I don’t think anyone could argue with the need to learn collocations such as “extremely (not fabulously) sorry”, “go (not do) jogging” and “a bird (not chicken) in the hand is worth two in the bush” at every stage of language learning. However, there are all kinds of theoretical and practical problems with actually using class time to help students learn such things.
Perhaps the biggest problem in class is that the activities which are usually put in textbooks (e.g. two rows of words which you must link with lines and multiple choice gapfills) are boring, uncommunicative and could just as easily be done at home alone. It is of course worth spending some lesson time on things students need to do outside class to really learn collocations, but sooner or later students are going to need some fun to keep them from giving up the rather daunting task of learning collocations. There also doesn’t seem to be any reason to drop our emphasis on communication only for this language point. This article gives a few suggestions on how to retain fun and genuine communication when tacking collocations. The games are roughly arranged to start with ones that practise collocations with simple pairs of words like “fail”/ “lose”. The article then moves onto collocations with larger groups of words, and ends with games suitable for dealing with collocations with potentially very large groups of words such as all dependent prepositions. However, most of the games can be used with all those three kinds of collocation.
Collocations with two words
Textbooks have been teaching things like “do”/ “make” (“do homework” but “make breakfast”), “have”/ “take” and “go”/ “play” sports since long before the word “collocations” made its way into the students’ book, perhaps because with these kinds of pairs there are loads of obvious games where students race to show their knowledge of which of the two it must be. The most fun of all is Stations, in which students race to touch one of two opposite walls depending on whether they think the word they heard goes with “do” or “make”, but this is only really suitable for young learners. Young learners can also throw things (e.g. screwed up paper, paper aeroplanes or sticky balls) at one of the two words on the board, raise different body parts to represent each word (e.g. foot up for “have” and elbow up for “take”), or pretending to shoot one for the two words on flashcards in different parts of the room. Adults can also join in by raising one hand for each word or raising cards with the two words (e.g. “make” and “do”) written on them.
You can also play matching games such as Snap and Pelmanism with paired up collocations, but these tend to work better with larger groups of words such as “do”, “play” and “go” for sports, dealt with below.
Collocations with three or four words
For collocations with three or four words like “have”/ “take”/ “get” and “go”/ “go to”/ “do”/ “play”, it is possible to give students more than two things to hold up, touch etc as described above, but it is generally better to get them matching expressions that take the same words, e.g. “your time” with “a while” because they both go with “take” (rather than “get” or “have”). The simplest activity is to give them cut up pieces of paper with the expressions without the three or four words they collate with, then ask them to work in groups to put them into columns. If they get stuck, you can give them a clue such as that all of the columns should be the same length.
I then often move onto playing the popular memory game pelmanism with the same pack of cards. Students spread the cards face down across the table and take turns trying to find pairs of cards that take the same word, e.g. “judo” and “aerobics” because they both take “do” rather than “play”, “go to” or “go”. Any pairs of cards that collate with different words must be placed back down in exactly the same place, making this a test of memory in two different ways. This version works better than the more common form of collocations pelmanism in which students should find the two parts of the collocation (e.g. they have to find the “do” card and the “judo” card) as it is closer to the original card game and takes less time to play.
The next stage for me is getting them to remember the collocations more quickly, as they will need to in real life. This can be practised with the matching game Snap. Students have a pack of cards each which they can’t look at. They take turns placing their top card face up on one of the two packs of cards on the table, racing to shout “Snap” if the two packs show matching cards at any point. The person who shouts “Snap” fastest when the cards match can take all the cards put on the table up to that point. Anyone who shouts “Snap” when they don’t match must pay some kind of penalty, e.g. giving two cards to the other player(s). The person with the most cards when the game stops (or the person with all the cards while their partner has none) wins.
Other games such as personalised sentence completion guessing games also work with this number of words, but are easier with the larger number of words dealt with below.
Collocations with a larger number of words
There are also examples of large lists of words students have to mentally choose from to find the right collocation, perhaps the most famous of which are dependent prepositions (good + at, depend + on, etc) and adverb collocations (highly + dependent, crucially + important, etc). It is these kinds of words which are invariably given in textbooks as two columns of words that must be joined up with lines, which is a shame when it is very easy to add communication to exactly that exercise. With young learners, you can put the two columns of words up on the board and get the whole class to shout out instructions for a blindfolded student so that they can draw lines to make the collocations. With adults and higher level young learners working in pairs you can simply give the left hand column to one student and the right hand column to the other and get them to match up “tall” and “story” without looking at each other’s worksheets. This works best if they also have halves of a complete sentence that they can use to check their match, e.g. “I think you are telling me a tall” plus “story. I know you don’t have a girlfriend, let alone two”. Similar games can be played as a mingle activity or a shouting dictation, although you will need individual slips of paper rather than worksheets for this.
