A Sure-Fire Way to Teach Collocations

by David Buckley

Would you like me to show you a sure-fire method to teach English to your students? Something that would not only give them a much-needed confidence shot in the arm but a way for them to study by themselves and see great gains in their English learning?

Those dreaded vocabulary books

I have worked with students and sometimes it has been a frustrating experience. To see them waste valuable hours trying to improve their English skills using the worst practices. I’m sure you have seen this too. I am talking about the dreaded vocabulary books. Students’ faces stuck inside one of these books, gazing at collections of vocabulary and moving their lips as they recite all the terribly useful phrases. Or even worse — digging out a huge list of words and going over them, page after page, hoping that somehow, by osmosis, the words will enter their consciousness, then miraculously form useful phrases and sentences in context.

It’s kind of jarring to see students waste their time this way. Wouldn’t it be great if we could show them a much quicker and easier way to learn English?  I am talking about using collocations.We all know what they are, we teach a few of them in class but in fact, it is one of the most overlooked ways to help English students make huge gains.

Why Teach Collocations?

Because practically everything we say is a collocation. Every verb is attached to a noun in some way, every noun to an adjective, every adverb to a verb and if your students learn collocations, they will start to speak English more naturally.They will speak with greater fluency and they will write more clearly.

As they come to grips with more collocations, their English will have a much broader range and they will speak and write in more complex ways. This is what they want. It’s what you want too.

By learning collocations, the student is learning via the process of chunking and it works. When we learn English as children, we learn the language in chunks of information. So, for example, we might learn the sentence:

I like to go swimming….. with my best friend Peter….., in the swimming pool…… near our school.

We learn the sentence by chunking together phrases or fragments of the sentence. We don’t learn it by isolating every single word.

What Are Collocations?

Collocations are groups of words that are usually found together in pairs or in small phrases. There might be hard and fast rules in terms of grammar why the words belong together, or there may be no rules at all; the words are just that way because of use.

There are seven basic types of collocation. These are:

  • adverb + adjective
  • adjective + noun
  • noun + noun
  • noun + verb
  • verb + noun
  • verb + prep
  • verb + adverb

I’m sure you have taught many of these to your students before. Things like: happy family, best friend, police car…

Then there are what I call the Big Verbs of collocations. These are: do, make, come, go, etc.

There are hundreds of collocations using these verbs: Do my homework, do the washing up, do my yoga class, do origami and so on.

Problems for ESL Students

We may spend hours explaining to the students what collocations are, provide many examples, show the students how to use them but they still stumble when trying to use them by themselves. They do not understand how to use collocations in context. For many students, they often try to translate from their own language to English.This is where we might hear things like: I have 19 years old, Let’s take a coffee, Do a mistake or How do you call? They need to learn and use the phrases in English. It’s the only way.

How to Teach Collocations

I have outlined below SIX methods to help you teach collocations to your students. These are:

1. Use a collocations dictionary

2. Watching movies

3. Use jobs and occupations

4. Use everyday terms

5. Make collocations lists

6. Reading

Are you ready? Let’s get into it.

Use a Collocations Dictionary

There are a few collocations dictionaries available on the market. But I think Ozdic (www.ozdic.com) is one of the better ones available. It’s free to use too. Introduce this site to your students and show them how to use it. Basically, you enter any word in the space at the top.

One thing we are all taught as teachers of English is to try to get the students to talk about their daily life as much as possible. That way, they can immediately use the English they have learned and their confidence increases as they can express themselves clearly.

In the class, you can get the students to think about the things they use every day. Those items could be:

  • Phone
  • Clothes
  • Toothbrush
  • Bus
  • Bicycle
  • Door

Let’s take the word bicycle and see what Ozdic throws back at us. So, we have:

  • Ride bicycle
  • Get on bicycle
  • Mount bicycle

The students can then use these phrases and make sentences of their own.
They might have:

  • I ride my bicycle to school every day
  • I get on my bicycle to come to school

After the students make their own sentences, they can show the class.The reason this is helpful for them is that they research how to use the words in collocations by themselves, then they  make their own sentences and then read them out to the class. They are not being spoon-fed the phrases from a standard exercise in a book.

Watch Movies

I am a big fan of using movies in an English class. The students love it and it becomes immediately engaging for everyone. There is also a great exercise you can do in your class using movies to help your students learn collocations.

Find a movie — or TV show, cartoon or even a well-known TV commercial — and play it in front of the class. It is best to play just a short scene from a movie or TV show. The exercise would be too difficult if you used an entire movie of two hours. Make sure the volume is down as the scene plays out. Then, as the characters are acting out the scene, get the students to make a list of what they are doing. This exercise works well in groups. If the students have difficulty figuring out the correct terms, this is where Ozdic might be useful.

Once again, the students are doing all the work, which is great. For more advanced students, play a scene and get one student to stand in front of the class and give a running commentary on what is happening. Great fun and highly engaging, your students will love it.

