Polishing writing skills: Corpora analysis in class

Alexey Kukharuk

Quick guide

  • Key words: Autonomous learning, corpus, concordance, grammar, register, vocabulary, writing
  • Learner English level: Intermediate and higher
  • Learner maturity: University and higher
  • Groups size: 10-12 (divided into smaller groups later)
  • Preparation time: 5-10 minutes 
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Computers with Internet access, students’ essays or teacher-written essays


Improving students’ grammar becomes significantly more difficult at higher levels when learners have mastered the general rules but make small mistakes with consistency that may be difficult to pinpoint. At such a level, students require more fine-tuning than a full-fledged introduction of a grammar point. With the time constraints of a classroom lesson, it makes sense to teach students how to use tools which will enable them to monitor their own writing and answer emerging questions without the teacher’s help. Concordancers offer unbiased analysis of a corpus and enable independent research of English grammar, vocabulary and register.  



Step 1: Have students write an essay at home or in a previous lesson and bring it to class

Step 2: Ensure there are enough computers (at least one per group) with Internet access for students

Step 3: Ensure the concordancer site of your choice is open and available (see Appendix for suggested websites)



Step 1: Collect the students’ essays to check yourself or have the students peer review each other’s compositions. Discuss and take note of the grammatical, lexical, or stylistic mistakes for Step 2. Discuss the organization or content of the essays with the students or tell them to do it in groups of 2-3. (20 minutes)

Step 2: Write full sentences or phrases with mistakes from Step 1 on the whiteboard (e.g., “way for reconcile”). Elicit answers regarding how they could be improved. (10-15 minutes)

Step 3: Tell the students to search for the phrase(s) (both incorrect and supposedly correct) from Step 2 in the concordancer by typing them in the search bar. This is a familiarization stage, so the focus should be more on figuring out how to use the concordancer rather than actually solving the problem. (10-15 minutes)

Step 4: Have the students choose the best correction for the phrase based on their observations of the collocation use. Write the incorrect and corrected versions on the whiteboard. Check together and discuss. (10 minutes)

Step 5: Let the students check their writing by repeating Steps 3-4. Help them identify the mistakes or allow them to find errors independently. (15 minutes)

Step 6: Instruct students to write a final copy of the composition with the corrections they discovered in Steps 2-4. This can be done either individually or in a group where the students choose the essay they all agree to work on collectively. (15 minutes)



To focus the activity even further, free software (see Appendix) can be used to analyze a corpus of your own choice which reflects a particular genre of writing (e.g., argumentative essays). It can also be used to analyze a corpus of students’ previous essays for comparison and analysis. If the students feel comfortable enough with the concordancer, they may attempt to search for new lexical units rather than check the existing mistakes. For bigger classes, several essays can be prepared in advance with mistakes chosen specifically for the lesson purpose. Previous students’ essays can also be used. 



The exploratory skill this activity relies on may not be easily developed in one lesson. An experimental corpus-based course conducted by Lee and Swales (2006) reportedly took more than 20 hour-long lessons to develop the skill in students that would enable them to continue independent research in the corpus.



Since this is a “discovery” lesson, the teacher will have to take on the role of an assistant and a research organizer (Johns, 1991), rather than an omni-knowledgeable expert. By learning from the analysis of numerous language sources, students do not only receive an unbiased opinion about language but also learn to polish their language skills without the teacher’s support. This kind of lesson can be conducted regularly to both expose students to a large amount of authentic language with grammar and vocabulary relevant to their immediate needs and empower them as independent learners for future self-development. 



Johns, T. (1991). From printout to handout. ELR Journal, 4, 27-46.

Lee, D., & Swales, J. (2006). A corpus-based EAP course for NNS doctoral students: Moving from available specialized corpora to self-compiled corpora. English for Specific Purposes, 25, 56–75.



A popular freeware program for corpus analysis is AntConc. It can be downloaded from the following site:

Other corpus websites: