Essential lexical tools

Photo by eltpics
Here you will find a list of online resources that I personally find useful when teaching lexis and I think would be a nice addition to your toolkit. While there are many tools on the web that (claim to) help learners with vocabulary, they often focus on single words. The tools listed below can help learners (and teachers) with collocations, chunks and patterns, in other words - lexis, and build up students’ phrasal lexicon – this is what this blog is about, isn’t it?

All of these tools can be also found in my magazine - click HEREOr watch the recording of my VRT6 webinar where I present most of these tools - click HERE

Table of contents (click and to jump to the section)
Corpus-lite tools (Just-the-Word, Netspeak etc.)
Online learner's dictionaries (Cambridge, Macmillan etc.)
Corpus and concordancers (BNC, COCA etc.)
Recording and practising lexis (Quizlet, Diigo etc.)
Text tools (Vocab profiler, Concordle)

With all my love and respect for the corpus, it is admittedly not for everyone. If you are less linguistically minded but would still like to take advantage of online linguistic corpora and what they have to offer for the classroom, there are a number of corpus-derived tools which some may find more user-friendly.


Teaching a new word? Don’t forget to provide a couple of its common collocations. You can find a number of online tools to look up collocations, for example or (both based on Oxford Collocations Dictionary) or For Better English Key in a word and see its common collocations with example sentences.

This easy-to-use visualisation application is my favourite collocations tool because it enables you to look up multi-part verbs as well (unlike the other two mentioned above). The frequency of each collocation is illustrated by a green bar - the longer the bar, the more frequent the collocation. Clicking on the chosen collocation brings up concordance lines illustrating how it is used in context.

For ideas on how to help your students build their collocational knowledge using just-the-word, see my activity on the TeachingEnglish website: Playing with Lexical Cards

Oxford Collocation Dictionary
I am less impressed with this one. It works well for verb + noun collocations but, for some reason, if you want to look up an adjective you only get its verb and adverb partners but not noun collocates. When I tried searching for "rough" I get breakrough and borough but not rough (?)

HASK collocation browser - NEW!
Another visualisation tool that illustrates frequency distribution for collocations of a given word, which looks like this:

You enter a word, click on Search and then choose which part of speech you want collocates to be. For example, to get to the above you need to choose from the list:

AJ% collocating with N%s

which I find a bit confusing. AJ% here means you're interested in "regular" as an adjective (because it can also be a noun as in "He's a regular in this club") and N%s means you're looking for nouns that collocate with it. After you've made the choice, just click on Visualisation on the right and get a colourful pie chart like the one above. The other option is an Excel spreadsheet which, I am sure, can be used to create various classroom exercises but I still need to come up with something.

Thank you to Scott Thornbury for pointing out HASK to me!

Chunks and phrases

Know what you want to say but can’t find the right word? This writing assistant suggests several possible combinations to fill in the words you can’t remember. A useful tool for students to use when writing.

Similar to phraseup* in that it helps find missing words, Netspeak will suggest the most common combinations organised by frequency. By clicking on the plus sign you can view example sentences from Google.

For ideas on how to use this tool in class, click here
Another search engine for phrases and sentences on the Internet which comes with an auto-complete function. Most of the sentences come from top news websites.

Phraseup*, or Netspeak?
The advantage of Netspeak is that it provides most statistically likely combinations, which can not only help students with writing but also check their intuitions about the commonness of certain phrases. This advantage, however, is at the same time its limitation: it will only show statistically frequent combinations. Phraseup*, on the other hand, will yield more results. Unlike the other two, allows you to filter the example sentences by form (interrogative or negative sentences) or position so you can see, for example, if a particular phrase is more likely to occur at the beginning or the end of a sentence.
Which tool is better? The jury is still out…

Lexico-grammatical patterns

Another tool based on BNC. However it is different from - or, as its creators claim, is much more than just - a corpus. It is an archive of multiword patterns that have been statistically derived from a corpus. Unlike the tools described above, Stringnet makes it possible to easily navigate from one pattern to other related patterns. All the words in the results are clickable allowing you to look up other words that fit the pattern, particurarly useful for semi-fixed expressions with variable slots. It may not be as user-friendly as other tools but its definite plus is the fact that it focuses on both syntagmaticand paradigmatic word relationships.

Patterns with the word 'emphasis'

Other adjectives that can precede 'emphasis' in "place great emphasis on"

The three dictionaries below are all based on corpora and, unlike other online dictionaries (e.g. are compiled with the needs of language learners in mind. They provide authentic, corpus-derived examples and therefore an essential tool for learners and teachers alike.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online
This was the first learner’s dictionary to offer a free online version and is still my favourite.  It provides very natural examples drawn from corpora, highlighting common collocations and useful patterns. The former Advanced Learner’s Dictionary now comes in two versions: British English and American English and if the level is too high for learners they can easily switch to the Learner’s Dictionary using the drop-down menu.

