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Publication: College Student Journal
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 24083
ISSN: 01463934
Journal code: CLSJ

Rationale and Introduction

While teaching general English courses to students studying English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at the University of Jordan, the researcher often noticed that students made errors with the high-frequency verbs MAKE and DO thinking that they are interchangeable. Thus, a student might say: I *made my homework, but I *did some mistakes. In fact, lexical errors are not restricted to these verbs; they may extend to include other delexical and causative verbs such as: GET, HAVE, USE, LOOK, etc., despite the fact that these frequently used verbs are among the ones that are taught and learned at an early level in textbooks and in schools. It is clear that the message may be conveyed unambiguously in a rather good "grammatical" way, but the wrong choices of what collocates with the verbs MAKE and DO show that students face a difficulty in using them correctly even at their advanced level after more than eight years of English study in schools and two more years at universities. The knowledge of isolated words does not necessarily produce fluent communication. This study attempts to bring these high-frequency verbs into focus to measure the students' performance level of them.

EFL students may use these verbs on their literal "denotation" level confusing the "connotational" and idiomatic dimensions. According to Collins Cobuild English Grammar, "delexical structures constitute to the impression of fluency in English by a foreign user" (1990, p. 147). However, errors may disrupt the flow of communication, and may lead to misunderstanding between the sender and the receiver of the message. Corder's (1973) term of "systematic errors," in which a learner can get his point across but in different words and structures, may explain why a learner makes errors. Most errors in EFL have been attributed to negative interlingual transfer or intralingual transfer (overgeneralizations) (Brown, 1980, p. 174). Wrong explanations, misleading examples, inaccurate translations in the context of learning may also lead the learner to form what Richards (1974) calls "false concepts." Tolerance of errors, particularly in speaking, for the sake of the communicative flow, though harmful for FL learning, may lead to fossilization of errors. Laufer (2005) points out that learners who understand the overall message often do not pay attention to the precise meanings of the individual words. However, in writing, EFL learners may have a better opportunity of having some of their lexical or syntactic errors corrected since writing requires more precise and accurate wording than speaking.

To maintain a constant flow of communication, EFL learners usually rely on some communicative strategies such as: paraphrasing, avoidance and borrowing (Tarone, 1977, p.62). For the strategy of borrowing, learners rely on their native language to literally translate from it what seems to be equivalent to approximate the desired lexical item forgetting its idiosyncratic nature. Lado (1953, p.77) points out that a native language interferes negatively as "children do not have a set of language habits when they learn their first language, whereas adults learning a foreign language possess a highly developed system of habits in their language." He maintains that the force of native speech habits is very strong and systematic in its effect on learning a foreign language, (ibid).

Most EFL courses claim that their main objective is to enable students to communicate in English effectively, but they might also be responsible for students' errors. To achieve the goal of communication, most courses concentrate on the four linguistic skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, in reality, a lot of attention is paid to grammar or the syntactic side of the language. The component that is usually neglected in teaching and testing has been the vocabulary despite the fact that communication flow cannot be achieved without enough stock or good knowledge of vocabulary. Krashen has been quoted for saying that "when students travel, they do not carry grammar books, they carry dictionaries" (Cited in Lewis, 1993, p.iii).

Not only in curriculum design is vocabulary neglected, but also in classroom teaching. Teachers usually focus on the syntactic accuracy neglecting the lexical accuracy on the pretext that communication would not be disrupted. Judd (1978, p.71) maintains that "vocabulary instruction in TESOL has been traditionally relegated to secondary status in favor of an emphasis on the teaching of syntactic structures." He adds that "vocabulary knowledge is generally not taught as a skill in itself..." (1978, p.72). In other words, vocabulary has been taught as a means for reading comprehension or syntactic accuracy, but not for communicative competence. According to Zimmerman (1997, p. 121), "many EFL teachers give little or no classroom attention to vocabulary, assuming that students will learn words incidentally." Moreover, colloca- tions and idioms which form a very important component of a learner's competence are often neglected. Holley and King (1974, p.81) point out that "foreign language teachers have been trained to correct faulty student responses quickly and consistently for grammatical and pronunciation errors assuming that correct learning will result." Twadell (1973) indicates that vocabulary receives a secondary emphasis, and it is taught after syntax is taught. Thus, words that seem synonymous or quasi-synonymous are confused and misused. Moreover, the subtle differences between words such as persuade/convince; say/tell; price/cost; charge/accuse; speak/talk etc. are often neglected.

