Teaching Collocations To Adult Learners In Oman English Language Essay

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This paper sets out to explore one of the most common problems that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students face. Recent research (to be discussed in section 1) has indicated that individuals need to address the issue of collocation in order to become more successful both inside and outside the classroom environments. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged in the English Language Teaching (ELT) literature that students need to be introduced and encouraged to become aware of collocation in the early stages of learning (Lewis, 1993:117).

It seems to be true that most teachers are aware of the fact that their students have problems in choosing the appropriate combinations of words. The following examples indicate my own students' incorrect attempts at word combination based on a previous research I conducted in 2008 (See Appendix A for more examples).

Work in down jobs

work in big job

Strong accident

Black day

It is the native speaker's experience of what is generally accepted in the English language which enables them to recognize that fatal accident is correct whereas strong accident is unacceptable. One method for a non-native speaker to gain the ability to construct the correct collocations is by being made aware of them in a classroom situation.

Biskup (1992) states that collocational errors constitute a high percentage of inaccuracy committed by L2 learners. A key aspect of his argument is that it is difficult for non-native speakers of English to predict the appropriate collocation for an item of vocabulary causing them to rely on their L1.

The aim of this essay is to increase awareness of the importance of teaching collocations in EFL classrooms in order for learners to acquire accurate and native-like competence.

This essay will be divided into two main sections. The first section discusses the definitions of collocation from different scholars' perspectives and a general understanding of the term will be emphasised. I will then turn my attention to the importance of teaching collocations in EFL classrooms. Finally, I will clarify which collocations should be taught according to researchers.

The second section will discuss different methodologies that are suitable for teaching collocations to adult learners in Oman, and the implications of the lexical approach will be analysed. This essay will conclude by providing the reader with the materials I believe to be suitable for Omani students.


1.1 What Does Collocation Mean?

The term collocation has been used and understood in many different ways; however, it is not possible to discuss all of these definitions in this essay due to word constraints. Instead, I shall define the term according to Firth (1957:181), who uses the term technically for the first time in 1957. He states that "we shall know a word by the company it keeps". According to Firth, "Collocations are statements of habitual or customary places of that word". Firth's definition of collocations is quantitative in that it depends on how frequent a set of words co-occur together.

Firth's definition is supported later by Greenbaum (1974: 82) who defines collocation as "a frequent co-occurrence of two lexical items in the language". However, it is argued by Mackin(1978) that this definition doesn't show how frequently words should appear together in order to be seen as "collocations". It is also argued by Shin and Nation (2007) that collocation is not restricted to two or three sets of words, making Firth's definition look lame and unsatisfying.

Collocations are defined in the simplest term as words that typically occur together in a non-random frequency. It is, however, important to note that there have been many terms used to mean words that co-occur together. The following are some of the most common terms used (adapted from Carter & McCarthy, 1988; Tannen, 1989; Fillmore, 1979; Kinnedy, 1990; Wray, 2002).

Free combination: commit, analyze, condemn, discuss, (etc) a murder

Prefabricated routine: what do you do, how are you

Phrasal constraints: by pure coincidence

Idioms: kick the bucket

Set phrase\ Fixed phrase: in brief

Poly words: put up with

Formulaic language\ clichés\ Deictic locutions: as a matter of fact

The use of these terms shows great confusion to non-native speakers, which needs to be clarified more.

Wray (2002) shows a better and clearer understanding of the term when he suggests the idea of representing the lexical phrases as a continuum according to flexibility and called collocation as a more fluid "formulaic" that is chosen according to preferences and tendencies. However, preferences and tendencies seem to be subjective and unpredictable to non- native speakers of English.

