According to Wikipedia, "collocation is defined as a sequence of words or terms which co-occur more often than would be expected by chance." For example, heavy smoker is a collocation (notice, we could say *strong smoker or *great smoker, but we generally don't.)
Back in 1993, Michael Lewis published The Lexical Approach, a book that has been rather influential in TESL circles, in which he pushes a view that has teachers designing and using activities to bring students attention to specific collocations. It has students recording, working with and studying these collocations. In the TESL-L discussion, I argued that this view was both unworkable and unprofitable, mainly because of the low frequency of collocations.
While language learners can build knowledge of collocations through extensive reading and listening, this is not something that we can do effectively by design in the classroom.
A few years ago, I looked at vocabulary in a reading textbook series that our program uses, Interactions. I ignored the most common 1,000 word families (from the GSL) because most of our students know these when they enter the program, but looked at the second thousand most common words and the 560 words of Averil Coxhead's Academic Word List (AWL) (using Tom Cobb's Compleat Lexical Tutor site). I found that, in Interactions 1 Reading and Interactions 2 Reading combined, 60% of these word families appeared less than four time, with singletons being the largest group. Only 24% of word families were repeated more than 7 times. Given this low repetition for individual word families in textbooks, it's clear that there are VERY few collocations that will turn up more than once. And that's over two successive 16-week courses. If they don't recur, students are very unlikely to pick them up.
So what if you deal with them out of context? The problem is that there are simply too many. If you teach strong wind as one poster to TESL-L suggested, then shouldn't you also teach wind's more common collocates: rain, blow, cold, speed, gone, and through (according to Collins COBUILD Corpus Concordance Sampler). That's seven. So, if we're looking at the top 2,000 words in English, and we estimate that there are an average of 3 collocates each that are as strong as strong wind, that's 6,000 collocates (minus whatever mutual collocates there are). There's simply no way you could spend class time on more than a fraction.
Even if you did focus entirely on collocation, the payback would be minimal. If we can take the British National Corpus (BNC) as being representative of English as a whole, then the strong wind collocation occurs a mere 3.06 times per million words (strong within 4 words either side of wind(s)). In contrast, a "difficult" word like compromise (which is not even in the top 2,000 words of English) occurs singly 10 times more often. So, is it more worthwhile to enrich students' understanding of wind by looking at collocates, or to have students study a basic meaning for compromise? Wouldn't "big wind" or "heavy wind" get them by just fine?
Here are a few things for teachers to keep in mind when they consider teaching collocations:
- many collocations are obvious and require no teaching (e.g., look out the window; read/write/publish a book).
- many collocations are too specialised to bother teaching to moststudents (e.g., insolvency act)
- most collocations are too infrequent to bother teaching (e.g., rancid butter; a glimmer of hope)
- individual words are often far more frequent than even a strong collocation, so keep things in perspective