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Concourse 2



What is collocation?

Simply put: the juxtaposition of words with other words with a frequency greater than chance
Another definition is the tendency in all languages for certain words to co-occur

For example, can you fill these gaps with a suitable word?

torrential ______ ______ carriage high ______
air-conditioning ______  ______ and fro towering ______
flock of ______ an open and ______ case the black ______ of the family

Click to reveal some comments when you have something in mind for all the gaps.

If you want to know more about idioms and binomials, see the guide to idiomaticity on this site.


Classification by word class

Collocations can also be classified by word class.  This is often a useful way to limit one's focus in the classroom and help learners to identify collocations of a particular sort so they are, for example, only trying to notice particular combinations of words, not all combinations.
At lower levels, the most important combinations are probably adjective + noun and verb + noun as these are very frequent and frequently variable across languages.

adjective + noun: high wall, tall person, flat landscape, painful toothache etc. but not painful taste or tall road
verb + noun: close a shop / door etc. but turn off a light
adverb + adjective: ecstatically happy, deeply depressed but not seriously lighthearted or medicinally interested
noun + noun: flock of sheep, herd of goats but not pride of elephants or ingot of chocolate
verb + adverb: scream loudly, tiptoe noiselessly but not scream swiftly or tiptoe violently
verb + prepositional phrase: swing to and fro, descend into misery, explode with anger but not handle with indifference or explode with tears
You can test yourself to make sure you can recognise stronger and weaker collocation of these six types by clicking here.


Teaching collocation

Collocations are very helpful for learning vocabulary.  There are some things to consider:

helping learners to notice collocation
It is unusual to find any kind of reading text which doesn't contain some obvious collocations so make sure you focus on them at some time in a reading lesson.  Eventually, your students should be able to spot them for themselves.  Highlighting likely collocations in texts is effective.
A small trick is to design a short text in which the collocations are wrong and get learners a) to notice them and b) to correct them.  At higher levels, this can make an interesting change to a dictation.  You dictate the text with the false collocations and the learners correct it as they go along.
teaching vocabulary thoroughly
Whenever you teach a new verb, remember to set it in a context of what sort of nouns it collocates with.  For example, if you teach unearth try make sure that your learners know what sorts of things can be unearthed – the truth, a body, an artifact, evidence etc.  If you teach a new adjective, treat it similarly and make sure your learners know what sorts of things it describes, for example, greedy applies to animate things, mostly, but you can have a greedy bank.
focusing some lessons on collocation
This is such a useful area that it is worth making it part of your usual teaching programme.  It is worth considering, for example, basing a lesson around notions such as size, weight, length, temperature and so on so that you can focus the learners on such things as tall building, high wall, narrow street, heavy load, scorching sunshine, bitterly cold, extensive grounds, crushing weight etc.  This may help your learners avoid saying things like thin street, flimsy load, boiling sunshine, severely cold or grave weight.
being clear
If you are a native speaker of English in particular, you may often feel that a collocation such as shuddering with fear or burying an argument is conceivable (and they both are) but your students want clear answers and access to more natural collocations so, unless they are very advanced, stick to the clichés – we shiver or tremble with fear, resolve arguments and bury hatchets.

Here are some examples of exercise types you could use in collocation teaching

Odd-one out:

Adjective – Noun Tall – person, mountain, tree, wall?
Torrential – rain, water, river, downpour, snow?
Rain – gentle, heavy, strong, hard, tough?
Problem – large, strong, difficult, big, heavy?
Verb – Noun Make / Do – homework, money, a mistake, an effort?
Catch – cold, meaning, idea, bus, lift?
Path – wind, turn, twist, coil, spiral, twirl?
Wage – pay, earn, settle, gain, give, achieve?

Word grids.  Students work with dictionaries and / or a text to put a X in the right boxes:

  frozen food your heart out relationships into tears sugar ice chocolate
thaw X              

Matchers.  Students draw the lines and end up with something like this:


Gap fills.  Students work together to see what can naturally go in the gaps:

We …………… the …………… path up the mountain until we …………… the summit.
The view was quite …………… and we …………… for over an hour just …………… it.

Selections.  Students choose the right collocations:

The tasteless / foul / bright hotel was in a dirty / unclean / polluted alley.
The receptionist was so abusive / cruel / spiteful that we felt undesirable / unwelcome / objectionable from the outset.

Related guides
exercise index for some exercises to do with collocation for learners
idiomaticity If you want to know more about idioms and binomials