“Let me count the ways”: Using a corpus in the English language classroom

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Monday’s #ELLchat was all about teaching vocabulary in the English language classroom. There are a number of opinions about how this can be accomplished from a more focused route of using lists and the like to a more passive approach that draws the vocabulary from the material itself. No matter how this is accomplished, there are times when students need to find out what a word means and how it can be used in context. One way to accomplish this is through the use of a concordance or corpus. Essentially, a concordance searches a document or a set of texts for a word or phrase and displays the results in a highlighted sentence. A corpus is a database of texts, sometimes targeted to a specific genre, which can be searched, often electronically. Having students search a corpus instead of a dictionary has a number of benefits that extend beyond just learning a new word.

  • Context: Students are able to see the word used in a variety of contexts which brings the word to life.
  • Collocations: Students are able to see word combinations such as phrasal verbs or adjective/noun association.
  • Stay in English: Students are reading and processing completely in English instead of using translation dictionaries.
  • Sentence structure: Students are able to see the particular sentence structures in which this word is often used.
  • Metacognition: Students are using higher level thinking skills to process the information. They are not provided with direct answers, but instead must process the information and decide how it can be used.
  • Corpus: I suggest using a more modern database such as the Corpus of Contemporary English (COCA) or the related Corpus of American Soap Operas. There are a number of others, but I have found these two to be the most usable.
  • Online text editor: I often have students share their new vocabulary through a collaborative glossary using a real-time text editor such as TitanPad. They can share their findings and read other student’s words as well.
  1. Go to the Corpus of Contemporary American English and click ‘Enter’ to begin.
  2. On the left-hand side, type in your word or phrase in the box provided and choose what genre you would like to search such as spoken, fiction, or news. Click on ‘Search’ to find the word or phrase.
  3. On the right-hand side, there will be a list of the words with the total number of references in the corpus. Click on the number displayed in blue and a list will display below.
  4. Move your mouse over the list and it will take over most of the screen. You can scroll down the list to see the sentences that have the word or phrase you searched.The left side of the list shows the genre and the publication in which it was found.
  5. Move your mouse over the left-hand side to show the search box if you want to narrow down your search or start a new one.
  6. Once students have decided on a meaning or meanings, have them write out a definition and post it on a class page using TitanPad. Have them post it alphabetically as a glossary so that other students can access it as well.
  • This works best with higher level students and is particularly good for EAP students.
  • Have students write their own example sentences along with their own definition in the glossary. This helps you know if they are understanding how to use it properly.
  • Have students compare genres to see if there is a difference in usage between them, especially spoken and written language.
Have you ever used a corpus in your class before? How did you use it? What would you add to this? You can add you comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this website. Thank you!

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