How to explain a word using corpora

The very best teachers have a magical ability to help students with vocabulary, they can effectively go beyond one or two aspects of a word to maybe cover four or five. But even the superteachers, I doubt, can cover say twelve aspects (Shaw 2011). This is where corpora come in handy.

A corpus is a database of text of everyday language. This database is searchable which makes it useful to  language teachers and learners.

In one of my classes students had some difficulty with the word bandwidth. I had set this as one of ten words to find the meanings of the week before. During a vocabulary game bandwidth was used and it seemed to stump most. And even the ones who managed to come up with a reasonable definition were still frowning over their understanding of the word. Meanwhile all I could add to help them was to give them some collocates (actually only two ‘high’ and ‘low’).

I have been pondering using corpora in my classes so thought a blog post may clarify some possible uses.

Fortunately a new interface to the Corpus of Contemporary American English was released sometime in January 2012. This interface is called Word and

Plugging bandwidth into the word search bar gives me the following screen:

bandwidth search result search result

( result for bandwidth, click image to enlarge)

1. Shows the wordnet definition.

2. Shows collocates and surprisingly (or not as may be the case) my use of ‘low’ as a collocate is not listed.

3. Shows the frequency in the five registers.

4. Shows examples of the word as it appears in the texts in the corpus.

Immediately one can see in one screen a wealth of interesting information. For example bandwidth has no synonyms, it is most frequent in the academic context, high is the most common collocate followed by available.

If I had been able to show that in class it would have been great (or not if this was the first time they had heard of a corpus!).

I think this post has clarified a bit my thinking on corpora and maybe helped a reader or two of this blog.

For a great series on corpora check out Jamie Keddie at (apart from the introduction you do need to be a member to access the rest of the series).


A few related posts courtesy of Rachael Roberts/‏@teflerinha.

Rachael Roberts/ ‏@teflerinha post Some user-friendly concordance ideas

Mike Griffin/@michaelegriffin post Using online corpus tools to check intuitions

Leo Selivan/@leoselivan post Essential lexical tools

The Real Thing: using corpora to write language training materials by Bill Mascull

7 thoughts on “How to explain a word using corpora

  1. Liked your post because I am a big fan of corpora. Covering all 12 aspects is indeed unrealistic and I am glad your post shows how at least some of these maybe addressed using corpora. I have not tried out the new COCA interface yet but after reading your post I will do for sure.

    1. thanks and i am looking foward to reading more of your writings, enjoyed the ones so far on lexis! hat tip to graham stanley for linking to your blog.


  2. I am a great fan of corpus linguistics and use corpora regularly in class. But I would never give students four or five definitions of a word we came across. Just one, in context. Overburdening with excessive definitions does not work and simply serves to confuse.

    I would let the students loose on the corpus and come back to find the one definition we were after.

    1. hi icaltefl

      thanks for commenting.
      yes i agree too much info is overwhelming, this post described my first forays into trying to use corpus to help me in class.
      i have yet to ‘let students loose on’ the coca, maybe one day soon! i have directed them to simpler interfaces such as just the word.

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