Lexical Mathematics 2: The Soul Behind The Face

  • Collocation Competence – fluency and accuracy hand in hand

There is a number of reasons why a sound knowledge of collocations is desirable, especially for more advanced learners. Hill (2000) relies on collocations to explain that language consists largely of pre-fabricate chunks of lexis. Therefore, not only is the accurate and appropriate use of collocations one distinguishing mark of a native-like command of the language but it is also a reliable measure of the proficiency level of a non-native speaker.

To begin with, the way words combine in collocations is crucial to all languages as the lexicon is not selected at random, one does not use a language like a substitution table. Predictability is to be considered as there are patterns which can facilitate learning. Consequently, learners should be encouraged to notice such predictable patterning.

Language which is collocationally rich is also more accurate. As we use different contexts, the intended meaning is determined by a particular context and the node word collocates. Therefore, enabling learners to choose the right collocation will make their speech more natural and native-speaker-like. A learner who comes up with strong rain for heavy rain may make themselves understood, however, they might be marked down for it in an exam.

Another factor is the awareness that pre-fabricated blocks of language are widely used as exponents of different communicative functions. Exponents such Would you mind giving me a lift?, (Making requests), or I’d rather you didn’t smoke here!, (Complaining), are best learned lexically. The same goes with This is the best place I’ve ever been to! when using the Superlative/Present Perfect to express a more complex idea.  Then it is fair to say that we have grammaticised-lexis and lexicalised-grammar being stored with the lexical and grammatical patterns they regularly occur.

Pronunciation is also important since knowing a full variety of longer phrases may help learners recognise stress/intonation patterns of a phrase as a whole. Once correctly understood and stored, collocations should be available for immediate retrieval with an added bonus of intelligibility.

Hill (2000:54) has a point stating that how quickly we think and efficiently we communicate will directly depend on how competent we are in terms of collocations. Learners who choose the best collocations will express themselves more clearly and quickly.

Learners’ collocational competence could well be attributed to the way vocabulary is dealt with in class. Research seems to show that most forgetting takes place immediately after first encounter, so one cannot expect their learners to store lexis they meet for the first time. It is much wiser to use an approach to maximise collocational competence.

Based on Lewis’s views (1997), such an approach should be implemented by working systematically on learners’ collocational competence. A possible framework may follow the criteria outlined below.

  • Select collocations which cater for learners’ communicative purposes.
  • Exposure learners to meaningful, contextualised and relevant collocations.
  • Ensure that meaning is conveyed and structure is understood.
  • Draw attention to syntax, morphology and pronunciation.
  • Opportunities to notice and practise the target collocations.
  • Engage learners in tasks allowing for short-term to long-term memory transference.
  • Feedback on the improvement learners have.


A tentative framework (entitled to additions and deletions) for a lesson focusing on collocations is discussed further down:

1)      Identify a topic which would arouse learners’ interests. A unit in a coursebook dealing with, say, Buying and Selling is likely to generate collocations related to Advertisements. A few samples of the collocations that may be chosen: brilliantly put together – such a striking image – stick in your mind – have the right ingredients – make an impact on you – use powerful images

2)      TBL approach can be used as a means to raise awareness of appropriate collocations to talk about advertisements.

3)      Provide learners with a fair amount of exposure, either via a video snippet or a spoken interaction on an audio-CD to allow room for noticing.

4)      Draw attention to form, stressing collocations might be fixed or semi-fixed phrases that are best learnt as pre-fabricated chunks.

5)      Draw attention to pronunciation features such as word linking (make an impact on you), especially features which can be problematic for some BP learners such as /l/ sound in powerful images.

6)      Engage learners in tasks requiring the target collocations use in communicative ways. Personalisation is more likely to transfer from short-term to long-term memory.

7)      Provide feedback on learners’ lexical improvement by comparing the first and last tasks performed.

8)      Highlight the role of memory in the learning process – revision is vital.


All things considered, the way vocabulary is dealt with should consider the type of learners we have. We need different strategies for vocabulary learning at different stages. In fact, some students will benefit from learning words in isolation, simple collocations and expressions, which seem to be entirely appropriate at lower-levels. Nevertheless, it is crucial that learners are provided with systematic exposure to collocations since recognising chunks is essential for acquisition. Should it be so, the awareness learners develop of the nature of the language they meet will eventually enable them to express complex ideas more accurately/fluently. Evidently, teaching collocations is a powerful alternative to ensure learners’ collocational competence.

Personally speaking, this shift in language teaching has led me to think the matter over and expose learners to a variety of procedures/techniques now available so that they may use their mental lexicon competence to achieve their communicative aims.

In conclusion, we are now witnessing a return of the interest in the language, from aspects of communicative linguistics and discourse analysis to the corpus analysis. At the one end of the scale we have the corpus analysis being fundamentally used for both teaching and ELT materials development. At the other end of the spectrum, we have these new technologies which allow room for browsing corpus linguistics – an invaluable tool to enhance learners’ language repertoire. Obviously, the age factor, level, needs and goals will dictate which types of lexical items and tools are more suitable. That is why teachers, the soul behind the face, are so important.





  • Harmer, J – The Practice of English Language Teaching (Longman) 1997
  • Lewis, M and Hill, J – Practical Techniques (LTP) 1995
  • Lewis, M – Implementing the Lexical Approach – Putting theory into Practice (LTP) 1997
  • Lewis, M – Teaching Collocations – Further Development in the Lexical Approach (LTP) 2000

Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. a2zenglishconsult@gmail.com / dricozane@gmail.com

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