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Google and the lexical approach

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The web is a limitless source of linguistic examples for your students. Google (and other search engines) can be used to organise and select web-based text in a way that is pedagogically useful.

Google and the lexical approach - resources article

Google is special among search engines in that it has become a starting point for enquiries and data searches of all forms. As most of this data is linguistic, it deserves special attention from language teachers, but until now, search has been largely ignored by most course writers.

In this article I give several practical examples of how you can use Google, combined with a lexical approach to teaching, to enrich your class material with authentic examples, as well as building learner autonomy.

Google and lexis
Lexis, as most of you will know, is simply another term for ‘vocabulary’. The Lexical Approach treats language as a series of prefabricated lexical chunks. Its methodology puts grammar in second place to vocabulary.

The approach I will outline here is based on inputting 'lexical chunks' (strings of vocabulary or phrases) into Google's various search functions to find samples of real world text. These are split into different types.

How Google treats language
This is a little complicated. What you need to know is that:

  • Google presents search results based on ‘relevance’ to your input. The more relevant Google ‘thinks’ they are, the higher they are in the list of results
  • Relevance is based on the number of links to each site, the semantic content (what type of words are contained there), how recent the content is, the number of visits it receives, and various other factors.

Sometimes Google emits search items if they are very common words such as ‘‘and’’. You can force Google to consider all search items by enclosing them in quotation marks- ‘‘’’. There are also advanced search options that allow you to make further modifications.

Searching the web
Sometimes when I am writing in languages other than English, and I want to check the validity of a lexical chunk, I type it into Google, enclosed in quotation marks. If there are very few or no results, or if the only results are a different chunk, chances are, my chunk is invalid. It occurred to me that I could use the same approach with my own learners.

Typing in a lexical chunk such as ''have a good time'' yields several different, useful and interesting authentic examples of use on the first search page alone.

You can have learners test chunks for validity on Google. For example, you could try having learners identify the correct preposition of place that collocates with ‘‘beach’’ by having them search for ‘‘in the beach,’’ ‘‘with the beach’’ and ‘‘on the beach’’. They will immediately discover that there are far more search results for ‘‘on the beach’’ and that some searches for other combinations tend towards the results for ‘‘on the beach’’.

News searches
Students can focus on lexical or grammatical aspects of reporting of contemporary events. For example, by focusing on the present perfect for recently completed events, students can find unlimited numbers of examples of its use. This in turn builds their confidence in using it.

Let’s say the focus of your lesson is using the present perfect for recently completed events. Try typing ‘‘has won’’ into Google news.

At the time of writing, this results in over 300,000 examples from up to date news sources around the world.

Learners can play with forming other chunks of the form [have]+[present perfect], and collect examples in groups to feed back to the rest of the group. In addition to being creative, it immediately provides a sense of verification.

Searching for definitions
Learners can access thousands of definitions by using the operator [define:] before a search item.


define: have a good time

This brings up five thorough definitions, with examples plus related phrases. Further operators can be found here:

Google translate
Google has a translation function which works reasonably well with simple chunks, and it can translate from English to other languages and back again.

The automatic translation falls apart when the translation is sensitive to context, or ambiguous. For single words it is quite useful, but there are other web-based dictionaries that are probably more useful.

In class you can use Google translate for several purposes:

  • For checking new vocabulary
  • To examine the differences between the way different languages express ideas. For example, English only has one word for ‘you’- Japanese has many
  • To highlight the perils of direct/automated translation! One of my favourite ways of doing this (especially with some students from the far east, who have a particular fondness for electronic dictionaries) is to translate an ambiguous term such as ‘like’ one way, choose one of the many translations, and translate it back again. Repeat this process a few times and you will soon be very far from where you started!

Some cautionary notes

  • Google is a commercial enterprise and therefore sometimes search results are influenced by advertising. This is not necessarily a bad thing but teachers must highlight to their students that a search result is not necessarily ‘better’ because it appears at the top of the search results. Results need to be looked at individually, with their ranking as a guide only.
  • Search results are not based solely on linguistic chunks and semantic relevance. In fact, genuine ‘semantic’ search - a web built on intelligent understanding of what users really mean when they are searching - is still some way off.
  • Especially with young learners, it’s very important to activate ‘safe’ search when using search engines in class. I know of one teacher who typed ‘Britney’ into a search engine during a class - thankfully none of the students saw the results!

In linguistics, a corpus is defined as a ‘‘large and structured set of texts… used to do statistical analysis and hypothesis testing, checking occurrences or validating linguistic rules’’ (

Arguably, Google creates corpuses every time you do a search - each text displayed in the search results being organised according to the search item. Regardless of how you may feel about Google’s dominance of the web or its commercial aims, it is an extraordinarily powerful linguistic tool.

As the focus of EFL teaching shifts towards younger learners, most of whom have never known a world without internet access, it is essential to spend time incorporating search into your classes.

Tom Hayton, Teacher, Business Trainer