Over the past decade there has been a huge increase in the power and abilities of computers to digitise, store and analyse text.

Concordancers in ELT - resources article

This has enabled linguists to create and analyse huge corpora (collections of authentic language text) and to reassess the assumed rules regarding the way we use language and especially words. With the spread of the Internet, these corpora are now becoming available to any teacher or student with an Internet connection, opening up a vast resource for language learning.

  • What is a concordancer?
  • How can concordancers help us?
  • Ideas for using concordancers with students
  • Some possible problems
  • Conclusion

What is a concordancer?
A concordancer is a piece of software, either installed on a computer or accessed through a website, which can be used to search, access and analyse language from a corpus. They can be particularly useful in exploring the relationships between words and can give us very accurate information about the way language is authentically used.

  • A typical concordancer allows us to enter a word or phrase and search for multiple examples of how that word or phrase is used in everyday speech or writing. More complex concordancers can help us to extract examples from very particular contexts and even discriminate between spoken or written language use.
    The British National Corpus has a wonderful example online at: http://sara.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/lookup.html

How can concordancers help us?
As teachers we often rely very heavily on our instinctive knowledge of language use, especially when confronted by those unpredictable student questions like; "Which is correct? Welcome to, or welcome in?"

If like me you've often experienced some moments of self doubt when answering, or had to face the disappointed response of a student to the answer "Well it depends.", then a concordancer can really help.

  • Having access to a corpora of authentic language can help us to check or reconfirm our assumptions about the way that language is used.
  • We can check that the uses and collocations of words we are teaching are the most frequent, up to date and correct.
  • We can find authentic examples to demonstrate and reinforce the language we are teaching.
  • We can use them to create our own worksheets based on authentic materials.

Ideas for using concordancers with students
Concordancers can be extremely useful for the creation of your own teaching materials or for students to do some research for themselves. Here are some ideas that I have tried

Exploring collocations. When you get students to learn new words you can ask them to enter those words into the concordancer and see if they can find and record other words which are commonly used with them.

Looking at their own errors. If your students commonly make collocation errors, instead of correcting them yourself you can ask the student to put the root word into the concordancer and see if they can discover what the error is for themselves.

Understanding different uses / meanings. When your students are learning words which have multiple meanings, you can collect example sentences from a corpus and get the students to group the sentences according to their meaning.

Finding genuine examples. Once you have taught your students some new words or phrases, you can get them to use the concordancer to find and record their own examples of the words being used. If you teach a specific use of a word or phrase you could get them to make sure the example they find matches the use you have taught.

Materials creation. Teachers often produce gapfill activities that have a group of words they want to teach or revise, and a number of sentences that the students must put the correct words into. Using a concordancer and a simple word processing programme you can get authentic text with which to create your own gapfill activities, or even get your students to create the materials themselves.

Some possible problems
There are some areas where the use of concordancers can cause problems. The majority of corpora are based on authentic language use and as such this can be far too challenging for lower level students.

  • There are, however, some corpora which are collected from more restricted sources and some that are even collected from non-native / student use of language. An example of one such concordancer is at: http://www.edict.com.hk/concordance
  • Some online concordancers such as http://www.spaceless.com will search only selected web pages, so you can limit the amount of input your students get.
  • Others like http://papyr.com/applets/concordancer/ allow you to upload and search your own choice of text.

Not all concordancer interfaces are user-friendly and some can be very complex for students to use. The interface often uses quite complex linguistic terminology.

  • You don't have to use a concordancer, a simple alternative is to use any normal search engine and type in the word you are interested in. Most will return the search results with an example of how the word you based your search on appears in the text. With a little more clicking around you can even use the advanced search features to get a very accurate idea of word use.

Of course not all teachers and students have access to the Internet during class.

  • If this is the case then you could download or order a software package that can be used on your computer without the necessity for an internet connection. There are many good commercial packages as well as some that can be downloaded free from the Internet.

Using new tools such as these can often seem challenging to both teachers and students. My advice is to take it slow and start off by using the concordancer yourself a few times to check things that you are unsure of. Try using a concordancer to create some materials or worksheets for your students. Finally if you feel confident enough, start using it with students, but be sure to always try out the activities you are going to do first and make sure that the words they input will actually give them good results. Incorporating concordancers into your teaching repertoire may take time and effort, but ultimately they can be an incredibly useful tool for you and your students.

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If you have any suggestions or tips for using concordancers in the class you would like to share on this site, contact us.

Nik Peachey, British Council

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