On balance, have corpora had a good or bad influence on teaching materials?

What could possibly be wrong with loads of data on how language is used by native and (increasingly) non-native speakers? Well, nothing – if a bit of common sense/ a pinch of salt is added before it gets to the classroom. Sadly, that is too often not the case.

For example, someone who has been teaching IELTS or FCE for a couple of years could easily come up with better materials than those based on the official Cambridge corpora of typical student errors, only about 10% of which is relevant to my students and teachable. I’d also go with about 10% for how much of “spoken grammar” is of use to people who don’t live in English speaking countries or have a British or American boss.

Academic Vocabulary in Use is a much better model, but it still has about as much useless stuff for my students as the other, less scientifically put together, books in the In Use series. And although I’m as guilty of overusing it as anyone, the Academic Word List is an incredibly blunt tool that was responsible for most of the things that were wrong in a Garnet academic vocabulary book I reviewed.

On the plus side, corpora have given us evidence to back up spending less time on nearly pointless grammar points like Past Perfect and backshifting in Reported Speech, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who had already come to that conclusion from my own “personal data set”. 

So, my conclusion is “So far, more bad than good”. A practical suggestion for how it could be done better coming up in my next post.

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4 Responses to On balance, have corpora had a good or bad influence on teaching materials?

  1. eflnotes says:


    as they say a tool is only as good as it user :), i don’t know the books you are referring to however i think if they are corpus based or corpus informed then they are very rare i.e. corpuses have had very little influence on coursebooks never mind good or bad

    Graham Burton in his small study of coursebook writers (Corpora and coursebooks:
    destined to be strangers forever? Corpora 2012 Vol. 7 (1): 91–108) pointed out that both publishers and writers see little demand for corpus data in books hence little will change.

    i look fwd to your next post on this maybe it may spur on demand by teachers 🙂


  2. alexcase says:

    All the ones I mentioned are self-study books, where the infuence does seem to be greater. It has had some influence on textbooks though, with collocations with common words like “take” much more common than they were 15 years ago, and some tense work such as passives units using verbs which are common with that form.

  3. eflnotes says:

    possibily that little influence has been more indirect? i.e. via dictionary sources which have been heavily influenced by corpus data

    i heard good things about that business book based on corpora you mention in your second post, have you reviewed it?


  4. alexcase says:

    I could’ve sworn I had written a review, or at least I was very much planning to do so, but can’t find any trace of it now… Basically, it’s full of fascinating info about what native speakers do in meetings which is totally (and I do literally mean totally) irrelevant to my students. I did write a blog post with at least that much info on it here:

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