Another possibility with the last suggestion above is to make the example sentences questions which they can ask each other after the matching exercise is finished, e.g. “Do any of your friends tell tall” plus “stories? Does that make them popular?” As with any list of vocabulary, students can also create their own discussion questions, stories or dialogues using the collocations.
A general vocabulary game that can work with collocations is the Definitions Game. Students are given collocations such as “have a picnic” and must explain what is written without using any of the words included in the collocation (e.g. “It means eat in an outdoor place. The verb has a similar meaning to take.”) until their partners guess exactly the words that are in the collocation. This game can be made more intensive practice by getting them to prepare cards to play Taboo, in which each collocation comes with three words that the person defining cannot say.
There is also a TEFL game that is most well known with exactly this language point, being dominoes. Cards are created with just collocations or whole sentences with collocations in them, split where the collocations occur. The rules of the game are exactly the same as real dominoes. Unlike the version given in many photocopiable TEFL books, this works best if each word collates with more than one other card, making it more like the original dominoes game. This can mean that the game finishes before all the cards are used, but they can simply play again and then maybe work together to link all the words together in a big circle.
The idea of cards which you put together by their collocations can also be used to make a kind of jigsaw. Take any text and split it where there are strong collocations, putting the different sections of the story onto different slips of paper, e.g. by pasting them section by section into a one-column table in a word processing program. Give each group of students one cut up text. The students try to reconstruct the text using meanings, collocations and their ideas of how the information might be organised, then you can test them on their memory of the collocations they saw.
Students can also use collocations to reconstruct texts in other ways. Write a text full of useful collocations (or rewrite a text to have more), then get the students to reconstruct it word by word. One way of doing this is a bit like Hangman but with each gap being a word rather than a letter. The second game is similar, but you give students the first word of the text and they try to guess the next word each time, with the real word being given after three wrong guesses.
You can also do another kind of jigsaw task, one that is more similar to actual jigsaws. Make a table with collocations split up and put into neighbouring boxes, e.g. the top left box says “have” and the next one says “breakfast”, then the box to the right of that has “take” with “a shower” in the fourth column. Cut up the finished table so that the collocations are all split up but all the cards are connected to at least one other next to, above or below it. This means that students can use the overall rectangular shape of the table and neighbouring words needing to both match up if to help them put together all the collocations – plus it is a lot more fun than just simple matching!
Another puzzle-style activity is a collocations maze. Make a table with collocations with the same word missing tracing a path through from the top left corner to the bottom right one. For example, you could have “He’s the ________ of my eye” in the top left corner, “An _____ a day keeps the doctor away” under it, “Adam’s ___________” to the right of that etc, until you reach the bottom right corner. The size of the table will depend on how many useful collocations with one word you can think of, and if that isn’t enough to make a decent-sized table you could also allow diagonal movements. All the other squares in the table should be filled with similar distractors, meaning phrases that can’t be filled with that one word but people might think you could like “Wow, your new girlfriend is a _________”. As with these examples, it is best if the words in the gaps are similar to each other, e.g. all simple verbs or all prepositions. Once you’ve filled the table with collocations and distractors, give it to students to try and trace a route across. You could then elicit the missing words from the other squares and/ or give them blank grids to make similar puzzles to test other groups.
A game that I’m pretty sure I made up (although I’m sure many other people have too) is something I call Collocations List Dictation. The students are given a list of words which have many collocations, with each word being given with at least seven examples of collocations they should know or at least understand, e.g. “hand – give me a hand, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, many hands make light work, etc”. A student reads out collocations with the key word missing until their partners guess what the missing word is.
A game that I came up with more recently but haven’t tried yet is Collocations Uno/ Collocations Blackjack. Students are dealt around ten cards with common words with lots of collocations such as “get”, “hand” and “in” each (some of the words can be repeated in the pack). They can look at their cards but shouldn’t show them to each other. The first student lays down any card and the next student should lay down a word that collocates with it. This continues round and round the group of three to five students until one person can’t go. That person takes three extra cards from the pack and lays down any one and the game continues in the same way. The person with least cards left when the teacher stops the game is the winner.
The students will need the help of the teacher or a dictionary to check their answers in many of the games above, e.g. Collocations Blackjack and Collocations Dominoes. There are also games specifically for prompting use of dictionaries. One is a version of the old TEFL classic Call My Bluff. Students are given a list of words and must write down a list of real collocations and wrong ones that they have made up (or perhaps directly translated from L1), all with their meanings. They read one set of real and false collocations and the other teams try to guess which are really used in English.
Another good source of collocations is obviously texts that they read. This can be made more fun by getting them to scan texts as quickly as possible for collocations, guess the story from the collocations and then read and check, try to remember the collocations and hence the whole text from it, etc.
Collocations are very difficult to personalise, but this can be done by giving them sentence stems that end with words which have many collocations, e.g. "I often have ___________", "My mother makes ______________ for me" and "I _________________ bed". Students can read out just the part that they have written for their partner to guess which sentence, or they can mix up their true sentences with false ones for the partner to work out which is which.
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