Some Implications of the Lexical Approach

The Lexical Approach is with us. It is not something which has arrived suddenly overnight, having rather crept up a number of avenues to gradually assemble as a whole at the market place. It is welcomed by many, particularly those of us who have always believed tht words, in some way, are more important than grammar, and there been struggling to find not only a coherent alternative to the stuctural syllabus, but also a different and better way of looking at language.

As with much theory, the origins of the lexical approach lie in anumber of threads – Michael Lewis’s approach to grammar, Jane and Dave Willis’ Collins Cobuild series and its associated Task Based Learning methodology, David Brazil’s approach to analysing discourse, and the arrival of the computer corpus and its ability to identify ‘real’ language and analyse collocation. Added to these is the work of many in developing different versions of a lexical syllabus in which grammar is taught through vocabulary. many of these threads are drawn together in Michael Lewis’s ‘The Lexical Approach’ which is both summarial and a statement of a new dimension in ELT.

There are signs that the Lexical Approach is here to stay, at least as part of our repertoire. Lewis’s ‘The Lexical Approach’ is seen as a key text for those interested in the state of ELT, and the sequel, ‘Implementing the Lexical Approach’ goes on to describe the implications for the classroom. Many recent coursebooks have adopted a main or parallel lexical syllabus, and this trend is likely to continue given the increasing use of computers to analyse language. LTP’s ‘Wordfinder‘ is a good example of a corpus-based collocation dictionary. The Lexical Approach is in any ways merely a formalisation of what has long been common sense – the importance of lexis, the over-emphasis of grammar in the traditional teaching situation, the need to teach natural language and the questioning of some aspects of communicative language teaching. In any case, aspects of the lexical approach will be part of the future of ELT.

The following is a summary of key ideas from the Lexical Approach, based on seminars and workshops led by Jimmy Hill, co-founder of LTP Publishing with Michael Lewis.

Looking at language

  • Lexis is not the same as vocabulary.
  • Lexis consists predominantly of collocations, fixed and semi-fixed expressions.
  • The Lexical Approach is a way of looking at language, not a dogma or methodology.
  • Content (i.e. lexis) comes first. Accuracy (grammar) follows.
  • The approach talks about grammaticalised lexis rather than lexicalised grammar.
  • Language is read, spoken and learnt in ‘chunks’.
  • Phrases and sentences are either common ‘known’ language or ‘new’ language. Discourse can be analysed in this way.
  • Much grammar is ‘prototypical’ and can be taught as semi-fixed expressions, often through simple substitution drills.
  • Learners possess an ever-expanding ‘mental lexicon’ which consists of lexical ─▒tems rather than words.

The classroom

  • Teaching grammar + vocabulary = what’s possible, teaching chunks of natural language = what’s probable.
  • Natural language is emphasised. ‘drive a car’ is not a collocation because we hardly ever say it.
  • Focus on phonology is at the utternace level, i.e. on sentence stress, rhythm, intonation and features of connected speech, rather than on individual sounds and words.
  • Students need to keep a lexically organised notebook.
  • A lexical syllabus is implied, as is the input of a wide range of natural language and the use of a collocations dictionary.
  • Some formerly ‘out of favour’ techiques reappear in the classroom. Translation is an acceptable technique in explaining chunks of language. Reading alouddraws attention to the ‘chunking’ process. Anecdotal and informal teacher talking timeis seen as providing models of natural language, particularly in a monolingual environment.
  • Adopting a lexical approach does not require a new lesson framework, but each lesson should include a ‘noticing’ stage in which attention is drawn not only to items but also to their linguistic surroundings

first published July 1997 British Council Networking Issue 4

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