Vocabulary LSA: Helping elementary learners with restricted collocations

Today I am sharing my Vocabulary Lsa. I wrote about restricted collocations. I am sharing this so you can get some ideas. Do not copy from here because as we all know, Cambridge does not take plagiarism lightly.

1. Introduction

In my view, one of the hardest tasks for me as a teacher is to help students learn and then use new vocabulary. One part of vocabulary teaching which I find very interesting is restricted collocations. My students often have difficulty forming and using restricted collocations due to L1 interference, the lack of rules governing collocations, lack of familiarity as they may have never seen them before, miscollocating no matter what level their English is at (see section 2 for learner problems). Students need to be aware of collocations at an early stage so teaching collocations to elementary students is essential. At this level learners need to combine the vocabulary they have in new and useful ways so as to become effective communicators. I am writing this paper because I want to focus on teaching collocations and specifically make and do to elementary learners while dealing with the difficulties they may have by using tasks and activities that will make collocation learning more rewarding for my learners.

  1. Linguistic Analysis

1.1 What is a collocation?

Firth (1957 p.183, cited in Goudarzi and Moini 2012, p.248) was the first to talk about collocations and defined them as “the company that words keep”.

  According to the Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics (2010, p. 95)

  the way in which words are used together regularly. Collocation refers to the restrictions on how words can be used together, for example which prepositions are used with particular verbs, or which verbs and nouns are used together. For example, in English the verb perform is used with operation, but not with discussion:

                The doctor performed the operation.

                The committee performed a discussion. Instead we say:

                The committee held/had a discussion.Perform is used with (collocates with)   operation, and hold and have collocate with discussion  ibid.

  For Thornbury (2007, p.7) “two words are collocates if they occur together with more than chance frequency, such that, when we see one, we can make a fairly safe bet that the other is in the neighbourhood”. He moves on to say that the words forming a collocation do not necessarily follow one another. He zeros in on collocations by viewing them as part of a continuum of strength that goes from “compound words (second-hand, record player) through multi-word units or lexical chunks- bits and pieces, including idioms (out of the blue) and phrasal verbs of more or less fixed ness(set the record straight, set a new world record)”. Altering a collocation by changing one of its components can turn a text into non-standard English (ibid).

  Similarly, Benson et al offer a shorter-simpler definition (1986, cited in Hashemi et al 2011) “In English, as in other languages, there are many fixed, identifiable, non-idiomatic phrases and constructions. Such groups of words are called recurrent combinations, jixed combinations, or collocations”.

  There can be four categories of collocations (Cowie and Howarth’s model 1996, cited in Goudarzi and Moini 2012):

  1) Free combinations: the meaning of free combination is interpreted from the literal meaning of individual elements(open a window).2) Restricted collocations: a restricted collocation is more limited in the selection of compositional elements and usually has one component used in a specialized context (meet the demand).3) Figurative idioms: a figurative idiom has a metaphorical meaning as a whole that can somehow tell its literal interpretation (call the shot).4) Pure idioms: a pure idiom is a single unit whose meaning is totally unpredictable from the meaning of its components (spill the beans) ibid.

Benson et al (1986, cited in Hashemi et al 2012) classify collocations into two categories; lexical collocations and grammatical collocations.

  Lexical collocations are further divided into seven types, whereas grammatical collocations are divided into eight. Lexical collocations contain nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Lexical collocations may be verb+ noun, adjective+ noun, noun+ verb, adverb+ adjective and verb+ adverb. On the other hand, grammatical collocations are phrases containing a dominant word, such as a noun, an adjective, or a verb and a preposition or grammatical structure like an infinitive or clause (ibid).

  De-lexicalised verbs (get, have, make, do, put, take) are important when teaching collocation because they are often used with other words and form a chunk of meaning different to their basic meaning (Hunt n.d.).

 Form of collocations:

  • Adjective+noun: latest show
  • Noun+noun:reality show
  • Verb+adjective+noun: have a great time
  • Verb+adverb:discuss calmly
  • Adverb+adjective
  • Verb+preposition+noun:hand in an assignment

                                                                               Hunt n.d. (one stop English website)

1.2 How we learn collocations

  • Collocational priming:

  Hoey (1991,2005, cited in Sonbul and Schmitt 2003, p.127)  claims that people learn collocations through exposure to texts. People store concordances of lexical items and how they appear in a text, so every time they come across a word they may either create a new collocation or reinforce and change something they already know (ibid). According to Hoey (2005, cited in Sonbul and Schmitt 2003, p.127) collocational priming is related to the amount of input and there is slight difference between native and nonnative speakers. In fact, nonnative speakers acquire collocations through direct exposure because they are not surrounded by them in their everyday life.

