Do your students have difficulty deciding which words go together in English? Tim Warre, who won our most recent Teaching English blog award for his Mr Bean video lesson plan, lists his most effective tips for making learning collocations fun.
Students frequently have problems with collocations for a number of reasons; the most common being direct translations from their native tongue. An example I come across regularly while teaching in Spain is problems with do/make collocations due to the fact that, in Spanish, the verb ‘hacer’ is used for both. However, if you were to ask anyone teaching English as a foreign language, the most common mistake they hear while teaching Spanish speakers, I’d bet my house it’d be this one: ‘I have sixteen years old.’ Even though use of the verb ‘to be’ when referring to age is standard English stuff, you’ll find students up to proficiency level still have the odd lapse with this particular collocation. But never fear, there is a smorgasbord of fun and memorable ways to learn and revise these types of collocation both in the classroom and at home.
Online flashcard sets
I am an unashamed Quizlet fan boy. Many is the time I have espoused its virtues to all in the staffroom who care to listen. For the uninitiated, Quizlet is a web tool where you can make flashcard sets, which can be used in a variety of ways both in the classroom and by students at home. It’s free, easy and will save you valuable classroom and preparation time. Simply go to quizlet.com, open an account, and start creating flashcard sets of whatever collocations you’re studying. If you don’t have time to make your own sets, simply use the search function to pore over the ever-growing database. Who knows… you might find one of mine or my colleagues’, e.g., make/do collocations or catch/make/do/have.
There are several ways you can use these flashcard sets: Quizlet has two games that can be played with any flashcard set: Scatter and Space Race are great for revising vocabulary. The former involves matching corresponding words/definitions in the quickest time possible. Split the class into small groups and have them compete against each other to see who can top the leader board, this is especially fun if you have a digital whiteboard, as it gets very energetic and physical.
Space Race is more difficult as it involves typing. Sentences move horizontally across the screen and students must type the word that completes the sentence before it reaches the far side.
Teachers can create class groups on the site and have students join so that they can study the sets at home. Teachers can then track student’s use, checking which sets they’ve studied and for how long. I find it especially useful for exam groups. Say you want to go over the answers to a mock FCE (First Certificate in English) exam paper. Simply copy in the questions that most students had problems with and easily highlight and revise them as many times as you like.
Another great way to introduce specific collocations or go over use of English exercises is betting games. Take a Quizlet set on make/do collocations, put students in pairs and tell them they have €100 each to bet, they can bet €5, €10 or €20 depending on how sure they are. For each correct guess they double their money, the winning team is the one with the most money at the end. Make sure they place their bets using complete sentences ‘We bet €10 on….’. You can also teach them nice phrases to express doubt/certainty:I’m absolutely certain it’s….
• It’s … . without a shadow of a doubt.
• There’s no way it’s …
• I’m torn between … and …
• We’re going to take a risk.
• There’s a slim/strong chance it’s …
• … rings a bell
These are great, active warmers that require minimal preparation and get students talking, focused and on their feet. All you need is a pack of post-its.
1. Post-it partners
Use this game to revise any type of collocations; I used it most recently for adjective-noun collocations for CAE (Cambridge English: Advanced), e.g., ‘a resounding success’, ‘an abject failure’. Write one half of the collocation (resounding) and the other on another (success). Stick one post-it to the back of one student and one to another. Students are not allowed to look at their post-it, instead they must ask someone, in ridiculously formal English, to tell them what it says. Write the following on the board:
• I was wondering, if it isn’t too much trouble, if you could possibly tell me what it says on my back.
• Would it be at all possible if you could let me know what it says on my back?
• I’m awfully sorry, but is there any way you could possibly tell me what it says on my back?
Students must first ask someone to tell them which word they have. They must then find the person with the corresponding noun/adjective, sit down and write a sentence. The first pair to do so wins. Pairs can then work together for the next section of the class.
2. Post-it corners
Say that in the last class you studied collocations with ‘catch’, ‘make’, ‘have’ and ‘do’. Stick a post-it with each verb in each corner of the classroom and then stick the nouns to the backs of the students. They must use the formal English phrases to discover which noun they have, then race to their corner and come up with a sentence for each of the collocations their team has. Whichever team finishes first wins. You then have students arranged into teams for the next part of the class.
