The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 07, 2016

Teaching about vocabulary: Colligation

Recently, I gave a talk at an EAP conference at St Andrews University about encouraging EAP students to learn vocabulary independently. I argued that rather than trying to teach students all the vocab items they need to know in class (arguably an impossible task), it’s more effective to teach them about vocabulary. By that I mean, teaching about some of the key features of English (academic) vocabulary that will help students to better understand the words they come across in their studies; to know what to look out for and how to find out more (using dictionaries, etc.).

I mentioned several features of vocabulary that teachers might focus on in class including lexicogrammatical features (e.g. countable and uncountable nouns), word formation, collocation, dependent prepositions, register and connotation. The feature that people seemed less familiar with, and which several people asked me about, was colligation. I’ll fess up now that despite having been involved in dictionaries and vocab teaching for many years, it’s a relatively new term to me too. That’s not to say I wasn’t familiar with the general concept, but I didn’t have a nice neat term for it.

So where collocation is the inclination of lexical items to appear together, colligation is the tendency of words to appear together with particular grammatical structures or forms. Probably the most obvious example that appears in coursebooks is where particular words are typically followed by a verb in an infinitive or gerund form; decide to do, enjoy doing, tendency to do, avoid doing, etc. But it can also include, for example, the way that certain words tend to be used in negative constructions;

There seems to be no need for government regulation.
Established universities have traditionally not felt the need to market their services.

It’s the kind of information that learner’s dictionary typically highlight in example sentences, either by bolding the key elements or sometimes using a ‘frame’;

[+ to infinitive] I can’t afford to buy a house.
[+ that] The Prime Minister has announced that public spending will be increased next year.
(Examples from Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

I think it’s an under-exploited area in the classroom. Beyond an occasional activity on the following gerund/infinitive thing, I suspect colligation issues mostly get picked up in feedback (when students have come up with an awkward colligation in their writing) rather than being highlighted proactively.

As with the other features, I’m not a fan of presenting students with long lists of colligations, but raising awareness of the way that particular words behave grammatically as they crop up is, I think, a key part of helping students to notice patterns and to hopefully use vocabulary more fluently and effectively.

* Hunston, S. (2001) Colligation, lexis, pattern, and text

Labels: , ,