Friday, October 24, 2014

Five ways to introduce concordances to your students.

I don't know about you, but I find that students today have limited experience in applying discovery learning, or 'data driven learning' as Tim Johns described the discovery of English from patterns in concordances.  So, I've put together a brief description of four collocation samplers or collocation dictionaries which may be the most useful way to expose students to the idea of concordancing and corpora.

Just the Word

This blog post has more details on how to use Just the Word, including some ideas on how to introduce this tool to students.  Just-the-Word is a front-end to the British National Corpus, and provides you with a an easy way to survey collocations in that corpus.  I stumbled across the work of Phil Edmonds almost a decade ago, and his Just The Word it is still one of my favourite collocation samplers.

Phil Edmonds of Sharp Labs - father of Just-the-Word

Little did I realize, but Phil is a Canadian like me!  Read a little background into Phil's life and work at Sharp Labs.   For those of you curious about how Just-the-word came to be, read this interview.

Anyway, back to Just-the-Word.  Below is a screenshot of the 'alternatives' feature, having put in 'valuable lessons' as the search string.  You will see it gives the adjective collocates of 'lessons' (valuable, important, salutary) as well as the noun collocates of 'valuable' (lessons, experience, exercise, point) along with a frequency of use indicator.  Really nice!!!  Thanks Phil!!!

Just-the-Word output for 'alternatives' to phrases

Unfortunately, Phil runs the site on a shoestring, and the server can go down unexpectedly. I'm not sure if the interruptions are related to the amount of donations received on any given week, but if you do use this site and you want to support Phil, there is a DONATE button.  Anyway,  Just-the-Word was down the other day in a session I was holding on concordancing, which threw a monkey wrench into my session. I didn't have a contingency plan so after the session I had a look around for a few more tools that I can have up my sleeve if Just-the-Word is not working.

OZDIC - collocations dictionary

You can use OZDIC online at - basically a collocation dictionary.

Home page of the OZDIC collocations dictionary

It has an entry for each collocation, so they appear on a page.  That means, unlike Just-the-Word, this is not linked dynamically to a corpus.  So, only the words chosen by the dictionary, and their collocations, will appear.  Here is an example for the collocates of 'lessons' - as you can see from the URL, this is on a pre-defined web page:

OZDIC dictionary entry for LESSON

As you can see, under the second meaning (something learnt through experience), the same adjective collocates appear as in Just-the-Word...minus the frequency data or any dynamic links to contexts in a corpus.  Nevertheless, quite useful, but I do miss the dynamic link to a corpus.  There is another site that is similar to Just-the-Word in that sense, it is Word Neighbors.  

Word Neighbors

Word Neighbors home page
The interface lets you search dynamically for a word or a phrase, and you can also specify whether you are looking for collocates left or right of the word in question, and you can also allow for words to appear in a span of words left or right.  In addition, you can limit the search to a specific part of speech of the word.  Here is a screenshot of the collocates of 'lesson'.  

As you can see below, the same adjective collocates appear as in the other two sites, but like Just-the-Word, Word Neighbors includes the frequency of use as well as a link to the authentic contexts from the corpora it is linked to.  The full search includes 141 million words from a number of different corpora, unlike Just-the-Word which is based on the 100 million word British National Corpus.  Also, unlike Just-the-Word, you can select a specific corpus if you want, say, to look for collocates in a corpus of spoken English.  And, the output from Word Neighbors is given as a parsed URL, so it is really handy to give a link to a specific collocate pattern directly to a student.  Here is the link for the collocate pattern of ADJECTIVE + lessons shown below:  

Word Neighbors output for ADJ + LESSONs pattern


I'm not sure where I came across this, or if someone sent me the link, but is quite a nice simple tool.  It has a set of 'symbols' that let you form search patterns.  You can just click on the example below the search box, and you will see the results.  Very easy to figure out.
NetSPEAK home page - elegant simplicity

Below is the result of a search pattern looking for words similar to IMPORTANT occurring before the word LESSONS.  

NetSPEAK output for words similar to IMPORTANT before LESSONS
I tried looking for words similar to VALUABLE occurring before LESSONS, but there were too many instances of VALUABLE over other adjectives.  This is one aspect of the use of any such tool -- the results are sometimes unpredictable or not always useful.  It does require a bit of trial and error, which demands some curiosity and sticktivity on behalf of the user.  These qualities are not easy to instill or draw out of students who are used to mobile devices that deliver everything on a silver platter.  But, the rewards are great in terms of language learning if these qualities are developed.


StingNet is another interactive tool that is worth looking at.  It is also extremely powerful, but the interface can be a bit confusing for the uninitiated.  The home page is simple enough:  But there are many layers of complexity that unfold in the output.  Below is an example of my quest to find the ADJECTIVES that appear before LESSONS.  As you can see, the collocates IMPORTANT, VALUABLE and SALUTARY appear high in the frequency list.  You can also see the examples drawn from the corpus.  While the interface looks a bit confusing at first, it is easy to navigate through the layers by clicking on elements in the table, so once you get used to that it provides a neat way to get lost in a word.  I can think of a lot worse places to be lost!


  1. Great resourses, hocam! I haven't studied all the sources you listed above, but I have a question. These tools are perfect in finding collocations of mostly two words, but what about collocations of more than two words, and especially collocations with prepositions. You see, some structures with prepositions and nouns include also articles, which automatically involve at least 3 words in one collocation. And preps and articles are the hardest things in English to both learn and teach :(
    I wonder if there is this kind of search engine or software that can help us with that...

    1. There are lists of NGRAMS for multiple word chunks. See as an example. However, for teaching purposes, I often use - useful for specific examples, e.g., "AT WEEKENDS" or "ON WEEKENDS" See for the British English and for the American English version. Interesting to note that the word 'weekend' only entered the English lexicon around 1940! I guess everyone worked six day weeks before then??? Also, perhaps an interesting correlation to the close relationship between Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher might explain the 'spike' in the British use of the American preference for 'ON WEEKENDS'. :)