Published 13th April 2016

Would you be able to explain how it’s possible to make a strong coffee but not a powerful coffee?

Why do we say a heavy suitcase, but also heavy traffic and a heavy sleeper?

Why do we do homework but make a mistake?

If you are scratching your head at these questions, you can imagine how our learners feel! Sometimes there seems to be no logic to English and no good explanation for why we say certain things. In the case of the examples above, these are examples of collocations.

A collocation is a group of words which always go together. They can be verbs with prepositions, verbs with adverbs, nouns with adjectives, nouns with nouns – in other words, there are many different word combinations which are collocations! The difficulty with collocations is that for a native speaker, they will sound perfectly natural but our learners do not have this advantage so they need to discover them and learn them.

Why is it important to learn collocations?

Using collocations in your language is the best way to sound natural. Helping our learners use collocations will improve their English in a big way.

How can we help our students learn collocations?

Teach language in chunks

 When looking at vocabulary, don’t just teach a word on its own. Teach it in relation to its word family and also the different phrases we commonly use with that word.

For example, when teaching the word good, draw your students’ attention to these common collocations:

Good luck!

a good question/idea

a good reason

good-looking

for good

By taking a bit more time and explaining a more extensive use of the word you are opening up a lot more knowledge for your students.

Help them revise

Unfortunately for our students, there is no formula for learning collocations; they just need to learn them. We can help our students by regularly revising the vocabulary learnt in class. Regular revision will help the language be transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory and so be able to be used in production.

Encourage your students to read

Reading is one of the best ways to pick up language. Reading is a great way for learners to be exposed to natural English usage and so become aware of common English collocations.

Use authentic materials

Using authentic materials in our lessons will provide our students with more exposure to authentic English usage. In this way our students will find collocations in context which will give them even more information on how to use them accurately.

Even though students may find collocations frustrating, helping them learn collocations will go a long way to improving their English level and sounding more natural.