Mura’s blog EFL Notes is an excellent source of up to date, well-considered information on using corpora in ELT. Mura uses his elegant blog to talk to teachers about how to use concordancers in their jobs, and he’s recently published “Quick Cups of Coca”, which I thoroughly recommend. You can download this gem from his website, and you should do it today.
Using a concordancer to search corpora for information about the English language is a rewarding activity for anybody involved in ELT. It’s fascinating, absorbing, revealing, and it helps us to see the limitations of the explanations of grammatical forms, lexis, and lexical chunks that are offered by current coursebook writers, including those who claim to be implementing a lexical approach.
A concordancer helps you to examine these questions:
- What words occur in the corpus (a body of texts)?
- How often does each word occur? (Frequency counts)
- In how many different types of text (different subject areas, different modes, different mediums) does the word appear?
- Are there any significant subsets? (For example, in English, the 700 most frequent words account for 70% of all text.)
- What are the collocations of the target item?
- What are the contexts in which the word appears?
Taking a word as the search item, a concordancer will list all the different occurrences of the word in a text, it will count how often the word occurs, it will indicate what type of text the word appears in, and it will display the instances of the word in its context in a variety of formats, the most usual being the Key Word In Context (KWIC ) format, which lists all occurrences of the word in a 1 line context.
Tim Johns was among the first to suggest that a concordancer could be used in the classroom, either as a “silent resource” (just waiting until somebody asked a question it could help with), or as a means of making materials. Mura continues Tim’s work, and he does it splendidly. He uses one of the very best corpora available for free consultation (which is accompanied by a very user-friendly concordancer), namely COCA, a corpus containing more than 520 million words of American English text: 20 million words each year 1990-2015, equally divided among spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts.
Mura’s Quick Cups of COCA, which you can download from his site, is clear as a bell, uncluttered, interesting and thought-provoking. These are the tasks which he outlines:
- Using the wildcard asterisk to explore the difference between unmotivated and demotivated.
- How to look for synonyms.
- Variations of “bring to the boil”.
- Relative clauses.
- Lemmas (in this case benefit) and parts of speech.
- Compound words.
- Comparing words (in this case rotate and revolve).
- Clauses (in this case the verb claim: claim to have, claim to be, claim to know, etc.).
- Miscellaneous: possessives; past regular & irregular; progressive auxiliaries; passives.
Notice the breadth of the tasks. Mura has, I’m sure deliberately, chosen tasks that illustrate how broad is the sweep of questions that you can ask.
So many questions come to mind about the use of concordancers in ELT. There’s so much to discuss here, and, somewhat typically, Mura leaves us to muse for ourselves. I did my MA dissertation on concordancers (contact me if you’d like a copy) and I worked with Tim Johns and others to produce Microconcord, a concordancer published by OUP and still available (Google it). Here’s an example of a worksheet that I wrote 20 long years ago to accompany the Microconcord software:
ACTIVITY FOR MICROCONCORD
Activity: Examine the different ways that for and during are used.
How do you think the two words above are used? Here are two examples:
I haven’t seen Jim for two months.
I lived in Holland during the war.
A common mistake is:
x I haven’t seen Jim during two months. x
As a preliminary description, we can say that for is used to say how long something lasts, and during is used to say when something happened, but only in reference to a given stretch of time, like the second world war, or the summer holidays, for example. For is much more common than during, and it is used in more different ways.
Write down a sentence of your own for each word.
Now we will see what the concordancer can find.
Note: Have the BASIC INSTRUCTIONS sheet with you, so that you can follow the steps.
- Load the program.
- Type in: during\for as the search words.
- Hit RETURN.
- You see the texts that the program is sorting through, and a running total of the number of examples it has found. When the total is 100, hit the Esc key.
- You see at the bottom of the screen a report on how many examples it found, and their frequency. Hit RETURN.
- You see the examples of the 2 words in the middle of lines of text. They are sorted with 1st Right as first priority, and Search Word as second priority.
- Use the arrow keys to look through the examples.
- Use the arrow keys to go to the examples of during.
QUESTION: What words occur after during? Are there any examples that surprise you? Write down some examples of words that come after during.
9. Now look at the examples of for. There are a lot, and the word is used in different ways.
QUESTION: How many of the examples refer to how long something lasts? Write down 5 examples.
QUESTION: Can you identify other ways that for is used? Try to find different categories. Write down 5 sentences that interest you.
QUESTION: What would you add to the explanation at the beginning of the exercise?
Well, there it is. I won’t bother to comment on the worksheet, which has many weaknesses, save to note that it attempts to engage learners in an exploration, rather than simply telling them “the answer”.
For the moment I urge you to get a copy of Quick Cups of COCA, after which I hope you’ll talk about Mura’s work here, at his blog, and to all those who care about ELT.