Corpora and Collocations

word and phrase

At the last BCTEAL Conference in May, a colleague of mine gave an interesting talk on collocations and made mention of the use of some websites to help students understand what words normally go together. After the session, I was talking with another teacher about the lack of really easy to use corpus tools for students. It appears to me that most corpora are designed for researchers and are way too complex for the average teacher or student to use. There are a few tools that are not too bad, but for the most part, they are a mess visually and in their usage. Maybe corpus designers feel they need to add as many options as possible to satisfy the academic community who typically use it.

I did a little research after the fact and was either directed to or managed to find a few tools that may be useful for students and teachers who are interested in locating collocates of English words. In case you are not sure what any of this means, I thought a little primer on corpora might be in order. For those who understand them better than I do, my apologies for possibly oversimplifying what they are and how they work. My goal here is to provide a simple overview.

What is a corpus?

Simply put, a corpus is a text database. There is no size limit on a corpus, but the larger the corpus, the chances of a more accurate result increases. Large corpora (plural for corpus) usually have millions of words which have been added from hundreds of thousands of documents and transcripts. For example, the British National Corpus (BNC) is made of a incredible amount of documents resulting in a 100 million word database.

What kind of corpora are there?

There are corpora based on spoken speech taken from things such as television, interviews, radio, and other recordings. There are also academic, news, and literature databases just to name a few. It is also possible to create your own using texts, although the sample size is fairly small.

How are they used?

The original corpora were used by publishers and researchers to determine common language usage in publications and language studies. Dictionaries, textbooks, and other coursebooks make heavy use of corpora to determine their content. Researchers have used corpora for cross-cultural language use studies such as comparing essays written by students in one country versus another. This helps in understanding language usage in various contexts to assist others such as teachers in the classroom.

Currently, corpora usage has been extended to the average person such as the teacher in the classroom or even the language student directly. Tools like those listed below help students and teachers to better understand how English is put together in various genres and situations, such as word collocates (words that normally go together) and position in the sentence.

Collocation Tools


COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English): This is an excellent corpus, but not the easiest to navigate for collocations. Being that it uses current American English, this database sets it apart from most of the others listed here. Here is a simple way to get collocations:

  • Go to Coca and type your word in ‘Word(s)’ box.


  • Click on the ‘Collocates’ link just below the ‘Word(s)’ box.
  • Click on the ‘Search’ button.
  • A list will appear on the right in order of collocation frequency (the number of collocates with your keyword is listed to the right under ‘Freq’). Click on any of the words and a list of sentences will appear below.



Lextutor Concordance: This is not one of the prettiest sites you will ever find, nor is it that easy to navigate, but it is pretty powerful. The collocation function is somewhat limited, but still useful. Here is a simply way to get a list of collocations:

  • Go to Lextutor Concordances and type your word in the box next to ‘Keywords’ and ‘equals’.

Lextutor 1

  • Click on ‘Get concordance’.

Lextutor 2

  • You will get a short list of sentences listed in alphabetical order of the words directly to the left of your keyword. You can change that at the top of the page in the ‘sort’ drop-down menus.

Lextutor 3

  • Scroll to the bottom of the page to get your short list of collocates.

Lextutor 4


Just the Word (JTW): This is a popular tool with language teachers and students and for good reason. Out of the most used collocation tools, this is one of the easiest to navigate, although it is a bit limiting. It is based on the BNC, so the results are decidedly British (i.e. the collocations may be different than in North American English). Here is how it works:

  • Go to JTW and type your word in the ‘Enter a word or short phrase’ box and click on ‘Combinations’.


  • You will get a list of collocations divided by ‘clusters’. These clusters are related to the meaning of the word and the word type. You will also see a green line showing how often these word combinations are found together.


  • Click on any of the word combinations and you will get a list of the sentences with that combination.



Corpora Collection: This is a collection of some of the open corpora including the BNC, Brown, and Reuters. You can change which corpus you use and can get a list of words that collocate with your keyword in that database. Here is a simple use of this site:

  • Go to the Corpora Collection site and type your keyword into the box at the top of the page.

Collection 1

  • Click on the button next to ‘Collocations’ about halfway down the page.

Collection 2

  • Click on ‘Submit’ at the top of the page.

Collection 3

  • You will get a list of collocations in order by score from most to least.

Collection 4


Word and Phrase: This site has a number of tools, but I just wanted to focus on collocation tools for students and teachers. This site is another of those that has lots of functions, but the tools are complex or not necessary for students. Here is how you can create a simple collocations list:

  • Go to Word and Phrase and click on ‘Frequency list’.

Word 1

  • Type your word in the ‘Word’ box and click on ‘Search’

Word 2

  • You will get a list on the right-hand side listed by parts of speech (PoS). Click on the PoS that you would like to see and a list of sentences will be displayed below.

Word 3

  • The collocations are listed alphabetically by those to the right of the word.

Word 4


SkELL: This site is based on the Sketch Engine which is used by a number of other sites. It uses a cross-section of texts. It is also very simple to use and offers something a little different. Here is how it works:

  • Go to SkELL and type your word in the box at the top of the page.

Skell 1

  • Click on ‘Word Sketch’ and a list of words under word type categories appears below. Click on one of the words listed below to get a list of sentences using that word combination.

Skell 2


Flax Learning Collocation: This is easily one of the simplest and also nicest of all of the collocation sites. Thanks to Mura Nava who kindly pointed me in the direction of this site during one of my corpus rants on Twitter, I now have a site I can comfortably send my students to knowing they won’t need a lot of hand holding through the process. Here is how it works:

  • Go to Flax Learning Collocations and type your word into the box at the top of the page and click on ‘go  (you can also choose a different corpus from the drop-down menu to the left of ‘go’ for clicking on it).

Flax 1

  • You find a nice list of collocation broken down by usage and a number beside each collocation. This is how often it is found in the database.

Flax 2

  • Click on any of the collocation and you will get a new list showing the variations of that collocation. Click on any of those and you will get a list of sample sentences using that combination.

Flax 3

Let me know what you think. Do you have any to add? How do you use corpora in your classroom? Share you ideas, thoughts, and comments below. Thank you!


Collaborative Writing Tools: An Overview

Image courtesy of Tammy Strobel

Image courtesy of Tammy Strobel

I received an email today from one of my former MA TESOL students asking if I could recommend any collaborative writing platforms other than Google Drive. Instead of just sharing this information with one person, I thought a blog post was in order. This post is not meant to be a comprehensive list of sites, but if you feel I am missing any that are worthy of mention, please share them in the comment section below.

Before diving into the sites themselves, I feel it is important to look at the various types of document creation that can be done with others. They break down into three areas:


  • Description: This means that instead of having one cloud-based document that is edited by various people, this is where a single document is shared between different people.
  • Example: This is the way most people used to share documents. They would email it to one another, copy it using an external drive, or would host it on a shared network folder (private network). A scenario would be where one person would make a Word document and would email it to everyone who would then download it, edit it or add comments, and then email back to the sender.
  • Problems: This is a nightmare to keep track of. Sometimes people would overwrite other people’s work, the person who was collecting the data would have to consolidate everything, and it was difficult to know which document was the most current. Added to that, not everyone could see the work that was being done. It was more cooperative instead of collaborative.
  • Suggested Sites:
    • Dropbox: Free website that allows you to host documents to share with others. It synchronizes all of the documents between those who share the document or folder.
    • Box: Similar to Dropbox, but a few functions that allow you to edit documents in Word and then save back to Box.

