In my previous blogpost, ‘5 ways of using corpora to develop learner autonomy’, I looked at what a corpus is, and outlined 5 ways of giving learners practice in spotting linguistic patterns through the use of a corpus, thus giving them a means to explore a word/phrase without constantly having to ask a teacher.

Today, I shall look at 5 more ways of using the corpus to create classroom activities that could help raise awareness of word partnerships and the company that words keep.

Just like the previous blogpost, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to reference Brigham Young University’s corpus of global web-based English, which makes use of the British National Corpus, is free and easy to access (although frequent use would require you to register and set up an account, all of which is free of charge), and comes with their own concordancing software.

1. Have students guess the top collocates of a word  

Going back to the previously-used example of the word ‘boost’, what do you think might be the top object nouns that collocate with the word ‘boost’?
i.e.  to boost + ?

In competitive groups, my students would write down their top 5 choices.
We would then check them against the corpus.
Any answer that appears in the top 20 (or 50, if you are generous) gets a point.Looking only at collocates that come after the word ‘boost’



Top 19 collocates boost

Do remember to leave out words like ‘yesterday’ and ‘flagging’ as they are not object nouns.

We can see from the above that ‘confidence’, ‘profits’ and ‘sales’ are the top three most frequent collocates with the word ‘boost’.

What do you think the most frequent adjective collocate might be?
i.e.  a/an + ? + boost

Corpus top 19 boost

Coming in at the top position is the word ‘cash’, perhaps to form the compound noun ‘a cash boost’.

But ‘big’, ‘great’ and ‘further’ make up the top 3 most frequently used adjectives with the word ‘boost’.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that, upon scrolling down and skimming through all the adjectives that collocate with ‘boost’, one quickly realises that although adjectives like ‘big’, ‘major’ and ‘massive’ are quite commonplace, one can hardly find adjectives like ‘small’, ‘tiny’ or ‘little’.

If we add on the frequently collocating verbs ‘to receive’ and ‘to give’ to the mix, we could safely suggest that students learn the following chunk when learning to use the word ‘boost’.

to receive/ give a    big/great/further    boost    to       confidence/profits/sales’

2. Categorise the collocations

Going back to the object nouns that collocate with ‘boost’, could you put them into categories?

My students came up with the following three categories:

  • ‘money-related nouns’ as in ‘to boost profits’, ‘to boost sales’, ‘to boost funds’, etc.
  • ‘other business-related nouns’ as in ‘to boost productivity’, ‘to boost performance’, ‘to boost circulation’, ‘to boost demand’, ‘to boost efficiency’, etc.
  • ‘abstract feelings/atmosphere’ as in ‘to boost one’s confidence’, ‘to boost the morale’, ‘to boost one’s spirits’, etc.

Were they the same as the categories that you came up with?

3. Show the collocates and have students guess the word

Reveal the collocates of a word one by one.
In competitive groups, students have to guess what the word might be.
The fewer the collocates needed to get the correct answer, the more points the group gets.


? + fees
? + framework
? + proceedings
? + rights
? + profession
? + services
? + system
? + advice
? + action

What word could go into all 9 gaps?
If you guessed ‘legal’, you scored your team a point!

For an extra bonus point, what do you think the top collocate of ‘legal’ might be?

Did you say ‘legal aid’?
You’re absolutely spot on!

4. Play ‘Explain/Draw/Act’ with the top 10 collocates of a word

Again in competitive teams, students have to guess the collocations by having one of their team members explain, draw or act out the collocation.

Say, the word is ‘house’.
Team A sends a representative to explain the collocation ‘publishing house’.
Next, Team B sends a representative to draw a ‘country house’.
Following that, Team C sends a representative to act out a ‘doll house’.
The teams are given a point for each correct answer.

Alternatively, one could use variations on ‘Explain/Draw/Act’ such as the common TEFL games ‘Back to Board’, ‘Board Rush’ or ‘Fastest buzzer first’.

5. Have students guess the top suffixes of a word

In the BYU-BNC corpus, one can search for suffixes by using the asterix.
(Note that different concordancing software might have different rules for usage)

By typing *organised, I can get the prefixes of the word ‘organised’ listed in order of frequency, e.g. ‘reorganized’, ‘well-organized’, ‘disorganized’, etc.

By typing sleep*, I can get the suffixes of the word ‘sleep’, including its morphological inflections, e.g. ‘sleeping’, ‘sleepy’, ‘sleeps’, ‘sleepless’, etc.

What therefore might the suffixes be when I type in *like* ?

Can you guess the top 10?

The BYU-BNC corpus that this blogpost is based on is of course by no means the only FOC corpus around.

Just The Word is another easy-to-use site that allows teachers and learners alike to analyse and explore the many facets of words.

Speaking extensively on the use of corpus, both for Business English teaching and training, and for ELT materials development, Evan Frendo has several helpful tips and advice on the use of corpora in his talks and in his slides which he makes readily available on his website.

For those interested in how English is used by Non-Native expert users, the VOICE corpus offers an alternative that could help elucidate how English is being used as a lingua franca, which could perhaps be of more relevance to our learners.

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: