I have seen countless students trying to improve their English in the worst possible way.
They buy a big vocabulary book and then spend their valuable time going over great lists of words. Their eyes darting from one word to the next while their lips move as they attempt to pronounce the words under their breath.
This is a huge waste of their time.
All they are doing is learning a few words (they can’t remember all of them) with no context. So while they may know the word and what it means they do not understand how to use it.
To make big improvements in your English vocabulary learn in chunks.
Learn chunks of words together and then you can remember them more easily and use them in your everyday speaking and writing.
Forget lists of words. They are useless.
Use chunks. Chunks are your friends. Chunks like you. And you will love chunks.
What do I mean by chunks?
I mean collocations.
Let’s dive right in and take a look.
What are collocations?
Collocations are words in small groups we often use together.
To the native English speaker collocations sound right. With the right amount of time, study and practice they will sound right to you too.
A few phrases or groups of words you might know could be:
- Go to school
- Bad habits
- Hard work
- Fast food
- Save time
- Deep sleep
These phrases instinctively sound right to native English speakers. If we try to change these groups of words around, they would just sound wrong.
- Arrive to school
- No good habits
- Strong work
- Quick food
- Collect time
- Beneath sleep
Collocations have a set pattern but this pattern doesn’t really have many rules as such. Sometimes the words just gel together and they stay that way.
Types of Collocations
There are seven types of collocations.
Adverb + Adjective
My brother is a highly successful lawyer in New York.
We are deeply concerned about the new student because he never talks to the others.
This warm weather is highly unusual for this time of year.
The cost of renting a house in London is utterly ridiculous.
It is absolutely impossible to find a plumber at this time of night.
The climate in Shanghai in January is bitterly cold.
He was deeply ashamed of his behaviour in the meeting yesterday
A great resource for finding Adverb + Adjective collocations is this site.
But it is not enough to just go over these lists of collocations. You must put them into your everyday use in English. Write out dialogues in your notebook using the collocations you want to learn. Use them in conversation.
Adjective + Noun
I take the express train to work every morning.
I like strong coffee with my breakfast.
My brother is a rich man.
On the way to work, I always meet heavy traffic.
I try to eat a healthy diet most of the time.
I have mixed feelings about the new prime minister.
Workers have been digging up the main road for weeks.
I have no plans for the immediate future.
I fell into a deep sleep as soon as I went to bed.
Noun + Noun
I quit my job and moved to Costa Rica because I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.
I got a fine and points on my license for breaking the speed limit in my car.
It’s your turn to take out the trash can.
For dessert, I like to eat cheesecake
I am glad we have a burglar alarm fitted to our house.
You can find new paper in the storage room.
Don’t forget to buy more pet food because we have none left.
Let’s make some tea and play a board game this evening.
I love to watch a great action movie at the cinema.
Noun + Verb
The next-door neighbour’s dog barks all day and night.
If I don’t know how to do the maths problem, my teacher shows me.
The police said that a bomb exploded in the train station last night.
In the summer I can always hear bees buzzing in the garden.
Birds build their nests for the winter.
Many fish swim in the river.
All the neighbours’ children play in the street.
Verb + Noun
I tried to make conversation with my new neighbour but he doesn’t seem interested.
This is the fifth time he has been late, so it is time to take action.
Miss a call
I missed a call while I was on the subway.
Get a surprise
On my birthday I got a big surprise from my family.
Take a break
I haven’t had a holiday for ages. I think it’s time to take a break.
Catch a cold
I’ve got a really high fever. Maybe I have caught a cold.
Ask a question
Sometimes in class, I feel too shy to ask a question.
There are many Verb + Noun collocations but by far the biggest selection can be found using the verbs Do and Make. For more information on this see the next section.
Verb + Preposition
I don’t believe in magic.
I have been waiting for you for such a long time.
I love to look at old paintings in the museum.
I don’t agree with the mayor about raising taxes.
We have to pay for parking in the city centre.
I sit at the front of the class to listen to the teacher.
I had to think about his question for some time.
I haven’t heard from my friend for a long time.
I can always rely on my classmate to help me.
You must apologise for your behaviour.
If we can compare Paris with London, it is much smaller.
I come from a small town in Germany.
Verb + Adverb
He leaned closer and whispered softly in her ear.
Every night the choir sings beautifully in the hall.
I hate it when my boss shouts loudly.
My father often speaks quietly so I cannot hear him.
In the morning I always walk quickly on my way to school.
I run slowly around the park for some exercise.
My colleagues all work hard when we have a deadline.
My teacher said I study well for exams.
Do & Make
Do and Make have hundreds of collocations.