  • Chunking

  According to Ellis (2001, cited in Durrant & Schmitt 2010) as far as the L1 in concerned,

  two or more words which frequently co-occur are recoded as a chunk and henceforth treated as a single entity. This process is recursive, with chunks themselves subsequently available for combination into still larger units, enabling language users to encode progressively greater amounts of information in short-term memory, so increasing the efficiency (ibid).

  Ellis (2001, cited in Durrant & Schmitt 2010) carefully points out though that collocations are not just formal associations and chunking is not just about implicit learning. He moves on to suggest that similar mechanisms are activated for the L2 learner too. Wray (2002, cited in Durrant & Schmitt 2010) on the other hand has an opposing view and states that adult L2 learners notice and recall words individually and not in chunks (ibid).

1.3 Why learn collocations?


  • Increase learners language competence
  • Boost the learners’ communicative competence
  • Help learners become native like.
  •  Hashemi, M. et al (2012)

As Shin and Nation (2007, p. 339) put it, “learning collocations is an efficient way to improve the learner’s language fluency and native-like selection of language use.”

1.4 Phonology

There is no particular phonology for collocations but it is necessary for learners to be able to stress, chunk and link longer sentences so that they sound natural (Hunt n.d)

2. Learner Problems and suggested solutions   


There are so many possible collocations so choosing the right one may be challenging. This problem is more prominent with learners who are learning English in a non-English speaking country and there is not enough stimuli (exposure to English in natural speech). It is also possible that adult learners who already use collocations in their L1 may have difficulty with so many different collocations as they know that each collocation corresponds to different meanings

Suggested solutions

In this situation it is important to introduce techniques that will help the students organize/recall and revise the collocations they have encountered in the form it appeared.

A teacher could:

  •   Get learners to organize the new lexis in the way they appear in language by making a lexical notebook (Trownbridge 2012). Lexical notebooks are a good way to record words in chunks as opposed to isolated words. Ideally they would be organized in themes like house, work, health allowing learners to have all the useful collocations thematically linked.

Evaluation: Lexical notebooks help raise awareness (also see section 1.2) and they help learners notice how the language is used whilst others claim they can foster independence (Woolard 2000, cited in Trownbridge 2012). Unfortunately though, they may be time consuming, students may also be reluctant or neglect to go back to entries they have made in the past as many learners like recording in a linear fashion instead of going back (Trownbridge 2012) which may also lead to re-entering words. They also require good organizational skills so younger learners may have difficulty making such notebooks. It is also a dry method of recording chunks as in the end, they are lists of words written in a notebook.

A fun alteration to this would be making lexical cards which could also be used like domino cards where revising would also be part of a game.

  • To train learners on how to use collocation dictionaries, browse entries so as to remind themselves of known and more importantly half known collocations. They can also use the dictionary to find different ways to express something and use it in a more productive way later in an essay for example (Hoey cited in Lewis et al p. 99).

Evaluation: dictionaries promote autonomous learning and give the learner some independence to look at words they are interested in. Training learner to use dictionaries is essential because from my own experience learners are reluctant to look up a new word and prefer to just skip it without searching for something new.

L1 transfer

Frequently a student assumes that since in his L1 a verb and a noun go together in one way, they will do the same in English too or if words form a collocation in their L1 if they just translate it, it will work in the L2 too.  This is a major problem when thinking of restricted collocations as they have very limited combinations. Learners who live in a monolingual community and who are not used to being exposed to English stimuli may have more problems with L2 transfer. Beginners in English will probably struggle the most as they are more proficient in their mother tongue than in the L2 which means that they may miscollocate something that in Greek can be said in a certain way but in English cannot.

Suggested solutions

A teacher could:

  • Use the learners’ L1 if she has it in common with the students to raise awareness of the differences. Apart from writing lists with the L1 –L2 correspondent, using grids and ticking the right collocations is also an option

Evaluation: Such activities are consciousness raising and noticing activities (also see section 1,2). They are controlled tasks which aim getting familiar/recognizing these word chunks while they also help students appreciate the different structures. Such tasks can be used as lead in for productive activities. Instead of grids a teacher could stick some verbs like make or do on the wall, read out phrases and ask students to go to the side they think is right.

. Phonology

A lot of learners sound stilted as they read words individually and not as chunks which makes the sound unnatural. This could be a problem where there are heavy accents which also affect the way words are said. I have observed this in my own teaching context in Crete where the accent is distinct and affects the way all my learners say things. Students who are reluctant to speak or shy may also have difficulty with the phonological characteristics of collocations.

