May 12, 2012

One word leads to ... or you've been primed!

Introducing students to the idea of lexical priming and a web tool called Netspeak

Photo by Tzvi Meller
In my previous post from the For the classroom category I shared a lesson idea which I developed for Honesty Day celebrated on 30 April (click here to see it). Apart from the song and discussion activities, students also read three articles from the Breaking News English website. To lead in to the articles I cut up the three headlines and asked my students to unjumble them, i.e. put the words in the right order. With hindsight I realised that I'd set up my students to fail as one of the headlines read:

Homeless man in credit card honesty

You often hear of credit card fraud (or perhaps credit card debt) but credit card honesty is an unlikely combination in a linguistic sense.

The ability to unjumble sentences is not only a matter of syntactic knowledge but also lexical competence. Hence it is much easier to unjumble sentences consisting of predictable word combinations or things that people would actually say.  If you ask your students to unjumble a lexically impossible sentence or a headline based on word-play they will struggle with it.

Lexical priming
The "impossible" headline above prompted a discussion in class which led us into the idea of lexical priming. In psychology, priming refers to the effect previously presented stimuli have on your response to a later stimulus. The theory of lexical priming, put forward by Michael Hoey (2005), suggests that language users store the words in the context in which they have encountered them. Hoey argues that as a result of these multiple encounters we are primed to replicate these contexts in subsequent encounters, whether we read, listen, write or speak. For example, complete this phrase:

it never ceases to ___________

Of all the verbs that are semantically possible in the above sentence you probably chose amaze because you've been primed to reproduce what you've heard or seen many times before. Encountering a word repeatedly in particular ways makes you use it confidently and almost subconsciously in the same context.

Thus the theory not only accounts for why words are expected to be found in company of certain other words and occur in certain patterns but also provides a compelling explanation of fluency. Its everyday manifestation - a phenomenon which students will easily relate to - is in the ability to finish our interlocutors' sentences. Another common example is our ability to understand song lyrics even if the odd word is unintelligible here and there.

The theory (you can read more about it on this website) is also interesting as it solves the contentious native vs non-native speaker issue. Hoey effectively does away with the native / non-native dichotomy and instead puts them on a continuum. According to him, native speakers are also learners in that they continue being exposed to new primings throughout their lives. What makes them more advanced on the continuum is the sheer number of exposures they have had.

Netspeak - not to be confused with the way of speaking used to converse on the Internet - is an online tool which allows you to find any word in a search phrase or - in computational linguistics terms - perform a wild card query. It is particularly handy when you have doubts about how a phrase is formed or cannot find the right word. For example, this is what a search on it never ceases to ... returned:

You can click on the plus (+) to get sample sentences drawn from corpora.

What students can do with Netspeak:
Apart from checking the best way to complete a phrase, learners can do the following things using Netspeak:

Check for correct prepositions
For example, students are unsure whether they should say go for a trip or go on a trip. Enter in the search field

go ? a trip

It's particularly useful with those tricky dependent prepositions:

interested ... 
fascinated ...

NB. Use a question mark (?) to find one word and multiple dots (...) to find any number of words.

Find a suitable adjective
For example, your Business English student is writing a cover letter to send with his CV. He can search for

 I have ... experience 

One of the top results will be "extensive"

I am sure there are many other ways you can use this tool in and if you have any more ideas, please share by leaving a comment below.

Priming activity for students
Here is a short activity I used with my students - feel free to use it (suitable for intermediate level and up). Make sure students compare their answers with each other before looking them up on Netspeak. You will see that in some cases they will end up with just one word (a result of a strong priming) while in others there will be a few possibilities.

Download the activity by clicking HERE or preview below:

References & further reading

Hoey, M. (2000). A World Beyond Collocation: New Perspectives on Vocabulary Teaching. In Lewis, M. (Ed.), Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach (pp. 224-243). Hove: Thomson-Heinle

Hoey, M. (2005). Lexical Priming: A new theory of words and languageLondon: Routledge.

If you happen to have a copy of the Macmillan English Dictionary, there is an article written by Michael Hoey in the Language Awareness section (LA12-13) for language learners in which he explains in a very accessible language the theory of lexical priming and how a good learners' dictionary can help students accelerate their priming.