Because collocations constitute an important component of a foreign language learner's competence, they have been researched on various levels ranging from assessing learners' collocational knowledge to analyzing the causes of errors and examining their correlation with linguistic skills. Halliday and Hasan (1976, p.284) define a collocation as "the sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often." While Nattinger and DeCarrico (1997, p.36) define collocations as "strings of specific lexical items that co-occur with a mutual expectancy greater than chance.. James (1998, p. 152) gives a broader definition of collocations as " the other words any particular word normally keeps company with." Lewis (1997, p.33) suggests that collocations help learners communicate more efficiently because they have "the ability to say more of what they want to say with the limited language resources at their disposal."

Farghal and Obeidat (1995) examined Jordanian students' knowledge of English collocations by using translation and fill-in-the-blank tests, and found that students performed well in collocations which have Arabic equivalents, but faced difficulty in collocations incongruent with their native language. Altenberg and Granger (2001) investigated Swedish and French- speaking learners' use of MAKE and found that the learners' difficulty in overusing or underusing MAKE was due to the effect of their native languages. If vocabularies are ever taught in EFL context, they are taught as isolated, independent lexical items. Nakata (2007, p. 154) holds that the "learning words in isolation does not necessarily help L2 learners become successful communicators." This is why EFL learners find difficulty in learning what exactly accompanies a word, or in Firth's word: "the company words keep" (1957, p.l 1). Wolter (2006) found that learning collocations for FL learners is more difficult than learning grammar because of the constraints that govern the lexical competence. Idioms and phrasal verbs are rarely taught to FL learners in their "formulaic sequences", in Wray's terms, as they are acquired by native speakers. They are usually taught or learned incidentally through reading comprehension (Wray, 2000).

In testing too, grammar in almost all EFL courses occupies a major part discarding vocabulary. Except for a few items in the reading comprehension section, the TOEFL/ ITP has deleted the vocabulary part which used to form a major part of the test (Examinee Handbook, 2010). Testing vocabulary at the morphological, semantic, and pragmatic levels has been relegated for the sake of reading comprehension. Thus, testing vocabulary is seen as a means for reading comprehension and not as an end for testing lexical acquisition. Learning these multi-word units is indispensable for maintaining successful communication, and for developing language competence. Beck, Perfetti and Mckeown (1982) point out that improvement in reading comprehension is strongly associated with good vocabulary knowledge. Laufer (1992) found a strong correlation between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Al Zahrani (1998) concludes that EFL learner's knowledge of multi-unit words or collocations correlates with their general proficiency of English. Thus, the more vocabulary a foreign language learner knows or uses, the better his proficiency of that language becomes because, as Schmitt (2008) maintains, vocabulary learning is an important part for language mastery.


The objectives of this paper are to investigate the performance on the high-frequency verbs MAKE and IX) at the two linguistic levels: recognition and production. In other words, this paper aims to answer the following questions:

1. How well do Jordan University students recognize or use these verbs?

2. Are students aware of the differences in using them, or do they think that they are interchangeable?

3. Are students aware of the context with which these verbs are used?

4. What areas of difficulty do students face in recognizing or using these verbs? To what possible factors would these difficulties be attributed?

5. What instructional implications could be drawn from this study?

Subjects of Study

The subjects of this study were four sections randomly chosen from Jordan University students. Three sections were studying the compulsory English Communication 102 course, and one section majoring in English Literature. The total number of papers studied in the first three sections was 68, and the number of the papers studied in the English Literature section was 28. The English Communication Skills 102 course is given after English 101, another compulsory English course with the same title. Forty four students out of 68 from the scientific faculties, mainly the Faculties of Engineering, Pharmacy, Rehabilitation, Science and Agriculture, took the production test. It is worth mentioning that the language of instruction in these faculties is English. Twenty four students from the literary faculties such as: Foreign Languages, Arts, Business Administration, in which some courses are taught in English, also took the production test. However, because the recognition test was given two days after the production test, some students were absent and some new students took the test. Thus, the recognition test was taken by 51 students from the scientific faculties, and 17 students from the literary faculties in the same sections. Thirty four students out of 68 from government high schools, and 34 from private high schools took both tests. The fourth section was also randomly selected from the fourth year English Literature students who had been studying English Literature and Linguistics courses in English for about four years. This section consisted of 28 students, 19 of whom graduated from government high schools, and nine from private high schools. The same students took both tests. Table 1 below shows the distribution of the subjects of study.

Data Collection

Two tests were prepared to elicit answers from students. (See Appendix A and B). One test was for measuring the production skill, and the other for measuring the recognition skill of students' performance. Each test consisted of 20 items: 10 items to elicit or to choose MAKE, and 10 items to elicit or to choose DO. Each verb was presented in the test to cover the most common context in which these verbs are used.

The production test was a completion task in which the students were asked to fill in the blank with the most appropriate form of the correct verb MAKE or DO depending on the context or what collocates with each verb. One mark was given if the answer was grammatically and lexically correct, half a mark if it was lexically correct but grammatically wrong, and a zero if the answer was completely wrong. Thus, the maximum score was 10 marks for each verb on each paper. The production test was given first to minimize the effect of 'washback' or possible learning from the recognition test if the latter was given first. Enough time was given until both tests were completed by all students under the direct supervision of the researcher and one of his colleagues.

The recognition test, which consisted of 20 double-choice items, was given to the same sections under the same conditions two days after the production test. The students were asked to choose between MAKE and DO depending on the clue which collocates with each verb. One mark was given if the student chose the right verb, and a zero if the student chose the wrong answer. The maximum score was also 10 marks for each verb.

The two tests were reviewed and answered by two university English instructors, one of whom was a native speaker of English. The tests were given in the first semester of 2010. The papers were corrected and the marks were calculated for each paper and for all students. Students were asked to give some information such as name, sex, nationality, major of study, average of English in General Secondary Examination, and whether they graduated from a government high school or a private high school.

Data Analysis

As mentioned before, the production and recognition tests consisted of 20 items each: 10 items for MAKE and 10 for DO. Thus, the maximum score (680), for example, for each verb earned by a group of students is the result of scores on each paper multiplied by the number of students in that group. (10 scores * 68 students= 680 marks). The scores and percentages of correct answers for each verb on the production test for all (68) students in the 3 English Communication Skills groups were calculated as in Table 2.

Production test

Table 2 shows that students' performance on DO was worse than that on MAKE. The percentage of scores for DO (56.3%) shows that students faced a considerable difficulty in using DO in its right context. The verb MAKE was not mastered well either as the percentage (61.4%) revealed that the students confused both verbs, or they were not aware of what accompanies each verb. The table also shows that the performance of students in scientific faculties was much better than that in the literary faculties. There was a significant difference between (61.3%) and (47%) for DO and (65%) and (55%) for MAKE in favor of the scientific faculties' students. The total percentage (58.8%) of correct answers on the production test showed that about half of the most common uses of these verbs were correctly used by students.

Table 3 shows that students coming from private high schools performed better than their counterparts from government high schools though both groups have been taking the same curricula. The difference between government high schools students' performance and that of private high schools students was about (10%) for DO (61.1% - 51.4% = 9.7%) and (2.3%) for MAKE (62.6% - 60.3% = 2.3%). Both groups did better on MAKE than on DO which indicated that DO and its collocations constituted a problem to about half of the students.

In examining students' performance on some specific questions in the production test, it was found that 39 students out of 68 (57%) incorrectly answered question number 19:

I made many careless mistakes on my last writing assignment.

Forty three students out of 68 (63%) made errors in question number 14:

It is a small house, but it will da.

Thirty six students out of 68 (53%) made errors in question number 8, although the expression do business, in particular, is commonly used in everyday Arabic/English speech by laymen.

Syrians like to da business with Jordanians.

Another very common expression, do me a favor, was also incorrectly answered by 34 students out of 68 ( 50%) as in question number 4:

Please, da me a favor.

Thirty one students out of 68 (45.5%) incorrectly answered question number 18:

After she had done the dishes, she left the kitchen.

Table 4 shows that English Literature students' performance was much better than that of other students of English Communication Skills 102. It can be noticed that (72.3%) of the verbs were answered correctly, and only (27.7%) of the students faced some difficulty in using MAKE and DO correctly. However, students coming from private high schools performed better than their colleagues from government high schools on both verbs though they were exposed to the same linguistics and literature courses. The performance level of MAKE was better than that of DO. The significant difference between English Literature students' performance and that of the students of English Communication 102 in other faculties exceeded 13% (72.3% - 58.8%=13.5%) which revealed the effect of the special literature and linguistics courses taught to the English Literature students. (Tables 8 and 9 may give a more magnified view of total percentages of all sections).

The average percentage of the performance level for both the production and recognition skills of the English Literature students (71.4%) might be unacceptable for English major students if we take into consideration the fact that the test concentrated on only high-frequency uses of MAKE and DO, and the students were in their fourth year of English Literature study.

In examining specific questions in the production test, it was found that 11 students out of 28 (39.2%) from the English Literature section misunderstood the contextual use 'it will do ' in question number 14:

It is a small house, but it will do.

Another difficulty was noticed in the idiomatic use 'do harm' which was incorrectly answered by 13 students out of 28 (46.4%) as in question number 2:

I know you want to help, but you are doing more harm than good.