Nattinger and De Carrico (1992) suggest that the lexical items can be represented as a continuum (see Figure 1)


Idioms collocations colligations free combination

(by and large) (kick the bucket) (off with his head) (see the river)

This representation suggests that idioms are 'more frozen' and less productive compared with the other lexical phrases. Collocations appear to be roughly predictable yet are still restricted. Colligations are a type of collocations, where substitutions are more possible but not as much as free combination phrases. The problem with this representation is that it is limited to only four lexical items and ignores others like prefabricated routine and phrasal constrain. Another problem appears to be the vague differentiation between collocations and colligations and make it hard for learners of English as a foreign language to predict the degree of freedom in combination with regards to collocation and colligation.

It is important to clarify that I will be using the term 'collocation' to mean two single items that frequently co-occur together. I have also restricted the use of collocation to the relationship between content words (verb, noun, adjectives, and adverbs) which are called 'lexical collocations'. These differ from grammatical collocations in that lexical collocations do not involve collocation of preposition. This is done to avoid overlap with other terms and to provide the reader with a clearer definition.

1.2 Why Should We Teach Collocations?

According to Benson, Benson and Ilson (1985:285), "collocations are arbitrary and unpredictable" and that makes it difficult for non-native speaker to cope with them. Despite the arbitrary nature of collocations, it is recommended by many other researchers that teachers should motivate their students to learn collocations.

An experiment conducted by Bahns and Eldaw (1990), consisting of translation and gap-filling tasks with 58 advanced German students, shows that collocations are a major problem to adult learners. They argue that some collocations can be translated while others cannot. However, explanations on which collocations are translatable were not provided. This makes it difficult to predict which collocations are more problematic to learners of EFL.

Moreover, collocations are seen as pervasive by researchers. Tannen (1989), for example, assumes that "language is less freely generated, more pre-patterned than most linguistic theory acknowledge". Pervasiveness of collocation reduces the chance for non-native speaker to productively produce them unless they are guided in classrooms.

On the other hand, Woolard (2000) disagrees with teaching collocations in classrooms and argues that students should be encouraged to partake in independent learning.

From my prospective, it seems that very few Omani students have reached the autonomous stage. This unfortunately puts more pressure on the teachers to include this important area in the teaching syllabus. It has been agreed that there are three reasons for teaching collocations in classrooms:

Ensuring more Exposure to English

According to Bahns (1998), Greenbaum (1987), Lewis (1993) and Lewis (2008) teaching collocations in the EFL classroom is important to raise students' exposure to the target language. It is said that learners may produce accurate sentences but many of these may not sound native-like. Mackin (1978) and Greenbaum (1974) point out the need to include lexical collocations in EFL Learners dictionaries.

Mackin(1978) suggests that it is difficult for non-native speaker to construct collocations such as "weak tea" rather than "feeble tea". However, it can be learned through hypothesizing or by being explicitly taught in classrooms. While not all of the students have the chance of experiencing collocations with native speakers, studying these collocations remains the only solution to acquire a native-like competence.

Reducing Negative Transfer form L1

Lewis (1993) emphasizes that all languages utilize a wide range of word combinations. He adds that students utilize their first language in absence of competence in their second language which leads to incorrect collocations in English. As a result, students need a facilitator to help them comprehend the accurate combination of words in English.

This is supported by Biskup's (1992) empirical study on German and Polish students where they were asked to translate some L1 collocations into English. The study shows that students' lack of competence in English collocations makes them rely heavily on their L1. This seems to be similar to other EFL students all over the world; however, students sometimes prefer to rely on the collocations they know instead of trying or translating collocations from their L1.

Enhancing Students Accuracy and Fluency

Teaching collocations is one of the most challenging areas that teachers have to deal with in EFL classrooms. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended that collocations should be taught especially to adult learners because they improve learners' accuracy and fluency and helps them to acquire a native like competence (Wray, 2002).

Gairns and Redman(1986) and Woolard (2000) add that teaching collocations help to expand the learner's knowledge of words and give them new meanings for the words they already know. Gairns and Redman (1986) explain further that students use the adjectives "light", "weak", "strong", "heavy" but they may not use them accurately when trying to combine them with other words, which are described as "successful language" use by Lewis (1993). Although using the term "successful language" seems to be tricky and subjective, Lewis (1993) limited the term to using the language accurately, fluently and most important naturally.

