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Using corpora and concordances in the classroom

I mean the Bank of English is all our erm corpora. There’s no need for a preposition.
in your data as data because they’re gathering corpora. Mm, er and er that er has a
and it was a comparison of eleven different corpora. Erm it is thus corpus based but it’s quite
Yeah. Well they they don’t have corpora in other languages. They don’t have
in other languages. They don’t have corpora in other languages for some unknown reason.

By Camilla Mayhew

Facts that might never occur to us about a word sometimes leap out at us from concordances

The question of how much corpus data can reveal that we as native speakers are unaware of is appealing, as is the premise that corpora might provide students with more tangible evidence of what native speakers actually say, reflecting the flexibility of language rather than a static rule-based construct.

I was unaware of exactly what could be gained from using corpora, having never done so, nor had I seen it mentioned in the numerous coursebooks I had used. In fact, the extent to which corpora have infiltrated teaching is not non-existent but remains marginal. A DELTA assignment later and the week before I was to give an input session on using concordances in the classroom, various colleagues sidled up to me muttering, “So, er, what’s a concordance?” This is perhaps the most sensible place to begin.

Corpora and Concordances

are stores of examples of English held on a computer for analytical purposes, many of which are accessible online.

The Bank of English is the largest corpus of English boasting in excess of 450 million words and continues to grow as new data is added. In order that it reflect modern usage, the balance between genres, including texts from newspapers, magazines, fiction and non-fiction books, reports, casual conversation, radio broadcasts and interviews among others, is constantly reviewed and spoken data is sourced from men and women of a range of ages.

Concordances like the one below can be obtained online from The Bank of English corpus, http://www.collins.co.uk/Corpus/CorpusSearch.aspx

cancer could have been successfully treated if only they had seen their doctor in time. [p] Other
behaviour, and then it is natural to think `if only I had done what I normally do … `,
her the secret of how to play Ranevskaya: `If only he had told me in rehearsal, I knew I would
the man who helped vanquish Napoleon. If only he had read his history books. [p] [h] Books
if only Old Trafford had a decent pitch; if only they had beaten so and so. [p] They are

Searching for any item or combination of words will generate a random sample of 40 randomly selected lines from the corpus. Concordances can:

  • provide information about word meaning.
  • detail how a word is used when it occurs after another specified word or type of word, which may, for example, assist in forming a clearer picture of how a lexical item is used metaphorically. A concordance of NOUN+jungle, with a strain of wild tea found in the Assam jungle, produces a tea of amazing intensity and
    initiative-will see you through the employment jungle. Don’t let your determination turn into
    of the River Mayo on the fringes of the Amazon jungle in north-eastern Peru on Tuesday night. But
    in the 21st century which is set in a concrete jungle.” Robert Gordon Clark, a spokesman for
    how to duck and swerve through the Hollywood jungle and how to keep his therapist sweet. In
  • name the source of each line of the selected concordance to furnish genre information.

Activities with concordances

The following activities are designed not only to expand student’s knowledge, but to help to foster learner autonomy, encouraging students to ask questions about language and view their coursebooks as a base for exploring English rather than a finishing point.

1) Absolutely nice is not nice
Even higher level students find adverb + adjective collocations hard to remember. A proficiency student of mine would often declare “That’s absolutely nice”.

Pairs of students could be given a concordance of an adverb + adjective/past participle combination which appear in their coursebook , ‘seriously ill’ (Appendix A) or ‘keenly priced’ (Appendix B), from which there is a wealth of information to discover. ‘Seriously ill’ appears mainly in news items where ‘seriously’ means just that, but in other examples ‘seriously spicy’ and ‘seriously-bearded’ the adverb is used humorously. ‘Keenly’ often collocates with words suggesting a competitive element like ‘fought’, ‘lobbied’ and ‘contested’ which reflects the coursebook example, ‘keenly priced goods’. Students share what they have noticed with the class and create original examples.

You might use student language as a starting point, taking both correct (absolutely exhausted) and incorrect examples (absolutely nice) from their writing and speaking. Ask students to discuss which options are valid before having them check with the online concordance sampler .

2) Students are never interested in anything
An observed student strategy is reeling off dependent prepositions until guessing correctly, and it seems that they are considered impossible to recall. Coursebook exercises usually address several combinations at once, often requiring students to complete the prepositional space, which does not seem to boost understanding, even if they appear a quick way to address the topic.