Hosted, one editor at a time

  • Description: This is where the document is created and hosted on the cloud, but only one person can edit it at one time. Editing is usually done in the browser, but there are some examples of where it can also be done in a word processor running on the computer.
  • Example: Wikis are the best example of this. One person goes in, makes changes, and then exits after saving. Others can’t usually edit while a person is in edit mode, although some wikis will merge data as well (not usually recommended). Changes aren’t ‘live’ until the person editing saves it.
  • Problems: Once again, this is mostly cooperative as opposed to collaborative. Also, people aren’t aware of the changes until it is saved, and some people don’t save their work very often. Lastly, you can’t go in and edit when it is best for you.
  • Suggested Sites:
    • Wikispaces: One of the best wiki sites for education. Teachers can create class spaces and students can create sites without using an email address (they use a code given by the teacher).
    • PBWorks: Similar to Wikispaces, but no student codes so they need to sign up with an email address.
    • Scrawlar: This is not a wiki, but a simple word processor and online whiteboard all in one. Teachers can set up student accounts so students don’t have to give any personal details. When the student saves a document, the teacher can see the changes, but only then. It is a nice site, even with a few limitations.

Hosted, real-time editing

  • Description: This is where document creation and hosting is in the cloud and where anyone with access can edit at the same time with results appearing ‘live’ on the page to everyone.
  • Example: Google Drive is the most common example of this. When you create a document in Google Drive, anyone you give access to can edit it and everyone sees the changes immediately.
  • Problems: This can get a little messy if you have a large number of people editing at the same time. I have even had my information overwritten while I was typing in a shared document. Also, some people feel they would rather work on things in private so others don’t see their work until it is finished. Lastly, you need a good internet connection unless you have set up offline editing (which then becomes more like a wiki).
  • Suggested Sites:
    • Google Drive: This is the most common online office suite that allows for real-time editing and sharing of documents. Lots of tools and integrates with other websites such as Edmodo.
    • OneDrive: This is Microsoft’s online cloud host and editor for it’s office suite. You can edit in your own version of Office installed on your computer, or you can use the scaled-down version on the web. The web-based version allows for real-time collaboration. All in all, this is a really nice site, but still has some limitations.
    • Etherpad (various sites): Before Google Drive and Docs, there was Etherpad. Google took it over, stripped out what they needed to create their online editor, and then open-sourced the code for others to use. It is limited in what it can do, such as with images, but it is quick and simple. I have used one hosted by TitanPad for a number of years, but there is also PrimaryPad, MozillaPad and others using a version for themselves. TitanPad and MozillaPad allow for private groups to be created by teachers which is great for student security.

Like I said at the start, this is just meant to be a brief overview of collaborative writing tools, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you!

Portable Apps: A tech toolkit in your pocket

Image courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting

Image courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting

Note: This is for people who want or need to use shared Windows-based computers at work like I do. I personally use a Mac, but I am forced in some situations to work on Windows in my classroom. I will do a post some time on tips for Mac users.

If any of you work in various rooms and offices like I do, you find it frustrating when you move from computer to computer only to find that certain things are not available on one machine or blocked on another. Also, adding programs to computers that are locked-down is a pain. In many of the places I have worked at, it takes days, possibly weeks, to get anything installed on your computer only to have to do it again on a different machine once you move rooms.

My solution has been to make use of online tools, but that isn’t always ideal and if the network is slow or goes down, you are stuck. Many years ago, I came across the website where legal, open-source / free software has been adapted to run off of a portable drive such as a USB thumb drive. I have made good use of this site over the years and I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I was to give you a rundown of what portable apps are, why they are helpful, and what apps I have found to be especially useful.