1.3 Which Collocations need be learnt?

One main concern with teaching collocations is the large number which is said to be tens of thousands as estimated by Mackin (1978). It seems that Mackin's concern of teaching all of these collocations is far from reality. So, decisions of which collocations are to be taught are required regarding the following issues:

Resources: the Corpus and Concordances

Shin and Nation (2007), Fox (1998) and Willis (1998) suggest that it is important to use spoken language to decide which collocations to teach. Fox (1998) adds that the ten million words which are found in the spoken section of the British National Corpus (BNC) could be used as a source for the most common patterns of spoken collocations. One problem seems to be that language changes overtime and these collocations might significantly change within years which require frequent updating of the list.

Fox (1998) also believes that words should be taught according to their absolute frequency. He adds that it is not the only criteria but it helps teachers to focus on the most important and common words. It is equally important to know the less frequent collocations so time will not be wasted on teaching them. Fox makes the assertion that teachers should give students strategies to cope with collocation, one of which is the use of concordances.

Concordance is defined by Koosha & Jafarpour (2006) as "a method of analyzing language by studying structures and lexical patterns found in digital database". Concordances might help students to recognize the collocation in different contexts and consequently know how it is used by native speakers.

Fox's suggestion is supported by Willis (1998) who states that "the study of language is often corpus- based". According to Willis, concordances help students to speak and write fluently and naturally especially these days when most students have access to the electronic database.

Two Word Collocations vs. Multi Words Collocations

According to Shin and Nation (2007), two word collocations consist of 77% of the total number of collocations. He adds that when trying to analyze the top 100 collocations (See Appendix B), and the bottom 100 collocations, it seems that two word collocations are more common.

Spoken vs. Written Collocations

Another interesting point made by Shin and Nation (2007) is that there is a difference between spoken and written collocations. They draw attention to the fact that there are only fifteen collocations which occur in both the top 50 written collocations and the top 50 spoken collocations which prove that spoken collocations are not the same as the written ones.

Lewis (1993) believes that spoken collocations must be given more importance in EFL teaching than written collocations and he adds that the aim of language teaching is to help students to use language more communicatively. Lewis's (1994) claim shows a sort of prejudice against writing whereas in most schools writing is perceived with equal importance to speaking which makes written collocations as important as the spoken ones.

Grammatical vs. Lexical Collocations

Grammatical collocation is defined by Biskup (1993) as a combination of a content word (verb, noun or adjective) and a grammatical word such as a preposition. According to Koosha & Jafarpour (2006), it is more important to teach the grammatical collocations (especially collocations of preposition) because they are the most problematic collocations for EFL learners. Woolard (2000) disagrees and believes that teachers should focus on lexical collocations and he suggests that teachers can start with the collocation of "do and make" to introduce the notion of collocation to students.

On the other hand, 'lexical collocation" is defined by Bahns (1998) as noun, verb, and adjective and adverb combination. An example of lexical collocation is verb+ noun collocation (launch a product, pose a problem), adjective+ noun (fatal accident, bright colour), verb+ adverb (pulled steadily, whispered softly), noun+ noun (surge of anger, sense of pride) adverbs+ adjectives (fully aware, happily married) (adapted from McCarthy et.al, 2007).

It is, however, more important to teach students the lexical collocations because they add more meaning to words they already know and make their language more effective and comprehensible.

Section Two

Teaching Collocations to Adult Learners in Oman

In Oman, collocations seem to be neglected in classroom teaching. Very few teachers try to raise students' awareness of how words are combined together in a non-random way. Unfortunately, the research on how collocations should be taught to Arabic learners is not only uncommon but also unsatisfactory. Personally, I have not experienced teaching or being taught collocations in the classroom. As a result, I am going to introduce the lexical approach and give further materials that can be applicable for teaching adult learners in Oman.

