Why word pairs help your child do better in tests

Why word pairs help your child do better in tests

Devious plan, voracious appetite. Words, too, have they soulmates. Word pairs are words that appear together frequently. Here’s why teaching word pairs leads to more astute young learners.

Knowledge of word pairs has been proven to increase the quality of children’s academic written work.

A study by George McCulley (1985) found that readers perceive texts containing many common word pairs to be more readable and logical, and this translates into better scores in written tests. Using vocabulary in its most typical contexts shows an overall awareness of and familiarity with English usage, and gives writing real clarity and flow.

Furthermore, more recent cognitive linguistic theories of grammar present the view that grammar and vocabulary are strongly interconnected, with evidence that teaching naturally occurring phrases, including collocations, yields significant gains in grammatical understanding and accuracy (Hunston & Francis, 2000). All of these factors are central to English assessment and influence a student’s performance in class.

Knowledge of collocations also has a positive impact in non-academic writing activities: word pairs are also essential to colourful, creative writing, but for different reasons. That’s because it’s only once children know the accepted conventions of language that they can override them. In others words: they have to know the rules before they can break them.

Research by Beata Beigman Klebanov for ETS showed that “higher scoring essays tend to have higher percentages of both highly associated and dis-associated pairs, and lower percentages of mildly associated pairs.” Or, students who can use words in surprising, unusual ways – i.e. with low scoring word pairs – also receive the best grades, since this kind of writing feels inventive and original.

Interestingly, in her research Klebanov found that the information provided by studying word pair frequency could be used to effectively improve automated essay-scoring systems. That means that in the future, computers could more reliably score tests, aided by analysis of word pairs.

Learning word pairs fast-tracks children to gaining a writer’s intuition and honing their command of language. It’s a fast, focused way to learn, that goes right to the heart of what makes good writing, great.


Beigman Klebanov, B. and Flor, M. (2013) Word Association Profiles and their Use for Automated Scoring of Essays. Proceedings of the 51st Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics, pp. 1148-58.

Hunston, S., & Francis, G. (2000). Pattern Grammar: A corpus-driven approach to the lexical grammar of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

McCulley, G. (1985) Writing Quality, Coherence, and Cohesion. Research in the Teaching of English. 19(3), pp. 269-82.