Lesson ideas: Upper secondary school

4 Differences in the grammatical structures of ‘tell’ and ‘say’

A data-driven learning approach

Geeske Dünnhaupt and Lena Haase

1 Introduction

The verbs say and tell have a similar meaning and, in German, both can be translated as sagen. As a result, German-speaking learners of English tend to use the grammar of these words synonymously and frequently produce unidiomatic phrases like she told to me or my teacher said me that. In fact, this problem is not confined to German-speaking learners of English: it is common to many Learner Englishes as attested, for example, in the Longman Dictionary of Errors (Turton & Heaton 1997). To counter this difficulty, the following lesson focusses on the different grammatical structures of the two verbs, which the students will ascertain from authentic language samples. Students benefit from a corpus-based approach to learning about these two reporting verbs because corpora provide them with authentic language material. Knowing how to work with corpus analysis tools and being able to interpret the extracted data can positively contribute to students’ learning strategies and learner autonomy. 

Justification for applying such an approach can be found in the curriculum of Lower Saxony as it encourages teachers to include a variety of learning strategies in their teaching:

Lernstrategien beziehen sich auf den Erwerb der sprachlichen Mittel und bezeichnen die Strategien, die ein Lerner zunehmend selbstständig und individuell unterschiedlich verwendet, um sich Sprache anzueignen [Learning strategies refer to the acquisition of linguistic resources and describe the strategies that a learner uses to acquire a language with increasing autonomy and individual variation] (Niedersächsisches Kultusministerium 2015: 27).

Furthermore, the proposed lesson unit supports learning awareness (Lernbewusstsein) as the students learn autonomously and discover rules by themselves:Die Schülerinnen und Schüler […] finden Regeln, erkennen Fehler in Selbstkorrektur sowie peer correction und nutzen diese Erkenntnisse für den eigenen Lernprozess” [Students […] identify rules, recognize errors by correcting themselves or through peer correction and make use of this knowledge for their own learning process] (Niedersächsisches Kultusministerium 2015: 28).


Outline and objectives

This 90-minute lesson is designed to be a stand-alone grammar lesson that can be embedded into any topic in which the two verbs tell and say occur, or after difficulties in the correct usage of the verbs’ grammatical features arose. It has been designed with sixth-grade students in mind who have already been introduced to both verbs independently and are now learning about their structural differences. Since it is assumed that this is the students’ first time working with a corpus, the worksheet features step-by-step instructions on how to extract the relevant information from the corpus. Besides providing the students with the tasks and instructions, the worksheet additionally secures all results in one document that the students can look at in case of uncertainties.

Learning objectives:

  • Students understand that tell and say have different grammatical structures whose features cannot be applied synonymously.
  • Students can use both verbs productively in idiomatic contexts.

This will be achieved by analysing and comparing the grammatical structures based on corpus data. In addition:

  • Students develop ‘corpus skills’ as a learning strategy for autonomous language learning.
  • Students train their communicative and social competences, e.g., by comparing and discussing their results with a partner.
  • Students reflect on the experience of working with a corpus.

2 Corpus/corpora, tools and methods

As “educational systems in European countries generally […] follow the British English model” (Naser Eddine 2011: 8), the British National Corpus (BNC) will be used to provide the necessary information for this lesson. The corpus can be freely accessed via https://www.english-corpora.org/bnc/. The different uses of this corpus analysis tool include “finding the frequency of words, phrases, and collocates” and “designing authentic language teaching materials and resources” (English Corpora: Most Widely Used Online Corpora. Billions of Words of Data: free Online Access, n.d.). To find out about the grammatical differences of tell and say, the students will work with the List and Collocates functions (cf. 3.3, step-by-step Instructions).  

This lesson focusses on the verbs tell and say, which are introduced to German learners of English in 5th, or at the latest in 6th grade – which is the reason why this lesson was created for sixth-grade students. Once the students know both words, they should be made aware that tell and say have different grammatical structures that cannot be used synonymously. By working with a corpus, the students will learn to extract rules from authentic language data. This data-driven learning approach teaches the students how to work with the basic analysis features of a corpus tool. In the following years, more detailed and complex corpus queries can be introduced, which will build on the abilities the students have already developed. In the context of this project, a worksheet was developed that enables the students to work autonomously, with five tasks and corresponding step-by-step instructions. It can be found at the end of this chapter.

