Using corpora and data-driven learning activities to enhance young EFL learners processing of english idioms


Data-Driven Learning (DDL), despite being a feature of corpora and language learning research for some time, has really taken off as a viable methodological approach in the last decade due to innovations in corpus query interfaces, data visualisation, open access and improved internet access.

The theory behind DDL is that students act as “language detectives” (Johns, 1997: 101), discovering facts about the language they are learning by themselves, from authentic examples. Such an approach is expected to support learning, partly because students are motivated to remember what they have worked to find out (Huston, 2008: 170). In addition, because corpus data can reveal previously unnoticed patterns, a student may well notice something that a teacher has overlooked or that no textbook covers. As well as being beneficial in teaching specific items, DDL is hypothesised to improve general skills of using context to deduce meaning, nevertheless limited small-scale research has been conducted to that direction (c.f. Stevens, 1991; Cobb, 1997; Cobb et Horst, 2001) and DDL for young learners is still a relatively unexplored area in the literature.

Having said that, this presentation reports on a one-year study with young EFL learners (12-15 years old) that aimed at investigating the development of their competence in relation to comprehending idioms through corpus-based activities and Data-Driven learning situations.

Despite innovations in presenting idioms to learners (Boers et al., 2007: 48-9), it seems that we are still at an initial stage of understanding their acquisition by non-native speakers and the effect the presence of the former may have on the reading comprehension performance of the latter, especially with connection to their level of language competence.

Bearing such limitations in mind, the present study followed an experimental approach in order to investigate whether young EFL learners ability to process idiomatic expressions could be improved when exposed to authentic examples for written and spoken discourse while setting up situations in which students could answer questions about language themselves by studying corpus data in the form of concordance lines and extended sentences.

A total of 60 young EFL students aged 12 to 15 years old took part in the study. Data analysis of pre- and post-achievement tests showed significant improvement in participants’ overall ability to deduce meaning from context while highly competent learners also started using some idiomatic expressions in their written scripts.

The findings of the study could provide practical guidance to EFL instructors and material developers as regards the beneficial effect data-driven learning through corpus-based activities can have on young EFL learners processing of idioms, especially in relation to those phrases that are not metaphorically transparent in that their literal meaning is not closely related to their figurative one and have no equivalent in learners’ mother tongue.