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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Concordancing with Heart: Students Analyse Their Own Writing

Siân Morgan, Italy

Siân Morgan teaches at the Language Centre of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy. She is particularly interested in second language writing and has published several articles on this subject. E-mail:


Student profile
Boosting lexical resources
Boosting collocational awareness
Apprentice texts


In recent years corpus linguistics has provided us with invaluable information on how language behaves in real life contexts, helping linguists to describe patterns in a more fine-grained way. This data is now used increasingly by publishers to inform teaching materials and monolingual learner dictionaries, a development welcomed by teachers looking for real-life language examples to use in class. Although the corpus revolution has been slow to trickle down to grassroots level in the profession, teachers are gradually beginning to experiment with native speaker reference corpora and developing their own materials to use for consciousness-raising or language awareness activities in the classroom.

One development in corpus linguistics which seems to me to have important implications for the EFL classroom is the work carried out by Sylviane Granger (1998b, 2002) on learner corpora. The collection of thousands of words of L2 writing from learners of a similar level and learning background allows us to analyse how language is used at different points on the interlanguage continuum. Struck by the fascinating insights this kind of study can give us, I started building my own learner corpus a few years ago to look at how my students expressed qualification and certainty in their writing. Since then I have used the corpus to develop classroom activities where students carry out a critical analysis of their own language production and reflect upon areas they need to work on to bring their production nearer to their target model.

Here I would like to describe three activities using both concordances and whole texts and show

  • how students can explore concordance lines of their own work to reflect upon their overuse of certain lexical items. By noticing this they can then work on expanding their vocabulary range
  • how students can compare their own writing with native speaker writing on the same subject and notice the differences.
  • how whole texts can raise students’ awareness of proficiency levels and help them notice the kind of features which emerge at each level. This will hopefully help them to set future learning objectives

Student profile

The corpus used here is based on writing produced by second-year students at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. The group profile is as follows:

  • Italian
  • aged around 21
  • mostly female
  • B2 – C1 level language proficiency
  • studying for an undergraduate degree in modern languages

Small corpora compiled from our own students’ work have several advantages. Firstly, they are more manageable to work with, especially for those with relatively little experience of corpus analysis. Secondly, they can give us insights into the typical performance of our own group of learners, such as misuse or overuse of certain items; this information can help us calibrate our teaching in order to meet the needs of the students more closely. Finally whole texts at a slightly higher level than our students’ current performance can be stored to provide a bank of attainable and realistic model texts for students. (Flowerdew, 2000)

The first area of language development the students at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia worked on was vocabulary expansion. These students (around B2/C1 on the CEFR) generally have a firm control of most grammatical and lexical resources and are able to carry out most general writing tasks requested at this level without too much difficulty. However, it seems to me that this automaticity in retrieving many structural items can sometimes give students a false sense of security and make them unaware of the importance of expanding their lexical resources. And here, by expanding, I mean more than just adding new words to their lexicon. They also need to :

  • flesh out the skeleton of their existing stock of words (Lennon,1996) and correct misuse of words they know already ( e.g delexicalised verbs such as make or have)
  • get to know familiar words in new combinations (George Woolard, 2000)
  • work on depth of vocabulary knowledge – including collocations, sub-senses, and semantic prosody - all of which need to be acquired at higher levels. (O’ Keefe, McCarthy and Carter, 2007)

And of course , overcoming this ‘lexical poverty’ will be especially important for students aiming for formal certification at higher levels, whether with external or institutional examining boards.

One example of lexical poverty might be the following. In my experience, learners often tend to over-rely on adjectives such as good, best, interesting and important - words which crop up again and again in their spoken and written production. This is perfectly understandable. Composing is a demanding process, and when L2 writers are concentrating on expressing their meaning, they often default automatically to these words instead of searching for a more precise item. Such ‘all-purpose’ words are perfectly functional in general writing or speaking , but they may not be specific or even technical enough to convey precise meaning in certain domains or genres of writing. Nor will they add that extra layer of meaning or be stylistically elegant enough to earn a high mark for lexical resources in higher level proficiency exams of certain examining boards.

Boosting lexical resources

The following activity is called the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (and Other Overworked Words).
In order to raise students’ awareness of their need to expand lexis I ask them to reflect upon words that they tend to overuse and try to supply a more appropriate word or phrase for the context. In this way, they are taking a magnifying glass to examine texts that are already familiar to them, and in which they have a certain sense of ownership. Indeed, Seidelhofer has commented on the motivating effect of using students own writing for analysis (2002).

