Leo Selivan

Leo Selivan reflects on how his approach to teaching collocations, something he has been advocating for many years, has undergone some changes in recent years, thanks to new research evidence.  

About 12-13 years ago – around the time I started developing teaching materials and writing about ELT methodology – I would have started this article with discussing why it is important to teach collocations. But today, in 2023 (30 years since Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach was published), it seems rather redundant. Collocations – and other linguistic units that go beyond single words – have become firmly established in the mainstream of ELT and teachers no longer need convincing of their importance. Therefore, let’s dive straight into how they should be selected, taught and reviewed. Here my beliefs and practices have undergone some changes thanks to latest insights from interventional studies in applied linguistics and corpus research.


Learning new collocations 

Collocations seem to lend themselves naturally to matching activities: break up collocations into beginnings and endings and ask students to match them up:

took               independence

gained            attempts

made             power

This is what I would normally do with collocations in class in the past. Recent research, however, raises doubt about the effectiveness of this technique in the early stages of learning. Studies by Boers et al (2014, 2017) show how exercises in which learners have to reassemble collocations, commonly found in coursebooks, lead to poor learning gains. Such exercises rely on trial and error and may result in learners remembering the wrong combinations.

On the other hand, exercises in which collocations are left intact lead to better retention of the new collocations. In the exercise below, collocations are presented as ‘wholes’:

     took power         gained independence           made attempts            ceased to exist

Ukraine (a)________________ in 1991 when the Soviet Union (b) ______________. After Russian President Vladimir Putin (c)_______________ a decade later, he (d)_________________to bring the country back to the Russian sphere of influence.

The reason why such exercises are more effective is that they minimize the guesswork and risk of error associated with exercises where collocations have been divided into their constituent elements for learners to put back together. Working with collocations in their intact form – in the initial stages of learning – does not guarantee, of course, that all of them will be learned and remembered, but at least this approach reduces the chances of erroneous combinations lingering in memory.

Selecting collocations 

Another thing that has changed in the last decade or so is a more systematic approach to the selection of collocations and other multi-word units. One of the criticisms of the Lexical Approach was the (relatively) arbitrary nature of selecting collocations: which collocations to teach and in what order. These decisions seemed to be left entirely to the teacher.

Recent years have seen the compilation of many corpus-based lists of multi-word expressions, which teachers can consult. While there is not enough space here for a detailed review of all available lists – the reader is invited to refer to my recent chapter in Demystifying Corpus Linguistics for English Language Teaching (Harrington & Ronan, 2023) – two lists are worth mentioning: the Academic Collocation List (ACL) and the Lexicogrammar of Academic Vocabulary (LAV) lists.

The ACL (Ackerman & Chen 2013), derived from the Pearson International Corpus of Academic English, contains 2,468 frequent collocations from a variety of academic disciplines; the LAV lists (Green, 2019) provide the most common grammatical patterns (colligations) associated with words from the widely used Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000). Of the multitude of lists available today, these two, in my opinion, would be particularly useful to teachers wishing to incorporate more lexical input in their teaching. I still believe though that teachers’ intuition, verified by consulting an online dictionary (e.g. Cambridge Dictionary, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary or LDOCE) or corpora (e.g. COCA), has an important role to play.

Aural input 

One final difference between my approach to collocations then and now would be emphasis on listening. In the past I would consider reading texts to be the main source of collocational input. New evidence, however, suggests that listening may play a larger role in the acquisition of multi-word units compared to single words (Webb & Chang 2022).

Aural input helps with the processing of multi-word sequences: text is divided into meaningful units (chunks) with no pauses between words (Bybee, 2002; Conklin et al, 2020). In written input, on the other hand, words are separated on a page by white spaces, making collocations less noticeable. As a result, readers tend to attend to individual words and may pay less attention to chunks. This accords with the learners’ natural tendency to focus on single words ignoring chunks in input (Hoang & Boers, 2016).