How to install an app from

  1. Go to and click on ‘Apps’ at the top of the page.
  2. Look through the apps list to find something that you think would be helpful to you. Click on the link on the name.
  3. Read through the description and/or view the screenshot to see if this might be something you would like to install. If you are happy with it, click on the big, green ‘Download Now’ button near the top of the page.
  4. You will be taken to a Sourceforge page and your download should start in about 5 seconds. If it doesn’t start after five seconds, click on the small ‘direct link’ near the top of the page. If you are using a browser that prompts you about a place to download, select a place to download and start the download.
  5. The file you have downloaded is an installer you need to run. Find where the installer was downloaded to and then double-click on the file.
  6. Once the installer starts up, follow these steps:
    1. Click on ‘Next >’
    2. Choose your destination folder (best to select your USB drive or any other external drive) and click on ‘Install
    3. Once it has finished the installation process, click on ‘Finish’
  7. If you have installed it to your portable drive, find the drive on your computer and you will see a new folder labelled by the name of the app. Inside that folder will be the program you can run. Just double-click on it to start it up!


  • You can also install to a shared network folder if you have one at your workplace. This makes it easy to access without having to take a portable drive around with you.
  • Save any files you make to the drive as well so you have them with you.
  • Browser plugins such as Adobe Flash can also be installed as per usual.
  • Make sure you eject your drive before removing it.

My favourite portable apps

  • VLC: If there was one program that I think should be installed on every computer, it is this one. VLC is the Swiss Army Knife of media players. It plays basically any type of audio and video files and can even create files as well. You can rip an audio CD to MP3 files to carry with you for class, you can play podcast audio and video files, you can create playlists and bookmarks for your files, you can adjust the volume much higher than most players, and so on. Once day I will do a post on how I use VLC in the classroom. For now, just know that if there is a video or audio file to play, use VLC since it is virtually guaranteed to work.
  • Audacity: This is an audio player, editor, and recorder. This is great for the language classroom. You will need to install a few plugins to make certain files such as MP3 play or record, but that is pretty simple to do.
  • CamStudio: While I tend to use Screencast-O-Matic for screencasting, some schools don’t allow access to Java and with slower internet speeds, it can be a pain. This is a simple tool to make a video of your screen as you work on your computer. It is great for creating video tutorials or mini lessons.
  • Lightscreen: While the Snipping Tool included with Windows 7 and 8 works fairly well, Lightscreen works with older versions and also is a slight step faster than the Snipping Tool. Basically, it allows you to take a screenshot of a section of your screen and automatically saves it as an image.
  • Foxit Reader: While most computers have Adobe Acrobat Reader to read PDF files, Foxit is an alternative. It looks and feels like an Office application and I like the annotation tools better than Reader.
  • PDFTK Builder: This is the PDF Toolkit and it is great for removing pages from a pdf and combine pages as well. If I have a really long PDF and I only want to have a version with a few pages, I use this to pull out the pages I want and then combine them into one document.
  • Gimp: This is a fantastic photo editor along the lines of Adobe Photoshop. I use it to edit photos instead of the standard programs in Windows.
  • Peazip: I have no idea why some computers do not have a file decompressor installed. Windows can handle some files like Zip, but if I come across something else, such as a RAR file, this works wonders.
  • NVU / KompoZer: This is WYSIWYG HTML and CSS editor. I use to to create tables and so forth for blog posts. Works fairly well, but I am not sure how many people would make use of it other than me.
  • VirtualDub: This is a video capture/processing program. It isn’t very user friendly, but if the computer I am using does not have even a basic video editor, this does the trick.
  • Open Office: This is a Microsoft Office compatible office suite to create and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. I am not in love with the program since it isn’t the most intuitive, but it does the job.
  • Jarte: This is tabbed word processor that works well for me as a notetaker. It is smaller to open than Open Office and I can keep it running in the background whenever I need to jot something down.
  • Artha: This is portable thesaurus. It works well and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. I use it lots in my writing classes.
  • Mnemosyne: This is a flashcard creator and player. I have a mixed relationship with flashcards, but it is handy sometimes. I still prefer online versions such as Quizlet, but this works well for something simple.
  • Google Chrome / Firefox: I actually have both on my USB drive since some sites play differently with different browsers. They are portable versions of the popular browsers. Why? Privacy. Everything stays on my drive. I don’t need it as often with cloud-synching, but some computers don’t have anything but Internet Explorer installed (gasp!), so this is my backup plan.
  • Skype: The popular audio and video chat program in a portable app when the computer I am using is without it. Nothing more to say here. Works well.
  • Tweetdeck: Portable version of the popular Twitter client that I use at home. Much better than using the browser based options.
  • Cook Timer: The most simplistic program on this list. Nothing more than a countdown timer. Great for keeping students on task. I often use online versions, but this works well.

