How We Can Help Lower Level Learners English Language Essay

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Collocations are words which if combined together, sound "right" to native English speakers, e.g: "Fast food". Any other combination may sound wrong and unnatural, e.g: "quick food". "Collocations are not words which we 'put together'. They co-occur naturally. Collocation is the way in which words co-occur in natural text". (Lewis,2000:132).

For Thornbury, collocation is a "continuum that moves from compound words (second-hand), through lexical chunks (bits and pieces), including idioms (out of the blue) and phrasal verbs (do up), to collocations of more or less fixedness (set a new world record)" (Thornbury S. 2002, How to teach vocabulary, Longman).

Collocations have different strengths: Weak collocations involve words which can co-occur with many other words, e.g: red shirt. One can apply the colour red or the shirt with many other words, e.g: red car, small shirt. Strong collocations have words with a much more limited amount of possible combinations, while extremely strong collocations have words which almost never occur separately, e.g: "spick and span" and "rancid butter". Unique collocations e.g, shrug shoulders are 'unique' because the verb (shrug) is not used with any other noun. Hill arguesthat medium-strength collocations e.g: "a minor operation" , are the most important for the EFL classroom because they make up a greater part of what we say and write. In fact, most learners know the words 'make' and 'mistake', but do not store 'make a mistake' in their mental lexicons as a single item. (Lewis.M, 2000: 63)

Thornbury added that collocation is "not a frozen relationship" and two collocates may be separated, eg: "lay off": The company is laying more workers off. Lewis divides collocations into two. Grammatical collocations e.g: keen on, are lexical words such as an adjective, noun or verb (keen), combined with a grammatical word (on). Lexical Collocation e.g: black coffee, include two lexical words which regularly and naturally occur together. Bahns (ELTJ 47/1 1993) stated that some lexical collocations are quite obvious in their meaning while others are not. E.g: black coffee clearly indicates no milk in the coffee but "lay off" is one which may cause most problems to learners since its meaning is hidden.

The importance of collocations in L2 learning:

Many agree that collocations are important in language learning. 1 James Carl (1998) stated that using collocations correctly "contributes greatly to one's idiomaticity and nativelikeness." 2 Lewis stated that "fluency is based on the acquisition of a large store of fixed or semi-fixed prefabricated items." 3 Sonaiya (1988) went even further, saying that "lexical errors are more serious because effective communication depends on the choice of words."

Collocations, found in most of what we say, hear, read or write are fixed expressions we store and memorise; ready to be used when needed. To retrieve these ready-to-use phrases, lexical items are acquired by exposing learners to them for a number of times. In theory, good quality input might lead to good quality retrieval. This helps learners to be more fluent because they can retrieve and produce multi-word units rather than translate word for word. The Lexical Approach helped to highlight the importance of collocation and its implications for foreign language learning.

The Lexical Approach and collocations:

The lexical approach encourages learners to identify and learn collocations as lexical items rather than individual words. 'Catch a cold', is seen as a single unit of meaning (or multi-word unit) and not as three individual words with three individual meanings. According to Schmidt (2000), processing words in lexical phrases rather than individually reflects the way the mind stores and chunks language to make it easier to process.

One of the beliefs behind the Lexical Approach is that language is not made up of only traditional vocabulary and grammar but prefabricated multi-word chunks where language consists of grammaticalized lexis and not lexicalized grammar. Rather than having a syllabus which is only grammar based, the lexical approach emphasises that lexis should be at the centre of language learning.

The lexical approach posits that an essential part of acquiring language is to comprehend and produce lexical chunks. These chunks help learners make patterns of language traditionally thought of as grammar (Lewis,The Lexical Approach 1993:95). Language chunking therefore is believed to help language fluency by combining other chunks to create longer ready-to-use phrases. When they understand the meaning behind the phrase, learners store it in their mental lexicon. If used regularly, there is a high possibility it will help fluency and reduce mental processing time when speaking.

1 James, Carl.). Errors in language learning and use. London: Longman(1998

2 Lewis, M. Implementing the lexical approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications. (1997).

3 Sonaiya, C. The lexicon in second language acquisition: A lexical approach to error analysis. PhD Thesis. Cornell University. (1988).

