Tom's ESL Lounge

Concordancing in the CEGEPs

This paper describes how ESL teachers in Québec's CEGEP system can use concordance software to provide learners with a rich language learning experience. I briefly discuss the reasons why concordancing is useful, then provide a step by step example of how this tool can be used. Section B was produced as part of an assignment in my course at Bishop's University with Professor Roger Kenner called Computer Assisted Language Learning.

A. Teachers: Why Use Concordancing software?

B. Concordancing Exercises for the Computer Lab

1. Explore the legal text.
2. Definitions for new words
3. New words, two or more meanings
4. Building an Index
6. Looking up the ing words
7. How is "shall" and "should" used differently?
8. Identify and explain the different uses of the word "over"
9. Build your own corpus.
10. Other interesting searches to try
11. Build a Glossary
12. Still more concordancing!

C. Proposal to Distribute the Glossaries

D. References

Teachers: Why Use Concordancing software?

Concordance software allows students to explore massive amounts of authentic language (Higgins, 1991) in the form of text. The concordancer allows them to quickly see how words are actually used in their field of study. Concordancers work by selecting all the occurrences of a word or phrase from text along with the sentence, or part of the sentence in which it is found. After looking at many examples of the word used in context, students use an inductive method to construct a grammar rule. Working within natural language corpus, these tools help learners formulate their own rules of grammar, which some researchers believe is how many people prefer to learn grammar (Gee, 1990, Lightbrown, P., & Spada, N. 1990). While there is no empirical evidence to support the claims made by supporters of concordancers, some have argued that (McDonough, 1986, as cited in Stevens 1995) that rules are easier and more efficiently remembered if the learner invents them on their own, rather than ones that are imposed. Concordancing with computers has been promoted in the literature during the past 10 ten years. The ideas can roughly be summarized in the following claims:

Concordancers bring students cognitive and analytic skills to bear on the manipulation of comprehensive databases for the purpose of solving real-language problems (Steven, 1993, as cited in Stevens 1995);

  • they injects authenticity into the learning process (Johns, 1988);

  • learners assume control of the learning process. Teachers become facilitators of the process of discovery (Stevens, 1990) and coordinators of student-initiated research (Johns, 1989);

  • learners exhibit intelligence and imagination when given control over their learning on computers (Stevens, 1990) which are essential dumb and un-imaginative (Higgins, 1988);

  • the tools allow the students to answer their own questions (Johns, 1988);

  • the discovery of language grammar is collaborative (Stevens, 1995). Students are acting as research director and collaborator (Stevens, 1990);

  • can be efficiently combined with text reconstruction and other exercises (Cobb, 1992 as cited in Stevens,1995); and

  • Johns (1988) argues that concordancing and text reconstruction skills are transferable outside the classroom "in the sense that piecing together coherent text from disconnected ideas or minimal clues lies very close to the heart of language learning and language use" (p.11);
    learners interact with text actively and analytically rather than unreflectively, and passively.

  • What Computer Skills Should Teachers Have?

    A perceived problem with approaching concordancers is that it involves computer skills that are beyond the abilities of most teachers. This can be such an enormous barrier to even looking at these tools. Before going further, you may be wondering how complicated are these tools? It is probably fair to suggest that this program can be implemented by any teacher who is competent in basic computing and networking skills, namely:

    Word processing (i.e. copying text from one program to another)

    File management

    Downloading and installing software from the Internet

    Searching the Internet

    Downloading text files over the Internet

    Concordancer Exercises for the Computer Lab

    Note: This section describes a series of concordance exercises that could be carried out during a 14 week semester. This provides as directions and examples of how to use concordancing in the intermediate and advanced level CEGEP classroom. It is written as student directions.

    Your task is to explore our prepared corpus (a collection) of legal language. The purpose is to discover rules of grammar and meanings of specific words in your field. These introductory exercises will be followed by an exercise to create your own corpus, index and your own glossary.

    We have installed on our Macintosh computers copies of Conc 1.80. There are several concordance software programs that can be downloaded from the Internet that you are free to use. They do not all have the same features so you should become familiar with Conc 1.80 before you try the others.

    1. Explore the legal text.

    A corpus (or database) of text has been assembled. This is provided as an example of what a corpus for students in the para legal studies program would use. Text for your field of studies have not yet been gathered. Please use the legal text for the first exercises. Open the program called Conc in your applications folder. Open the file on your floppy disk called "Legal Text". This will take 30 seconds. Please refer to the hand out on using Conc 1.80. This will guide you through all the basic steps.

    2. Definitions of new words

    Scroll through the concordances, which go one for about 250 pages. Identify five words that are new to you. See if you can derive the meaning from reading these words in context. Cut and paste five concordances into your word processing document. Print these and present them to the class.

    3. New words, two or more meanings

    Examine the concordances and find two examples of words that have more than one meaning. Copy examples of each concordance to illustrate different meanings. Present these to the class on the board.

    4. Building an Index

    The index feature of this software allows you to do some interesting analysis. To create an index, first, open the options Menu: Index

    Check boxes for sort by frequency and descending order.

    Open build: Index. Open the Options menu and create an Index.

    Explore the index.

    The example above shows the word "which" has been selected.
    The concordance has highlighted the 279 occurances of "which" in the text.

    a) What types of words are used more than 200 times in the text?

    b) Look through the index and identify five words that are new to you that occur more than 50 times in the document. Share these with the class.