I know some of you have other preferences, so feel free to share them in the comment sections below. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.

10 Timesaving Bookmarklets for Teachers


Photo courtesy of Katia Grimmer-Laversanne. Used by permission.

For anyone like myself that spends a good deal of time online, you know how important it is to find ways to streamline certain repetitive tasks. One way to do that is to make use of bookmarklets. A bookmarklet is a bookmark that automates a certain task such as finding the definition of a highlighted word, downloading all images, or posting a link to a favourite social bookmarking site. Here is a list of my current favourites and what they do:

  1. Print Friendly: Clicking on this bookmarklet will create a clean, printable version of the website you are on.
  2. Citebite: Select text on any webpage and click on this bookmarklet. You will be taken to a page where you can share your annotated page with a unique web address.
  3. Kwout: Clip out a portion of a webpage by using this bookmarklet. Embed this image in a webpage and it is linked to the webpage you cut it from.
  4. Dotepub: This bookmarklet creates an epub document from the webpage you are visiting and downloads it to your computer.
  5. Textise: Create a text only version of the website you are on. Great for copying text from a page to paste into a document.
  6. Stichit: This bookmarklet will pull all of the links from a page or a selection on a page and allows you to create a single link to share with others.
  7. Edmodo: For those that use Edmodo, this bookmarklet adds the website you are on into your Library. Social bookmarking meets LMS.
  8. SavePublishing: This is for all of those who want to find a quotable text on a webpage that they can share on Twitter. This bookmarklet highlights all of the text on the page that is below the character limits of Twitter. Click on any of them and it creates a Twitter message you can edit and send.
  9. SplashQRCode: Create a QR code of a webpage by clicking on this bookmarklet. Great for sharing a page from your projector such as in a presentation or class.
  10. Google Translate: This is actually a series of bookmarklets that allow you to translate a webpage into any of the Google Translate languages.

There are a number of great bookmarklets that could have been added to this list such as Hootlet (for Hootsuite) and Diigolet (for Diigo), but maybe that will best be left for another blog post.

Feel free to add your comments below, send me a tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact page on this website. Thank you!

6 Ways to Create a Venn Diagram Online Without Registration

A while back, I listed some ways of creating charts online without needing to register. Today I am adding to that list by summarizing 6 ways to create Venn diagrams online without having to register. There are a number of ways these could be used in the classroom and it is a good way for students to visually evaluate information that they are studying:

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  • I Heart Venn Diagrams: Enter in the data for two or three circles including how much overlap and size of the circles. It creates the Venn diagram and gives you a url to the image which you can share or download.

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  • Classtools Venn Diagram: Choose either a two or three circle Venn diagram and then enter the data, title and notes. You cannot adjust the size or overlap. Download the HTML file or embed in your website.

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  • Good Labs: Create a very nice pie chart or two circle Venn diagram. Label your items, adjust the overlap by clicking-and-dragging, enter a title, and choose your colour. It makes a very nice infographic-style chart. You can also save the diagram in the public gallery.

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  • Fuel the Brain Venn Diagram: Choose a two or three circle Venn diagram and enter the labels. Add dots with initials to each circle. You can’t download or ember the diagram, but you can always make a screenshot. This works best on an IWB.

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  • Venny: Create a two, three, or four circle Venn diagram. Label your elements, add your notes, and then download the final image.