Use Jobs and Occupations

A really useful way to learn collocations is via jobs. Most students have a good idea of what job they would like to have in the future. If they are adult students, then they may already be working and they can talk about their own job. Once again this exercise is related to their life and therefore provides a meaningful context.

In your class, you can do the exercise in groups or individually. Get the students to make collocations about their jobs using a dictionary. Go around and provide guidance where necessary. So let’s use the job of  a fireman as an example. We might have:

  • Drive a fire engine
  • Put out fires
  • Climb a ladder
  • Rescue someone
  • Save a cat from a tree
  • Do training exercises

A great exercise to give your students is to give them reading exercises about different jobs. I found a very useful website for this — https://www.bls.gov/ooh/ . Under the category of Building & Grounds Cleaning, for example,I found Pest Control Workers. On the relevant page, there are other pages to provide a summary of the job, plus other pages about what pest control workers do, their working environment and how to become one, along with other information. Using this information you can create reading material for more advanced students and get them to dig out all the collocations related to specific jobs. There are tons of useful phrases related to jobs to be found.

Use Everyday Terms

Another website that ESL teachers can use for collocation exercises is Wikipedia. Essentially, you take any interest or hobby, or anything that the students might be interested in and get them to search out all the collocations. So, for example, maybe one of the students likes to practice yoga. She may know how to express the terms in her own language but have no idea how to say these things in English. Go to our trusted friend Wikipedia and we can find many phrases and collocations that any fan of yoga can use.

  • Yoga originated in India
  • Yoga has many different schools
  • Hatha
  • Yoga is the most popular form of yoga in the world
  • Yoga students should practice breathing exercises daily
  • There are many asanas that we should do every day
  • I do yoga to help maintain physical fitness It also helps with my mental well-being and diet too
  • I feel a great sense of calm after a yoga session
  • I believe everyone should do yoga
  • Yoga makes me feel great Yoga makes me feel alive

I think you get the idea. For more advanced students, they should strive to learn English by themselves, rather than expect to be served all the necessary phrases and sentences they may need. Wikipedia is a great tool for them to use to find all the collocation phrases and sentences they can use immediately.

Once the students have researched a subject in their chosen interest, you could have class presentations, or it could be used for writing assignments too. The point is that they start to use the collocations they have found immediately.By researching alone and then presenting the collocations in use, it helps to reinforce to memory. Do not be the teacher that is constantly on call. Make the students do the work!

Make Collocation Lists

One of the best ways to get started on collocations is for students to make lists of them.

How to do this? Again, it all comes down to focusing on their day-to-day lives.

Many ESL teachers have taught lessons on the use of the common collocation verbs. As I mentioned before — the Big Verbs: do, make, come, go, etc. There are so many collocations to make using these verbs, but many teachers fall into the trap of just using exercises found in the standard ESL books.The best way is to get the students to figure it all out by themselves. Make them do the work and they will remember it much faster.

So if you start with the verb Do, you can get your students to easily find collocations using this word.

  • Do homework
  • Do housework
  • Do exercise
  • Do laundry

These are the standard forms, but if you push your students to use a dictionary, they will find many more.

  • Do yoga
  • Do work
  • Do business

With even more effort they might find lesser known forms.

  • Do a report
  • Do your best
  • Do the right thing

And then forms where the verb ‘do’ replaces other verbs, for example, ‘clean’.

  • Do the bathroom
  • Do the kitchen
  • Do the floor

Once the students have compiled a list of collocations, then they can make sentences of their own. The trick is to try to push them to make complex sentences, not lists. I think you know what I mean.

  • I do my homework in the evening.
  • I do the dishes after dinner.
  • I do exercise at school.

Too boring. Try to push the students to write more complex sentence structures. Give your own examples and let them try. They can then make collocation lists of many different verbs or nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. The more they research, the more they look for collocations in the dictionary — or Google! — The more they write the lists and create sentences, the easier they will remember; spoon-feeding lists of collocations will not help them.

Reading Helps!

I advocate the habit of reading for ESL students very strongly. Of all my previous students, the ones that spoke the clearest, most fluent English were the ones that had a good habit of reading. Reading can also help students locate and come to terms with collocations. You can do this as an activity with small groups in the class. Make sure that the students know of the collocation forms then read a passage in the class. After reading, get each group to try to isolate as many collocations as they can. Of course, they cannot find all seven forms in one article, but they should be able to find some. This helps students to become more aware of collocation forms and start to notice them more. You could also set this as homework. Give the students a reading assignment and find all the collocations in the passage and make their own sentences.

Conclusion

Learning collocations is of great benefit to any English learner. Their English will sound more fluent, they will speak and write in more complex ways. They will express themselves more clearly and with more nuances. By helping students learn collocations, you are helping them to become as close to a native speaker as possible.

Yes, it takes effort and mostly from the student, if they wish to see any progress but by using some of the methods listed above, your students will see progress in all the key skills.