Flax lets you drill down to see more specific info about collocations

Helping EAP students develop better vocabulary learning habits

At the recent BALEAP conference there were a number of sessions exploring the use of corpora  and concordance tools with students in class. I have used a few of these in the past myself, such as Lex Tutor and COCA, with my own groups but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with how I used them and how much my students got from them. These tools aren’t really designed for classroom use and produce quite data heavy pages that can be confusing for both teachers and students.

Lex Tutor can be very intimidating for teachers and students

Lex Tutor can be very intimidating for teachers and students

But students do need to be aware of word frequency and things such as the Academic Word List if they are going to focus their vocabulary learning. When I speak to students, it becomes apparent that they are not really sure which words they should be learning, how to record them effectively and what techniques they can use to remember them. Most of them admit that their general approach is to write down words in a notebook during class and then rarely look at them again.

 I’ve been working with one of my groups on developing a organised approach to vocabulary analysis and recording using a variety of digital tools that I hope will give them the words they need.

Choosing the words

Students need to make better decisions about what words to learn or – possibly more importantly – relearn. Spending hours memorising low-frequency words that they are unlikely to ever meet again is a waste of their time. The first thing they need to make sure is that their basic knowledge of vocabulary is fully developed. Francis and Kucera (1982) suggest that students need to know about 3000 words to achieve 85% text coverage. However, this means more than just knowing the basic word meaning or translation, this means more in-depth knowledge of a word’s grammatical structure and its common collocations as well as awareness of register and appropriacy.

One thing I’ve been encouraging students to do is to use the Oxford Profiler, an online tool that can take any text and show what words come from the 3000 most frequent words in the language. By looking at the results, students can begin to identify which of the most frequent words they are not so familiar with and use other web tools to learn as much as they can about them.

Oxford Text Profiler provides word frequency info about texts

Oxford Text Profiler provides word frequency info about texts

Waring and Nation (1999)  suggest that by learning a specific list of approximately a thousand academic words  – the article discusses the UWL (university word list) – that coverage can go up from 85% to 90%, meaning that only 1 in 10 words might be unfamiliar to the student, very important when reading academic texts.

Finding out information about words

There are lots of good free online dictionaries that students can use to find out more about words, Oxford, Cambridge and Macmillan all have decent ones that can provide in-depth definitions, help with pronunciation and example sentences. One area though where dictionaries are not always so helpful is in identifying collocations for words. For this, I tend to refer my students to the Flax website, and specifically the learning collocations section.

This is a wonderfully easy tool to use, you search for a word and it displays common collocates and the numbers next to the words show how frequent they are. This also helps students make better decisions about which words to learn. By clicking on each of the collocations, students can see a more detailed breakdown of the sub-collocations; e.g. from foreign policy you might get British foreign policy, US foreign policy etc and clicking further will give the actual sentences from the corpus where these collocations came from (see pic below).

Flax lets you drill down to see more specific info about collocations

Flax lets you drill down to see more specific info about collocations

There are other useful collocation sites out there: Just the Word, Netspeak and Frazeit all do similar things though I still think Flax has the best balance of depth and usability.

Recording words

This is the area most neglected by students I think. Most of them don’t have any systematic approach to writing down words and recording information about them and they tend to just jot them down in their notebook in a fairly disorganised way or not at all and hope to commit them to memory somehow.

But if students are going to get over that intermediate plateau, they need to be a lot more systematic in how they record and revise vocabulary, as they research words through some of the sites mentioned above, they need to be copying over some of that key information to an organised vocabulary bank that they can easily access. It could be done through their notebooks, but given the depth of information we want them to record, that could be quite laborious so a digital solution is probably more efficient.

There are dedicated sites and apps where students can store and study vocabulary, Vocabmonk, Quizlet and Mywordbook are three possibilities and while they are great for motivating students to record and learn words, they are really designed for students to just learn the basic meaning of words with their focus on flashcards and quizzes. Yet this is exactly the kind of superficial understanding of words we want students to move away from. I want students to record a word’s collocations, grammatical patterns, synonyms and antonyms as well as the basic stuff such as meaning and pronunciation.

For this kind of in-depth recording, using an online notebook works better as it’s normally easier to move the information they find online from a webpage into a notebook and then to access it from anywhere. I tend to recommend Evernote to my students simply because it’s free, available on all platforms and makes it super simple to clip things from a webpage into a notebook.

One simple way I suggest using Evernote as a dictionary is to use the tag system to label word entries. When they are moving round the web reading things, if they come across a useful collocation related to a particular word, I suggest they use the Evernote web clipper – a small extension that sits in your browser bar – to select the text and use the web clipper window to add a tag including the word. So for example if they see the expression carry out research, they select it, click the Evernote webclipper, add the tag research and then save.

the Evernote web clipper makes it easy to add text from a webpage

the Evernote web clipper makes it easy to add text from a webpage

Once they’ve done this a few times with a word, they can then go to their Evernote account, click on the tag research and they’ll see all the entries related to that word. This is a great way for expanding their knowledge of individual words.

here are my Evernote notes tagged with 'research'

here are my Evernote notes tagged with ‘research’

Another benefit of using Evernote is that students can share their notebooks with classmates. This can be a great way to encourage them to work collaboratively and share knowledge or to create a combined classroom dictionary.

These are just a few ideas for helping students be more focused when studying vocabulary. It’s likely at first that students will be resistant to this, it can be very difficult to break habits, so it’s something to persist with in class, maybe set aside a small amount of time at the end of each lesson to record any new vocabulary or assign words to individual students to look up and note down.

Francis, W.N. and H. Kucera. 1982. Frequency Analysis of English Usage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
NATION, P. and WARING, R., 1997. Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists. Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy, 14, pp. 6-19.