File - The Teaching Portfolio of Li

The use of Collocations by college students of ESL Class
Qianwen Li
The Pennsylvania State University
1. Introduction
Collocation patterning is one of the difficulties that learners have in their academic writing. The
reason for this is that learners are not familiar with the typical lexica-grammatical environment
of words (Flowerdew, 2001). For this reason, I investigated the students’ production of
collocations in their writing essays. The use of English verb-noun collocations is investigated
from the writing assignments by first year international students in ESL writing class. Three
writing assignments are collected during this semester as the corpus data for this study. Due to
the fact that it would be too much work to investigate all the verb-noun collocations in students’
writing, the focus of this paper is on some of the light words including: do, get, give, make, take
and have. In the analysis, concordances are created and verb-noun collocations are extracted.
Subsequently, an analysis of students’ correct production of collocations and the deviations was
made. The result indicates that students have some difficulty in producing the correct
collocations in spite of the well-formed collocations they can produce. In the final part, some
pedagogical implications are suggested in future instruction.
2. Literature review
In this part, I will first give the definition of the term “collocation”. Also, I will discuss the
importance of collocation in language use and provide some previous researches on learners’ use
of collocations.
2.1 The definition of collocation
There is no certain definition of collocation. In this paper, I use the definition in Laufer (2011).
She defines collocation as habitually occurring lexical combinations that are characterized by
restricted co-occurrence of elements and relative transparency of meaning.
This definition has two -fold meanings. First, the pattern should be used by multiple language
speakers and is limited to certain word patterns. Take the verb-noun collocation as an example,
there should be only a limited number of verb(s) that could combine with the noun so that the
combination could be called collocation (e.g. pay attention to instead of give attention to).
Second, the meaning of the collocation itself is not vague. This definition distinguishes
collocation from idioms in that idioms are not transparent in meaning while collocations are.
2.2 The importance of collocation in language use
Collocations are a type of expressions which has been variously called prefabricated units,
chunks, multi-word units, or formulaic sequences (Foster, 2001; Howarth, 1998; Nattinger &
DeCarrico, 1992; Wray, 1999). They are made up of more than one word and are fixed to a
certain degree in terms of both lexical and syntactic level. Various studies have shown that
collocations play a major role in language use. The appropriate use of collocation indicates the
fluent language level and the accuracy use of the language by learner (Wray, 2002). Also, the
proper and frequent use of collocation often shows that the language learners have achieved a
certain level of mastery, especially advanced level in most of the cases.
2.3 Previous studies on collocations used by learners
Generally speaking, learners’ production of collocation has been shown to be problematic.
Learners produce fewer collocations than native speakers do. Learners overuse some of the
collocations with core words like “be”, “have” and “make” (Laufer, 2011). On the other hand,
learners underuse some of the other collocations when compared with native speakers (Granger,
1998; Kaszubski, 2000; Howarth, 1996). Studies also show that learners’ production of
collocations is heavily affected by their first language. In other word, learners can produce some
collocations well if these collocations have the similar structure in learners’ native language.
However, when the structure of collocation in English differs greatly from that in their mother
tongue, the production of these collocations is not frequent and more often than not problematic.
Besides, due to the vocabulary teaching method that focus on single word only, students have no
idea how a word combines with other words. So they tend to relate this to their first language, which is
one of the reasons that lead to the incorrect form of collocation.
3. Methodology
In this part, the research questions of this paper are presented first. Then, the data which are used
in this research are described in detail. Analytical procedures are also described in the part to
show how this research is conducted.
3.1 Research questions
The research questions in this study are as follows:
1. How is the production of well-formed collocations in the students’ assignments in general?
2. How is the production of deviant collocations from the students’ assignments?
3. What are the types of collocation they produced and the possible reasons that the errors occur?
3.2 Data
The corpus used in this study comes from the writing assignments of students in two ESL 015
classes at Penn State. This course is designed for all first year international students. There are
altogether 33 students in the two classes and they come from a variety of countries: 13 from
South Korean, 10 from China, 4 from Venezuela, 2 from Kazakhstan as well as one from
Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and Arabic respectively. The present corpus includes 3 assignments
of their writings. They are all non-academic, non-technical essays. In the first two assignments,
students are asked to summarize and provide a critical response to two articles from “The Blair
Reader.” The third assignment is the students’ reflection after reading the plagiarism tutorial on
PSU website. These assignments are all produces after class without any time limit. In all, there
are 99 writing assignments collected. There are altogether 31284 words and the average length is
316 words. All the assignments are collected with minimal editing. Only the students’
information, title of the essay, reference (including in-text citation) and teacher’s comments were
removed from the assignments. All the mistakes are kept without any change.
3.3 Analytical procedure
In this part, the definition of collocation I applied in this research is restated again. Then, the
detailed procedure is described with some considerations in the process of the data analysis.