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  • ReadWriteThink Venn Diagram: Create a two circle Venn diagram, add labels and elements, and print out. You cannot save online or embed.

How do you use Venn diagrams in your classroom? Please share your thoughts in one of three ways:

  1. Enter your comments below. That way others can see it when they read this post.
  2. Send me a tweet at @nathanghall and I will add it to this post.
  3. Email me using the contact form on this website and I will make sure to add it here.

Thank you!

11+ Registration-Free Online Annotation Tools

A fantastic way for students to discuss and work on projects online is to use an annotation tool. There are a number of ways that students can share websites, documents, and notes, and here are 12 that don’t need registration to use:

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  • Markkit: Highlight webpages using an online highlighter. Add the bookmarklet to your toolbar, go to a website, highlight some text and then share the URL with others to view. You can also see a list of the things highlighted on a separate page. My review of Markkit

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  • szoter: This site allows users to mark up an image you upload, find on the internet, or take via screenshot or webcam. There are a number of tools to draw or write on the image before sharing with others or embedding into a website. My review of szoter

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  • RoohIt: This is the swiss army knife of online highlighters. You can highlight text, share through various methods, create instant pages from your highlights, or add the tools to your website. A little more complex than some other sites, but more functionality. 

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  • Crocodoc: This site allows you to upload a document (Word, PDF, etc.) or image and then comment on it and share with others.

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  • Bounce: This site takes a screen shot of a webpage and allows you and others to comment on it. It is a fast and easy way of sharing a website with others. My review of Bounce

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  • Webklipper: This is an extensive tool that allows you to annotate texts, webpages, PDFs, images, text files, or combine multiple URLs. Share that information with others as well.  My review of Webklipper

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How do you use annotation tools in your classroom? Share your ideas below, send me a tweet at @nathanghall, or send me an email using the contact page on this website. Thank you!

5 Registration-Free Word Cloud Generators


A great way to ‘visual’ text is to use word clouds. Word clouds take a set of words, be it in a text or a word list, and display it in a shape where words counts dictate how large the word appears. A word that is used a great deal gets a large font where a word that is used sparingly is displayed in a small font. Word clouds are often used as a pre-reading exercise to help students draw on their previous knowledge or to focus on new vocabulary before diving into the reading. It can also be used to evaluate a student’s writing to help them realise where they can make changes to the text. If there are only a few words and there a words that are much larger than the rest, the author may need to diversify their lexical choices. Here are 5 word cloud generators that don’t need registration:

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Wordle: Probably the most popular site for creating word clouds and is one of the best for creating high-quality printable versions of the image. Paste in a text or put in a website URL and it creates a random word cloud. Change the font, style, colour and limit words. You can also check word counts as well. Print out as an image to save for later (if you have the capability of printing as a PDF, you can then print the cloud as large as you want without problems with losing quality).

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TagCrowd: Paste or upload a text or choose a website URL. Enter your criteria including word limitations and word counts, and create a square type word cloud that can be embedded or printed. The PDF download function didn’t work for me, but it may be just a temporary problem.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 11.35.04 PM Grab text from Twitter or Facebook or paste in your text, choose your colour scheme and font, and create an instant word cloud. Save to a unique URL and then download the image to your computer or share with others.

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ABCya! Word Clouds: This is a nice little word cloud generator designed for kids. It can’t handle larger texts (seems to have trouble beyond about 35 words), but the images are nice and can be downloaded as a jpeg image file or printed. You do have some control of fonts, colour, and layout as well.

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WordItOut: This is the only word cloud generator listed here that needs an email address to save it. You can always do a screen shot or put in a temporary email address to get the file. You can paste text or get from a URL and create a word cloud with some control on font, colour, and layout.

Have you used word clouds in your class before? How did you use it? Share your ideas or thoughts in the comment section below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this webpage. This list is part of a larger list of webtools that don’t need student registration. Thank you!