Delexicalised Verbs:

Every language has basic verbs which are frequently used. The English language is no exception and we can find various frequent verbs (Svartvik and Ekedahl 1995) (The Verb in Contemporary English: Theory and Description, CUP 1995):







Such high frequency verbs are often used as Delexicalised Verbs. Delexicalised verbs have little meaning alone but if joined together with other words, they can generate a wider variety of new meanings:


do your best

make your bed

have lunch

take a shower

get dressed

Although de-lexicalised verbs usually have a singular meaning, (e.g: make = manufacture, take= transport) they are elements of many multi-words such as phrasal verbs (to make an excuse).

While their meaning is transparent, changing any of the components is quite restricted, e.g."to make a statement", but not "to do a statement."

Delexicalised verbs 'make' & 'do'

Mc.Carthy & O'Dell (2005:6) describe these two verbs as 'everyday verbs' and dedicate a whole page on to them indicating their high frequency in English. In their book's index, both verbs have more than 60 different collocates each. The verbs 'make' and 'do' in fact, like many high frequency verbs, enter into numerous collocations and idioms. "Make your bed!" is a chunking of two words: Verb+Noun (Make + possesive pronoun+ bed). This delexicalised verb is a pre-fabricated language chunk stored as a single lexical unit and not two individual units.


Problems learners have with delexicalised verbs:

Although they come naturally to native speakers, collocations formed with delexicalised verbs can be tricky. Some of the main problems that low level learners experience are as follows:

They have never been exposed to or made aware of collocations in their learning experiences.

Learners often have problems with these collocations formed with delexicalised verbs because they are arbitrary.

They often struggle to find the right collocation, often translating possible equivalents from their own language. E.g: make a photo.

Learners find it difficult to memorize collocations because they are arbitrary.

Teachers are partly to blame for this problem. McCarthy tells us that "in vocabulary teaching there is a high importance of collocation" (1990:12). The insufficient collocation input of the target language may be a reason why learners lack knowledge of collocation. One reason why teachers do not give such importance to collocation is that maybe they feel teaching grammar is safer because they feel they know the rules and can explain them. Collocations are "arbitrary" and this leads us to the second problem:

Collocations are arbitrary and decided by convention instead of rules. Many learners have been exposed to learning languages in a systematic way i.e there is an explanation, rules and reasoning behind each grammar point eg: the first conditional: [ if + present simple], [will + infinitive]. Because they are used to learning languages in a grammatical way, learners find it difficult to accept that some words collocate while others do not and that there is no reason for this other than it is what native speakers say.

As native speakers we wouldn't say: "I am going to go to the canteen and drink a coffee" but "I am going to the canteen and have a coffee". Learners have problems with this because since "coffee" collocates with the verb "drink", they think that it is therefore natural to say "...and drink a coffee". This arbitrariness causes problems because learners cannot come up with the correct collocation on their own.

McCarthy said that "knowledge of collocational appropriacy is part of native speaker's competence". (McCarthy, M.1990Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.1990:13). Therefore, being aware of collocations and accepting them as a window to the natural way of speaking the language is essential in learning a language. Benson (1985) stated that "collocations are arbitrary and non-predictable" and so some are not so easy to learn.

When learners are confronted with collocations like "to make a mistake", learners resort to transla­tion from L1 to understand why we use 'make' and not 'do' as in many other languages. However this leads to misuse of the collocation or creation of word combinations which are non-existant in English. Eg: My Italian learners sometimes say "do a mistake" because Italian has only one verb, "fare", which resembles "make" or "do". Literally translated, "fare una torta" is "do a cake" from Italian to English. Lexis is an area where literal translation of collocations is often impossible.

Lexical verbs such as "make" or "do" require memorising whole lists of words that can collocate with them. Learners have to face many complicated and difficult lexicalised verbs, which have meaning differences in various contexts. Furthermore, combinations of delexicalised words are less likely to explain clearly what they mean in translation and thus are more error-prone in learner language (Lewis 1993, Nesselhauf 2005).