  1. great post, Netspeak looks like students and teachers can use it easily :). Do you know what corpus Netspeak uses?

  2. Thanks, Mura!
    It seems Netspeak uses Google - according to this

  3. Fantastic post, Leo. I've used Netspeak in my advanced level classes for about a year now. Very easy to use and students extensively use it outside of the classroom. I'm interested in trying the BYU corpus with students but it's a lot more complicated...

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Dan. BYU is indeed more complicated and perhaps for more analytically minded students - I am planning to write up a post about it too.

  5. Love this idea: getting students to go beyond users to become researchers of the language. Tip of the hat for the find, Leo!

    1. Thanks, Brad. But I think they can benefit from this tool if they want to be effective users too, don't you think?

  6. Great tool! I will try it with my advanced high school students who often encounter exactly the types of lexical difficulties you've mentioned. They have excellent vocabularies, but they haven't heard enough English to know which words collocate or which prepositions are correct. -Elana

    1. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, Elana.

      Advanced - or I'd say post-intermediate - learners can certainly benefit from this tool but I wonder how it can be used with lower levels too...

  7. That sounds useful! I used to use the Cobuild one until it stopped working. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Caroline. The Cobuild corpus site has disappeared but you have BNC and COCA ( - I'm planning to blog about corpora sometime too.

  8. I have not come across Netspeak before. I will definitely try it out.
    Your pointing to it being handy "when you have doubts..." set me thinking about how to use it to help me with so many of my students who never seem to pass through the "doubting"stage. Using Mindset creatively, as you have done, might well be a way to slow them down before plowing ahead or to encourage checking their completed tasks.

    1. Hi Steve
      Thanks for your comment!
      I know what you mean about some students never passing through the "doubting stage" - quite a lot of them rely on L1 and believe that what works in one language will work in another. So it's our responsibility as teachers to break down this notion.

  9. Love your blog and love the theory of lexical priming. First came across it a few years ago, then again on my MA course, a few months before the date of this post. I subsequently investigated the behaviour of the phrase 'public interest' using the Collins Wordbank corpus - WordCloud of my essay at

    Netspeak appears to be a useful tool for investigating lexical chunks. Clearly you would ask students to try out some chunks first before they use Netspeak to see how 'primed' they are. But I'm not sure whether the tool works as accurately as could be hoped for. I was interested that in your example, 'amaze' was the only word that came up (86.8%), showing a strong concordance, but that still left 13.2% for other words. I wanted to know what they were. 'It never rains but it (pours)' - 95.8% and 'all over bar the (shooting)' - sic - 15.8% were other chunks which I tried that only offered one suggestion. I expected a longer list. Furthermore, if Google is the corpus used then I would expect a load more 'hits' than come up. So my question is do you think Netspeak is as good/useful as it first appears to be? Do you still use it in class? I ask as it is almost a year since you posted.

  10. Hi Phil

    Thank you for the comment and compliment!

    To be honest, after I discovered Netspeak, got all excited about it (circa the date of this post) and introduced my students and teachers I work with to it I haven't followed up. I still use it occasionally but don't know if they do.
    I think I might have to think of another, structured activity for it - not just "go explore it at home". But you're right: it has its limitations. I like it for the frequency counts but the examples can be awful sometimes.

    Good to have you here!

  11. Thanks Leo- this is exactly what I have been looking for! I really love and appreciate your sight-it reminds me of all those little (great) bits of lessons that somehow get lost along the way and enables me to bring them back into the classroom again! :-)

    1. Hi Claudia,
      I'm pleased to hear that you've found what you've been looking for on my blog. Feel free to use any of the materials or idea I post here.

  12. Its considered to be important thing analyze everything with with this Lexical Priming and I'm quite sure that this would indeed help in transcribing and assisting with different texts as well. article rewriting service

  13. Hi Leo,
    Great post. It inspired me to record a short tutorial video for teachers about using netspeak:

  14. Hi Leo,
    This is an amazing post. it's really helped me develop my vocab since I came across it. I'm gonna try it with mt students next year as we have stopped right now.Thanks and keep it up.


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