3 Step-by-step guide

3.1 Teacher preparation

  1. Become familiar with https://www.english-corpora.org/. Work through the worksheet yourself to be able to help your students.
  2. In case you think there are too many or too few tasks, you can adjust the number according to the group of learners.
  3. Does the task level match your students’ skills, or might they need assistance? This is the time to think about scaffolding. Here are some ideas:
    • You could hang up a poster with the word classes on it. This could help your students in case they are not familiar with the word classes (cf. worksheet, task 3).
    • You could prepare cards containing helpful phrases (see worksheet, task 5) or beginnings of sentences (see worksheet, additional task) that the students can get from you in case they need support.
  1. For a successful introduction into the lesson, draw a connection to the previous one(s), so that the students know what will happen and why. You could think about questions like: 
    • Did the students have problems distinguishing tell and say?
    • Did the students ask you to explain the differences between the two verbs?
  1. The conclusion period should be used to compare the students’ results to see if there are any questions left and to draw a conclusion from the lesson.
    • What do I want my students to learn? What is most important to remember?
    • You could reflect on the lesson together with your students. Did they like working with a corpus autonomously? What kind of problems did they encounter?
    • Explaining how using a corpus could improve their future learning processes. 
  1. Add your thoughts and ideas to the provided lesson plan (cf. 3.2, lesson plan) to adjust this lesson introduction and conclusion to individual learner needs.
  2. Especially if this is the first time that your students are going to work with a corpus, you should briefly introduce them to what a corpus is and what can be done with it beforehand, e.g., in the preceding lesson. That way, you can avoid overwhelming them with too much information at the beginning of this practical corpus-based lesson.

3.2 Lesson Plan

Table 1: Lesson plan





5 – 10 min

Introduction of the topic and its relevance to the students

Recap of the brief introduction to corpora

Introduction of the lesson’s outline

For a smooth transition, think about questions like: Why is this lesson implemented? Have the students confused the grammatical structures of tell and say in the past? Briefly explain this to your students.

Recap: What is a corpus? What can be found out using a corpus?

Let the students know what is going to happen during this lesson. What will they have to do? How much time do they have to work on it?

Main part

60 min

Teacher hands out the worksheet and answers upcoming questions.

Students work autonomously with the worksheet

This does not mean walking them through the step-by-step instructions but rather clarifying comprehension questions.

Teacher should act as learning assistant.

If students need help, point to the scaffolding options they can use. You should try to avoid walking them through the task; let them help each other and support them in working on their own.

Have an additional task in store for the quickest students: They could either be experts and help their classmates or get an additional task to work on.


20 – 25 min

Comparing results

Answering remaining questions

Reflecting on the working process

Compare the results and internalize the correct usage of the two verbs.

What are the most important things you want your students to remember? e.g., rule box on the worksheet

Short reflection to find out if there were difficulties using the corpus.

Explain why using corpora is beneficial for the students’ learning process both in and outside school.

3.3 Step-by-Step Instructions

In case you are working with a corpus for the first time yourself, the following step-by-step instructions will walk you through everything you need to know for this lesson. The instructions are in chronological order based on the attached worksheet. Furthermore, there are a few additional instructions (marked with an *) to extent your basic knowledge of this web interface. This might be helpful if you want to expand the work with corpora, or if you search for different words and find out that another function might be more beneficial to reach the learning goal.

Selecting a Corpus

Open the website https://www.english-corpora.org and select the British National Corpus (BNC) (Fig. 1).

*You will find a listing of different corpora on the opening page. Should you be working with this analysis tool again, pick the one that is most suitable for your lesson.

Fig. 1: Where to find the BNC on the homepage

If you have an account, you can log in under My account and Log in. If you do not have an account yet, you will find the “Register” button on top (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Logging in to english-corpora.org

Looking for Frequency

Now, you will find yourself on the SEARCH interface. On this screen, insert the word/words you are looking for. When you click on the grey words below the search box, another box with further information will pop up on the right-hand side (Fig. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3: The SEARCH screen and functions
Fig. 4: How to display the number of results into frequency per million

To find out how often a word is used, simply enter the word into the white box and click on Find matching strings. The website will forward you to the FREQUENCY screen (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: The FREQUENCY screen

This interface displays the results of the search in the column “FREQ” and the column “PER MIL”. When you click on the word “TELL (Fig. 5), the website jumps to the CONTEXT interface and provides a full list of the sentences that your search results can be found in (the concordance lines).


The frequency search only shows results that match the exact word form that has been written. In order to get results that contain all variants of the words (e.g., different tense and grammatical forms) the lemma search will be the best option. To do so, you simply enter the specific words in capital letters on the SEARCH interface (Fig. 6). 

Fig. 6: The lemma search function

By confirming your entry by clicking on Find matching strings, you will be forwarded to the FREQUENCY interface, which displays the different variants in descending order (Fig. 7). 

Fig. 7: Results of the lemma search 


Click on “SEARCH” in the top left corner to go back to the opening page. Otherwise, repeat “selecting a corpus”. To find out which words appear alongside say and tell, click on the Collocates function (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8: The Collocates function

The task on the worksheet aims to find out how the two verbs occur with to. Therefore, tell (or say) needs to be written into the “Word/phrase” box and to into the “Collocates” box. In addition, you will also need to choose a number on the scale which indicates the positions in which the collocate appears in relation to the word. If you click on a number on the left-hand side of the numeric scale, you will get sentences that show the word to in front of tell. Clicking on a number on the right-hand side, you will get results where to occurs after tell. The given task requires to click on “3” to get results in which to appears within the following three words of tell (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Using the Collocates function

After clicking on “Find collocates”, the website forwards you to the FREQUENCY screen. This does not help much, as the task asks for examples. However, clicking on “TO” (Fig. 10) solves the problem and brings you straight to the CONTEXT page and to the concordance lines.