Question number 8 was also found to be a source of difficulty for the English Literature group as well as for other students from the English Communication Skills sections. Eleven students out of 28 (38.2%) incorrectly answered that question despite its familiarity to laymen as mentioned before.

Syrians like to dû business with Jordanians.

Nevertheless, the easiest question in the production test for all sections was number 1 which was correctly answered by all students.

Mary did not win the competition, but she did her best.

This good performance may be attributed to the high exposure of such an expression which is not incongruent with its Arabic equivalent fa 'alat 'afdala ma bi wusiha '. There were other familiar expressions such as 'make friends' 'do a good job' on which students' performance was good because of the probable direct emphasis on teaching them. Thus, the variation in the performance of students may be attributed to whether the students are familiar or unfamiliar with the verb usage as it is presented in the material to which they have been exposed.

Recognition test

Table 5 shows that the performance of scientific faculties' students in the recognition test was better than that of literary faculties' students. There was a significant difference (10.9%) between the average percentage of the former's performance on both verbs (63.8%) and that of the latter (52.9%). The Table also shows that only about half of the students from the literary faculties (52.9%) were able to recognize the correct uses of the verbs MAKE and DO. Nevertheless, their performance on MAKE was much better than that on DO.

Table 6 shows that students' performance on MAKE (66.7%) in the recognition test was much better than their performance on DO (55.4%). The percentage for private high schools on both verbs was (63.6%), whereas it was (58.8%) for government high schools. The mean of percentages of students' performance in the production test was (58.86%) and the mean of percentages in the recognition test was (61.05%), which revealed that Jordan University students encountered a considerable difficulty in recognizing the differences between these verbs or in using them in their right contexts. Again, as in the production test, students coming from private high schools did better than their counterparts from government high schools.

As for English Literature students' performance in the recognition test, Table 7 shows that students performed better on MAKE (77.5%) than on DO (63.5%), and private high schools students (79.95%) performed better than their counterparts from government high schools (66%) on both verbs. Their performance on MAKE in the recognition test (77.5%) was much better than that in the production test (73.5%), but a little worse on DO. English Literature students' performance in the recognition test (70.5%) was also better than the performance of the English Communication Skills students' performance (61.05%).

In examining students' performance on some specific questions in the recognition test, it was found that 36 students out of 68 (53%) incorrectly answered question number 12 although the expression: Don 't make that mistake is commonly used by teachers in almost all teaching contexts.

Don't ever make that mistake again.

Fifty four students out of 68 (80%) incorrectly answered question number 11:

Your work does you credit.

Thirty students out of 68 (44%) incorrectly answered question number 5:

The teacher is going to make a recommendation for his students.

As for the English Literature students, the most difficult question in the recognition test was number 11 which was incorrectly answered by 18 students out of 28 (64%)

Your work does you credit.

Question number 7 formed another source of difficulty for the English Literature section. Eleven students out of 28 (39.2%) incorrectly answered that question although it is commonly used in the academic context.

The researcher did much research last year.

In contrast with that, the easiest question in the recognition test for all students was number 13:

The typist did a good job.

This question was correctly answered by all English Literature students; and only 4 students out of 68 (5.8%) from the English Communication Skills 102 sections answered it incorrectly. The idiomatic expression 'make friends ' in question 20 was also found to be easy because only 4 students out of 68 from the English Communication Skills 102 sections (5.8%), and 1 student out of 28 (3.5%) in the English Literature section answered it incorrectly.

Ali likes to make friends wherever he goes.

It may be concluded from these specific examples that these 'problematic' uses were not given proper attention in teaching at both school and university levels. Moreover, students' concerns were usually restricted to passing the prescribed curricula.

Brown (1980) made a distinction between production competence and comprehension competence, and suggested that the linguistic competence may have many levels. This may account for the significant differences in the subjects' performance because a learner may be capable of recognizing a piece of language, but cannot produce or use it. This may be attributed to focusing on receptive skills as opposed to productive skills. Rivers and Temperley (1978) differentiated between skill-getting processes in communication (recognition) and skill-using processes (production), and suggested bridging the gap between them. Incidental learning of vocabulary through reading or listening for example, would not lead to the development of rich vocabulary repertoire. Vocabulary learning should not stand at giving basic dictionary meanings.