Using Wordsmith tools software, I create concordance lines with overused words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘important’ and ‘big’ as the node word, expanding these to give a bit more contextual information than would ordinarily be available on a basic screen. The students in pairs examine these concordance lines and try to think of a more appropriate vocabulary item. This can be done with the help of reference tools such as monolingual dictionaries, concordance dictionaries or a thesaurus. If you live in an ideal world with computers for each pair of students, they could examine computerised concordance lines from a NS reference corpus.

Here we look at examples of concordance lines of the word good, taken from letters to the editor the students had written on the following subjects :

  1. local council plans to build an underground car park
  2. government proposals to raise university tuition fees in Italy.

The students examined the lines and made suggestions for replacing the word good with more specific adjectives for the context. (Appendix 1 shows the concordance lines for good and a table of student suggestions of synonyms ).

Below we have example 1 from a letter to the letter on the car park proposal:

1…. forecasted right outside the city centre. In my opinion, there are many good points supporting such a project. To start with, the entire environ……

The students made the following suggestions for improving good

useful/excellent/positive/interesting + points

This generated a class discussion on the appropriateness of these items, and how for example cranking up ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ might make the writer’s argument more persuasive. Some students had experimented with changing the noun too, and the resulting collocations:

positive aspects/ concrete advantages/ valuable reasons

were recorded as useful text-organising collocations which could be recycled in future writing and speaking.

Another example we looked at was concordance 3 from a letter to the editor on government proposal to raise university tuition fees.

3.….number of people getting a better future, because as we all know, to get a good job you must have at least gone through your University studies and…...

Everyone agreed that a good job is in fact a frequent and very natural collocation. But since vocabulary expansion was our aim here I asked the class to look for possible alternatives anyway. Here is what students came up with :

great/well paid/permanent/satisfying/satisfactory/steady/decent/prestigious + job.

Again a good deal of discussion ensued regarding:

  • register (was ‘great’ appropriate here? )
  • meaning -what’s the difference between satisfying and satisfactory ? (prompting a quick corpus search from this teacher! )

One of the most interesting things to emerge here was that these suggestions revealed how an all-purpose word like good in fact gives us very little information about what individual students mean when they talk about a good job (prestigious or steady?). Clearly here a more precise term would add a layer of meaning to their argument.

I have found this kind of activity to be useful on several levels:

  • it increases awareness of the importance of context in lexical choice
  • it allows the students to pool lexical resources
  • it involves the students in a meaningful speaking task – about language use
  • this reflection makes them more attentive to questions of lexical appropriateness in their future writing and raises awareness of the need to expand their lexical resources

Boosting collocational awareness

Another area where learner corpora activities can be very useful is in raising awareness of collocation, a key factor at higher levels of language proficiency. In the next activity students compared concordance lines of a key word in their own writing to the same word in native speaker writing. I wanted them to notice the gap between their own usage of a word and how it is used in NS discourse, hoping that this would increase their awareness of collocation. The texts I used here came from argumentative essays the students wrote in response to the prompt ‘How important is it to preserve Minority languages?’

The week I returned the students’ essays, ‘The Economist’ published an article on the same subject - an opportunity for serendipitous learning, I thought. So I asked the students to compare this article with their own for language, content and argument, a very natural way of revisiting a topic they had engaged in and recycling the vocabulary connected with that topic. I also made a mini-corpus of previous Economist articles on the same subject and another of the student writing. With the help of a guided worksheet the students then compared the two sets of concordances, so, after the initial holistic comparison, here there was more intensive focus on form. For reasons of space I have reproduced just a small section of the learner and Economist concordance lines in appendix 2 with the key word language(s) as the node word, together with the guided worksheet and student findings.

Here we look at just two of the questions.

Question 5: Have you used the passive form of verbs collocating with languages ? Are they simple passives or modal and compound passives? (appendix 2)

I focused on the occurrence of passives since control of these forms is thought to be to be a marker of competent language users. In fact, there were several examples of complex passive forms in the student corpus which I hoped would be noticed by those who do not use them yet.

A question was included which goes beyond the node word language:

Question 6: What opinion markers have you used ? Do they express opinion strongly or tentatively? (appendix 2)

The intention here was to help students expand their repertoire of opinion markers and reflect upon the degree of writer visibility displayed: an important pragmatic function which often passes unnoticed by many students in their reading. As can be seen from the worksheet in appendix 2, students found several examples of these and were generally sensitive to the degree of mitigation. Several students also noticed in the Economist concordances the less familiar stance markers:

of course…. /the trouble with the British is that………/why on earth should..

which the more ambitious among them may try to use in their own production in the future.