Macmillan Dictionary
Based on the fairly recent and well-balanced World English Corpus, this dictionary is easy to navigate. Unlike the Cambridge Dictionary you don’t have go to a different page for a different sense of the same word; all the senses of the word are listed on the same page. Occasional collocation boxes are a valuable addition and a definite plus.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
Another corpus-based dictionary but not as good as its paper version. Unlike the other two, LDOCE doesn’t allow you to search multi-word units. For example, if you want to look up a phrase (e.g. cut some slack) or a multi-part verb (cut down on), you have to look up the key word (cut) and then scroll down until you find the desired item. A useful feature is word frequency. S1, S2 or S3 indicate whether the word is one of the 1000, 2000 or 3000 most commonly spoken words. W1, W2 and W3 are the same symbols for written English

Oxford Learner's Dictionaries - NEW! 
I am becoming more and more fond of this, latest addition to my list. If Longman or Cambridge give two-three examples for each entry, here you get five. And if you scroll down and click on Extra examples, it brings up another 10-15- all the examples you need to supply when presenting new vocabulary in class! Other interesting features include Word Origin - for etymology lovers, and Wordfinder which lists items related to a particular topic - great for writing essays!

Corpus and concordances
Concordancer is a tool that extracts linguistic data from a corpus. You enter a word and get examples of how it is used, known as concordances or concordance lines. These are usually listed alphabetically.

See this article by Nik Peachey on the TeachingEnglish website: Concordancers in ELT
NB: some links may be out of date

British National Corpus (BNC)
Before various corpus-based tools became widely available, the British National Corpus (BNC) and the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) were my main sources of collocations and other linguistic information. They may seem a bit complicated but they combine all the functions described above: frequencies, collocations, common patterns. Another advantage is the Compare function which helps you compare how two synonymous or confusable words are used. Unfortunately this comparison cannot be performed on multi-part verbs vs their one word equivalents (e.g. look up to / admire) as both search phrases have to have the same number of words.

This is a handout I designed for teacher trainees a few years ago explaining some basic functions.

Quizlet - Updated February 2014
Originally conceived mainly for word cards, this online flash card maker, if used creatively, is also great for collocations and lexical chunks. You can easily print your sets, cut them up and use them for matching activities in class. And it keeps getting better and better. You can now add your own voice to your cards, if you don't like the robotic voice provided by the website. It is so good I just pray it won't go from free to fee.

See detailed instructions on how you and your students can use this wonderful tool HERE:
Check out one of the sets of collocation cards I've created:
Or this set with lexical chunks (and their L1 equivalents):
And then try these games:
Space race

Diigo is an online bookmarking tool which saves all your bookmarks online and lets you access them from anywhere, using any browser. You can also highlight any part of a webpage which makes Diigo a perfect tool for highlighting lexical chunks in online articles and texts and then sharing them with your students.

To find out more about using Diigo in class - see my post here

Text tools 
Vocab Profiler
Research shows that 95%- 98% lexical coverage is needed for adequate comprehension of a text, i.e you need to know a minimum of 95% (Laufer 1989) and optimally 98% (Nation 2001) of all running words in a text to be able to understand a text. Vocab Profiler allows you to analyse a text by sorting all the words in it into the first and second thousand levels (K1, K2), academic words (AWL) and off-list. Copy-paste the text  and click on the SUBMIT button. All the "difficult" (beyond the first two thousand most frequent words) will be highlighted in red. You can eliminate all proper names and run the Vocab Profiler again. Now you've chosen a text appropriate to your students' level. But hold on, what IS your students' level? Lextutor has a variety of tests to test your students' vocabulary knowledge - both receptive and productive. A recent addition is a Phrase test, based on Martinez's (2001) pioneering research on the most frequent lexical chunks in English.

A very comprehensive guide to VocabProfiler and other tools hosted on the Lextutor website can be found here

Concordle - not so pretty cousin of Wordle
You're familiar with Worlde, right? It's a tool (actually now there are a few of them around) that creates funnily-shaped word clouds based on the words in a text. Its not so pretty cousin can also create word clouds which, though not as charming as Wordle cloud, serve more functions. Every word is clickable and clicking on a word brings up concordances (lines from the text where the word appears in context). Based on these concordances you can point out different collocations of a recurrent word or useful patterns with a word which appear in a text.

More to come: 
Google Books Ngram Viewer, Wordcount and other tools


  1. Great inspirational article: thanks! I surf and sieve the web constantly but missed some of the tools you mentioned.
    Could I suggest one more context tool which might be interesting for mainly French, German, Spanish and Portuguese speaking students of English? Linguee is the name.
    Love your blog: it's bookmarked!

  2. Hi Willem
    Thank you for visiting, commenting and bookmarking my blog! I will check out the tool you suggest and add it to my list.

  3. Have also bookmarked your blog and listed it under mine. I am also writing about 'tools' for my dissertation. You may know about it.

  4. Thanks Phili!
    What kind of tools do you focus on in your dissertation?

  5. Thank you for your detailed presentation and attention on language learning tools so useful for me. I agree with your interest and stress on vocabulary and collocations to make language live in class and outside. Videos can also be very useful to avoid activities too much structured, resulting in not natural uses.

