A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Enhancing Linguistic Competence Using Concordance

Vandana Lunyal


Linguistic competence generally indicates people's ability to use language effectively. It may be observed that linguistic competence depends largely on lexical competence. In the ESL context, it becomes very complicated to determine the appropriacy of the words used in a particular situation. Using inappropriate vocabulary results in loss of meaning in communication; therefore, as language teachers, it becomes important for us to introduce learners to tools such as dictionaries, thesauri and corpora, to help them use contextually appropriate vocabulary. This paper discusses the use of well known corpora such as BNC, Harper Collins Wordbank and COCA for teaching English language. It focuses on informing the readers about the concordance tool of corpora, how it can be used to search for word contexts and develop vocabulary activities using authentic language.


“Corpora” is the plural term for the word “corpus”. It refers to the electronic databases that are reservoirs of authentic language, and that are available to users through the Internet or as software that may be installed on desktops (Hasselgård, 2001). Language corpora are collections of real-life texts. These collections draw their data from written texts such as newspapers, books, magazines, authentic letters and published or unpublished official documents from fields such as industries, education, politics, etc., and spoken texts that are recorded from radio / TV news, formal or informal conversations, chat shows, movies, and conference talks. Corpora therefore illustrate authentic language used in real-life situations that teachers and learners need to interpret, use and therefore practice. Many online corpora are available on the Internet through a software called Concordance.

Concordance as a Search Instrument

Concordance is a high-speed searching tool used to find the usage of an unfamiliar word in an appropriate context. Traditionally, learners needed to rely on dictionaries for looking up a word and its usage, but they generally skipped this time-consuming process. In comparison, a concordance is quicker and throws up a page full of authentic and current examples of the item searched. According to Witton (1993), concordance is generally consulted for its vast number of authentic language contexts analyzed from samples taken from corpora. This feature provides users with exposure to authentic and comprehensive examples of language and also to the usage of an unfamiliar word.

Some Available  Corpora

1.         Harper Collins’ WordBank

WordBank published by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. is among the best corpora of British English usage and is a result of pioneering work done at Birmingham University in the field of Corpus Linguistics.

2.         BNC (British National Corpus)

Another useful corpus is BNC or the British National Corpus. It has a collection of 100 million word samples of written and spoken language.  BNC provides an online database as well as CD-Roms for users.  

3.         VLC (Virtual Language Centre)

The Virtual Language Centre concordance uses corpora that incorporates  articles from magazines, business, economy, students’ academic writings, the Bible, and many other sources for its data.

Using the Corpora in Teaching / Learning Situations

Regarding the use of Corpora, Qiao (1995) asserts that even native speakers may use corpora for academic writing or for lexical knowledge and that teachers can make use of the authentic data as classroom material for ESL, EFL, or EAP learners.

Authentic Language Samples

According to Cobb (2003), better learning is expected when learners observe and process adequate and appropriate language samples. Therefore, for learning vocabulary, learners must be exposed to an adequate number of samples or contexts. Searching an online concordance provides the learner with many diverse types of real-life examples of language use including acceptable sequences of words in phrases and collocations. Dictionaries on the other hand, have made-up examples that do not lead to a complete understanding of a new word. Since language is a complex phenomenon and language acquisition a complicated one, using concordancing software helps the learners to develop a vast lexical resource and an in-depth knowledge of lexical usage.

Process-Oriented Learning

Teaching vocabulary in a traditional language classroom is a passive or an inactive way of learning, whether it is taught intentionally or incidentally The process of learning remains inactive because the learner is not expected to put in any effort except that of consulting the dictionary. Learners are expected to learn a new word from a given list of “new” words by looking up their word definitions and memorizing them. This implies going through a repeated process of memorizing the same words. Hence recalling the words at will and appropriately is not always possible.

On the other hand, the use of concordances for teaching/learning is a student-centered process, as it has activities that are designed to involve learners in exploring the target language. Concordances also help teachers in engaging learners in a Data-Driven Language Learning technique, thereby involving learners in a “content decision-making” learning situation (Hadley, 2001). The classroom, therefore, becomes student-centric, and learners become more autonomous (Nation, 2001; Rüschoff, B). They also become aware of the multiple meanings of a single word, since there are numerous examples in the corpora wherein the target word is used in different ways to indicate different meanings. Learners also get exposed to the different contexts in which the word is used, which, in turn allows them to see how words get their meanings from the contexts of use. Concordances thus help teachers involve learners in exploring, selecting and understanding words as well as language from the digitally compiled data.  