I would suggest adapting a concordance as follows:

them a common identity. Some people are  ______in one subject and want to stay with that,
to popular lore, an Englishman is more _______in horses and country pursuits than art.
was not, in his words, something we would be ____________in negotiating about. He went on to say
Gourmet”. At about the same time I became _____________ in boys and pretty clothes. I wanted to
videos. [p] Virgin is one of 40 companies ___________in providing rail services following

Students have a greater chance of remembering the collocation concerned since they must focus on both the more meaningful word of the pair and the preposition which leaps off the page. Brief activities like this could be conducted as warmers or fillers, thereby dealing with only one dependent preposition at a time.

3) Using idioms correctly would be the icing on the cake
Students often shy away from using idioms and can sound stilted when they do. Coursebooks devote pages to listing idioms but offer precious little about how they are used. Concordances provide a context and often unexpected information.

The following concordance extract largely supports the view that idioms are fixed:

years in the sport to achieve what would be the icing on the cake of a fabulous career. [h] A 25-1
and his local mayor would have been the icing on the cake to celebrate his achievement as
he said. `A love affair would be the icing on the cake. That’s what I’m waiting for.”
over the moon and now winning this puts the icing on the cake. [p] Party [p] It means we can
been helping them out and this victory is the icing on the cake [p] The win had brought memories

However, this is not always the case:

Friends of the Earth, said: `This is the final nail in the nuclear coffin and the end of the
The collapse of Barings Bank was the final nail in Japan’s coffin, as far as recovery was
you can’t buck the market. One final nail in the Tory coffin John Smith;Sterling crisis
THE Government has put the `final nail” in the coffin of its economic policies,
warned that council tax could be the final nail in John Major’s coffin. [p] That does not

Names of people, countries and political parties and more interrupt the idiom, demonstrating that much more flexibility is common.

Students could create their own original phrases with the more flexible idioms having seen examples of how this is typically done.

Concordances such as these might also be used in pronunciation activities encouraging students towards a natural delivery of the chosen idiom through noticing and practising word and sentence stress and intonation of authentic examples.

Making corpora more appealing

Admittedly, corpora can be a daunting prospect, especially for lower levels, as the vocabulary is not graded. But using corpora does not necessarily mean giving students a huge concordance straight from The Bank of English website. There are many ways to adapt corpus data and there are plenty of alternative corpora out there:

  • • Family Fortunes: Two teams take it in turns to guess the collocations on each other’s concordances to earn points. For example, if the topic is cities, use concordances of ADJECTIVE+building or business. Students guess the adjectives.
  • Sentence Stems: Chop up a concordance (see ‘If only…’ above), cutting out the irrelevant parts of the sentence to leave only the target language stem. A variety of sentence completion, matching, word ordering activities is possible.
  • Explore new vocabulary: Give groups the definition of a new word. They search for a concordance and find three lines which clearly show the meaning, ignoring the ones they don’t understand. Groups make gap fill exercises for the class. Good practice for CPE Use of English.
  • Student concordances: Students have a word/expression for a month, note all the uses they come across in class and out and then present their findings to the class.
  • Google inspiration: Students use Google advanced search to create getting to know you activities. The following search works well:
    This exact wording or phrase: Would you ever / Have you ever been
    File type: Microsoft Word (.doc)
  • Youtube Blankety Blank: Teams complete sentences (I wish I could/I want to) then search on Youtube for videos that match. Award points for correct guesses.


McCarthy, M., Vocabulary, OUP, 1990
Lewis, M., Implementing the Lexical Approach, LTP, 1997


