Making lessons authentic via the use of corpora

In one of my previous posts, I talked about a simple way of using corpora in class. I truly believe that a corpus can be a handy tool for any language learner, but the size of a corpus, as well as its layout, usually appears daunting at first glance, especially to less proficient learners of English. There’s no need to ask your students to laboriously analyse L2 data from a huge corpus when they still struggle with the language itself. In other words, as corpora are collections of authentic language, I estimate that an average A2 learner will find the enormous amount of data and the level of the language somewhat off-putting. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the prerequisites of a successful corpus-based lesson is its simplicity; it’s sufficient to show one simple, practical thing at a go.

Let me give you an example. My intermediate students (B1-B2) need to practise various written genres. Last time they were asked to write a formal letter as a reply to a job advertisement. I normally stick to a very commonplace procedure: I collect the assignments and correct and grade them at home, using various colour codes and abbreviations. I select the most recurring errors from all the essays, and afterwards I give my students detailed feedback (I wrote about it in detail here). However, I’m convinced there is more you can do for your students’ language progress.

Here are a couple of excerpts from a student’s writing I’ve just corrected:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writting to apply for the post of a part-time job, which I saw on a billboard next to the hospital. 

………. I consider myself to be accommodating, hard-working and I am good in talking and playing with children. 

……. I am enclosing my CV.
……. I look forward to hearing from you. 

For starters, you can teach your students a very simple thing – how to check the frequency of certain phrases and how to look for alternatives. As you can see, my student had decided to use Dear Sir or Madam at the beginning of the letter. This is fine, but I can ask the class if they are familiar with other ways of addressing people in formal correspondence. Let’s first look at the student’s choice, namely at how frequent it is in comparison with other possibilities. Dear Sir or Madam got 7 hits in the British National Corpus.

I remember that when I was an intermediate learner myself, we were taught that we can also use a plural form, Dear Sirs or Madams. Let’s check what the BNC has to say …

The empty result may imply that this way of greeting people is pretty unnatural. When checking out other possibilities, you’ll come across an option that is more frequent than the other two above – Dear Sir/Madam (26 hits). However, although the corpus shows that this way of addressing people is quite common, it doesn’t say if it’s always the best option. It turns out that under certain circumstances, it is safer to opt for a different greeting.

Let’s have a look at another chunk from the student’s writing I find worth focusing on a bit: I am writing to [apply for]. Now, I’d zoom in on I am writing to …  The first question I would ask my students is: Apart from apply, what other verbs can follow? You can find out by looking at the right collocation candidates. You’ll get the following examples:

I am writing to confirm
I am writing to express….¨
I am writing to inform
I am writing to thank ….
I am writing to offer ….

You might want to work with the above chunks and ask your students to complete them with their own answers. What do we normally confirm/express? What preposition do we typically use with thank/inform? What can you offer? Alternatively or additionally, you can check the corpus again; by clicking on a few example sentences you can see what other users of English opted for.

There’s one more thing I’d definitely elaborate on in a follow-up lesson and that is the phrase: I consider myself …. You can let your student figure out for themselves that it’s possible to say I consider myself to be [adjective/noun] or just I consider myself [adjective/noun]. I believe that their own discovery will make the structures more memorable than if they just saw them in a grammar table in their coursebook. Encourage your students to only focus on the red parts of the sentences and their immediate surroundings. Although there are tons of other things you can do with the sample sentences, this is, for the time being, just enough for an intermediate learner of English.

What comes to mind now is a personalised speaking activity. What qualities would you ascribe to you/your friends/other members of your family? I consider myself/my best friend/my brother …

The activities I describe above constitute the base of a very authentic lesson, which draws on students’ own written production, as well as examples of writing of other users of English. Such a lesson elaborates on what students already know, plus it demonstrates how to work with a very useful online tool.

Apart from corpora, there are other tools that work in the same vein, such as FrazeIt, Just The Word, or Netspeak, which are probably more user-friendly since you don’t need to register for them. Needless to say, Google is the easiest and most accessible web-based tool for working with authentic language, and it comes in handy when one needs to look up something really quickly.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Corpora, Technology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Making lessons authentic via the use of corpora

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi Hana

    for an A2 student one could embed a corpus search into the comments of a word document as described here – http://call4teachers.blogspot.fr/2009/08/integrating-web-based-concordance-in.html and in this poster https://tesolpeter.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/parise_concordance-feedback-poster_2014_e99bbbe6b097e9809ae4bfa1e5a4a7e5ada6_final2.pdf

    though the student would have needed some training on looking at concordance lines beforehand

    i think it is also worthwhile to highlight any language issues to the genre moves of application writing

    another thought is to collect previous students (corrected) application writing letters to use as a corpus that a current class could use to look at how moves are signalled by peers? an advantage being that the language would be easier to handle for lower level students

    and finally another cheeky plug for the G+ Corpus Linguistics community – https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/101266284417587206243

    ta
    mura

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for turning this post into a dialogue, Mura. It's amazing how you always push my thinking a few steps further. I really love the idea of embedding a corpus search into the comments of a word document – this definitely helps the student become more responsible for their L2 development from very early stages of learning. As you say, the student would always need some kind of training. This presupposes that also the teacher is well trained. Unfortunately, not many teachers I work with are familiar with corpora. Thus raising awareness among EFL teachers is essential if we want learners to start using corpora. Thanks for all the links!

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  3. I'm intrigued, but definitely in the need more training camp. What has the student response been like? Do they pick it up quickly? Do you think some use it on their own outside of class?

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi, Jeremy. You raise some good points here. I know the topic looks daunting at first sight. However, complexity is not the main problem I cope with – you could overcome this by a bit of student training. The trouble is that I mainly teach groups of secondary students, those who are usually around B1-B2 level. Whenever I introduce corpora for the first time, my students look somewhat puzzled; not because corpora look difficult to navigate, but because my students think they won’t need such an intricate tool. They have Google after all. So it’s not easy to convince them that a corpus might come in handy someday – at university, for example, where they’ll be required to write a lot. The truth is that they can easily do without corpora at their current level of proficiency. However, I take it as my duty is to show them that something like this is available out there. There might be some keen linguists who’ll play with the tool in the end. You never know.

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  5. Pingback: #200 | How I see it now

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