It has been remarked that good language learners are good observers of how language behaves. My hope is that this kind of analysis will give students strategies they can apply in their future reading and listening in order to boost their lexical resources .

Apprentice texts

Finally, Flowerdew (2000) suggests that as well as native speaker writing, students are exposed to examples of expert student writing, what she calls ‘apprentice texts’, since these provide a more imitable model for student writers to aspire to. In the next activity whole student texts are used to raise awareness of how language development can be plotted along a continuum, and to encourage learners to situate themselves on that continuum.

The first activity is relatively simple and involves ranking three examples of student writing in order of language and writing proficiency. I selected writing performance at different levels of proficiency (B2, C1 and C2) written in response to the minority languages prompt referred to earlier. These were from past students and were made anonymous. Students then read these and matched them to the 3 CEFR levels. Their holistic perception of which were the most successful was very accurate, and there was some awe at the fluency and range of C2 level performance. I pointed out that these were written by students at different points in their university career (in this case 2nd year and 4th year of study) so it was quite reasonable to find this difference in performance. What I hoped this consciousness-raising activity would do is show students that language development is a journey, get them thinking about what point they are at on the journey, and point the road ahead to a realistic destination.

Another useful activity with whole texts is to ask students to go deeper into the apprentice texts and analyse what expert student writers are actually doing to produce proficient writing. Recently I gave my second year students three texts at around C1/C2 level written by 4th year students, and asked them to analyse the language or discourse features which emerged at this level. In this sense I was asking them to take on the role of the teacher. Appendix 4 shows the worksheet the 2nd year students used and two of the texts with comments.

Below are reproduced some of their comments on the third text in response to question 3: Was there any language ( structures, lexis, emphatic constructions, linking devices) that you liked?

As you see students either quoted actual chunks of language or made evaluative comments on linguistic or rhetorical aspects of the writing, such as :

  • interpersonal features to establish a rapport with the reader ‘these data may not surprise our readers’ ‘if we asked ourselves ‘
  • a colourful use of metaphor ‘The health status of many languages is not good’ ‘ theatre of a huge linguistic diversity’
  • collocation ‘fully aware’ ; ‘fundamental importance’; ‘a key issue’
  • Hedges or downtoners ‘ A mere means of communication ( excellent adjective!)’
  • Persuasive rhetoric ‘It’s not just a matter of phonology, it’s a matter of human and cultural dignity’ ‘When a language ceases to be spoken, this represents the death of a culture’
  • Use of sources ‘I liked the fact that the author quotes a review : the essay looks ‘reliable’, based on real data’

Others made more general about the text as a whole :

‘I like the linking devices and wide lexis’ ‘It is linear, very clear and well organised’

In pairs, each student then reflected upon the kind of features they weren’t using yet and which areas of language they wanted to work on. Analysis of this kind, which makes explicit the features which occur typically at higher levels, raises student awareness of aspects of writing competence which may not have been in their own repertoire. A lively class discussion emerged and I hoped that this language awareness session would give the students ideas on setting goals for their language learning. This activity would fit in very well with some language diary work so that both student and teacher could monitor the process: where they on the language learning continuum, the next objective they are working towards, and the areas they want to work on to bring them closer to this objective.


Here just a few ideas have been suggested but they could be adapted in order to focus on whatever area students need to work on : conjunctions for example, or verb patterns – control of which seems to be acquired relatively late. Spoken corpora can also be used. For example, I have used transcriptions of C2 spoken interviews and asked students to examine them for example of multi word chunks or interpersonal devices which contribute so importantly to fluency and communicative competence .

Current thinking suggests that learning through discovery can be a valuable way of promoting language acquisition. By asking student writers to examine their own writing and that of other learners in this way, I hope they will be able to take responsibility for their own language development and become truly independent learners


Flowerdew, L. (2000). ‘Using a genre-based framework to teach organisational structure in academic writing’. ELT journal, 54 (4) 369-378.

Granger, S., Hung, J. & S. Petch-Tyson (2002) Computer Learner Corpora, Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Teaching. John Benjamins

Lennon P. (1996), Getting 'Easy' Verbs Wrong at the Advanced Level. IRAL 34/1: 23-36.

O’ Keefe A., McCarthy M. & R. Carter (2007). From Corpus to Classroom (Cambridge)

Ringbom, H. (1998). Vocabulary frequencies in advanced learner English: A cross-linguistic approach. In Granger S. (ed.) Learner English on Computer . London & New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 41-52

Seidelhofer, B. (2002). ‘Pedagogy and Local Learner Corpora’ in Computer Learner Corpora, Second Language Acquisition and Foreign Language Teaching (Granger et al. Eds.) John Benjamins.

