For Teachers

Training students to use corpora – for distinguishing between synonyms

A student who was studying lists of IELTS vocabulary approached me and asked for help distinguishing between the large number of synonyms on the test. (A big list of IELTS synonyms can be found here.)

Levels of vocabulary knowledge

Understanding the subtle differences between synonyms allows students to use words naturally, since they become aware of the right context, the collocations that may go with the word, and the nuance of the word. This all contributes to a deeper understanding of the word. Here are some possible “levels of knowledge” of a word:

  1. Understand the general meaning of the word
  2. Understand when and how the word is used
  3. Understand the nuance of the word (formal, informal, negative connotation, etc.)
  4. Understand collocations that go with the word (i.e. We embellish a tune, but we decorate a room.)

A method for helping students distinguish between synonyms

I’ve had great success showing my students how to use a website called SkELL Sketch Engine, a corpus tool that provides collocations via a feature called “Word Sketch”. It also provides example sentences. To make SkELL Sketch Engine useful for students, I do the following:

First, I’ll show them an example by searching for 2 synonyms that aren’t exactly the same with the “Word Sketch” feature, such as “fabricate” and “construct.” Click the links below to view on Sketch Engine!

Example with “fabricate

Example with “construct”

Under “Word Sketch,” look at the objects of each word. What do we usually “fabricate?” What do we usually “construct?” Explain to students that this tool uses a database of many examples (a corpus) to find out which words usually follow these words.

We can see that we usually fabricate metal, evidence, devices, and components; while we usually construct buildings, bridges, roads, houses, and walls.

This can show students the difference between how the synonyms are used, and also how effective it is to use corpora tools like SkELL Sketch Engine to find this information! I then give them an assignment where the use the “Word Sketch” feature to query different synonyms and write the differences they find.

Another great website that can be used in a similar way is Phil Edmond’s Just The Word.

If you’ve had success using Sketch Engine or other corpora tools to help students learn synonym differences or collocations, please share!

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