March 2019
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Marino Ivo Lopes Fernandes, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire, USA, & Yu Tian, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA

Marino Ivo Lopes Fernandes

Yu Tian

With the increasing enrollment of multilingual students in American universities and the high incidence of inappropriate textual borrowing practices in academic writing among this group (Sowden, 2005), borrowing words properly (or “legally”) has attracted a lot of attention. A number of empirical studies have indicated that lack of familiarity with academic language contributes to unacceptable textual borrowing (e.g., Flowerdew & Li, 2007). The textual and interview responses from Flowerdew and Li’s study indicate that having limited language ability to report ideas led to so-called language reuse, which they report accounted for a high incidence of inappropriate textual borrowing in students’ research-based writing. Reporting verbs are, therefore, important structures for successful language reuse in academic writing. The lesson plan we present here demonstrates how to use the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to enrich multilingual students’ repertoire of reporting verbs, raise awareness of their rhetorical functions for language reuse as strategies for appropriate textual borrowing and, as a result, more effective paraphrasing in source-based academic writing.

Background and Rationale

Because language learning with corpora requires up-front investment of time and learning of the tool itself, it is difficult to justify using a corpus for one lesson or two. We propose that corpora like the COCA can support language learning for a number of purposes (e.g., Csomay & Prades, 2018; Harris & Moreno Jaén, 2010). In this lesson overview, we provide strategies for using the COCA to raise students’ awareness of the rhetorical and grammatical functions of reporting verbs to help them paraphrase more effectively and therefore mitigate inappropriate language reuse in academic source-based writing.

We focus on reporting verbs as tools for effective paraphrasing and appropriate textual borrowing. One central function of reporting verbs is that they communicate to the reader how the writer understands the concepts the reporting verb acts on and how they are related. As such, we find lessons on reporting verbs go well beyond vocabulary learning and allow students to demonstrate not only content understanding but also rhetorical and logical connections between the concepts they are writing about. We suggest in this lesson overview that this is but a starting point of how reporting verbs can open doors to conversations about genre and disciplinarity and even about possibilities for syntactic constructions employing verbs to summarize and paraphrase. We focus here on reporting verbs to teach students how to make use of these verbs to summarize and paraphrase appropriately to meet academic writing expectations they may find in the United States.

We use the following corpus-informed learning activity to teach students to use COCA todiscover logical connections between the content of the claim and the appropriate reporting verbs in context and according to rhetorical purpose (e.g., to inform, report, argue, disagree, or criticize). Students will also examine the COCA for how reporting verbs function across genres and disciplines.


  1. As a class, review the definition of reporting verbs and ask students to write down as many reporting verbs as they can in small groups.

  2. While students are working in groups, write some functions of reporting verbs on the board, such as “Makes an evaluation,” “Makes a claim,” and “Makes a recommendation.”

Table 1. Functions of Reporting Verbs

Makes an Evaluation

Makes a Claim

Makes a Recommendation














  1. Ask students to share all reporting verbs from their group brainstorms and classify them into the different functions while you record them on the board. (Optional: You can note verbs students contribute to the list but have trouble defining/classifying, which can be elucidated in COCA searches later in the lesson.)

  2. Assign each group one category of reporting verbs, such as capturing authorial action, introducing quotations, expressing disagreement.

  3. As a class, go to COCA and work through one example of Steps 5a and 5b with an example word before students break out into groups to do them independently:

    1. Search reporting verbs and collect two examples for each verb on their group list, and excerpt the line with the example usage.

    2. Students should read for context in COCA to be sure of the rhetorical function of the reporting verb and reclassify, if necessary.

  4. Ask students to search for a reporting verb they may already be familiar with, for example, argue using the Keywords In Context (KWIC) interface (see Figure 1). Because not all hits will be reporting verbs, students should then work in groups to first select examples of sentences with reporting verbs.

Figure 1. Search page for Keywords in Context. (Click image to enlarge) 

Students brainstorm a working theory of the collocations of reporting verbs. That is, students should offer an explanation of the grammatical environment of the verbs. For example, Figure 2 shows that the reporting verb argues is generally preceded by a noun in subject position and followed by a relative clause such as that. If appropriate, you can teach punctuation and clause order as part of discovering the grammatical environment for the reporting verb.

Figure 2. KWIC search highlights queried verb in relation to parts of speech. (Click image to enlarge)

  1. To check their working theories, students should search the string in question (i.e., argues that) as demonstrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Search for reporting verb with relative clause. (Click image to enlarge) 

The general structure of interest is VERB that, or other variations such as VERB the idea that, or VERB the claim that, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Search for VERB the claim that constructions. (Click image to enlarge)

You can also provide alternative structures here or allow students to discover variations, as appropriate to level and time allotted for the lesson (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Results for VERB the claim that reveal options for other collocations. (Click image to enlarge)

Option: if students search in “List” view, they will be able to see the most frequent verbs that occur in the COCA with the string the claim that, which can be useful for further discussion about phrases that introduce the sources or ideas the writers are working with. For example, see Figure 6.

Figure 6. Most frequent verbs with the claim that. (Click image to enlarge) 

  1. Ask students to select a few reporting verbs and classify their rhetorical purposes (e.g., to express disagreement, support, cast doubt upon). They may click on the entry to see the full excerpted passage, as in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Extended excerpt of VERB the claim that construction. (Click image to enlarge) 

  1. Ask groups to collect the 10 most frequent (per the frequency counts in the List interface) reporting verbs in their searches and add any new ones to the class list on the board.

  2. Ask students in groups to write example sentences using reporting verbs of different rhetorical functions (e.g., to support a claim, disagree with a claim, or introduce evidence) working with a text they are familiar with.

Caveats and Options

  • This lesson assumes some familiarity with reporting verbs. If not, a quick explanation should be given for a working term for this lesson.

  • Access to the COCA is free of charge, but the site will prompt users to register after a few searches. To make sure the lesson goes smoothly, ask students to register in advance.

  • The procedure described in this article assumes some student familiarity with COCA. If not, you can demonstrate the interface and basic searches. Note: the purpose of using COCA in this lesson is not to conduct a formal study of corpus linguistics, but to mine COCA as another tool for language learning.

  • Students can also try other corpora.


Csomay, E., & Prades, A. (2018). Academic vocabulary in ESL student papers: A corpus-based study. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 33, 100-118.

Flowerdew, J., & Li, Y. (2007). Language re-use among Chinese apprentice scientists writing for publication. Applied Linguistics, 28(3), 440–465.

Harris, T., & Moreno Jaén, M. (2010). Corpus linguistics in language teaching. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften.

Sowden, C. (2005). Plagiarism and the culture of multilingual students in higher education abroad. ELT Journal, 59(3), 226–233.

Marino Ivo Lopes Fernandes is a PhD candidate in composition studies at the University of New Hampshire. His research focuses on identity development in second language writing, program design, and teacher training.

Yu Tian is a PhD candidate in Chinese linguistics and second language acquisition at the University of Arizona. Her research interests are plagiarism and peer tutoring with multilingual writers.

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