Edited by Fannie, Gladys and Ivory
Have you ever experienced any difficulties when composing a piece of academic writing in English? It is an experience that almost every L2 writer has come across. Concordancing may be one of the resources to provide writing assistance to us.
Concordancing is a widespread online reference resource which provides common and typical linguistic patterns from a large amount of language data (Yoon, 2016). The following video clip shows how to use a concordancer procedurally. It is mentioned in the video clip that the two main steps of using a concordancer are to type the keywords in and choose the types of corpus we would like to search.
Concordancers serve two different but related functions for L2 writers:
As a reference tool for L2 writing
Concordancing can help L2 writers to solve lexical and grammatical problems encountered when composing academic writing by showing the rules and regularities of specific linguistic items with the aid of language data (Yoon, 2016).
As a cognitive tool
Concordancing sorts out and displays specific language data so that L2 writers are able to identify linguistic patterns, test hypothesis and attempt to find solutions for existing problems. It enhances the cognitive functions e.g. knowledge construction and meaning-making abilities of the users (Yoon, 2016).
Yoon (2016) did a study which investigated how 6 Korean ESL graduate students in Canada utilized a reference suite which provides users free access to 8 different language reference resources (5 concordancers including 3 Google search engines and 3 types of dictionaries) to solve the linguistic problems encountered in the process of completing authentic academic writing tasks.
Table 1. Major characteristics of the eight resources in the reference suite
|Tab name||Resource name||Characteristic|
|COCA||Corpus of Contemporary American English||
Google Scholar (GS)
Custom Search Engine (CSE)
The Source of Table 1: Yoon, 2016, p. 215
The results show that generally the reference suite serves as an effective reference and cognitive tool. However, users may still face some difficulties and limitations when using the tool.
AFFORDANCES OF CONCORDANCERS FOR ACADEMIC WRITERS
Concordancers act as a reference tool for learners in academic writing by providing authentic texts (Hafner & Candlin, 2007). Most learners primarily used concordancers to confirm their existing language knowledge but not to explore more linguistic information (Yoon, 2016).
Concordancers can also help learners address lexical and grammatical issues. In previous research, the usages of prepositions and idiomatic expressions were the major target for confirmation (Chambers & O’Sullivan, 2004). Learners can acquire the most commonly used patterns of grammar, vocabulary, collocations and style by using the concordancer, so their awareness of accurate grammar can be enhanced.
Besides, the naturalness of the writing from an L2 learner can be consolidated (Fujii, 2007) because concordancers facilitate learners’ cognitive development towards linguistic characteristics (Yoon, 2016).
Most importantly, concordancers motivate learners to pursue more L2 knowledge. Combined with the other factors above, learners’ confidence in language use is boosted, resulting in a better performance in academic writing and creating a sense of independence as L2 writers.
PROBLEMS MAY ARISE WHEN USING CONCORDANCERS
Though writers adopt different strategies to effectively use corpus consultation, there are still difficulties for them (Yoon, 2016):
- The consultation cycle may take up a lot of time to think about a search strategy, result evaluation and target item to explore.
- The cycle may consume learners’ energy because of the need to make decisions in each step.
- Learners lack “rigor” in the process of observing query results, failing to further pursue the appropriateness of the information in a specific context.
- Learners lack flexibility in using concordancers, for instance, they only use one or two reference tools for their queries.
- The grammatical accuracy of the data is not guaranteed (e.g. papyr).
- The data contains different varieties, genres and registers, probably causing learners to feel overwhelmed (Wu, Franken & Witten, 2009).
Although concordancers are viewed as problem-solving tools for academic writing, in Yoon’s study (2016), it suggests that the participants performed both verification and elicitation queries. In other words, the participants not only used them to confirm their existing knowledge, but also elicited new knowledge. They learned more about the language by performing queries based on the previous query results. Thus, the use of concordancers promotes some degree of learner autonomy.
An important point to note is that we should consider a concordancer’s size and tagging status before selecting the one that best fits our needs.
Table 2. Characteristics of some concordancers
Name of concordancers
Types of reference resource
|a corpus||a corpus||a search engine|
|about 450 millions words||about 80 millions words||
huge in size
|Suitable for||finding and checking collocation, L2 equivalent and alternatives||
confirming the acceptability of multi-word strings
The Source of Table 2: Yoon, 2016
Figures 1 and 2 are the interfaces of COCA. Figure 1 shows the five functions provided by COCA including searching for collocations in different contexts and comparison between words. Figure 2 displays different details provided in a query result.
Figure 1. A screenshot of the front page of COCA.
Figure 2. A screenshot of COCA.
Figures 3 and 4 are the interfaces of JTW. Figure 3 shows that JTW is much simpler than COCA. Because of its smaller database, some words fail to provide options in query results (see Figure 4).
Figure 3. A screenshot of the front page of JTW.
Figure 4. A screenshot of JTW.
In fact, apart from COCA and JTW, there are a larger number of concordancers which can be found on the Internet. Here are some tips for choosing a concordancer:
A concordancer should…
- have a large POS-tagged source corpus that allows learners to perform both elicitation queries and verification queries
- be easy to use so it will not demotivate learners’ use of it by being too complicated to operate.
- be fast so it will not interrupt learners’ flow of thoughts while writing.
To conclude, concordancer is a kind of reference resource tool for learners. It serves as an intellectual partner in helping learners to solve lexico-grammatical problems by providing options for learners to select the most suitable wordings for their writing. However, learners have to bear in mind that the concordancer is only a tool that works with them but not for them in their tasks.
Here are some questions for you:
- Have you ever used any concordancers in your academic writing? If yes, please share your experience with us. If no, please try the concordancers we have mentioned in this post and tell us your thoughts about them.
- If you were a teacher, would you introduce concordancers to your students? How would it benefit you and your students? What challenges would you encounter and how would you resolve them?