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Drawing out the meanings of collocations

Students learn verb-noun collocations better by exploring the meaning of verbs and prepositions via drawings they then explain to their peers, according to a study by Mei-Hsing Tsai at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

Collocations such as ‘make a decision’ vs ‘do the cooking’ are challenging for students, who often learn the forms without any sense of why one verb is used rather than another. For example, make and do are equivalent in Chinese, adding to the confusion for the Chinese speakers in this study.

Traditionally, collocations are either learned incidentally, as they come along – or explicitly, by drawing attention to their forms. This kind of form-focussed instruction (FFI) practices recognising and recalling collocations repetitively.

An alternative kind of explicit teaching examines the meaning of verbs in order to understand how meaning influences which verbs are used with a particular noun. For example, ‘make’ implies producing something or accomplishing the verb in the collocation in some way, while ‘do’ suggests performing an action continuously, without an endpoint. This is concept-based instruction (CBI) rather than form-focussed.

Three groups of Chinese-speaking, intermediate-level English, first-year university students took part in Mei-Hsing’s study. One control class had no explicit teaching of collocations, one had FFI and one had CBI, each for 70 minutes. Their recognition and recall of collocations was tested before teaching, just after teaching and later.

During the CBI instruction, students were asked to make simple drawings (image schemas) to show their understanding of collocations such as ‘make a comment’ or ‘do research’. They then explained their drawings in pairs – and some to the whole class. This helps students internalise the way that the key words contribute to the meaning of the collocation.

For example, metaphor is common in collocations, such as ‘make a comment,’ as though the comment were an object being created, which in that sense, makes ‘make’ the logical choice rather than ‘do’.

Both FFI and CBI were clearly successful in teaching collocations to the students, but CBI was more successful – especially in the later testing, showing that retention of the collocations was better using the CBI method.

Sadly, no method can make complete sense of English collocations, but this concept-based style of instruction may help, and it certainly looks more fun.


  • Tsai, M-H. 2020. The effects of explicit instruction on L2 learners’ acquisition of verb-noun collocations. Language Teaching Research 24(2): 138-162
Image courtesy of Library
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Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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