Lexical Approach


We could not talk about vocabulary teaching nowadays without mentioning Lewis (1993), whose controversial, thought-provoking ideas have been shaking the ELT world since its publication. We do not intend to offer a complete review of his work, but rather mention some of his contributions that in our opinion can be readily used in the classroom. 

His most important contribution was to highlight the importance of vocabulary as being basic to communication.  We do agree that if learners do not recognise the meaning of keywords they will be unable to participate in the conversation, even if they know the morphology and syntax. On the other hand, we believe that grammar is equally important in teaching, and therefore in our opinion, it is not the case to substitute grammar teaching with vocabulary teaching, but that both should be present in teaching a foreign language. 

Lewis himself insists that his lexical approach is not simply a shift of emphasis from grammar to vocabulary teaching, as ‘language consists not of traditional grammar and vocabulary, but often of multi-word prefabricated chunks’(Lewis, 1997). Chunks include collocations, fixed and semi-fixed expressions and idioms, and according to him, occupy a crucial role in facilitating language production, being the key to fluency. 

An explanation for native speakers’ fluency is that vocabulary is not stored only as individual words, but also as parts of phrases and larger chunks, which can be retrieved from memory as a whole, reducing processing difficulties. On the other hand, learners who only learn individual words will need a lot more time and effort to express themselves. 

Consequently, it is essential to make students aware of chunks, giving them opportunities to identify, organise and record these. Identifying chunks is not always easy, and at least in the beginning, students need a lot of guidance. 

Hill (1999) explains that most learners with ‘good vocabularies’ have problems with fluency because their ‘collocational competence’ is very limited, and that, especially from Intermediate level, we should aim at increasing their collocational competence with the vocabulary they have already got. For Advance learners he also suggests building on what they already know, using better strategies and increasing the number of items they meet outside the classroom. 

The idea of what it is to ‘know’ a word is also enriched with the collocational component. According to Lewis (1993) ‘being able to use a word involves mastering its collocational range and restrictions on that range’. I can say that using all the opportunities to teach chunks rather than isolated words is a feasible idea that has been working well in my classes, and which is fortunately coming up in new coursebooks we are using. However, both teachers and learners need awareness raising activities to be able to identify multi-word chunks. 

Apart from identifying chunks, it is important to establish clear ways of organising and recording vocabulary. According to Lewis (1993), ‘language should be recorded together which characteristically occurs together’, which means not in a linear, alphabetical order, but in collocation tables, mind-maps, word trees, for example. He also suggests the recording of whole sentences, to help contextualization, and that storage of items is highly personal, depending on each student’s needs. 

We have already mentioned the use of dictionaries as a way to discover meaning and foster learner independence.  Lewis extends the use of dictionaries to focus on word grammar and collocation range, although most dictionaries are rather limited in these. 

Lewis also defends the use of ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ material from the early stages of learning, because ‘acquisition is facilitated by material which is only partly understood’ (Lewis, 1993, p. 186). Although he does not supply evidence for this, I agree that students need to be given tasks they can accomplish without understanding everything from a given text, because this is what they will need as users of the language. He also suggests that it is better to work intensively with short extracts of authentic material, so they are not too daunting for students and can be explored for collocations. 

Finally, the Lexical Approach and Task-Based Learning have some common principles, which have been influencing foreign language teaching. Both approaches regard intensive, roughly-tuned input as essential for acquisition, and maintain that successful communication is more important than the production of accurate sentences. We certainly agree with these principles and have tried to use them in our class. 


There are several aspects of lexis that need to be taken into account when teaching vocabulary. The list below is based on the work of Gairns and Redman (1986): 

·        Boundaries between conceptual meaning : knowing not only what lexis refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning (e.g. cup, mug, bowl).

·        Polysemy:  distinguishing between the various meaning of a single word form with several but closely related meanings (head: of a person, of a pin, of an organisation).

·        Homonymy: distinguishing between the various meaning of a single word form which has several meanings which are NOT closely related ( e.g. a file: used to put papers in or a tool).

·        Homophyny: understanding words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings (e.g. flour, flower).

·        Synonymy: distinguishing between the different shades of meaning that synonymous words have (e.g. extend, increase, expand).

·        Affective meaning: distinguishing between the attitudinal and emotional factors (denotation and connotation), which depend on the speakers attitude or the situation. Socio-cultural associations of lexical items is another important factor.

·        Style, register, dialect: Being able to distinguish between different levels of formality, the effect of different contexts and topics, as well as differences in geographical variation.

·        Translation: awareness of certain differences and similarities between the native and the foreign language (e.g. false cognates).

·        Chunks of language: multi-word verbs, idioms, strong and weak collocations, lexical phrases.

·        Grammar of vocabulary: learning the rules that enable students to build up different forms of the word or even different words from that word (e.g. sleep, slept, sleeping; able, unable; disability).

·        Pronunciation: ability to recognise and reproduce items in speech. 

The implication of the aspects just mentioned in teaching is that the goals of vocabulary teaching must be more than simply covering a certain number of words on a word list. We must use teaching techniques that can help realise this global concept of what it means to know a lexical item. And we must also go beyond that, giving learner opportunities to use the items learnt and also helping them to use effective written storage systems. 






Taken from: Teaching Vocabulary To Advanced Students: A Lexical Approach by Solange Moras , Sao Carlos, Brazil, July 2001



Sun, 29 May 2011 @21:14

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