3.3.1 What is collocation?
According to Laufer (2011), which has been discussed in literature review, collocation is
described as the habitually occurring lexical combinations that are characterized by restricted cooccurrence of elements and relative transparency of meaning.
3.2.2 Procedure
Due to the fact that it would be exhaustive to include all the verb-noun collocations from
students’ essays, some of the light verbs are picked up and focused on in this analysis. According
to Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics(2009), Light verb refers to a verb whose meaning
itself is not specific enough that a complement is needed to make it semantically clear to readers.
In this study, the following six light verbs: do, get, give, make, take and have, are included. On
one hand, these words are among the top ones in the general service list, which means they are
widely used in our daily life. On the other hand, previous research has shown that learners have
difficulty in the production of correct collocations with light verbs (Nesselhauf, 2005). So, the
assumption is made that students find it difficult in the production of the correct collocations.
After deciding the verbs that will be analyzed in this study, I used AntConc to create the
concordance list of these verbs. One aspect needed to be considered is that since verbs have
different forms in different tense, I also include the verb of the present form, past form, past
participle and –ing form. An example would be like give, gives, gave, given and giving are all
included as the search word. By doing so, verb-noun combination could be identified and
Having the concordance list of these words, two steps were taken in deciding whether the
combination is collocation. The first step is the manual selection. Words like “have”, “make”,
“do” and “get” are usually heavily used in students’ assignments and some of these in the
concordance list do not belong to verb-noun combinations at all. Examples of these types include
the following:
Have: 1. Perfect tense (have learned, had learned)
2. have (had) to
3. “have” as the causative verb (have me translate)
Make: 1. “make” as the causative verb (make me hesitate)
2. make sure
Do: 1. “do” in the present tense (do not want, Do I…)
2. “do” that refers to the previous action (In order to avoid plagiarism, there are many ways
to do that)
3. “do” in the Emphatic Pattern( I do (did) believe…)
Get: 1. “get” as the causative verb
2. get confused
3. get used to
4. get rid of
The next step is to determine whether the verb-noun combination belongs to collocation. The
tool I used is the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English
( If the combination appears in the dictionary, then the combination is
regarded as the collocation.
4. Findings and Discussions
4.1 How is the production of well - formed collocations in the students’ assignments?
The first research question deals with the general production of collocations in students’
assignments. Of all the three assignments, students produced 303 verb-noun combinations.
Among these combinations, 160 are well-formed collocations, taking 52.8% of all the verb-noun
combinations. The detailed number of each word and the percentage of the deviant collocations
are as follow:
Percentage of collocations
The percentages of well-formed collocations vary from word to word. The result in the table
shows that the well-formed verb-noun collocations with verbs like “do” and “give” have lower
percentages than other verbs, with 25% and 34.62% respectively. On the other hand, for words
like “get”, “make” and “have”, students can produce a comparatively higher percentage of
collocations, with 67.44%, 58.14% and 55.86% respectively.
4.2 How is the production of deviant collocations from the students’ assignments?
After looking at the well-formed collocations, here the focus will be on the deviant collocations.
The following table shows the production of deviant collocations in the corpora.
Deviant Collocations
Correct Collocations
total Percentage of deviant collocations
make 9
It can be seen from the table that some words such as “have”, “make” and “get” are used more
frequently than other words, with the total number of 92, 34 and 31 respectively, while words
like “do”, “take” and “give” are used less frequently. However, the percentages of deviant
collocations of “do”, “take” and “give”, which have the least total numbers, reach the highest
levels. Specifically, the percentages of deviant collocations of “give” and “take” are the highest,
which is around 35%. The word “do” also has a high percentage of deviant collocations (28.6%).
On the contrary, words which are used more frequently, including “get” and “have”, have the
lowest levels of misuse. For example, the percentage of deviant collocations of “get” is 6.5%
which is the lowest, and the percentage of “have” is 12% which is the second lowest.
4.3 3. What are the types of collocation students produced and the possible reasons that the
errors occur?
In order to answer this question, the wrong use of collocations is tagged in the writing
assignments. The errors are mainly divided into the following kinds:
The first kind is the incorrect use of noun in the collocation (tagged as [N])
The second is the incorrect use of verb (tagged as [V])
The third kind is the incorrect use of preposition (tagged as [P])
The errors of each type are listed below. In each sentence, the underline part is the deviant
collocation student produced and the correct words are shown in the brackets at the end of the
Deviation involving noun [N]
I think it is true that the language may have affect on other learning. (effect)
In paragraph 15, Tan brings up a new point saying that the kind of English spoken at
home can have affect on a student's performance on tests. (effect)
As I was attending school which is taking British curriculum for about 5~6 years, I
understand this very well. (class)
This mistake occurred twice in the assignments. The reason for the mistake is that the students
confuse affect with effect. Since this mistake is made by two Chinese students, it is
understandable that the two words have the similar meaning in Chinese. The only difference is
that “affect” works as verb while “effect” works as noun. So, students’ first language might have
influence on their production of the collocation, which might be the reason why students get
confused with these two words.
