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Last in a series of articles looking at ways in which teachers and students can explore words using free corpus resources on the Web.
Corpora tools vs search engines
Over the last few months, we have looked at how online corpora such as the British National Corpus (BNC) and WebCorp extract grammatical information and in the case of WebCorp actually sort your search results, but what about everyday search engines? What clues can they reveal about word behaviour?
The comments in this article are based on Google searches and some of the search strategies discussed are only possible in Google.
Search engines do not sort your search results or allow you to search according to grammar. The Web contains so much raw data that search results can be misleading, too obscure or simply incorrect. So what value can search engines be to learners?
Corpora search tools and Internet search engines share
the same basic functions. Like corpora tools, search engines:
The main advantage with search engines is that they are readily and freely accessible. Unlike some specialized corpora sites, no subscription is required and it is very unlikely that a major search engine such as Yahoo or Google is unavailable as a result of technical difficulties.
It is also a tool that students are familiar with in their own language so most students will be confident in using a search engine and user-training is not an issue.
Finally, the Internet is the best source for the very latest examples of English. It can take time for corpora sources to be incorporated and tagged, but the Web literally provides up-to-the-minute examples of English.
For example, typing “to put it *ly” into Google
will create examples of the phrase to put it [adverb] such as to
put it mildly/bluntly/
Similarly, “as * as they come” gives us examples of the phrase as [adjective] as they come for example as corrupt/tough/sober as they come.
down the search field
In this activity students are asked to use Google to research idioms. Choose a selection of idioms appropriate to their level. You need to be selective about the idioms you use e.g. “kick the *” for “kick the bucket” is unlikely to give you the results you want. Copy and paste definitions from the Macmillan English Dictionary CD-ROM for students to match.
Inevitably the search results will throw up oddities, for example a search of “eyes in the back of your head” threw up “eyes in the back of your mouth” as the first result. It is essential that students use search engine results critically and not just grab the first thing they glance at.
The problem with the Web is that there is just too much information but good search habits can reveal valuable clues for learners to work with. The following activity aims to get students to think about the search results and how they can use search engines to find out more about a word.
Accessing a vast body of material does have its downside: you can get too many search results to get anything meaningful from them and some sources can be too obscure or just plain weird. These can be overcome by adopting careful search strategies and as long as we are mindful of these disadvantages, there’s no reason why search engines can’t become an everyday tool for language learners.