be defined in numerous ways (see Moon 1997:43), but for pedagogical purposes it is more practical to restrict the term to the following: two or three word clusters which occur with a more than chance regularity throughout spoken and written English. Below are the most easily distinguishable types:

Verb + noun throw a party / accept responsibility
Adjective + noun square meal / grim determination
Verb + adjective + noun take vigorous exercise / make steady progress
Adverb + verb strongly suggest / barely see
Adverb + adjective utterly amazed / completely useless
Adverb + adjective + noun totally unacceptable behaviour
Adjective + preposition guilty of / blamed for / happy about
Noun + noun * pay packet / window frame







* also known as compound nouns

Why is collocation important for advanced learners?
"Students with good ideas often lose marks because they don't know the four or five most important collocations of a key word that is central to what they are writing about." (Hill 1999:5) As a result, they create longer, wordier ways of defining or discussing the issue, increasing the chance of further errors. He cites the example: "His disability will continue until he dies" rather than "He has a permanent disability." (2000:49-50)

There is no magic formula for correcting these mistakes. Collocations have to be acquired both through direct study and large amounts of quality input. The very concept of collocations is often not easy for learners. The essentially simple idea that word choice is seriously limited by what comes before and after "is perhaps the single most elusive aspect of the lexical system and the hardest, therefore, for learners to acquire" (Thornbury 2002:7)

Once grasped, however, this new focus can re-awaken their interest and enthusiasm in the language. Teachers can highlight progress by periodically recording oral contributions and comparing written texts with earlier output and authentic material. Learning collocations, apart from increasing the mental lexicon, leads to an increase in written and spoken fluency (the brain has more time to focus on its message if many of the nuts and bolts are already in place in the form of collocations of varying length). As Lewis says, "fluency is based on the acquisition of a large store of fixed or semi-fixed prefabricated items, which are available as the foundation for any linguistic novelty or creativity." (1997:15) Moreover, stress and intonation also improve if language is met, learnt and acquired in chunks. Quality input should lead to quality output.

In seeing real advances in their spoken and written fluency highlighted, and understanding the importance of collocation in aiding these advances, students will, hopefully, be stimulated to increase their own, informed exposure to English. As a result, they will begin to lift clear of the intermediate plateau.

The teacher's role
Hill argues that the problem for advanced learners is not so much with encountering vast numbers of new words (although extensive reading and listening which will contain new lexis is no doubt necessary) as with working with already half-known words and exploring their collocational fields.
Ellis claims acquisition can be hastened "as a result of explicit instruction or consciousness-raising." (1997:133) The most useful role of the teacher, therefore, is in consciousness-raising, in encouraging noticing on the part of the learners. In other words, the teacher becomes more of a learning manager, giving students strategies to use outside the classroom while at the same time providing exposure to as much appropriate, quality language as possible.


"No noticing, no acquisition." (Thornbury 1997)
Teachers must raise learners' awareness of collocation as early as possible. Students who meet words initially with their common collocates use them far more naturally, pronounce them better and have a greater amount of ready-made language at their disposal to aid fluency, allowing more time to focus on the message. Learning lexical strings first seems to enable students to extract the grammar themselves as they begin analysing acquired language.
For advanced learners, especially if new to the concept, teachers need to use activities highlighting collocation. They should also stress the importance of learners actively seeking an increasingly large amount of exposure to primarily written but also spoken language outside the classroom, and noticing collocations within that material.

Rosamund Moon calls just looking at words "dangerously isolationist" (1997:40), and goes on to say that "words are again and again shown not to operate as independent and interchangeable parts of the lexicon, but as parts of a lexical system" (ibid:42). An understanding of collocation is vital for all learners, and for those on advanced level courses, it is essential that they are not only aware of the variety and sheer density of this feature of the language but that they actively acquire more and more collocations both within and outside the formal teaching situation. It is only by doing this through increased exposure that they can be assured of leaving the intermediate plateau behind.

Coe, Norman 'Vocabulary must be learnt, not taught' MET Vol 6 No3 July 1997
Ellis, Nick C 'Vocabulary acquisition: word structure, collocation, word-class, and meaning' in Schmitt and McCarthy
Gough, Cherry 'Words and words: helping learners to help themselves with collocations' MET Vol5 No1 Jan 1996
Hill, Jimmie 'Collocational competence' ETP April 1999 Issue 11
Hunt, Roger 'The Iron, the Which and the Wardrobe' IH Journal Issue No2 Nov 1996
Lewis, Michael and Hill, Jimmie Practical Techniques for Language Teaching (LTP 1985)
Lewis, Michael The Lexical Approach (LTP 1993)
Lewis, Michael Implementing the Lexical Approach (LTP 1997)
Lewis, Michael Teaching Collocation (LTP 2000)
Lewis, Morgan 'Setting a good example' ETP Issue 22 Jan 2002
Moon, Rosamund 'Vocabulary connections: multi-word items in English' in Schmitt and McCarthy
Newton, Jonathan 'Options for vocabulary learning through communication tasks' ELT Journal Vol55/1 Jan 2001
Read, John Assessing Vocabulary (CUP 2000)
Schmitt, Norbert and McCarthy, Michael (eds) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (CUP 1997)
Sökmen, Anita J 'Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary' in Schmitt and McCarthy
Thornbury, Scott 'Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote noticing' ELT Journal Vol51 October 1997
Thornbury, Scott 'The Lexical Approach: a journey without maps?' MET Vol7 No4 Oct 1998
Thornbury, Scott How to Teach Vocabulary (Longman 2002)

This article originally appeared in 'In English' - The British Council magazine for teachers of English in Portugal - in the Autumn 2002 issue.

Bruce Williams, teacher, British Council, Lisbon, Portugal


Add new comment

Log in or register to post comments