Woolard, G. (2000) ‘Collocation: encouraging learner Independence’ in Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach Michael Lewis (Ed.) Language Teaching Publications


Appendix 1

  1. en forecasted right outside the city centre. In my opinion, there are many good points supporting such a project. To start with, the entire environ
  2. ges as more pollution, too much traffic and much noise. In my opinion a good solution for Castlecross could be an ‘underground’ car park
  3. ber of people getting a better future, because as we all know, to get a good job you must have at least gone through your University studies an
  4. and pollution which afflict our beautiful town and surely there are many good reasons for supporting it. Firstly, its capacity is significantly
  5. dvantages. Firstly, if the car park is built outside the city, this will have a good impact on people's health, thanks to the decreasing of traffic
  6. ng fees by 15% in a year. In conclusion, even if the reform has some good purposes, I cannot bear that my family will have to pay more
  7. First of all I think that what could make the difference between a good decision and a deplorable one can be founded principally wheig
  8. s on students. In fact, it’s estimated that shorter courses aren't as good as five-years ones, because universities aren’t able to teach e
  9. Reggio Emilia planned for 2009. I do not really think that this is a good way to stimulate higher education in our country. It is known that
  10. s are less expensive. In conclusion, I would like to say that there are good universities like Parma and Bologna which are less expensive th

Student suggestions

1. plus, reasonable, interesting, excellent + points
positive aspects/ concrete advantages/ valuable reasons
2. effective, efficient, alternative, ideal, suitable, satisfactory + solution
3. great, well-paid, permanent, satisfying, steady, decent + job
4. valid, excellent, well-founded, convincing, compelling, legitimate, obvious + reasons
5. positive, beneficial, great, deep + impact
6. positive, valid, virtuous, well-intentioned + aims (not purposes)
7. effective, successful, sensible, right, reasonable, suitable, proper, correct + decision
8. valid, considerable, underlying, intelligent, wise + reason
9. as + useful, successful, educational + as
10. excellent , qualified, top, worthy, prestigious, well-considered + university

Appendix 2

a. Guided worksheet: comparison student and Economist concordance lines of language

Study the NNS concordance page of your minority languages essays

  1. What adjectives have you used with ‘ language ‘
  2. Find patterns with ‘………. of languages
  3. Find patterns with ‘language of ………..’
  4. Which verbs have you used with languages?
  5. Have you used the passive form of verbs collocating with languages ? Are they simple passives or modal and compound passives
  6. What opinion markers have you used? Do they express strong or tentative opinion?
  7. Can you notice any other interesting patterns or collocations with ‘language’ ?

Now do the same for the Economist concordance page

b. student findings

Student concordances Economist concordances
1 national ; dominant; minority; foreign ; official; co-offical ; these/ those as a cohesive device second; useful; half-dozen; his/their own;regional; few; national
2 Varieties of * (78)
Dozen of
The most diffused factor of
Everyday use of
Health status of + Languages
Survival of *
in favour of
In the use of
Future of their own
Choice of second
Success of * + languages
Mastery of *
The tally of official
3 develop /speak /detest /reject/ teach/ kill/appreciate/protect Speak/teaching/ study/ learn/ can keep/ use/ form
4 is spoken / were preserved/ are proved to be / should be preserved/ can be found/ have been made/ can not be reduced / should be kept alive can be said to / are threatened
5 Strong opinion I am convinced / is beyond doubt
Tentative opinion
I found ; are maybe; in my opinion; I think; expressions with should e.g should be kept ; should be preserved
of course/ should study/ th
e trouble with the British is that / why on earth should …
6 language status / policy/
such languages
language nests
to be keen on lanaguges
language viability (78)
do business in the language of

Appendix 3

Examples of concordance lines used for comparison

(reproduced in part)

Appendix 4

Guided worksheet

Look at the 3 essays and answer the following questions for each one

  1. Was there any parts you felt were not clear?
  2. Were there any ideas you would like to have seen developed ?
  3. Was there any language ( structures, lexis, emphatic constructions, linking devices) that you liked ?
  4. Were there any ideas or supporting examples you particularly liked ?
  5. Are there any suggestions you would make to improve the text? (e.g correction of minor language errors, more appropriate lexis , content)
  6. How successful do you feel the essay has been ?

Essays 1 and 3 with a selection of student comments

How important is it to preserve minority languages and dialects?