These are the basic rules:
When talking about the action itself:
I like to do yoga two or three times a week.
When talking about things we must do:
I’ve got to do my homework.
When talking about things we repeatedly do:
I do exercise every morning.
When talking about work, jobs or tasks:
I do the housework, It’s my turn to do the dishes, I need to do my homework, You did a great job.
When talking about something unclear:
I’ve got lots of things to do, You do nothing to help, We should do everything we can to help.
When replacing a verb where the meaning is clear:
I’ll just do my hair, I have to do the laundry, Let me do the bathroom.
When talking about something we create or produce:
Shall I make a cup of tea, I want to make dinner.
When making plans:
I made arrangements for the wedding, I made the decision to leave, I make a study plan every week.
When talking about something that causes an action or reaction:
He makes me laugh, That movie made me cry, He made me do it.
These are the basic rules of these two verbs, but there are exceptions.
That is the English language!
Other verbs that have many collocations are have, take, come, go and get.
You have probably studied many collocations using these verbs with your teacher or at school.
I could make an exhaustive list of the most common uses of these verb + noun collocations but I want to try to show you how to create your own collocations. Or show you exercises how to use them immediately.
This is by far the best way to remember them.
I’ll go into more detail on this in the How to learn collocations section.
Why learn collocations?
By learning collocations you will speak English naturally. People will understand you easily. And you will understand them more clearly too.
You will read at a faster speed.
And you will write in a more complex and interesting way.
As you get to grips with more and more collocations your English will become more fluent. Your English will have a richer, more rounded quality to it.
Learning collocations is of great benefit to you, the student. It is better to learn in ‘chunks’ because it is easy to remember information this way.
When English speakers use the English language, they don’t think of the language in separate words.
For example, when we say “I really love to ride my bicycle in the country lanes” — we don’t think of it as 11 separate words. We think of it as useful chunks — collocations that we can put together to express ourselves.
You can do this too.
Problems for English Students
The most common problem for students when studying English collocations is that they try to translate them directly from their own language.
In Spanish, the word macer means both do and make.
In Chinese, the word rang means let, make and allow.
In their own language, it would be no problem to use these words easily and in the correct place.
But you can see where the confusion can begin when translating to English.
Therefore, you need to learn English collocations IN ENGLISH. It will help you learn the collocations directly and you will become fluent at a much faster pace.
Do NOT translate from your language to English. This will not work.
How to learn collocations?
There are FIVE methods I would like to introduce to you to help you learn English collocations.
- Use a collocations dictionary
- Watch movies
- Use jobs and occupations
- Use everyday terms
- Making collocation maps
I then add some extra tips you can use to learn more collocations.
Let’s get started.
Use a Collocations Dictionary
What is a collocations dictionary?
Well, it’s a dictionary filled with English collocations.
To be honest, Ozdic is my personal favourite. It is just simple and has the most examples.
You will need access to one of these online dictionaries plus your notebook and a pen.
How to Do It
A good place to start is to make a list of nouns of objects or things you use every day.
Then go through your list of nouns in the collocations dictionary and find collocations and phrases using each noun.
Let’s start with the word ‘bus’. An easy word to begin with as there are many collocations that you may already know.
I put the word ‘bus’ into Ozdic and these were the results.
First, we have Adjective + Bus.
You can adapt the examples so they are suitable for your own daily life.
My examples might be:
There’s a bus stop near my home with many regular buses that go around town.
I don’t see many double-decker buses in my neighbourhood.
There’s an airport bus that goes directly to the airport.
Next, we have Verb + Bus.
My examples are:
I don’t go by bus very often in my town.
Many people take the bus in the morning to go to work.
I had to run for the bus as I was late.
You can see more examples here
Exercise: Try finding your own collocations and check out the examples. Then try to make your own example sentences.
That is all you have to do. It’s easy and a great way to learn new collocations thanks to Ozdic.com.
I have written about studying English with movies before. You can check that blog here.
Watching movies is a great way to study English — plus it is good fun too.
You can also use movies to study English collocations.
It’s very simple. Here’s how you do it.
Play your favourite movie using your preferred movie player. I highly recommend VLC.
Turn the volume down so that the movie plays in silent mode.
And as the actors do things in each scene you say out loud what they are doing.
For example, you may have:
He is making a phone call
He is looking out the window
He is getting in the elevator
He is running down the stairs
He is waving for a taxi
This works especially well for action movies and cartoons. Movies where the characters are doing a lot of things.
Try it with a friend. You can have great fun with this while you learn.
Use Common Jobs
Jobs are a great way to find and learn new collocations.
Find a job you are familiar with. If you are working a good start would be your own job.