When my learners tell me: "it's impossible to learn all of these phrases by heart!", I have to admit that I understand them. Collocation books like McCarthy & O'Dell's 'English Collocations In Use' (CUP:2005), present the delexicalised verbs "make" and "do" in a way that makes a learner feel that he/she has to learn the phrases by heart. E.g:

To make breakfast

To do the laundry

To make your bed

To do your best

Learners need ways to remember the meanings of the lexicalised verbs. It is difficult enough trying to think of grammar needed, word syntax, vocabulary and so on when constructing a sentence in L2 learning, let alone trying to remember and retrieve the right collocation needed. Since there are lots of collocations as the ones in the example, it is quite difficult to remember them. To make things even more complicated, some teaching materials simply present lists - which make it daunting for learners, especially lower level ones.


Making learners aware of delexicalised verbs:

By helping learners to notice collocation, they can acquire vocabulary building skills like being able to list and categorize lexis. It also encourages them to become autonomous learners. One way of helping learners develop the habit of paying attention to chunks rather than just individual words, is by helping them notice and process what word goes with "do" and "make".

Inside Out Elementary (Macmillan:16) presents " a day in the life of…" a man and a woman. Having guessed who does what, learners read the text to check if they guessed correctly. The text includes a lot of collocations with "make" or "do". Learners then are asked to form common expressions with "make" or "do" from the text:

The most homework the beds

The shopping dinner

The washing up the most noise

Learners have a speaking practice with "make" or "do" by saying who does or makes what in the house, using the same prompts from the previous exercise. Eg: "Mum does the shopping and we..."

Making learners familiar with collocations:

McCarthy & O'Dell in "English Collocations in Use" (CUP2005: 18) present us with a list of collocations which they call "Everyday verbs" of "make" and "do" with examples on the side. Eg:



Make an excuse

I'm too tired to go out tonight. Let's make an excuse and stay home!

Do your hair

I'm not ready! I haven't done my hair yet!

To help learners notice these collocations formed with delexicalised verbs 'make' and 'do', I give my students a text about a husband and wife who share house chores. In the text there are collocations with verbs 'make' and 'do' e.g: he makes the beds in the morning while she does the cooking. Before handing it out, I ask my learners to notice what verbs collocate with the activities mentioned e.g: does + the cooking and remind them to remember who does what. Having read it, I give them a worksheet from "A way with words - Resource Pack 1" 4 and I ask them to complete the chart with the correct verb 'do' or 'make' and who does each activity. Once the worksheet is completed, we correct it. As a speaking activity, I ask my learners to discuss who does what in their homes, reminding them to use the correct collocations :


4 S.Redman, R.Ellis, B.Viney, "A Way With Words Resource Pack 1", Cambridge (2000:59)

Trying to find the right collocation to use:

To help learners practice and be a bit more confident in their use of collocations, I use an activity which Lewis proposed in "Teaching Collocation" (Hove:112) in which learners have to put in the missing verb in the collocations. This will help them to minimize their mistakes as our Italians made: "I do a mistake".

...........a mistake 2...........your homework

a statement your hair

an observation what you have to do

Alternatively, I can give the activity some context by giving learners the activity found on page 100 in "Language to go" Intermediate. Here learners have to complete the text using "make" or "do". This will help them to see how the collocation is used in a context.

Helping them to remember the collocations:

To recall what they've learnt, learners need to remember what they've learnt. Thornbury 3 states that "learning is remembering", which clearly shows how important memory is in learning a language. The same principle applies to collocations.

One way of helping learners to remember the collocations is by often revising them. One particular activity to recycle collocations that were previously encountered is 'Run n Grab'. I divide learners into teams and I read out the end of the collocation eg: an apology. I write down 'Do' and 'Make' on the board. Learners have to run to the board to circle the one which collocates with the ending. Whoever gets most points wins.


I feel the Lexical Approach has given me a new perception of collocations. Collocations are no longer boring lists which need to be learnt because they are part of a syllabus. Collocations are chunks of natural and natively spoken language which can help learners to improve their L2 production. To learn them, learners need frequent exposure to them, helped to notice and given activities which can help memorizing them. Above all, I am more aware when choosing activities that deal with collocations because in order to be more beneficial, they have to be directed toward naturally occurring language and must help raise learners' awareness of the lexical nature of language.