The phenomenon of globalization has affected many aspects of our everyday life; among such aspects, we can surely include language. There have been many positive consequences, like the fact that it is now easier to learn a foreign language; this kind of knowledge, for example, can help people to travel and to find a good job. Nonetheless, we should also consider the other side of the coin: as a matter of fact, globalization represents a threat for minority languages and dialects, which are running the risk to be stifled by a few powerful languages.
Let's try to imagine a remote village in the western coast of Ireland, or in the Scottish Highlands. An old grandfather in front of a hearth is telling his grandchildren an ancient folktale, based on Celtic legends lost in the mists of time. He is speaking in Gaelic, the language of his youth, but the children are able to grasp only a few words, and they can't understand the sense of the tale. This may happen if the less important languages are not protected.
Therefore many people think that intervening to preserve local languages and dialects is very important, for several reasons. First of all, languages are the key to understand local cultures; this means that if such languages were lost, centuries of traditions, legends and knowledge would be lost as well. A world in which only a few global languages were spoken, would be a much poorer place. Moreover, local languages are important means of aggregation for communities and peoples. In other words, a community feels to be different from others thanks to few elements, language being one of them. A hypothetical decline of regional languages and dialects would cause a crisis of identity of local communities.
To deal with this important issue, some remedies should be carried out. For instance, minority languages should be taught in schools, as well as dominant ones. Furthermore, it would be interesting to finance the publication of books and magazines in dialect, or even to use new media, like the internet, to spread local cultures and dialects. Such remedies, like any other one, should be carried out in order to avoid the death of linguistic variety as we know it. In this way, the granddads of the 22nd century will still be able to tell folktales to their grandchildren without the help of an interpreter.

  1. I think this essay is very balanced
  2. the author says “ many people think that intervening to preserve local languages is very important’ Maybe he should also have done (sic) some examples
  3. It would have been interesting to develop the idea of local identity as language: how can we support the fact that a dialect mirrors the depths of a culture ?
  4. I like the structure used to start the 2nd paragraph ‘ lets try to imagine’ I think its an involving construction which catches the readers’ attention
  5. the other side of the coin / the risk to be stifled/ the key to understand local cultures/ to deal with this important issue / in front of a hearth/the children are only able to grasp a few words
  6. I liked the final image of the grandparents who can tell folktales to their grandchildren without the help of an interpreter
  7. A powerful argument is mentioned in the third paragraph : that of the cohesive property of language and the double link between language and culture
  8. I would try to simplify some phrases: risking instead of running the risk ; a world in which only into a world where only

How important is it to preserve minority languages and dialects?

According to a survey conducted by "The Ethnologue" review, only fifteen languages are spoken by almost half of the world’s population. Some of these, like English or Spanish, have gained the status of "languages of the globalization", being spoken in different countries and by a large number of non native speakers. Others, like Mandarin Chinese or Hindi, are the official languages of some of the most populated and dynamic countries in the world.
These data may not surprise our readers, but things could become pretty more unexpected if we asked ourselves how many languages or dialects are spoken by the other half of the world's population. Various experts in linguistics have estimated these languages to be about 5.000, most of which are spoken by small ethnic groups counting less than 10.000 members.
As a matter of fact, we can consider Earth as the theater of a huge linguistic diversity. Unfortunately, the health status of many languages is not very good. In fact, lot of them does not have any official status in the country where they are spoken and this represents a serious risk for their survival. According to "The Ethnologue", the 60% of these languages risks death. We are used to think of languages as a mere means of communication, but maybe we are not fully aware of their enormous cultural importance. When a language ceases to be spoken, this represents the death of a culture, of a particular way of thinking the world. It is not just a matter of phonology, it's a matter of human and cultural dignity.
For this reason, it is very important to preserve minority languages and dialects, by recognizing their fundamental importance as a component of human cultural identity. The preservation of linguistic diversity has to become a key issue of international institutions such as UN and EU. International institution should use their political influence in order to persuade the different States and Governments to respect, preserve and support their language diversity.

  1. Clear and balanced
  2. the concept of the essay was clearly explained and developed
  3. maybe the author could have added some examples of the 60% of languages which risk death
  4. I really like the organisation of the paragraphs: each explores a particular problem. This helps the reader understand easily
  5. ‘when a language ceases to be spoken, this represents the death of culture’ This is a very strong message which thrills the reader to be involved in this issue
  6. In my opinion the idea of quoting The Ethnologue was great in order to give the text a more academic tone
  7. In the last paragraph I would put ‘should become’ instead of ‘ has to become’


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