But if you are still a student use your mother or father’s jobs.
Let’s take the job of salesman.
From this job, we can find many common collocations.
Talk to customers
Have a meeting
Talk on the phone every day
Sign a contract
But we can do some research in other ways.
A great source of information I found was this site.
On the front page, you can see a big list of different occupations in groups. Click on one of these to find your job or the jobs of your parents.
As an example, I clicked on Media & Communication and that directed me to another page full of jobs in the media sector.
From there I clicked on Writers and Authors.
A writer is a job where you write articles, blogs, books and advertising. The person who wrote this blog is a writer.
On the writer page here you can see different sections.
What writers do, their work environment and how to become a writer.
If you read the text in these sections, you can find many common collocations associated with the job of writer.
I found the following:
develop written content
various types of media
work in an office
work at home
access to a computer
writers are self-employed
college degree in English
a full-time position
any form of writing
median annual wage
projected to grow
And this was only what I found on the main summary page.
There are then pages for what they do, work environment, how to become one plus some other categories.
If you spend some time and go through all these sections, you will find many collocations and phrases associated with the job of your choice.
Yes, it is work, but it is not hard work.
Find the collocations and write them down word for word in the sentence where you find them.
Go over these try to use them in your daily life.
Use Everyday Terms
Another way to find and learn English collocations is by terms.
These could be terms related to work, or an interest or study.
Look this term up in the dictionary and then find phrases to use. Then write a paragraph using the new phrases and collocations you found. This will help you remember them.
I like to go to the gym and lift weights so let’s use that as an example.
In the first paragraph I found the collocations;
develop the muscles
to target specific muscle groups
types of movement
The article then goes into a lot of great detail on weight lifting. The history, safety, the types of exercises and health benefits.
Just as you did before with jobs if you go through the article slowly you will find many new collocations.
Make a note of any phrases and collocations you don’t know and write them down in your notebook. Use the sentence where you find the collocations in use.
This is a great memory device.
Your hobby may not be weightlifting. It could be amateur dramatics or flower arranging or jogging. Whatever it is, do some research on Wikipedia and you can find collocations associated with your interest.
Once you have a list, try to use them in your everyday life.
Make Collocations Maps
A simple but highly effective way to learn English collocations is by making a collocations map.
This is by far the easiest way to learn collocations, especially if you are a beginner to it.
How to do it is so easy.
You take a sheet of paper and write the word you want to form collocations with in the middle. It could be a verb or a noun, a job or a hobby.
Then you draw lines from the word to form a radius on the paper.
Then you add phrases and collocations you find in a dictionary or from your teacher at the end of each line.
You may have only three or four. Or you could have twelve or thirteen. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you try to use these phrases in your everyday English.
Tips to Learn Collocations
I personally think it is a good idea to try all the exercises I listed above.
It takes time and some work but that will pay off and you will see great results.
But I also have a few extra tips to remember when learning English collocations.
Be Aware of Collocations
Be conscious of them in your everyday English. Listen for them when talking to a native English speaker. Or listen for them when watching TV or a movie. Try to notice them when reading too.
Treat Collocations as Blocks
I have said this before but it is worth repeating. Treat all collocations as a block of language you can use, not separate words. For example, think of the phrase Ordering a pizza as one block of English, not separate words like ordering + a + pizza.
New Words mean New Collocations
Each time you learn a new word try to find other words that collocate with it. For example, let’s say you learn the word ambidextrous.
The man was ambidextrous with both hands, he could write with his left and right hand.
He is completely ambidextrous — he can use both hands with ease.
Read, Read and Read Again
I have written about the wonderful benefits of reading before. Take a look here.
I cannot emphasise enough that you should read every day in English if you want to see improvements.
This applies to learning common collocations too.
By reading you will come across phrases and then you can make a note of them. Reading them again and again in context will help reinforce them to memory.
Learn Collocations in Groups
Learn collocations in groups that work for you. That might be in terms of the topic (weather, jobs, family, money, numbers) or by a particular word (make + noun).
Use Them Every Day
I have said this several times but I must repeat it. Try to use new collocations you have learned as soon as possible in your everyday English.
I have given you a lot of exercises to try out. The best way now is to put them into action.
Many students try to learn collocations by doing very simple worksheets. Or by reading a list of them over and over. This is not useful for you.
The best way is to create them for yourself and your everyday environment. Do some simple research using a collocation dictionary. Then write them out.
The research and writing will make them stay in your memory. Plus, you are making collocations that are useful for your life.
Learn them then use them in your everyday life. You find that your English will sound more fluent and more sophisticated.
Good luck and let me know in the comments below.