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This is a reproduction (with annotations) of a paper published in the On Line column of the TESOL Newsletter, 1988. If citing this paper, please use:
Stevens, Vance. 1988. Studying vocabulary using concordances on microcomputers. TESOL Newsletter 22, 3:27. On-line version:

ON LINE edited by Richard Schreck, University of Maryland

Editor's note: Here Vance Stevens describes how concordance software might be used to provide students with appropriately contextualized examples of vocabulary items. This application, among the clearest examples I have seen on CALL, can directly enhance the communicative aspect of language instruction. RS

Studying vocabulary using concordances on microcomputers

Vance Stevens
Sultan Qaboos University, Oman

In harnessing computers in education, as with any innovation, it is understood that those applications that work best are those which most appropriately exploit the medium. Two features enhance the potential of computers in education: improved memory capacity and faster processing speed. They are more common now on small computers, so educators are looking for uses for microcomputers and should consider the value of concordancing both in creating realistic and relevant vocabulary exercises and giving students a tool for self-access vocabulary study.

A concordance is a listing of words and their contexts A computer-generated concordance typically searches through a body of text for every occurrence of a given word or string and prints the line of text surrounding that string, resulting in a listing of several lines of text. The search-string appears in a column down the middle, with the 25 or 30 character environment either side for each occurrence of the string in the text. The search-string could be several words, or just the first part of a word, so that morphological variants can appear in the same concordance; e.g. comprehen- would concordance comprehend, comprehending, comprehension.

Long considered more a tool of the linguistic analyst than of the applied linguist, concordances were nevertheless discussed in connection with language learning in Higgins and John's seminal work (1984). More recently, concordances have been used at Katholeike Universiteit, Leuvan, in generating a variety of exercise types at desired vocabulary levels from a selection of 100 non-fiction texts (Goethals, 1987). Still, translating concordances directly into language learning materials is the exception rather than the rule, though improvements to hardware have set the stage for amelioration of the situation.

There are two particular advantages to deriving language learning exercises from concordances: realism and relevance. Often, in trying to invent convenient contexts for vocabulary items, teachers inadvertently interject artificiality into the exercise, the result of which can easily depart from actual usage. Using materials derived from concordances, on the other hand, assures that contexts will always be real ones. Secondly, relevance is achieved when the corpus of texts used is appropriate to the language learners for whom the exercise is being prepared.

In order to utilize concordances in a language learning setting, two software tools are needed. First, there is needed a concordance program, and second, a corpus of texts. Commercial concordance programs with a wide range of features are available for a variety of computers, but a functional program producing a line of type with the search-string formatted in the middle should be within the capabilities of a competent programmer. Second, there needs to be available a corpus of texts. As people at language centres utilize computers more and more in materials creation, it becomes more and more likely that appropriate materials, say a set of readings, will exist in machine-readable format. It is convenient from a classroom management standpoint if the program and database all fit on a single disk. Such a corpus will keep the students from being overwhelmed with data and result in the contexts generated being both familiar and relevant to them.

At the Language Centre at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, concordances have been used to derive materials for science students. The concordance program is a simple one and was programmed by Dave Poulton, Chief Technician at the Language Centre. A corpus of texts directly relevant to our students is available in machine readable code from at least two sources. One source is the workbooks created using word processors to parallel the students' science lectures. Disk files of these workbooks contain, for example, numerous readings abstracted from the science textbooks. A second source is the texts developed for our text manipulation programs, consisting of hundreds of texts appropriate to the entire spectrum of students at our Language Centre. These sources complement each other, in other words, texts from workbooks and other course materials are often used in the text manipulation programs, and either of these can become grist for the concordances. Thus in developing materials for one purpose, we find that simply because they are stored electronically, these materials can be adapted, sometimes unexpectedly, to other purposes.

Teachers can use the concordance programs in preparing vocabulary exercises. Various exercise formats are possible, but one of the most productive is for the teacher to output the product of several concordances to separate files on disk. Each file will then contain several lines of text, each representing a different context in which the concordanced words were used in the texts the students are studying. The several files can then be drawn together into one exercise using a word processing program. At the top of the exercise is placed a list of words concordanced. These words are blanked out of the grouped lines of text so that what remains is a gap-filling exercise in which there is not one but many contexts for the words to be replaced and in which each context is both real and relevant to the students. (Further reading: this idea was researched and shown to be effective, Stevens 1991)

Students can also use the concordance program in a Student Resource Centre as a tool in self-access vocabulary study. Given a disk containing the concordance program and the relevant text materials, our students can revise vocabulary by running their own concordances on the texts they are studying. Students are prepared for this step not only by being taught the simple syntax for running the program, but by being guided into a familiarity with the data they will be presented. Students find it awkward at first that searched words rarely appear in complete sentences on the concordance, and that in fact words at either end of a line may be arbitrarily truncated. On the other hand, this can be turned to good advantage in accustoming students to interpreting raw linguistic data and also in exercising their ability to predict and extrapolate, as when they find they are able to supply not only the missing letters to truncated words, but also the entire context of which the line is only a part. This ability can be trained in students if teachers prepare a few written exercises first, show the students how the concordances were run in order to derive the exercises, and go over them with the students line by line in class.

Although concordances do not appeal equally to every language learner, there exists a subset which is stimulated by the chance to inductively explore real language data. Accordingly, concordances run on microcomputers can generate realistic and relevant vocabulary practice and complement or replace the artificially contrived vocabulary exercises that teachers typically prepare.


Goethals, Michael. 1987. Automated analysis of the vocabulary of English texts and the generation of practice materials. Paper presented at the 8th World Congress of Applied Linguistics, University of Sydney, 16-21 August, 1987.

Higgins, John, and Tim Johns. 1984. Computers in Language Learning. Addison-Wesley.

About the author: Vance Stevens edits the CALL-Interest Section IBM-PC User's Group newsletter and has written several commercially available CALL software programs.

Further reading

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Last updated: July 7, 2002 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0