Suggested solutions

A teacher could:

  • Get students to practice stress and intonation by watching videos of authentic materials and using the transcripts to write down the rising and falling stress patterns during the collocations. They could then ask to mime or even make their own versions of what they watched.

Evaluation: video viewing is an enjoyable way to see how language is produced naturally so they can observe linkage of words that collocate, stress patterns and the rise and fall in intonation. Making learners replay something they have watched can be fun and will be appreciated by learners who are artistic but may be demotivating for those who are introvert or do not like performing in front of others which means that instead of classroom plays a teacher could turn this into a pair work task. Although this is quite a controlled activity it can be made freer depending on the level of the students. It is essential that the teacher makes sure that the learners are using the target language since in role playing sometimes the learners can get carried away and revert to their own language and forget the target language.

III. Meaning and noticing

Learners, especially lower level ones, tend to focus on individual words, the ones they do not know and not on collocations (Hunt, n.d.).

Suggested solution:

A teacher could:

  • Ask learner to read a text and then underline the nouns. Then tell them to underline the verbs before these nouns. After, students in groups try to guess the meaning of these word chunks. If a text has too many collocations, depending on the level and the reason for learning a teacher could select the ones she wants to focus on (Hill et al, cited in Lewis 2000 p.98).  This can be made more enjoyable if the texts are followed up by a game of collocation snap where learners place cards on the table and say ‘snap’ when a collocation is formed. The student who finds the most collocations is the winner.

Evaluation:  noticing activities zero in on one of the main problems elementary learners have which is concentrating on individual words and not on collocations. Such a noticing activity can be used as a lead in activity for a more engaging activity. Although, dry it does provide context and it does draw attention to meaning and noticing processes.

Games like snap on the other hand is usually a loud and fun way to notice collocations. Learners often remember what they have learnt during a game as it is associated with a happy memory.  They  draw back of games is sometimes they can be associated with luck and not actual knowledge of a collocation for example. Games are more appreciated by younger learners although card games are welcomed by adults too. The reason why someone is learning English may also affect the effectiveness of a game as an exam oriented class may be a bit reluctant to play a game! This is not a productive activity as it does not engage learners in producing a sentence and is a very controlled task.


“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” David Wilkins n. d., cited in Thornbury 2007, p.13).


 Durrant, P., & Schmitt, N. (2010). Adult learners’ retention of collocations from exposure.

Second Language Research, 26(2), 163-188.

Goudarzi, Z. & Moini, M. R. (2012).The Effect of Input Enhancement of Collocations in Reading on Collocation Learning and Retention of EFL Learners. International Education Studies Vol. 5, No. 3; June 2012. Available at: www.ccsenet.org/ies (pdf file)

Hashemi,M. Masoud, A.& Sohrab D. (2011) Collocation a neglected aspect in teaching and learning EFL Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 31 (pdf file)

Hunt, R (n.d) Grammar and Vocabulary: Teaching students collocations. Available at: http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/methodology/grammar-vocabulary-and-skills/grammar-and-vocabulary-teaching-students-collocations/146468.article {Accessed online: 09.10.2013}

Lewis, M. (2000) Teaching Collocations: London. Language Teaching Publications

Shin, D. and Nation, P. (2008) ‘Beyond single words: the most frequent collocations in spoken English’. ELT Journal 62: 339-348.

Sonbul, S. & Schmitt, N. (2013) Explicit and implicit lexical Knowledge: Acquisitions of collocations under different input conditions. Language learning Volume 63 pp.121-159.

Richards, J & Schmidt, R. (2010)Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics 4th edition:Malaysia. Pearson

Thornbury, S. (2007) How to teach vocabulary. Malaysia: Pearson, Longman.

Trowbridge,S.(2012)Lexical notebooks or vocabulary cards. Available at: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/lexical-notebooks-or-vocabulary-cards  {Accessed: 10.10.2012).

Good luck with your Delta!!!


5 thoughts on “Vocabulary LSA: Helping elementary learners with restricted collocations

  1. Hi Joanna.
    Thank you so so much for sharing this! It’s given me some great references to read in preparation for my LSA4 on collocation. It seems like you must have got a distinction for this, it’s so well written and the analysis is so comprehensive yet succinct! Well done. I only hope I can harness some of your skill when I’m doing mine!


    • Hi Emily!!
      Thanks so much for your kind words and good luck on your Lsa. I actually got a Merit for the essay and merit for my lesson.


  2. Joanna,
    God, even that feels amazing doesn’t it!? I remember hitting the ceiling when I got a merit on the assignments… You get so thrilled just to pass sometimes! Thanks again, and well done.


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