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 Phrase.info.
Plugging bandwidth into the word search bar gives me the following screen:
(wordandphrase.info 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 onestopenglish.com (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.
The Real Thing: using corpora to write language training materials by Bill Mascull