Teaching collocation

Zorana Vasiljevic, Aoyama Gakuin Women’s Junior College, Tokyo


Quick guide

  • Key words:vocabulary, collocations, output errors, pair work, motivation
  • Learner English level:Intermediate and above
  • Learner maturity level:College students
  • Preparation time:30 minutes
  • Activity time:20 minutes
  • Materials:Handouts


Although high-intermediate and advanced learners usually have a large receptive vocabulary, their productive vocabulary knowledge is often limited, lacking in conciseness and precision of expression. Therefore, it is important that classroom instruction include activities that not only help students acquire the meaning of new words, but also enrich their knowledge of previously met words. Explicit teaching of collocations can help students learn and use words more effectively.Word-level transformations are one collocation teaching activitythat works wellwithJapanese college students. In this activity, students are provided with sentences they need to paraphrase using words from a list of near synonyms. For example:

  • Student A reads a sentence: There were many cars on the street that day.
  • Student B listens and selects suitable words from the list:


strong / big / heavy


traffic / vehicles / transportation

  • Student B transforms the sentence: Traffic was heavy that day.
  • Student A checks this response against the model response (Traffic was heavy that day).
  • Student A confirms to student B the response is correct.

This activity helps students recognize that near synonyms often cannot be used to replace each other and also makes them aware of differences between typical word combinations (collocations) in Japanese and English.


Step 1:Compile a list of ten collocations you would like to teach, ones related to class topics and relevant to your learners’ needs. Feel confident about using your own knowledge of English as well as referring to collocations in texts students have previously read. Information about collocations can also be obtained from corpus-based dictionaries such as the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English (2002) and the LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations (1997).

Step 2:Write ten sentences that paraphrase the target word combinations.

Step 3:Paraphrase these sentences using the selected collocations. These paraphrases will be used as model answers.

Step 4:Divide the sentences into two sets of five.

Step 5:Since this is an information gap sort of activity, you will need to prepare two pages. Divide each page into two sections: For Student A, Section 1 contains a set of five sentences and their paraphrases. Section 2 is a list of word combinations (such as verbs+nouns, adjectives+nouns) from which suitable collocations will be selected. For Student B, reverse the order of these sections.


Step 1:Place students in pairs and distribute the handouts to students A and B.

Step 2:Explain that handouts are paired for students A and B, and that they should look at their own page only.

Step 3:Explain the activity procedure (see Appendix for model instructions). Student A starts as a coaching partner and reads aloud a sentence to Student B. Student B listens and restates the sentence by selecting a suitable word combination from the list. Using the model response, Student A corrects Student B if necessary. After Student A completes the five sentences, the students switch roles. When both A and B have completed both roles on their handouts, students switch pages, so each transforms ten sentences altogether.

Step 4:Follow up by encouraging students to use the target collocations in output activities such as class discussions or writing assignments.


Collocation-based word substitution enables teachers to direct learners’ attention to important collocations in text that learners often fail to notice. Forced-choice practice of collocationsalso reduces the frequency of output errors in their speech and writing. Furthermore, the communicative nature of the task has a positive effect on students’ motivation and class participation.


Hill, J. & Lewis, M. (Eds.). (1997). LTP dictionary of selected collocations.UK: Cengage Learning.

Lea, D. (Ed.). (2002). Oxford collocations dictionary for students of English. USA: Oxford University Press.


The Appendix offering model instructions is available below.