How to implement language corpora into an ESL lesson

Why use language corpora for ESL lessons

Why use language corpora for ESL lessons


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  • Vocabulary
  • Teaching qualifications
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  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

From time to time I find my students making the same mistake in their essays. They get the meaning of the word, its form  but use it in the wrong context, so their sentence simply doesn’t work. 

Meanwhile, teachers may struggle too. Sometimes it is hard to come up with the context that accurately represents the meaning I want my students to understand. Inaccurate examples lead to more and more questions and extensive explanations as well as some misunderstandings, as we all know. 

However, there is one thing that can solve both problems that I have just mentioned, and it is called a language corpora.

How to teach vocabulary effectively?

How can a corpus be defined?

A corpus is a collection of linguistic material (usually texts) used for teaching, research, and scholarship. It is often hosted in a computer database.

The Brown University Standard Corpus of Present-Day American English, sometimes referred to as the Brown Corpus, assembled by linguists Henry Kučera and W. Nelson Francis in the 1960s,  became the first systematically structured computer corpus.

As for now, the most distinctive examples of English language corpora are:

  • The American National Corpus (ANC)
  • British National Corpus (BNC)
  • The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)
  • The International Corpus of English (ICE)

However, COCA might be one of the most popular ones.

Corpora vs dictionary: what are the differences?

We have already defined a corpus as a collection of linguistic material.

What this definition means is that any collection of texts might be considered a small corpus with its unique examples of using certain words within a certain context. Therefore, the main aim of a corpus is to collect as much material that  represents various contexts as possible.

Of course, dictionaries do not serve this purpose. They are organized by certain people to present definitions, translations or some related words.

What is more important, people who create dictionaries actually use corpora to find out the most widely used terms which must therefore be included in their collection.

The main question, however, is the following: how can an ESL teacher use corpora for the benefit of their students and the whole studying process?

How to use word clouds for teaching English?

Provide precise examples

Every time you are struggling with creating a precise example of using a certain word or phrase, you can use corpora to do it for you.

Your word or phrase is there 100%, so the only thing you need to do is pick up the most relatable example

This practice can also be adapted as an activity for your students. You can ask them to find some examples of your target language in corpora and compare what they got after.

Identify the terms

Moreover, corpora makes it easier to present the new vocabulary.

Students may often guess the meaning of the word or phrase on their own if they are presented with two or three examples together with a piece of target language.

This kind of practice not only reduces teacher talking time but also helps students with developing their critical thinking skills and prevents them from relying on  literal translation and dependency on their teacher’s assistance.

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Show the context

We all know that learning a word out of its context can be tricky, especially when it comes to more advanced vocabulary. One word can simply mean absolutely different things in two different texts.

To prevent your students from using the words in the wrong context, you should show them how they  can be checked.

First of all, even a simple dictionary can be a savior as every definition is followed by an example. However, corpora contain an endless supply of such examples.

Therefore, it can be much more helpful in cases where the definition from the dictionary is vague or the example is not really understandable.

Reasons to contextualize grammar

Discover the most frequent patterns

Finally, with so many examples of that one word of interest, it is easier to see certain patterns in the sentence.

Your students may easily see how often the word is followed by a certain preposition, for example. The word order becomes transparent as well.

The practice of noticing certain patterns is familiar to people who read a lot. Eventually, you start seeing them after you come across certain structures several times.

However, while seeing certain structures in a book is rather accidental, corpora show you the exact examples of certain structures you are interested in which makes reading more intentional, targeted, and not dependent on the teacher and their choice of text or sentences.

As you can see, incorporating  language corpora into your lesson plan can become a useful additional practice that increases the students’ level of interaction with  authentic  material. 

If you are interested in more tips on how to make the most out of some additional toolsGrade University professionals are always there to assist you with even more helpful recommendations.

Is a corpus based on the material from dictionaries?

Can you see certain language patterns with the help of corpora?

Article authors & editors
  • Arina Kravchenko

    Arina Kravchenko


    Teacher of General English & IELTS



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