High impact grammar: teaching adverbs with corpora

Last spring I came across a tweet promoting a series of webinars by prominent researchers for the MA/PhD in applied linguistics at Mary Immaculate College. Dr. Anne O’Keefe’s talk, entitled Looking at learner grammar competency rather than error: What makes an advanced learner? is a helpful overview of key grammatical features that distinguish advanced EFL learners’ language use from that of lower-level learners. Describing her talk as helpful is an understatement. Her work on the English Profile, a corpus of learner English based on the language used by Cambridge exam candidates, provides a kind of roadmap to prioritise those grammar features that will have the greatest impact on learners’ development.

One of those features is adverb use. Dr. O’Keefe points out there is a direct correlation between language level and adverb use. In a nutshell, the more proficient a speaker of English is, the more adverbs they will use. Or, to be more precise, they will use a wider range of adverbs and in different ways. So, how do we encourage our learners to more closely emulate proficient English speakers’ adverb use?   

One possibility is to train our learners to use corpora. One such tool is Sketch Engine (Skell). As we can see from the example below, using the ‘word sketch’ feature for the word ‘disappointed’ yields these results. (We are interested in the section ‘modifiers’.)

By clicking on each modifier we can see concordances (i.e. the co-text surrounding the adverb + adjective collocation) to ensure that the modifier conveys the meaning we want to express. In this case our learners can see that ‘bitterly disappointed’ is used in a similar way to ‘deeply’ and ‘extremely’. What’s great about Sketch Engine is that it builds word sketches on the principle of typicality, which is far more helpful for learners than frequency. In other words, ‘really disappointed’ may occur more often than ‘bitterly disappointed’, but using the latter will make a speaker sound more proficient. I write this with the proviso that, according to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, in spoken language only 20% of adverbs are of the -ly type whereas in academic language this jumps to 55%. Nonetheless, the benefits of raising awareness about typicality far outweigh the minor complications doing so might entail. 

A further step in developing idiomatic adverb use is by looking at verbs or adjectives that collocate with a wide range of adverbs and creating co-text whose meaning only allows one combination. Take the following entry for collocations with ‘disappointed’ from Ozdic.com.

Interestingly, there are some useful collocations here that are absent from the Skell word sketch. See if you can find them based on the following two gap fills:

  1. When his rival won the award at the ceremony he was _______ disappointed and he appeared to be on the verge of tears.
  2. She knew Stephen was the least popular person in their class yet she was _______ disappointed when he ignored her at the party.

For activities focused on the highly specific meanings of different collocations, Skell is preferable to Ozdic as it has clickable concordances for students to examine. Take a look at the following examples of ‘modifier + beautiful’ from Skell.

Although it’s important for learners to understand that collocations are typical word combinations, we want to ensure that we don’t turn collocational competence into a merely mechanistic skill divorced from meaning. Let’s use the word sketch for ‘beautiful’ to illustrate this point. Despite the fact that the modifiers in this example are more or less interchangeable, there is one glaring exception. 

Which adverb fits in all three of the following sentences?

  1. Although arid and desolate, the unusual geographical formations of Alberta’s badlands make them a _________ beautiful region. 
  2. His features were _________ beautiful; they suggested an almost unbearable sensitivity.
  3. The figures in El Greco’s paintings are _______ beautiful with their unnaturally long limbs and ghostly white skin.

Once your learners have had time to look at the concordances for the different collocations – you might want to restrict the list to the first five items – elicit from them the concepts associated with ‘hauntingly beautiful’. 

Concordances 5, 6, 12, 15 all refer to music, while 9, 16 and 17 refer to places and 3 and 11 refer to faces or people. Other concepts/connotations that you might elicit include ‘vulnerability’ (3), ‘shadows’ (9), ‘utterly ghoulish creatures’ (11), ‘desolate and uninhabited’ (16) and ‘strange’ (17). 

While such meticulous work may seem unnecessarily time-consuming, my contention is that as an awareness-raising activity this is invaluable for advanced learners. In From Rules to Reasons, Danny Norrington-Davies’ advocates for a shift away from rules and towards reasons. I bring this up because I believe that learners are more likely to emulate features of English if they understand why these features are important. 

In the case of adverbs, certain collocations are conceptually dense and rich in meaning. Just imagine how one would paraphrase ‘hauntingly beautiful’ or ‘oddly disappointed’ without the use of adverbs. Similarly, stance adverbials, be they epistemic (e.g. ‘undoubtedly’) or attitude (e.g. ‘surprisingly’) concisely convey information that would otherwise be quite awkward without adverbs. 

Use the comments box below to share how you use corpora with your students. It’s easy to be put off by the ‘messiness’ of concordances. One solution might be to select those examples which best exemplify the concept in question, or to apply the principle of input flooding and ensure several similar examples are present in your sample. However, is it possible we’re doing our learners a disservice by shielding them from the messiness of language as it’s actually used?


Dr. Anne O’Keefe Looking at learner grammar competency rather than error: What makes an advanced learner?

Danny Norrington Davies From Rules to Reasons 

Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English

English Profile

Sketch Engine


I urge you to try out English Profile as it is a great resource for anyone designing or updating their grammar curriculum, in large part because it includes many items overlooked in coursebooks.

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