Language corpora and ELLs (2017)

Descriptive components

  • Audience: Recently arrived, well-educated adult migrants (high-beginner to intermediate ELLs), seeking enrichment in a university ESL center or in a community setting
  • Purpose/goals: The purpose of the lesson is to help students develop a strategy for learning on their own as well as to lead them to self-guided resources for vocabulary acquisition.
  • Student outcomes: At the end of the lesson, the student will be able to (1) provide some characteristics of self-directed language learning and (2) begin to articulate a plan to enact vocabulary-learning strategies in desired domains or situations.
  • Teacher and student roles and activities (procedure): The instructor seeds a discussion of things that the students have learned to do on their own, leads discussion of a brief video, directs students in small corpus-based word-research projects, and helps learners prepare for a homework assignment. Students listen and participate both by speaking and by writing, working with a partner. They enlist critical-thinking skills by considering the English-language domain or situation in which they would most like to gain new vocabulary and practice a possible strategy to begin this kind of study.
  • Theme: The overarching theme is discovery of words and appreciation for each learner’s individual strengths and resources.
  • Timing: 50-60 minutes
  • Materials/technology: Paper, writing instruments, screen for video, and access to computers or smart phones for accessing electronic resources
  • Assessment measures (formative/summative): Formative assessment will be informal by checking student understanding of self-learning as a concept – including having students think of other constructs with the compound “self-”. As a summative assessment, students will present briefly their “word spiders” and notice new words and usage.
  • Rationale: Learners often seem intimidated by the large English vocabulary and have not adopted a comfortable technique for learning new words. They tend to learn words individually and not as word families, consisting of morphemes (prefixes, roots, and suffixes). International-student writers and others, too, struggle with parts of speech and with recognizing common noun, adjective, and adverb forms. Moreover, students often lack direction when learning vocabulary on their own.



Ask learners about things they have learned to do on their own, with no or little assistance from others. Examples might include hobbies, job skills, or languages. Format: small-group discussion (5-10 minutes)


Before watching, tell learners that we are going to watch a short video on self-teaching. What is “self-teaching”? What does it mean to put “self-” in front of a word? What are some other examples of “self-” words?

Tell students briefly about the video: “The professor let kids use the Internet to see if they could teach themselves. The experiment was called ‘The Hole in the Wall.’ ” Watch Sugata Mitra, “New Experiments in Self-Teaching” (, with English subtitles, from 0:56:

I started in 1999 to try and address this problem with an experiment, which was a very simple experiment in New Delhi. I basically embedded a computer into a wall of a slum in New Delhi.

until 2:34:

In another South Indian village, these boys here had assembled a video camera and were trying to take a picture of a bumble bee. They downloaded it from, or one of these websites, 14 days after putting the computer in their village.

While watching, have students listen and watch for this phrase: “Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do.” Provide this to the group as a cloze:

Children will ______________ to do what they want to ______________ to do.

After watching, ask learners what they think of the experiment and discuss the meaning of the phrase. Do they think it is true? Is the phrase true for themselves? Format: whole-class (10 minutes)

Introduction to language corpus

Tell learners that we are going to use the Internet to find how English words are used in real life. We can find out what words mean and when people use them.

Try some examples. Find a partner with a laptop, or use a smartphone to visit the Corpus of Contemporary American English at (Tell students that corpus = body; this corpus has more than 560,000,000 English words.) Type “self-*” in the search box, then click “Find matching strings.” We are asking the computer, with *, to find letters that get added to the end. What is the most common “self-” combination? How can we see usage examples? Show learners that they can click each word to see sample sentences. What “self-” combinations do learners know already? What do we learn, perhaps, about U.S. culture from the most common combinations?

Try “*learn*”. Explain that “learn” is a root, from which other words branch out. We can add parts to the beginning and the end. What are the most common forms? What are examples of words where we have added something to the beginning? To the end? To beginning and end? What are new words with “-learn-”? Format: pair activity (10-15 minutes)

Mini-research project

Assign pairs different roots, printed on cards: *press*, *light*, *check*, *friend*, or *place* (Spiro 2013, 88).

Allow students 5-10 minutes, working with partner, to make a “word spider” (or tree) from their root (Spiro 2013, 88). They draw on the whiteboard or in their notebooks. Show sample:

Next, each pair will choose one of the new word combinations and use the corpus to find one sample sentence. (Do example with “regift.”) They add the sample sentence to their drawing.

Introduce students to one more online resource:, telling them it is a special dictionary to show which words appear next to each other in English. Ask students for one of the new words from their “word spiders.” For example, “replace.” Show students how to find the part of speech (verb) and examples in combination with other words. Format: pair activity (15 minutes)

Assessment and follow-up

Ask students how they can use these tools to work on their vocabulary. (1) Give students another root to work on at home: *give*, *try*, *show*, *be*, *use*, etc. Students make another “word spider,” choose one new word from the drawing, find part of speech and an example sentence at

(2) Also, ask students to keep a word journal one day during the week, writing down expressions or new words that they hear, along with the following information: Where did they hear it? Who was speaking? What was the situation? Words might be in academic or interest domains, or can be common conversational words or expressions, such as “anyway,” “gotta run,” “I mean,” “the thing is,” “and so on,” “or something,” “things like that” (see McCarten 2007, 9–14). Format: whole-class (5-10 minutes)

Other corpora

Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English

Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English

Assorted English corpora

Mobile teaching apps using corpora

University College London

Interactive Grammar of English:

Academic Writing in English:

English Spelling & Punctuation:


McCarten, Jeanne. 2007. Teaching Vocabulary: Lessons from the Corpus, Lessons for the Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mehl, Seth, Sean Wallis, and Bas Aarts. 2016. “Language Learning at Your Fingertips: Deploying Corpora in Mobile Teaching Apps.” Pp. 211–39 in Creating and Digitizing Language Corpora, vol. 3: Databases for Pubic Engagement, ed. K. P. Corrigan and A. Mearns. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Spiro, Jane. 2013. Changing Methodologies in TESOL. Edinburgh Textbooks in TESOL. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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