2.1 Implications of the lexical Approach for Teaching Collocations

According to Channel (1981), most of students' errors result from a lack of emphasis on vocabulary in syllabi. It is not surprising that most syllabi are organized to cover more grammar than vocabulary, which prevents students making the right choice when it comes to creating collocations.

The lexical approach is based on perceiving a language as basically "holistic _ organic" (Lewis, 1993: 34). He states that one major principle of the lexical approach is that "language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalized grammar" (ibid:34).

A major principle is that language consists of chunks not individual words. Collocations are considered as a central linguistic idea of the lexical approach. There are two reasons provided by Lewis (2008) in teaching words with other partner-words rather than teaching individual vocabulary. Firstly, vocabulary does not normally occur as separate words in texts but they occur in relation with other words and this probably makes it difficult to teach the possible partners that a single word may take. Secondly, it is considered easier to teach the language as a whole and then break it down to its basic components rather than teaching individual words and asking learners to construct sentences.

2.2: Materials for Teaching Collocations

Using Circles

A good method of teaching collocations is by placing the vocabulary in circles and asking students to cross out the wrong combination(s), as illustrated in figures 2 & 3 (adapted from Gairns and Redman, 1986). Teachers can ask learners to cross out the inappropriate combination between the main word like dish, cigarette and the possible collocations in the circle.

Heavy light mild

Strong week Fig.2

A dish

Strong light mild

weak heavy Fig.3


Using Grids

Another technique is by providing grids which have the words you are aiming to teach and the possible collocations. Students are supposed to know the target vocabulary and they are asked to choose the appropriate collocations. This might be quite challenging if the target vocabulary is somehow seen as synonyms as the following example shows:

Fig. 4
















































(Adapted from Channel, 1981)

A (+) sign means that there is possible collocation between the given adjective and the noun. The teacher can empty the boxes and ask students to put a (+) where there is a possible collocation.

Collocations in Texts

Teachers can utilize texts from newspapers or magazines as authentic materials. These could be used to identify the appropriate ways of combining words. The following extract from the Times newspaper illustrates this method:

The figures, coming after a surprise fall to 51.8 in November, suggest Britain's economy ended the year on a strong footing and will boost expectations that the country emerged from recession in the fourth quarter with positive GDP growth.

Teachers can highlight some of adjectives like: surprise, strong, boost, positive. Students could identify the collocations in the text or use dictionaries to create other possible collocations.

Using Boxes

Teachers can provide learners with boxes that contain words and their collocations and ask students to write sentences. The following highlights this activity:


That sounds


That must be

That must have been









(Adapted from Lewis, 2008)

Using Nets

A good strategy found in many text books is the net as the following examples figures 6 & 7 indicate:


a fulfilling job a high -powered job

Steady job JOB apply for a job

A demanding job Offer a job a permanent job

(Adapted from McCarthy et.al 2005)


Carry out work take on work

Complete a work WORK supervise

Start work work closely

(Adapted from McCarthy et.al 2007)

These are some of many techniques that could be used to teach collocations. It is important to note that teachers can come up with many other techniques that suit the group of learners they are dealing with.


It is probably true to say that collocations have been the missing link in EFL vocabulary teaching which might be due to the great number of collocations (as previously discussed in 1.3). This essay had discussed the importance of using the lexical approach to teaching language as "chunks". Many studies have proved that most students find it difficult to create collocations and they produce unusual expressions that are not understood by native speakers. As a result, collocations should be taught at schools to ensure more exposure to English, reduce negative transfer from student's mother tongue and improve students' accuracy and fluency.

It has stated that teachers should make firm decisions whether to teach two or multi-word collocations, spoken or written collocations, lexical or grammatical collocations according to the aims of the course and their target group.

This essay has demonstrated that collocations have been overlooked in Omani textbooks and as a consequence adult learners may not know what collocations mean which leads them to rely on their L1, Arabic, to combine words and construct phrases like high job and black day. This essay has provided some materials such as the use of grids, boxes, nets, and authentic texts for teachers to utilize in order to teach collocations and achieve their intended goal of helping students to speak English accurately, fluently and more native-like.