Using corpora in class (the simple way)

Using corpora in language teaching has many advantages. Corpora are collections of genuine samples of written and spoken language, thus they can come in handy in courses which focus on communicative competence. They show the learner what is natural, rather than what is deemed correct by grammarians. This may turn into a disadvantage because corpora also contain less frequent and unusual examples of the language and the learner needs to develop an ability to distinguish the appropriate from the totally inappropriate/unacceptable. However, the opportunity to discover provides a valuable piece of experience. Although I don’t like the discourse promoting the distinction between NNS and NS English teachers, I can’t but admit that working with a corpus can be highly beneficial for less proficient non-native speakers of the language. Their contact with the target language is minimal in comparison with native speakers, who have usually been exposed to it since birth, which inevitably affects their intuition about what is natural and what is not.

Based on my teaching and learning experience, it’s not easy to incorporate corpora practice into everyday instruction. The learner simply needs some linguistic knowledge to be able to navigate through the environment. A quick survey at the secondary school where I teach showed that students know next to nothing about corpora or corpus linguistics. English teachers are usually familiar with the concepts but they mostly use corpora for their own purposes, never in the classroom.

Yet there are simple techniques which can be introduced at fairly early stages of learning a language. I’d like to share one of them, which is simple and doesn’t require a lot of language knowledge on the learner’s part. It does, however, need the teacher’s guidance. My favourite corpus query system is Sketch Engine. It’s a web-based programme which takes as its input a corpus of any language with an appropriate level of linguistic mark-up. It’s not completely free but there are some links which guarantee free access, such as the ones to Brown corpus and British Academic Written English Corpus. As a former student of Masaryk University, Brno, I have an unlimited access to Sketch Engine with all its functions.

On to the practical part. What I basically do with my intermediate students is collocation work. One of the possible ways to find frequent collocates is via Word Sketch. Let’s say I want to demonstrate in class how my students can spice up their written work. I tell them that it’s fine to say ‘the reason why...’ but it’s more effective to use the word reason with a collocate. What I need to do first is to click the British Academic Written English Corpus, for example. I select Word Sketch in the left-hand menu (figure 1) and type the word in the query box. Before I hit the Show Word Sketch button, I need to specify which part of speech the word is (Figure 2). In this case it is a noun I’m focusing on.

Figure 1

Figure 2

I’ looking for the left collocates which are, in other words, modifiers (see Figure 3). As you can see, some of the most frequent modifiers are main and possible. But there is a number of other less frequent collocates which students can choose from when writing an essay, for example.

Figure 3

There’s no need to go into more detail if you don’t want to scare or discourage your students. If you teach at a more advanced level, you can demonstrate how to work with concordances, but this is another subject. I must confess that I haven’t found an efficient way of using concordances in classes I currently teach. However, I’ve been pondering the idea of using a graded readers corpus, which would be more feasible.

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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

8 thoughts on “Using corpora in class (the simple way)”

  1. Excellent stuff. What do your students think of corpora? Did you use a computer lab or did the students use their own computers?

    I first heard of corpora in the e-book Walk on the Wild Side: Experimental Practices in ELT ( While I haven't used corpora in class yet, I have told my Korean coteachers about corpora and they're intrigued. A couple of them are always curious about idioms and usage, so corpora can help them find the answers when I'm not sure. You're right about unusual usages coming up, but with some guidance, corpora can be an invaluable tool for learning.


  2. Hi. I was introduced to corpus linguistics a couple of years ago and it was exciting! There’s so much one can do with concordances if they know how – it’s a real science. But I believe one has to be cautious when incorporating some of the techniques into teaching. This must be done slowly, step by step. I think my students would panic if I showed them more than I did. The technique I’m describing in my post was just a small experiment. I was demonstrating ways of improving their writing. The trouble is that students normally stick to bi-lingual dictionaries and/or Google at this stage (intermediate). What they do is that they have a Czech adjective in mind and look for the direct English translation. This doesn’t always work well because they end up with a very unusual collocate. They need to become aware of the fact that the need to look for a suitable ‘partner’. Yes, we have a computer lab for these purposes or I project stuff on the screen while demonstrating various techniques, and then I send links via e-mail or to our Facebook group so that the students can try things out on their own at home.
    Thanks for your comment.


  3. Yes indeed, slowly and step by step sounds ideal.
    My students tend to do the same thing with dictionaries and Google translations, which results in them parroting a lot of awkward sentences or words I know they don't know. Your technique's a good one for improving writing. I'll keep it in mind because there's on coteacher who's constantly working to improve her writing.

    Thanks for the information about class. Though I *can* assign homework, I know it won't get done because Korean middle and high school students have so many classes that they have little time for homework. Still, there's hope. The motivated students will find the time.


  4. hi Hana and Chewie

    naturally (due to nature of most corpora being written texts) there has been a bias in language teaching/learning uses of corpora to reception type activities of the type Hana describes in this post

    however production activities are also possible so using Hana’s example of reason, you could ask class to talk about the *main reasons students give for not doing homework*

    before reading Integrating corpora with everyday language_teaching by Ana Frankenberg-Garcia
    i had not considered this aspect of language skills when using corpora at all!

    although most work in using corpora in classroom has been done with post secondary education there has been some work done with younger learners e.g. see work by Alison Sealey in using corpus tools with primary school kids

    another point is that teachers need to note that not all language points are worth class time using corpus resources where say a good dictionary would be more suitable

    finally a quick plug for readers to check out the G+ corpus linguistics community -



  5. Thanks Mura. I'll definitely check out the work by Alison Sealey because I teach kids aged 12-19, so this may come in handy at some point. I definitely agree that not all points are worth class time using corpus resourses. That's why I approach this issue so tentatively, as you may have noticed 🙂
    Thanks for reading, commenting and all the useful links.



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