    6. Looking up the ing words

    Build a new concordance from the text, but this time select only the words ending in ing, the present continuous. You need to specify the words. In the Include Words Option , select "include groups of up to 1 words that match one of these patters:'. In the box below, type the word or phrase you want to find.

    enter in your Include Words search box: ing$

    7. How is "shall" and "should" used differently?

    8. Identify and explain the different uses of the word "over"

    9. Build your own corpus.

    Now that you have seen the potential to use the concordancer it is time to build your own corpus of text in your field of study.

    Find relevant Canadian text in your field of interest. The text for the legal corpus was prepared from files downloaded from the Canadian Department of Justice's Web site. In less than an hour, I was able to download 5 documents of 50 pages or more, and I copied text from Web pages containing a variety of legislation, policy and discussion papers. I built a file of 500 kilobytes each, or about 80,000 words. Note that the use of text from the Internet would be subject to laws of copy right that apply to the use of any text used in the College. In other words, it's just like going to the library. There are many copyright free text available from the government of Canada's sprawling Web site.

    Another way to compile the corpus is to scan in text from magazines, newspapers, and textbooks. Software can be used to convert the scanned images into text which can be used in the concordancer. Text can also be found on CD-ROM collections such as Encarta.

    10. Other interesting searches to try

    a) in, at

    b) there are

    11. Build a Glossary

    This task is specially designed to help students build their own domain specific vocabulary and gain experience working with a database. About half of all CEGEP students are enrolled in specialized vocational programs to become, to name a few, dental hygienists, computer graphics designers, and para-legal technicians. The idea of building glossaries has been proposed by ESL teacher Julie Lafontaine at the Séminaire de Sherbrooke. Once built, the student glossaries could be used when they are doing cloze exercise and want to know more about the clozed out word (Stevens, 1990). Ideally students would be doing their cloze exercise at a computer where the glossary is installed. Instead of creating a separate glossary database as described here, students could have the concordance open all the time and used as a glossary directly.

    Form teams of three. Working on one computer and rotate through roles. One person plays the role of the operator, another identifies the word, the third selects a sample of the concordance that would be useful to include in the database for students. The examples, perhaps up to 8 per word, are copied into the word processing file.

    Select the glossary words using the following criteria:

    commonly used (i.e. has over 4 occurrences in the text)

    words and word forms or meanings with which you are not familiar

    The glossary index and concordance examples can be stored within a table that students can search using the search tools of their word processing program. Programs like Word and WordPerfect treat the file like a database using the Find command.

    12. Still more concordancing!

    You will find some interesting results searching for the following:

    a) *ly for all derived adverbs and information on verb/adverb order

    b) forms of "come"

    c) There (is/are/seems/were/be)

    d) listen and hear, take, bring and fetch, any, & cause

    e) discovering differences in American and British usage

    f) verbs of process

    g) technical vrs everyday use

    h) looking at full stops for insight into thematic structure

    i) specific nouns for range of adjectival use

    Distribution of the Glossaries

    If CEGEP students all need access to specialized vocabulary for their specializations, why not distribute the glossaries via the Web? This section discusses some of the options of how this may be achieved technically.

    Once stored on word processing files, the glossaries could be compiled with an index in HTML, as a Web page, with links to sample concordances, such as I have produced above. A database program could be used to export to HTML pages making the task of making links to hundreds of Web pages less tedious. The teacher would need authorization from the CEGEP director to publish, and they would have the added responsibility.

    How feasible is it for the CEGEPs' ESL departments to participate in building these domain specific glossaries? More research is required to determine if the CEGEP's have the resources for or interest in developing a shared resource. There would be extra work. Some CEGEP's have over 20 ELS teachers. These departments have some flexibility in managing the workload in such a way that the teachers could distribute the work. It is in a small CEGEP like the Seminaire de Sherbrooke with 1.5 ESL teachers where this project may actually be implemented this fall by the teacher working only half-time. It may prove to be easier to do there because fewer people are involved and the teacher is already familiar with concordancing.

    The disadvantage with creating fixed Web pages, besides the time to produce and maintain all the pages, is that learners loose the opportunity to interact freely with the concordance program. It would be more interesting if it were possible to offer an on-line concordancer where there was a collection of corpus to search through a Web page. The page would look like a Web search engine like Alta Vista or Excite that would produce a list of concordances from corpus centrally compiled. This would require a high speed computer.

    The ultimate step in distribution is to modify an existing commercial search engine to conduct a real-time search of text on selected Web pages, say educational pages. The Web itself becomes the corpus for the concordancer. Like search engines that produce lists for people, the users could also jump to the page to read the entire text in context. Just an idea.

    ESL Teachers who have actual experience with concordancers are encouraged to write me to share their ideas and their response to the idea of publishing glossaries.


    Gee, James. (1990). Social Linguistics and Literacies, London: The Falmer Press.

    Higgins, John. (1991). Which concordancer? A comparative review of MS-DOS software. System, 19 (1.2), 91-117

    Johns, Tim. 1988. Whence and whither classroom concordancing? In Bongaerts et al. (Eds.) Computer applications in language learning. Foris.

    Lightbrown, P., & Spada, N. (1990). Focus-on-form and corrective feedback in communicative language teaching. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 12, 429-447.

    Cobb, T. (1992) TEXTERT. Unpublished courseware for Macintosh. Educational Technology, Concordia University., Montreal.

    McDonough, S. H. (1986). Psychology in foreign language teaching, second edition. Ondon: Unwin Hyman.

    Stevens, V. (1990). Text manipulation : What's wrong with it anyway? CAELL Journal, 1 (20, 5-8.

    Stevens, V. (1993). Concordances as enhancements to language competence. TESOL Matters, 2 (6), 11.

    Stevens, V. 1995. Concordancing with Language Learners: Why? When? What? CAELL Journa; 6:2

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