Using corpora in class (the simple way)

Using corpora in language teaching has many advantages. Corpora are collections of genuine samples of written and spoken language, thus they can come in handy in courses which focus on communicative competence. They show the learner what is natural, rather than what is deemed correct by grammarians. This may turn into a disadvantage because corpora also contain less frequent and unusual examples of the language and the learner needs to develop an ability to distinguish the appropriate from the totally inappropriate/unacceptable. However, the opportunity to discover provides a valuable piece of experience. Although I don't like the discourse promoting the distinction between NNS and NS English teachers, I can't but admit that working with a corpus can be highly beneficial for less proficient non-native speakers of the language. Their contact with the target language is minimal in comparison with native speakers, who have usually been exposed to it since birth, which inevitably affects their intuition about what is natural and what is not.

Based on my teaching and learning experience, it's not easy to incorporate corpora practice into everyday instruction. The learner simply needs some linguistic knowledge to be able to navigate through the environment. A quick survey at the secondary school where I teach showed that students know next to nothing about corpora or corpus linguistics. English teachers are usually familiar with the concepts but they mostly use corpora for their own purposes, never in the classroom.

Yet there are simple techniques which can be introduced at fairly early stages of learning a language. I'd like to share one of them, which is simple and doesn't require a lot of language knowledge on the learner's part. It does, however, need the teacher's guidance. My favourite corpus query system is Sketch Engine. It's a web-based programme which takes as its input a corpus of any language with an appropriate level of linguistic mark-up. It's not completely free but there are some links which guarantee free access, such as the ones to Brown corpus and British Academic Written English Corpus. As a former student of Masaryk University, Brno, I have an unlimited access to Sketch Engine with all its functions.

On to the practical part. What I basically do with my intermediate students is collocation work. One of the possible ways to find frequent collocates is via Word Sketch. Let's say I want to demonstrate in class how my students can spice up their written work. I tell them that it's fine to say 'the reason why...' but it's more effective to use the word reason with a collocate. What I need to do first is to click the British Academic Written English Corpus, for example. I select Word Sketch in the left-hand menu (figure 1) and type the word in the query box. Before I hit the Show Word Sketch button, I need to specify which part of speech the word is (Figure 2). In this case it is a noun I'm focusing on.

Figure 1

Figure 2
I' looking for the left collocates which are, in other words, modifiers (see Figure 3). As you can see, some of the most frequent modifiers are main and possible. But there is a number of other less frequent collocates which students can choose from when writing an essay, for example.

Figure 3
There's no need to go into more detail if you don't want to scare or discourage your students. If you teach at a more advanced level, you can demonstrate how to work with concordances, but this is another subject. I must confess that I haven't found an efficient way of using concordances in classes I currently teach. However, I've been pondering the idea of using a graded readers corpus, which would be more feasible.