Corpus Tools for English Teachers

typesetting letters for a printing press

I recently attended Ohio University’s annual CALL Conference where I discovered a handful of interesting corpus-based resources worth blogging about.  Most of these come from Chris DiStasio’s presentation “How Corpus-based Tools Can Benefit Your ESL Classroom” and from my subsequent exploration of them.

Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) – COCA is a huge (450 million words and counting) balanced corpus to which 20 million words have been added since 1990.  The interface takes some getting used to, but it is quite powerful.  You can search for frequency of words, frequency of collocates, structures based on part-of-speech, and much, much more.  One of the instructors in the highest level of our program asks his students to do searches based on the words in their vocabulary book.  From the collocates, they can identify the most frequent prototype strings or chunks.  These often sound far more native-like than what students (and in many cases, vocabulary textbook authors) come up with.  If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes (or hours) and explore COCA.

Word and Phrase.info – This site, which Chris shared in his presentation, at first seems to be the COCA corpus with a simplified interface.  But in addition to being a simpler way to query the COCA corpus, texts can be uploaded and analyzed based on the use of high frequency words (the 500 most frequent, the next 2500 most frequent, the least frequent, and “academic” words — a note on this last set is below) each of which is then linked to examples in the COCA corpus.  This can be a very useful tool for students who want a quick snapshot of how their writing compares to a target sample.  For example, if they aspire to be published in a given academic journal, they can upload an article (or several articles form that journal) and compare the analysis to their own writing.  As with the COCA interface, there are lots of other features that warrant further exploration.

Academic Vocabulary Lists – My curiosity about what Word and Phrase.info defined as an “academic” word led me to this site, which describes how the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) was created.  Like the Academic Word List (AWL) that April Coxhead developed in 2000, the AVL is a corpus-based list of vocabulary words that appear with higher frequency in academic texts.  In both cases, high frequency words are first omitted leaving only academic words.  But whereas Coxhead built her own 3.5 million-word academic corpus an omitted the General Service List (GSL), a list that has been around since 1953, the AVL is based entirely on the 120 million-word academic portion of the COCA corpus.  Its creators claim better coverage of the COCA academic corpus (14%) compared to the AWL (7.2%).  And although I find this logic a bit circuitous (How could a list based on a given corpus not cover that corpus better than a list that is based on a different corpus?) the development of a more recent (2013) list of academic vocabulary is intriguing.

Just The Word.com – This is another resource described by Chris in his presentation.  This website, based on the 80 million-word British National Corpus (BNC), offers an even simpler, Google-inspired interface.  The user enters a word or phrase in the search box and clicks on one of three buttons: Combinations, which provides collocates; Alternatives from Thesaurus, which links to the phrase with one or more words replaced with synonyms to show the strength of the links between words in the original phrase; and Alternatives from Learner Errors, which purports to link to actual user errors, but I wasn’t able to see much difference between this and Alternatives from Thesaurus.  Although simpler, this tool took me a few tries to get the hang of.  For example, Alternatives from Thesaurus only works with phrases, which I did not immediately realize.  But aside from this initial learning curve, this tool is a very straightforward way for students to easily search for collocates and to learn more about the nativeness of their word choices.  And, like Word and Phrase.info, search results are linked to the corpus for quick and easy access to multiple authentic examples.

If you use these tools, use them in ways other than I’ve described, or know of others, let me know in the Comments.

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