From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching

Anne O’Keeffe, Michael McCarthy, and Ronald Carter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xv + 315.

Reviewed by Ruth Breeze
Institute of Modern Languages, University of Navarra
Pamplona, Spain

It seems self-evident that corpus linguistics has much to offer the language classroom. Yet practicing teachers are often ill at ease when asked what they really feel about corpora. On the one hand, the findings of many corpus research projects seem to offer curiosities rather than teachable material. So if we are confronted with findings such as the fact that red occurs twice as frequently as yellow or Friday twice as much as Tuesday (both courtesy of the CANCODE corpus), we are likely to be a little bemused, but our habit of teaching lexical sets will probably remain unaffected. On the other hand, corpus findings often seem to destabilize our understanding of English by showing how real people do not follow the rules that we are teaching. Teachers may find this perturbing, not least because it undermines our sense of security and places a question mark over the usefulness of our endeavors. Given this scenario, From Corpus to Classroom endeavors to offer a bridge between corpus findings and real applications.
From Corpus to Classroom begins with a useful overview of corpus design, analytical techniques, and ways in which corpora have influenced teaching practice. The second chapter looks at word frequency, centering mainly on core vocabulary (the first 2,000 words of English) and how we decide what to teach at basic and advanced levels. Chapters 3 and 4 on chunks, collocations, and idioms prove interesting as an account of the banal, hidden, subliminal patterns of the everyday lexicon that resist exposure (p. 79). Examples such as those given here offer genuine insights into the way English works in practice, as well as providing language teachers with potential areas for classroom work.
Chapters 5 and 6 explore the issue of using corpora to research grammar and include a case study on get-passives which illustrates the complications of using real spoken data as a source for grammar instruction. The authors discuss probabilistic approaches to grammar based on corpus data and suggest that grammar teaching should be supported by encouraging students to explore contexts of use. In their view, there are degrees of noticing, from right/wrong to assessment of what is likely in a particular context. The teacher s role is to expose learners to the richness and variety of spoken language and open windows on to the immense grammatical variety we find therein (p. 139). The final chapters examine findings from the CANBEC corpus and the Academic section of CANCODE and discuss the usefulness of corpora in teacher training.
In short, From Corpus to Classroom is highly accessible for teachers and provides a sound practical introduction to the subject for graduate students and course writers, with a useful appendix containing an excellent survey of existing corpora. Moreover, these authors are particularly forward-looking in moving away from unhelpful native-non-native dichotomies into the area of the expert user, to explore functional, international English as a model for classroom teaching. In general, corpora are still under-exploited in teaching, and more work in this area is needed to bring out their full potential. Books such as this are essential to open up corpus research to a wider audience, thereby encouraging the creative pedagogical application of research findings.