into mortgage arrears when Mrs Dunn became seriously asthmatic and was forced to give up her
All contain Lucidity Pressed Powder for seriously elegant re-touching. photos with captions
murgh kebabs (minced chicken) were stunners, `seriously spicy and yum-yum” as Laura described them
specialises in managing large portfolios for seriously wealthy people who want to stay that way-
way to allow serious drinkers, at what is a seriously good cocktail bar, to run a tab instead of
said We think that this horse was being kept seriously short of food and must have been suffering
Waterbed [/h] Once an ultimate indicator of seriously libidinous leanings, today the waterbed is,
Nick, alarmingly quiet DJ-ing type Andy, and seriously-bearded soundman Haggis, who also twiddles
outside Khartoum. One is alleged to be seriously ill as a result of torture in detention.
prices have soared, and people have become seriously poor. So West Africans overall are perhaps
lost because she did not take the computer seriously, other programs having failed to impress
have been horror stories of people getting seriously ill by following certain rigorous diet
saw Viscount Tonypandy, weak and obviously seriously ill. Earlier that year, he had felt the
on occasions; desires excitement; even when seriously ill, plays down problems and jokes with
modestly mentioned last night. This man is seriously rich but, despite that his links into
increases the availability of judges to hear seriously arguable appeals [p] Judges were also
Crediton, Devon [/h] [b] [/b] [p] A woman is seriously ill after being shot in the chest at a clay
delights of playing poker with friendly and seriously fat Texan men outweighs all that. I didn’t
car and collapsed. I was taken to hospital, seriously ill, and I couldn’t remember having had a
flotation was on the cards. As I have been seriously ill, these sorts of things have passed us
fact that to do so can be to invite attention seriously detrimental to one’s health. [p] One
the medical director, said: `She is again seriously ill and has been returned to the intensive
days into her vigil at the bedside of her seriously ill son few can guess at the loneliness of
takes a trained eye to spot it, even in the seriously retarded says specialist Ann Streissguth of
tragic accident [p] The unnamed boy was seriously ill in Swindon’s Princess Margaret hospital
of the bug that killed one person and left 27 seriously ill after they ate infected yogurt three
all over the set and I guessed something was seriously wrong [p] Doctors at the Charter
Michael Fay in Singapore. [p] Unless Fay is seriously thick (not impossible given the TV
came on the day that TODAY revealed how one seriously-ill 93 year-old woman was left waiting more
at a country garage. Greg Davies, 29, is seriously ill after being shot, stabbed and beaten at
two men when they climbed into his den is seriously ill with a mystery throat infection. [p]
despite being a non-diabetic. She remains seriously ill. [p] Last night the hospital refused
[p] The gunman wounded by police was seriously ill with chest, arm and leg injuries. He is
after his departure that things began to go seriously wrong. [p] He was, however, pleased with a
sibling is ill or disabled. When a parent is seriously ill, siblings may form a primary support


of the world. Al is a qualified forester, keenly interested in all aspects of natural history,
he makes sure they do. [/h] [p] Now, in his keenly-awaited autobiography, the man himself
was, at that time, a highly prized and thus keenly fought over Tory `marginal”. [p] During that
the Defence Select Committee, which is being keenly lobbied by the CND Campaigns Team. [p] Keep
Bruges), may have ordered the panels and his keenly-observed portrait might suggest that he even
to £ 14.95 per m. The shops also offer a keenly priced curtain-making service, with delivery
century, bound volumes of Piranesi prints were keenly sought after by architects, collectors and
rider, Edna had a great love of horses and was keenly interested in welfare. She did much to
Furniture with a royal provenance is always keenly sought after, so a George IV worktable from
swing to the Conservatives in one of the most keenly contested London boroughs. Here’s our
result in the London borough of Westminster — keenly fought by Labour and the Conservatives, and
The Timor Gap is one of south-east Asia’s most keenly contested areas of ocean. Estimates are that
a 35-nation summit meeting. That meeting is keenly anticipated as a grand celebration of an end
party, the National Republican Convention. Keenly contested local government elections are due
EMERGENCY SESSION [/h] The keenly awaited second day of the emergency session
He felt a certain [o] relief. This moment, keenly anticipated, had also been dreaded. Suppose
to do with justice or evidence.2 It was keenly followed in the West because it was feared
should follow that example. This was too keenly ovened, though. What excepts The Star from
verdict on Peter Wright’s sending off is keenly awaited across Scotland and not just by those
champagne from a high-heeled shoe, is being keenly felt. [p] O’Connell, who will earn up to &
Swan Lake was guaranteed to be one of the most keenly anticipated dance events of the year. Has it
Princess’s recent Panorama interview has been keenly discussed by Manhattan’s moneyed Upper
a modest dividend rise. [p] But they will be keenly interested to learn more about Bock’s
basis. [p] But although the Government has keenly supported Modern Apprenticeships, it has
[p] Can I race my hot hatch [p] There are keenly contested events for these cars and racing
brands. Stena has retaliated with a range of keenly priced duty-free offers. Only P&O has
too, Jupiter’s powerful presence will be keenly felt. It is only when you reach October that
our two countries. The Japanese public was keenly interested in the problems of perestroika. As
never forgot. It moved him from being only keenly interested in the ideas involved in
future developments, the therapist must remain keenly attuned to the parent’s need to relive and
so much from Dwight and the magazine, he was keenly disappointed by what he saw as Dwight’s
Her feelings for Dwight were genuine; she was keenly attracted to his energy, his stimulating
member of a royal family. In thus being as keenly interested as contemporary dramatists in the
on world poverty since the mid-1950s, remained keenly interested in the social issues of the day.
Hour. The release of the inflation figures was keenly awaited in the city. With a look at that and

Author’s Bio:
Camilla Mayhew has worked for International House for eight years in Portugal, Sicily and Argentina. She is currently in Spain where she works part-time at IH Santander and writes whenever she isn’t distracted by the promise of a trip to the beach or a tasty pincho.

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