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The Lexical Approach And Collocations

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3320 words Published: 18th May 2017

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Collocations are words which if combined together, sound right to native English speakers. Eg: Fast food. Any other combination may sound wrong and unnatural. Eg: "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 in statistically significant ways." (Lewis, Teaching Collocation 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 and Strong collocations. Weak collocations involve words which can co-occur with many other words. E.g: Red shirt. They can apply the colour red to many other words eg: red car, red door. Strong collocations have words which almost never occur separately such as the collocation: "spick and span" and "rancid butter". There are also Unique collocations e.g, shrug shoulders. These are unique because the verb (shrug) is not used with any other noun.

Medium-strength collocations: Hold a conversation, a minor operation. Hill argued that medium-strength collocations are most important for the ESL classroom. (Lewis, M., 2000: 63)

Thornbury widens the definition of collocation, saying that collocation is "not a frozen relationship" and two collocates may even be separated from each other, eg: "lay off": The company is laying more workers off. Lewis and other writers divide collocations into two types: grammatical collocation and lexical collocation. (Lewis2000)

Grammatical Collocation: Eg: step into

In the example above, a verb collocates with a preposition. Therefore grammatical collocations are lexical words such as an adjective, verb or noun (in our case "step"), which are combined with a grammatical word (preposition "into").

Lexical Collocation: Eg: black coffee

Lexical collocations are items where two lexical words regularly and naturally occur together. Bahns (ELTJ 47/1 1993) stated that although some lexical collocations are quite direct and obvious in their meaning, others are not. In our example, black coffee clearly indicates that there is no milk in the coffee but Bahns states that collocations which are not direct eg: "lay off" are the ones which cause the most problems to non-native speakers since their meaning are hidden.

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The importance of collocations in L2 learning:

Many agree that collocations are important in language learning. James Carl (1998) stated that using collocations correctly "contributes greatly to one's idiomaticity and nativelikeness." 6 Lewis stated that "fluency is based on the acquisition of a large store of fixed or semi-fixed prefabricated items." 7 Sonaiya (1988) went even further, saying that "lexical errors are more serious because effective communication depends on the choice of words." 8

Collocations, are found in most of what we say, hear, read or write. All of these fixed expressions are stored and memorised; ready to be used when needed. If we want to retrieve these ready-to-use phrases, lexical items must be aqcuired first by being exposed to, hearing and reading them for a number of times. In theory, good quality input might lead to good quality retrieval. This in return will help learners to be more fluent because they can recognise multi-word units rather than word by word.

A lexical item, which is "any item that functions as a single meaning unit, regardless of its different derived forms, or of the number of words that make it", has an important role in learning a language. (Thornbury, An A-Z of ELT (Oxford: Macmillan, 2006), pg120).

The importance of collocations in L2 learning was a concept that the Lexical Approach had proposed.

The Lexical Approach and collocations:

The lexical approach encourages learners to identify and learn collocations as lexical items rather than individual words. For example: "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 (CUP,2000), having words in lexical phrases rather than individually, reflects the way the mind stores and chunks language to make it easier to process.

The lexical approach influenced the way we perceive lexis, the way we teach it and how we encourage learners to learn it . Vocabulary choice in language, is not haphazard but predictable. Lewis gives an example of "drinking", telling us that the speaker may use the verb "have". The listener can predict several words which collocate with it: tea, coffee,orange juice etc. But on the other hand, the listener does not predict words like shampoo. 9

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. In other words, 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 to make patterns of language traditionally thought of as grammar (Lewis,The Lexical Approach 1993, p. 95).


6James, Carl. (1998). Errors in language learning and use. London: Longman.

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

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

9, 10 Lewis, Michael, Teaching Collocation (Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 2000) pg5

Different types of Collocation:

Taken from Howert (1996), Carter(1987) and Mc.Carthy & O'Dell(2005), here are types of collocations:

Free Combination

The verbs can collocate with many words to form different meanings.

Example: "make":

I will make it clear from the beginning... (make something clear)

I will make him happy (make happy)

In this case, they may consist of modal verbs such as make,do, have, get,take + any type of word.

Restricted Combination

These collocations are typically nouns, adjectives or verbs which go to together with particular words. Using other words with them make them sound incorrect to the native speaker.

(i) Adjective + noun: E.g: "Her condition was a major problem."

(ii) Adverb + verb: E.g: "He cheekily replied: "I don't care!"

(iii) Verb + noun: E.g: "We've decided to move house."

(iv) Noun + verb: E.g: "The brakes screeched as he tried to stop the car."

(v) Noun + noun: Usually these collocations have the pattern "a....of..." E.g: She was holding a #basket of eggs.

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):








It is interesting to note that these high frequency verbs in the examples are often used as Delexicalised Verbs. These delexicalised verbs have meaning when combined with other words. In other words de-lexicalised 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 room

have lunch

take a shower

go for a walk

get dressed

Delexicalised verbs 'make' & 'do'

What is interesting about these two verbs is that, Mc.Carthy & O'Dell (2005:6) describe these two verbs as 'everyday verbs' and dedicate a whole page on make and do. This clearly shows that they are very high frequency verbs in English - and they probably cause a lot of confusion to learners as well! 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, enters into numerous collocations and idioms.