    1. Thank you for your comment.
      If you are looking for activities focusing on collocations and using video, you've come to the right place :)

  6. Leo this is a great site. I have not finished browsing it. But I hope to find some activities for my students to teach how to make the most out of an online dictionary.

    1. Hi, Julio.
      I don't think I have a separate post about using online dictionaries (perhaps will write one this year?) but I am sure you'll find here a lot of other ideas to help your students improve their vocabulary. Thank you for stopping by!

  7. This is really great, useful stuff. Thanks a lot for sharing. I'm already seeing the great stuff you can do with quizlet - I'll never lose my vocab cards again!

    Can I recommend for your list - I did a post on using this (along with just-the-word) over on designer lessons (shameless plug)

    Anyway, I'd be really interested to see what you do with evernote - I use it personally but not (yet?) in the classroom ...

  8. Thank you, Neil
    I am familiar with but haven't particularly warmed up to it yet. Is it really better than BNC or COCA? Perhaps I should give it another look.
    Thank you very much for stopping by and your comment.

  9. I just found out about this website. A website dedicated to the lexical approach - how wonderful! I teach IELTS in Singapore.

    Though I'm not an expert in the lexical approach, I'm looking more into integrating this approach with my IELTS teaching. Would you have any recommendations or resources?

    I use COCA a lot in my teaching. I'll be checking out some of the other websites you mentioned. Thanks for the list!

  10. Thank you for checking out my list and your suggestion! I'll definitely have a look at it - sounds interesting.

  11. Thank you for your comment. I can't think of any lexical resources specifically geared for IELTS but I am thinking of writing a post on exam prep classes, specifically IELTS some time this year. Thank you for stopping by!

    1. Hold on. How about this one:
      Lots of lexical chunks useful for IELTS speaking

  12. I'm a long time fan of the lexical approach and am finally making concrete efforts to implement some of the concepts in the classroom. So far the response from the students has been very positive. Your list of tools will be valuable resources in my quest to promote lexical awareness!

    1. Hi Anne,
      Thank you for stopping by and leaving the comment. I am glad you've found the tools useful.

  13. Thanks a lot for sharing so many useful links. Very interesting!

  14. hi leo

    have you checked out the flax interface

    it is in continual dev and shows promise as a more user friendly interaction to corpora

    1. Hi Mura
      No I haven't seen Flax but now that you've pointed it I surely will, though you say it's in a state of flux :)

  15. Hi Leo,

    Just letting you know about EnglishCentral. As a long time educator, I got involved to build it as a "spoken video corpus". We have NGSWL, AWL and other vocab courses. Teachers track all student vocab. learning and students/teachers can click on words, phrases, idioms in video context and get many examples of it in use. Or look them up in search. Happy to give you a tour if you have some time on skype. Regards,


  16. Hi David,

    I've seen English Central before but should explore it more. It looks really impressive. And learning with video is my favourite!

    Thank you for stopping by,


  17. This is a wonderful website. The site owner has carried out a superb job of putting it together, the info here is really insightful.
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  18. Hi Leo,

    Amazing website and great useful lexical tools

    Thank you ^_^

  19. A site all about the irregular verbs.

  20. Thanks fr sharing such wonderful information!!!!

  21. Hello Leo,
    Thank you so much for putting all this up. Your blog is wonderful and insightful. Could you please send me your email? There are a few questions I need to ask you and would really appreciate your input.
    Thank you

  22. Studying the words with a general root as a group is one of the quickest ways to build vocabulary. Learning Etymology of words helps you remember the words easily. Many of English vocabulary words are combinations of two or more words put jointly. As well, there exists a family relationship among many words. That may help you make clever conjecture of the meaning of unfamiliar terms simply. Let us connect to to know the etymology of the words.

  23. Great post ... really useful. Will try out lots of these.
    My 2 cents ... try CEFR profiler from Vocab Kitchen. Big time saver.

    1. Thanks for visiting and the link. I'll add it in the next round of updates.

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  26. Fantastic list of resources for both teachers and students - thanks for this.

    1. Thank you, Jamie. Glad you find it useful.

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  28. For academic level students, check out Manchester U's amazing Phrasebank:

    1. Hi Doron,
      Yes it is good, and I should add it - I use it myself.
      Luiz Otavio Barros also has a phrasebook for academic writing on his website, organised around key words:

  29. Hi Leo,
    What do you think about this site?

    1. Hi Hagit,
      Thank you for checking out my list. I've looked at the site you suggested. Generally I'm not a big fan of the tools that focus exclusively on paradigmatic relationships, giving the learner an overwhelming number of half-synonyms. It's all nice and visual but doesn't help the L2 learner much. There are a couple of other, similar tools: Smash words or Snap words or something like that. I think these are aimed more at native speakers.

      I have a post on paradigmatic / syntagmatic relationships on this blog, which you might find of interest - see

  30. I also wanted to ask you what the difference is between the rank and frequency of a word/lemma.
    Thanks again,

    1. The frequency is how many times a word appears in a given corpus. Let's say the word X occurs 217,843 times in a 500 million word corpus and the word Y has 198,637 occurrences. The word X will then rank higher than Y. The most frequent word in English ("the") ranks 1. Hope it's clear.

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