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TESL vocabulary books, concordancers and corpuses

Click here to skip the book list and go to the use of concordancers and corpuses e.g. The British National Corpus for the above purpose.


Teaching English vocabulary


Vocabulary Practice for learners


Vocabulary Games for the classroom



Using concordancers and corpuses


A concordancer can help you learn or teach the right vocabulary for a given purpose. It may be that you want to find the most frequently used words for referring to a subject, covering a topic, or expressing and idea. Within this context, teachers may want to find the most useful items to include in lesson plans and practice materials.

The best way to learn what a concordancer can do is to use one.

Many are listed here. In some cases, simple registration is needed to proceed.

  1. British National Corpus - simple search

  2. British National Corpus - full search

  3. Corpus of Contemporary American English

  4. Michigan Corpus of Upper-Level Student Papers

  5. English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings

  6. Study English as a Lingua Franca

  7. Written English as a Lingua Franca in Academic Settings

You merely need to enter a word or vocabulary item in an input box similar to that of a Search Engine. The concordancer will return some example sentences from corpus data illustrating how the word is most frequently used. Some concordancers allow you the option or oblige you to select the categories of corpus data targeted by your search. However, if you limit your corpus data to the stories of Agatha Christie, certain search strings will yield few results.

If your learners have access to the Internet, you can set them classwork or homework which involves the use of a concordancer. The tasks you give them could focus on vocabulary (e.g. lexical items in collocation), grammar (syntagmatic relations) or contexts in which syntax and semantics combine to differentiate meanings (e.g. "I think" versus "I am thinking").

It is possible to ask the concordancer to return a list of example sentences where strings of more than one word occur and it is also possible to focus on morphemes or difficult consonant clusters within individual words.


Sample tasks to complete with a CONCORDANCER

  1. [LEXICAL] Your teacher tells you that the word "sill" is usually spoken or written after the word "window". Is this true? Make sure you select a corpus which is large enough to give you a few results containing the word "sill". You can use the operator is equal to providing you enter whole words.

  2. [LEXICAL] Buy or borrow an English vocabulary practice book on collocations such as "The LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations" Edited by Jimmie Hill and Michael Lewis. Some authors of books on collocations use their intuitive knowledge of what learners need to know [based on many years teaching experience] in order to select practice examples. Other authors use a concordancer to check that their collocations are the most frequent for the constituent words used. Refer to some of the examples of the collocations in your practice book and test out their constituents using a computer concordancer, taking care to select a suitable corpus. Does each constituent frequently make up a collocation or are you being taught collocations which constitute rare use of each constituent? Is the practice book really useful?

  3. [GRAMMATICO-SEMANTIC] Your teacher tells you that the verb HAVE usually implies "ownership", "possession" or "embodiment" when used lexically in Simple tenses, but can mean several very different things [e.g. "experiencing", "taking" or "eating"] when used in Progressive or Continuous Tenses. Use the concordancer and the corpus data to prove your teacher wrong, right or only partly right. Compare the results for the search strings: "has" and "is having".

  4. [PHONOLOGICAL] Your teacher tells you that there are only a few words in the English language ending in the consonant cluster "pths". Is this true? You will need to select the operator contains the string when searching on parts of words such as "pths".


It is possible to use a large search engine such as www.google.co.uk instead of a concordancer. Familiarity with google's search operators would help here.

One activity is to attempt to find foreign language web sites by entering clusters of consonants or combinations of alphabetical letters which are not possible in your native language. This activity could be set as part of a basic language awareness course or as a way of explaining complementary distribution to undergraduates studying linguistics.


Vocabulary building using other computer utility software

Use of wildcard searches in the creation of word building practice exercises.

Older people who have used DOS-based WordPerfect 5.1, popular during the late 1980s and early 1990s, may remember a very useful utility called SPELL.

This was the software I used to research my lists of Final Consonant Clusters offered within the 'pronunciation section' of this site.

This utility permits you to search the large number of words contained in WP5.1's Spell Check files and is excellent for solving crossword clues which you cannot otherwise complete. If you enter the consonant cluster *pth* as a search string, it will return the results 1. depth 2. depths 3. opthalmitis 4. upthrow 5. upthrows 6. upthrust 7. upthrusts.

The asterisks in the search string *pth* are known as wildcat characters. This means that any number of letters can precede or follow the search string providing they are within the word. Crossword enthusisasts can make good use of search strings such as ???ses. The use of question marks as wildcat characters means that precisely three alphabetical letters precede the three known letters in the answer to the clue. The Spell utility will return a list of all the words (51 in total) containing exactly six letters and ending in the string ses. You can use any combination of wildcats standing in for single unknown letters together with the letters in the answer which you have uncovered by successfully completing other answers to clues.


Corpus lingusitics

The British National Corpus

The Collins Cobuild Project - Looking Up: An Account of the Cobuild Project in Lexical Computing, edited by J.M. Sinclair


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