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Language Chunking:

"Make your bed!" is a chunking of two words: Verb+Noun (Make + bed). This delexicalised verb is a language chunk which is a pre-fabricated language item in a formulaic way, which is then stored as a single lexical unit (and not two individual units). By storing as a single lexical unit, it is believed to quicken the mental processing of the speaker when speaking, reading and when acquiring language. The reason why it quickens this mental processing when producing language is because rather than having to connect individual word units together one by one (do and bed), the speaker can retrieve the chunk needed at one go and reduce mental processing time.

Language chunking therefore is believed to help language fluency by combining other chunks to create longer ready-to-use phrases. I tend to agree with this core belief of the Lexical Approach because when I give a phrase to learners such as: "Make a list of things..." or "Remember to do your homework..." learners seem to retrieve and use these given 'ready-to-use' phrases correctly to create their own sentences and meanings. Once learners understand the meaning behind the phrase, they store it in their mental lexicon. If used regularly, there is a high possibility it will help fluencycy and reduce mental processing time when speaking.

Problems learners have with delexicalised verbs:

Although they come naturally to native speakers, collocations formed with delexicalised verbs can be rather tricky. Some of the main problems that low level learners experience are as follows: (go to 11. Coll pg4) (12.Coll pg4)

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

Learners often have problems with these verbs because they try to find a general meaning.

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 because as Carter and McCarthy point out, "vocabulary study has been neglected by linguists, applied linguists and language teachers'(1988: 1). Therefore teachers need to present collocations such as delexicalised verbs to learners to help them become more and more familiar with the different uses of "make" and "do" for example.

In fact, McCarthy tells us that 'in vocabulary teaching there is a high importance of collocation' (1990:12). The way collocation teaching is neglected in ESL classroom and the insufficient input of the target language may be a reason why learners lack a knowledge of collocation. One reason why teachers do not give such importance to collocation is because they feel safer when they teach grammar 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 are 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.

Many learners ask me "Why can't I say "make a photo" instead of "take a photo"? I used to feel rather unprofessional having to say "because that's the way it is". Now I say: "because 'take' goes together with 'a photo' - 'make' does not". That is the way language is naturally and natively spoken as I have already commented in section A.

In fact, 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. One has to admit that some are not so easy to learn. In fact, Benson (1985) clearly stated that "collocations are arbitrary and non-predictable", so much so that even native speakers sometimes have to double check before deciding if a word collocates with a particular word or not.

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 in their language they only have one verb, "fare", which resembles "make" or "do". Literally translated, "fare una torta" is "do a cake" from Italian to English.

Lexical verbs such as "make" or "do" require memorising whole lists of words that can collocate with them. I sympathise with learners, who 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. A similiar example of such a list is one below:

To make an apology

To do your homework

To make a cake

To do the dishes

To make breakfast

To do the laundry

To make your bed

To do your best

To make a list

To do your nails and hair

To make a mistake

To do the ironing, washing, cooking, etc.

To make plans

To do a job

Learners need ways to remember the meanings of the lexicalised verbs as the ones above. It is difficult enough trying to think of grammar needed, word syntax, vocabulary and so on when trying to construct a sentence in L2 learning, let alone trying to remember and above all retrieve the right collocation needed.

Problems learners have with delexicalised verbs:

Making learners aware of delexicalised verbs:

By helping learners to notice collocation, they can acquire vocabulary building skills eg: ability 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, when reading is by helping them make informed guesses about what word goes with "do" or "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 given in the above exercise. Eg: "My mother does the shopping and we make our beds..." etc

Trying to make sense of "make" and "do":

Although it is not easy to learn collocations of "make" and "do", McCarthy & O'Dell in "English Collocations in Use" (CUP2005: 18) present us with some of the most common phrases with these two delexicalised verbs. In fact they call them "Everyday verbs". It includes a list of collocations of "make" and "do" and an example 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 practice them, I would cut out the collocations and examples into separate strips. In pairs, learners would then have to try to put the example and collocation together, by trying to make sense of them. Once they have been corrected in class, I would give them a questionnaire from "Collocations in Use" (pg19). Having been exposed to the collocations needed in the previous activity, they have to fill in the question with either "do" or "make", answer it and then go round and ask the questions to their classmates.

Trying to find the right collocation to use:

To help learners practice and be a bit more confident in their use of collocations, I like to use an activity which Lewis proposed in "Teaching Collocation" (Hove:112). Basically 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 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 revising them as much as possible . one particular activity that I like to use to recycle collocations that were met in class 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 which one they think goes with the ending of my collocation. Whoever gets most points wins.


Personally, I feel that the lexical approach has taught me a lot about vocabulary. Rather than seeing vocabulary as individual items, I can now help my learners with vocabulary by using chunks. In this case, collocations - which are in themselves chunks, are essential in language learning. By frequently exposing, raising -consciousness and helping them to memorize collocations, I feel that I am appreciating more the importance of lexis in language learning.


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