Deviation involving verb [V]
For example, when my parent, not really good at English, came to the United States to
have a tour and they had a problem. (make)
I sometimes ask my friends who are better in English to do the phone calls or ask
something to professor because I have used “broken” English for many years. (make)
There were also hackers in this website that supposedly they made a program that
allowed people to see who was looking at them while they were online. (wrote)
This article is not to get knowledge but it’s for people to understand what she thinks and
what she went through for her life. (gain)
My friends have parents who were never been able to get a school education (receive
Family language can give a negative influence to a student’s performance in school and
standardized tests. (have)
Once I get caught doing plagiarism I will get permanent record of my wrong action and
that surely would give bad effects on my future life. (have)
It is fair that many universities in the U.S. give a penalty for plagiarism. (impose)
She takes her stand by giving personal life experiences like not doing that great in high
school English or the SATs and even in college. (share)
Two languages can never perfectly combine together. We can even make some tricks on
this gap, like the Chinese internet word “gelievable”…(play)
The problem of the misuse of verb in collocation is the most serious one that students have.
Actually as we can see, most of these are still understandable in meaning, but the combination of
verb and noun is not the same as English speakers do. There might be some possible reasons for
this. Firstly, since these verbs are not semantically meaningful, it makes it hard for students to
tell the difference why some noun only collocate with certain verbs. Secondly, in some cases like
“receive education” and “get education”, the words “get” and “receive” have similar meanings,
the similarity makes students hard to tell the difference between the two. The slight difference in
meaning makes learners hard to make the correct collocations. Thirdly, the method of vocabulary
teaching focused a lot on single word instead of how the word are used with other words. This
leads to the problem that learners would “create” the collocation according to their mother
tongue usage, which turns out to be problematic most of the time.
It is interesting to note that although there are a lot of deviant collocations with these light verbs,
students also have a high percentage of producing them correctly according to the percentages of
the well-formed collocations. This point is also mentioned by Nesselhauf (2005). Although light
verbs belong to those that are difficult for learners, learners can also produce them correctly. So,
light verbs may not be regarded as the most difficult ones for learners.
Deviation involving preposition [P]
I do not have confidence of my writing thinking that “My work is not good enough” that
is just described in the tutorial. (in)
I believe doing a proper citation is for having confidence on my work and I will always
do the citation without any excuse. (in)
I believe I can get used of it before long. (to)
You will not only get the lowest grade on your courses, get the worst record in your
student database, you are even taken into court considering some special laws for
copyright! (to)
Family language can give a negative influence to a student’s performance in school and
standardized tests. (on)
The above 5 examples are the mistakes students made involving preposition. Though the reason
why students make these mistakes is not clear, it is assumed that these mistakes are probably
caused by the misuse of preposition in general. For example, the reason that students produced
“take into court” instead of” take to court” might due to the confusion with “to” and “into” . This
could be solved when teachers raise students’ awareness of the differences in instruction.
5. Discussion and conclusion
This study analyzed the production of verb-noun collocation in students’ writing assignments. In
this paper, the attention focuses mainly on the deviant ones. The result shows that students still
have some problems in producing correct collocations. Among the six light words that I analyzed
in this study, the use of “get” and “have” is better than the use of other words. As for the deviant
collocations in detail, deviation occurring with verb ranks as the most frequent mistakes. It
follows with misuse of prepositions and nouns. The reason why these deviant collocations occur
can be concluded to the following reasons.
Firstly, learners’ first language has a negative influence on their second language.
Secondly, because of the vague meaning of light verbs, learners have difficulty in producing
collocations correctly. Thirdly, the teaching of vocabulary might only focus on single word
without the introduction of the word combinations including collocation, where students may not
have the awareness of the correct collocations at all.
There are also some implications of this finding for the instruction of collocation. First of all, it is
necessary to have explicit activities in instruction for students to raise their awareness of
collocations. The purpose of explicit activities is that students could pay attention to these
collocations and raise their awareness that the word is followed with certain words. With implicit
instruction, on the other hand, students may not aware that the combination is collocation at all.
Secondly, it is better to regard collocation as a whole unit instead of a series of single words. The
deviant collocation investigated in this study indicates that students have problem in choosing
word that makes the collocation.
Therefore, if the collocation can be regarded as a whole unit and taught to students, it is likely
that the mistakes in production may reduce. Thirdly, the instruction of collocation should
consider multi-perspectives. The production of collocations is affected by several factors. Thus,
it is necessary to take into consideration the frequency, difficulty as well as the distribution
(Neseelhauf, 2005). For example, the disruption of collocations with the word “do” is not high
among students. However, the low frequency of the collocation production indicates that
students still have difficulty in the production of collocations with this verb. By doing so, teacher
can have a more balanced attention to the instruction of collocations instead of simply
considering single factor.
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