3. Post-it hunt
Before the class, write the two parts of the collocations on individual post-its and stick them in different parts of the classroom: under tables/chairs, on the door, on your back, on the back of the TV etc. Then, when students enter, put them in pairs and assign them a section of the board each. Students must find as many matching collocations as they can and stick them on their part of the board. Monitor carefully as this can get raucous. Pre-teach some expressions for doing deals:
• We’ll swap you your ‘have’ for our ‘do’
• Do you want to trade?
• Let’s make a deal.
• Ok, you’ve got a deal.
• Shake on it.
Put students into teams of three or four, write a load of collocations on scraps of paper, and give them 90 seconds to draw as many as they can for their team to guess. The team with the most correct guesses wins.
Articulate is a staple Christmas board game in the Warre household. Use the same papers with collocations on them as in the game before, but this time students must describe the action without using the word. This is a great way to practise relative clauses: ‘It’s an action (that) you do after eating dinner.’ (do the washing-up)
This is the same as above, but only miming is allowed this time.
Tell students that you are going to read them a story; while they are listening, they must write down the most important words. You could instruct them to focus on the collocations in the story, or any other language point you may be focusing on. After listening twice, students must reconstruct the story in pairs. Then give students the original story with part of the collocation missing. Below is an example:
I met my ex-husband in 1995; we fell in love at first sight. We had a fantastic relationship for three happy years. Then, on our third anniversary, he proposed and we got married six months later. At first, everything was perfect; we both did the housework together; I did the washing-up and made the beds and he did the cooking and the shopping. He always made a mess when he did the cooking, but I didn’t mind because the dinners were always delicious.
Everything changed after a few years when he got a new job in Manchester; we made the decision to move there, so he wouldn’t have to take the train to work every day. He started working later and paying less attention to me. He stopped doing the housework, so I had to do everything. He made a lot of promises but then he would break them. He was very stressed and he started to go bald, he got very depressed about this and started getting drunk after work. I was getting very worried about him. He would always come home drunk and make a mess. Then, one day, while I was cleaning his clothes, something caught my attention. It was a lipstick stain on his shirt. I got very angry; he was keeping a secret from me! That night when he came home, I confronted him and he broke the news to me: he had been having an affair. It broke my heart. I kicked him out of the house and we got divorced two weeks later.
Text with gaps:
I met my ex-husband in 1995; we ____ in love at first sight. We ___ a fantastic relationship for three happy years. Then, on our third anniversary, he proposed and we ___ married six months later. At first, everything was perfect; we both ___ the housework together; I ___ the washing-up and ____ the beds and he ___ the cooking and the _______. He always ____ a mess when he ___ the cooking, but I didn’t mind because the dinners were always delicious.
Everything changed after a few years when he ___ a new job in Manchester; we ____ the decision to move there, so he wouldn’t have to ____ the train to work every day. He started working later and ______ less attention to me. He stopped _____ the housework, so I had to __ everything. He ____ a lot of ______ but then he would _____ them. He was very stressed and he started to ___ bald, he ___ very depressed about this and started ______ drunk after work. I was ______ very worried about him. He would always come home drunk and ____ a mess. Then, one day, while I was cleaning his clothes, something ______ my attention. It was a lipstick stain on his shirt. I ___ very angry; he was _____ a secret from me! That night when he ____ home, I confronted him and he _____ the news to me: he had been ______ an affair. It _____ my heart. I kicked him out of the house and we ___ divorced two weeks later.
Videos are a fantastic way of teaching and revising verb-noun collocations as they contain natural everyday actions. They are especially good for teaching common phrasal verbs like ‘take out’, ‘pick up’, ‘put down’ etc. Below are a few suggestions for short videos to use for video dictation exercises similar to my Mr Bean activity. Watch one of the videos before class and jot down any specific language to teach before watching. Put students in pairs facing each other with one facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen.
1. Silent comedy
Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton videos can be great for this type of activity, but be aware that their actions come thick and fast, so either pause frequently or only use them for higher levels.
Charlie Chaplin – The Kid
Charlie Chaplin – The Lion’s Cage
Charles Chaplin – The Bank
Buster Keaton – Seven Chances
Old animations like Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner can be great for this type of exercise.
3. Mr. Bean
Everybody loves him and YouTube is full of short excerpts that can easily be related to units from a course book.
I hope you find these activities useful.