Fig. 10: How to get to the concordance lines

*The frequency interface is helpful if you want to find out which words collocate with the word/phrase in the search box. If you conduct a search like this, the FREQUENCY interface provides you with a table containing a list of the collocating words (with the most frequent at the top).


You will find the tasks on the worksheets attached (cf. appendix). There is a template for the students as well as a teacher’s version with solutions. As mentioned before, the teacher knows their group of learners best and should adjust the scaffolding accordingly.

Follow-up activities

As this lesson focusses on grammatical difficulties in a stand-alone manner, it can be embedded into several units. The decision when to implement it must be made by the teacher. If the students have major problems with the use of this corpus analysis tool, it might be wise to divide the lesson up. The additional task is meant for students who have finished early, or could alternatively be used as homework. To enable the students to work with corpora in a more comprehensive way, the teacher should introduce them to further analysis functions from the website when the time is right, e.g., finding the correct preposition for certain words. Especially grammar and vocabulary work – which are so closely interlinked that they can hardly be addressed in isolation – can benefit from working with corpora and should therefore be regularly implemented in English classes. 

4 Options and further ideas

Many words in the English language have similar meanings but are used in different contexts and/or have different grammatical structures. Native speakers intuitively learn in which contexts to use these words idiomatically. This unit was designed to teach the verbs tell and say but can also serve as a model for other words that have similar meaning, e.g., cause and bring about, beautiful and attractive, safety and security.

Another idea would be using more than one corpus to compare the use of words in different language varieties, e.g., British English (e.g., using the BNC) and American English (e.g., using the COCA). Comparisons between an inner-circle variety (e.g., British English) and an outer- or expanding circle variety (e.g., Indian or Nigerian English) are also possible. There just needs to be an appropriate corpus to use (e.g., the Global Web-Based English Corpus).

The corpus analysis tool that has been introduced in this chapter offers other search functions alongside List and Collocates, e.g., Chart and Compare. Just to give an example, the Compare function can be used to directly compare the search results of two words (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11: The Compare function

The results are then presented in two juxtaposed tables that allow for a relatively easy comparison of their collocational patterns. The numerical scale underneath the text fields can be used to narrow the results down to the number of words that precede or follow the words. However, this function is not included in this worksheet because the simple comparison of the verbs tell and say generates the following results (Fig. 12):

Fig 12: Compare function results for ‘say’ and ‘tell’

Abstracting results from this chart did not seem age-appropriate to us and would probably leave students confused. Should the structure of this worksheet be copied and adapted for older students (presumably grade 8 and higher), including the Compare function could be considered as a way of exposing the students to additional input that they may benefit from.

5 Conclusion

This lesson introduces students to the work with corpora at an early stage. Acquiring digital skills is of importance in these times of rapid technical developments. Consequently, it may be beneficial to introduce students to a variety of digital tools. The more they have the opportunity to interact with corpus platforms, the easier the handling gets. This lesson could therefore be useful to introduce students to basic corpus analyses. It provides a lot of instructions and scaffolding which supports those in need, especially when using this type of tool for the very first time.

Language is not a fixed concept; therefore, it is relevant to use tools that allow the student to dive into real language situations aside from the textbook used in school. Our lesson focusses on a typical learner error, namely the collocational patterns of the verbs tell and say. German-speaking students cannot be expected to understand why they cannot use the words synonymously without further explanations. Implementing this lesson to clarify the distinction at an early stage can avoid long-term fossilisation of unidiomatic structures.

By following the step-by-step instructions included in this chapter, teachers should be able to create corpus-based lessons on any other typical error that their students regularly make.

6 Resources and references

Davies, Mark. 2020. English Corporahttps://www.english-corpora.org/ (25 March, 2021).

English Corpora: Most widely used online corpora. Billions of words of data: free online access. n.d. https://www.english-corpora.org/overview.asp (12 August, 2020).

Naser Eddine, A. 2011. Second language acquisition: The articulation of vowels and the importance of tools in the learning process. In J. Arabski & A. Wojtaszek (eds.), The acquisition of L2 phonology, 3-15. Multilingual Matters: Bristol.

Niedersächsisches Kultusministerium. 2015. Kerncurriculum für das Gymnasium, Schuljahrgänge 5-10. https://cuvo.nibis.de/cuvo.php?skey_lev0_0=Schulbereich&svalue_lev0_0=Sek+I&skey_lev0_1=Fach&svalue_lev0_1=Englisch&skey_lev0_2=Dokumentenart&svalue_lev0_2=Kerncurriculum&docid=1197&p=detail_view (26 March, 2021).

Turton, N. D., & J. B. Heaton. 1997. Longman dictionary of common errors (3. impr). Harlow: Longman.

7 Appendix

7.1 Worksheet “Tell or Say” (four pages) – Student version

7.2 Worksheet “Tell or Say” (four pages) – Teachers’ version


1 For a very brief introduction to Braj Kachru’s model of World Englishes, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Englishes#Kachru’s_Three_Circles_of_English (25 March, 2021).


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Creating Corpus-Informed Materials for the English as a Foreign Language Classroom Copyright © 2021 by Geeske Dünnhaupt and Lena Haase is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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