This insight has made me include in my teaching more activities and exercises in which the listening modality is activated. In addition to authentic video (YouTube videos, TV series), which I have always been using a lot in my teaching, I try to use review activities where prompts are given orally rather than printed on paper, get students to hum chunks of language imitating their intonational patterns and provide narrow listening – a technique similar to narrow reading (Krashen, 1981). Some of these will be demonstrated in my workshop Recording, Revising and Revisiting Lexis on 12 March 2023, in which I will not be trying to convince you of the necessity of teaching chunks and collocations, but rather sharing practical activities for working with multi-word units in class.

Correct answers to the exercise 

(a) gained independence; (b) ceased to exists; (c) took power; (d) made attempts


Ackermann, K,& Y.-H. Chen. (2013). Developing the Academic Collocation List (ACL) – A corpus-driven and expert-judged approach. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 12(4), 235–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2013.08.002

Boers, F., M. Demecheleer, A. Coxhead & S. Webb (2014). Gauging the effects of exercises on verb-noun collocations. Language Teaching Research, 18(1), 50-70. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362168813505389

Boers, F., T.C.T Dang & B. Strong (2017). Comparing the effectiveness of phrase-focused exercises: A partial replication of Boers, Demecheleer, Coxhead, and Webb (2014). Language Teaching Research, 21(3), 362–280. https://doi.org/10.1177/136216881665146

Bybee, J. L. (2002). Phonological evidence for exemplar storage of multiword sequences. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 215–221. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0272263102002061

Conklin, K., Alotaibi, S., Pellicer-Sánchez, A., & Vilkaitė-Lozdienė, L. (2020). What eye-tracking tells us about reading-only and reading-while-listening in a first and second language. Second Language Research, 36, 257–276. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267658320921

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-238. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587951

Green, C. (2019). Enriching the academic wordlist and Secondary Vocabulary Lists with lexicogrammar: Toward a pattern grammar of academic vocabulary. System 87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2019.102158

Harrington, K & P. Ronan (eds.) (2023). Demystifying Corpus Linguistics for English Language Teaching. Palgrave-Macmillan.

Hoang, H., & Boers, F. (2016). Re-telling a story in a second language: How well do adult learners mine an input text for multiword expressions? Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 6, 513–535. https://doi.org/10.14746/ssllt.2016.6.3.7

Krashen, S. (1981). The case for narrow reading. TESOL News, 12, 23.

Webb, S., & Chang, A. C. S. (2020). How does mode of input affect the incidental learning of collocations? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 44, 35–56. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0272263120000297  


Leo Selivan 

Leo Selivan has been involved in ELT for 15 years in various roles: teacher, examiner, teacher trainer, senior teacher, materials writer, e-moderator. He was lucky to start his teaching career with the British Council in Tel Aviv, where, among other things, he was a content writer for the British Council & BBC website TeachingEnglish. Today, Leo is a freelance lecturer in Second Language Acquisition, Language Awareness, ELT methodology and Vocabulary Teaching for both pre-service and in-service teachers.

In addition to frequent appearances at international conferences, he has delivered teacher training workshops, and mentored teachers and teacher trainers in Azerbaijan, Armenia, France, Italy and Turkey. He has written for Modern English Teacher, EFL Magazine and the Guardian Education, co- edited the special lexical issue of Humanising Language Teaching (with Hanna Kryszewska) and has just published his first book Lexical Grammar (for the Cambridge Handbooks for Teachers). He runs a blog aptly titled Leoxicon (http://leoxicon.blogspot.com).

Presentations during the Spring ’23 Cyprus International Publishers Exhibition 


Saturday, 11 March 2023, 15.00-15.50, Clio Room, Semeli Hotel

Entrance to the above presentations is free of charge

To register visit:  www.ip-exhibitions.eu


Workshop during the Spring ’23 Cyprus International Publishers Exhibition  


Saturday, 11 March 2023, 17.00-20.00, Clio Room, Semeli Hotel

Participation fee for the above sorkshop: 35 euros

To register visit:  www.des.org.gr