Integrating Concordances With Vocabulary Teaching: Some Suggestions

Using Concordance with Young Learners 

Using concordance with young learners can be challenging, as they need to know how to use computers. Moreover, concordancing and appraising the data produced can be an arduous task and may demotivate them. Hadley (2001) posited that learners may become frustrated on account of having to deal with the enormous data produced by the concordance. Nevertheless, concordances can still be usefully employed in teaching-learning situations at the beginners’ level. For the convenience of the learners, a concordance sheet can be created, using a suitable corpus so that students do not have to struggle with the massive information all by themselves. Teachers can distribute this sheet to the students. They can read it and then choose examples from the sheet that are relevant to their needs and appropriate in a variety of contexts and note them in their vocabulary notebooks or diaries. Such an activity will engage them in exploring the language, observing the language contexts of the words and enhancing their understanding of words and contexts. This task will also take the learners through a process of learning that will result in increased concentration. While writing the examples, learners will understand the language inputs and assimilate them to incorporate them in their speech or writing when required. Hadley pointed out that by using concordances, his students not only developed lexical knowledge but also improved their writing skills.

In an English classroom in a government model school of Chandigarh, we observed that an English teacher was taking up “common errors in English language” with class VI students. One of the examples that she did took up in the class was “I take tea in the morning”. She pointed out that it was incorrect to say “take tea” and the correct way of saying the sentence was “I have tea in the morning”.  It was clear that the teacher had designed the exercise based on her prior knowledge. However, since language is all about current usage, she should have consulted a dictionary that gives current usage of words or she should have used the corpora.

Using Concordance for Understanding Usage 

To check the acceptability of “take” with “tea” and “have” with “tea” or “take” with an item of “food”, young learners can be given the task of collecting information from two different concordances to check acceptable usage. However, this may not be possible for them as they may have limited access to these resources. In such a scenario, a concordance list can be given to them and they can be asked to read and note down some relevant sentences in their notebooks. Through the concordance lists, it becomes easier for learners to understand the usage of words. The list given below (Figure 1) illustrates that it is possible to use “take” and “tea” together. Figure 1 illustrates that the verb “take” can be used in all its forms with the noun “tea”—“take”, “took”, “taking”, “had taken”. Such a list can be printed and given to the learners to understand how the two words come together meaningfully.

Figure 1. Concordance list 1. 

Using Concordances with Intermediate/Advanced Level Learners

At a higher level, teachers can give more challenging vocabulary tasks to learners such as finding collocates from the given databases. For example:

a.         Learners can be given a list of words and asked to identify whether they can be used in a formal or an informal situation by studying the usage in the examples given in the corpus.

b.         Learners may also be asked to replace inappropriately used words which have been underlined, with more appropriate words. Such an activity would however require the teacher to look up the words using the concordance to make sure that learners will be able find the right words. 

c.         Using the concordance, learners may be asked to identify the word groups, families, or even the grammatical categories of words, i.e., different forms of words. These groups of words referred to as “lemma”, are created through an inflectional process, which facilitates the expansion of the existing vocabulary. Therefore, identifying lemma can be another useful lexicon-building activity. To find lemma, learners can be given lists of verbs and adjectives (Figure 2) and asked to observe the word forms of regular verbs, irregular verbs or regular adjectives.


Figure 2. Textbox with list of verbs and adjectives.

Suggestions for Class Projects Using Web Concordances: Compiling Class Corpus

Learners can also be involved in various classroom projects. Some suggestions for projects are given as follows:

a.         Learners may be divided into different teams for different tasks. Teachers can choose some interesting passages, stories or news items and ask a team of learners (Team A) to list new words from them along with their context or the sentences they have been used in. The other team (Team B) can be asked to find more examples of the different contexts of the words chosen by Team A using the internet, newspapers, textbooks or any other available resource. This collection can then be given to team C for an alphabetical compilation of the corpus.

b.         In another classroom project, learners may be asked to find new words from the given passages. These new words may be written on small cards (as used for writing bibliographies or references) and the learners can call them Lemma cards. These cards will have a lemma of the new verbs and adjectives taken from the given passages. The lemma may be searched using a web-based concordance. These cards can be stored in a cardboard box for vocabulary development and may be shared among the learners in a given time slot for vocabulary development. 


Using a concordance implies bringing the resources of a corpora and hands-on learning with authentic materials into the language classroom. Corpora, being authentic reservoirs of lexical and syntactic resources, give opportunities to the learners to engage in authentic and useful tasks, which are likely to enhance their motivation to learn autonomously. Engaging students in autonomous tasks, wherein they are required to make decisions and retrieve information, may not be possible in a traditional class due to insufficient learning time. Moreover, it has made vocabulary learning a complicated affair. However, with the availability of concordances of language corpora, vocabulary learning can be made more interesting. Additionally, integration of corpora into vocabulary classrooms provides learners with tools that help them to search the required information much faster as compared to a dictionary. It also provides authentic and current contexts to teachers for use in the classroom, which may not be the case if only traditional dictionaries are used for language development.


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Vandana Lunyal, Associate Professor, Regional Institute of English, Chandigarh has 26 years of experience in the field of Teacher Education. She specializes in using multimedia for teaching English.