30 Things to Enhance Your Teaching - The Text Driven Approach and Collocations

by Lizzie Pinard

In the first article of this series, I focused on spoken language and storytelling, which I followed with my treatment of learner autonomy and metacognition in the second. For my third pairing, in this article, I will consider use of the text-driven approach and teaching of collocation. This is perhaps a less immediately obvious pairing, but worry not: the reasons for my choice will soon become clear!

By the text-driven approach, I am specifically referring to the framework developed by Brian Tomlinson (2003, 2013), in which the language focus is informed by the text, rather than the text being selected to illustrate a particular feature of language. In terms of text selection, Tomlinson’s (ibid) criteria highlight amongst others, the need for cognitive and affective engagement, the potential of a text to allow learners to connect with their own lives and worlds, and the importance of the suitability of the degree of challenge posed by the text, both in cognitive and affective terms.

Tomlinson (2013) explains that once a text has been selected, the teacher or materials writer designs a sequence of activities to take learners through a process in which they are prepared to experience the text, helped to engage with the text on a personal level, encouraged to develop and extend that engagement via reflection, given the chance to produce language meaningfully, based on their journey through the process up to this point and finally to focus on linguistic elements of the text. Noticeable by their absence are traditional text comprehension questions (ibid).

For example, as part of the materials development module in my M.A. ELT at Leeds Metropolitan (now Beckett) University, I selected a passage from Teacher Man by Frank McCourt and created a unit of activities based on it. (You can view these materials, though not the passage itself due to copyright reasons, on my blog at www.reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/materials) First learners complete a task that requires reflection on and discussion of their own experiences of education, readying them for the theme of the text (preparation). Next, they read the text, with the task of visualizing what is happening in the classroom from the point of view of a student, and share their response to the text (engagement and development). This is followed by a role-play and discussion task requiring learners to respond to the text, as well as a choice of written and spoken creative tasks (meaningful language production). Finally there are some questions relating to the language focus of the text – in this case, narrative style and articles (focus on linguistic elements). The language focus emerged from the text, rather than vice versa, and learners’ comprehension of the text is gauged through the activities mentioned above rather than by traditional comprehension questions. I followed a similar procedure with the listening text later in the unit, which was thematically linked to the reading text.

“Where does collocation fit in with all this?” I hear you asking. Collocation “is the readily observable phenomenon whereby certain words co-occur in natural text with greater than random frequency”. (Lewis 1997:8). Collocations, of all types, abound in spoken and written language. Indeed, Lewis (2000) lists twenty types, such as phrasal verbs, binomials, fixed phrases and various combinations of word types, for example verb-noun and adjective-noun. Hill (1999:4) asserts that the “main learning load for all language users is not at the strong or weak ends of the collocational spectrum, but in the middle – those many thousands of collocations which make up a large part of what we say and write.”  These days, it is fairly widely agreed that it is useful to teach collocations and encourage learners to store vocabulary in collocation rather than solely as individual words, as this gives learners greater opportunity to successfully use the language they encounter. As Tomlinson’s text-driven approach does not involve doctoring a text to showcase a particular structure or feature of language, such texts are a rich source of such incidental language, if mined to this end.

Text mining (Saslow, 2013) is the process by which learners use a text that has previously been exploited as a reading or listening text (as is the case with the text-driven approach) by highlighting language that they do understand but wouldn’t use themselves unprompted. The idea is that they can then carry this language over for use in a speaking task on a similar topic. It is one of several techniques for lessening cognitive load and enabling learners to use more complex language, as well as motivating learners by focusing their attention on language that they do “know” in a text, rather than only on the language that they are not familiar with, as is usually the case. Rather than learners focusing on individual words, such as a particular adjective or noun, we can encourage them to look around those words and identify what company they keep. This can be the start of further exploration – what other nouns can be used with that adjective or verb? There may also be a rich seam of fixed and semi-fixed phrases that the learner can ‘collect’ in this way.

Of course, it is important that the words are not carefully collected, written into a notebook and forgotten about. In conjunction with text mining, it could be useful to encourage use of tools such as Quizlet (www.quizlet.com), which enable vocabulary review in an engaging, motivating way. Learners also need to be given opportunities to use the language they have mined. This does not need to be specifically targeted opportunities but, just as often, a case of reminding learners to experiment with the new language they are collecting and learning. This approach to learning new vocabulary can help go a little way to bridging the gap between receptive vocabulary and productive vocabulary – which often tends to be more of a yawning chasm than a mere gap!

In conclusion, then, why not step away from the traditional comprehension question-focused approach to a reading or listening text, and explore other ways of using texts with learners, so that they can reap the benefits inherent in these. Exploit the potentially rich source of language that these texts obviously are, which, as seen above, can be usefully mined, but also use them as a source of engagement, both cognitive and affective, that stimulates meaningful creation and production in the target language.

Author’s Bio: Lizzie Pinard recently completed her MA in English Language Teaching with integrated DELTA at Leeds Metropolitan University and is now working at International House in Palermo. As well as teaching and experimenting, she enjoys making learning materials, doing classroom research, writing (blog posts, book reviews, this column, you name it!) and presenting at conferences.


Hill, J. (1999) Collocational Competence in English Teaching Professional Issue 11, April. Pavilion.

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach Heinle.

Lewis M. (ed.) Teaching Collocation: Further developments in the Lexical Approach. Heinle.

Saslow, J. (2013) Facilitating Fluency: Four dynamic techniques at IATEFL 2013 in Liverpool.

Tomlinson, B. (2013) Developing Principled Frameworks for Materials Development in Developing Materials for Language Teaching (2nd Edition -1st Edition 2003) ed. Tomlinson, B. Bloomsbury. London.