Findings and Conclusions

The findings of this study indicated that Jordan University students faced a considerable difficulty in recognizing and using the high-frequency verbs MAKE and DO despite the fact that these verbs were taught to them at a very early level. The total percentages of correct answers for English Communication Skills students on the production and recognition tests were (58.8%) and (61%) respectively, and the mean was (59.9%) which revealed a serious problem in recognizing and using these verbs. (See Tables 8 and 9 for a broader view). Though the total percentages for the English Literature students were higher, (72.3% for production, 70.5% for recognition), and the mean was (71.4%), the results were far from being acceptable for English major students because vocabu- lary knowledge should move the learner along the language learning continuum in terms of size, depth, and fluency. (Schmitt, 2008). These percentages show that the vocabulary gains from materials to which students were exposed were relatively small and rather ineffective.

The first point that should be emphasized here is that many students were unaware of the distinctions between MAKE and DO assuming that they were similar. This may be attributed to the curricula that do not focus on contextual uses or the distinctions between lexical items in general. In teaching core English courses, meanings beyond the general, literal dictionary denotational uses are not usually emphasized. Inaccurate and hasty translations or paraphrases by teachers especially for idiomatic or collocational uses of MAKE and DO may explain the random, as opposed to the idiomatic, use of these verbs. This may explain why students were at ease or at odds with MAKE or DO depending on their familiarity with their contextual uses. Thus, the more familiar with any of the verb uses the students were, the more likely they were to recognize them in context.

The second important finding is the students' tendency to overuse MAKE and underuse DO at both levels of linguistic performance: recognition and production. The verb MAKE ranked second in terms of difficulty whereas the verb DO ranked first in the statistical tables. Thus, it can be concluded that MAKE was easier to recognize or use than DO which seemed to be more elusive. This is consistent with other studies (Hasseigner 1994; Kallkvist 1999; Altenberg and Granger 2001) that investigated Norwegian and Swedish learners' use of MAKE in particular and found that EFL learners, even at an advanced proficiency level, had great difficulty with high frequency verbs like MAKE and DO because of Ll interference.

The tendency for Jordan University students to overuse MAKE may be attributed to the possibility that MAKE gives a more direct concrete or conceivable meaning in Arabic than the indirect abstract meaning of DO. The most common equivalent meaning of MAKE in Arabic, in isolation, according to AlMawrid Dictionary, is yasna' or ya 'mal while the most common meaning of DO, in isolation, is yafal or yunaffith. Another possible explanation may be attributed to the fact that DO is generally taught as an auxiliary verb, and neglected as a main verb, in some general English courses. The specific examples given earlier as well as the final results give evidence that the contextual uses of the verbs MAKE and DO were not clearly conceived by students.


The findings call for some recommendations. Firstly, vocabulary should be emphasized from the early to the advanced levels of foreign language teaching. Moreover, a lexical item should not be taught in isolation. Instead, direct emphasis on what accompanies the learned lexical items should be put even at the early level of EFL teaching and learning. Teachers should create some awareness of the uses of multi-unit words and idioms, especially the most frequent and active ones.

Secondly, vocabulary should be taught and presented in a curriculum systematically. Instead of spending much time on the learners' syntactic accuracy, more time should be devoted to enhancing their lexical knowledge because, as Lewis (1993, p.93) stated, "language is grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar." The findings of this study give evidence that there was a deficiency in students' performance on very commonly used verbs like MAKE and DO. The semantic and pragmatic levels of vocabulary should be incorporated in textbooks and in all linguistic skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Thirdly, teachers of general English courses should be trained not to overlook errors related to the correct usages of words and idioms for the sake of communicative flow or to give priority to correcting grammar. Thus, as Wilkins (1972) noticed, without grammar very little can be conveyed, but without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed. In other words, a message conveyed in appropriate words with an incorrect grammatical structure might be communicated more effectively than the same message in a correct grammatical structure but with inaccurate wording.

Fourthly, as the findings indicated that there was a gap between students' performance in production and their performance in recognition, this gap should be bridged by designing genuine communicative activities for the learners to put their receptive vocabulary knowledge into actual use in both speaking and writing. As Schmitt (2008, p.342) suggests, providing repeated exposure to high frequency vocabulary would help the consolidation and enhancement of already partially known lexical items. Like the different proficiencies of language learning (accuracy, complexity, fluency) proposed by Skehan and Foster (2000), vocabulary learning should take into account the incremental nature of word learning or the levels of word knowledge. Nation and Gu (2007) suggest a four-strand approach for word knowledge: (1) meaning-focused input, (2) meaning-focused output, (3) language focused learning, and (4) fluency development. That may be achieved by designing materials that transfer the EFL learner from incidental to intentional learning where contextualized uses of vocabulary are emphasized.


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Author affiliation:

Zuhair Eisouh

University of Jordan

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