The Lexical Approach to English Language Teaching

The Lexical Approach (LA) stems from the interest in vocabulary teaching and research that increased in ELT (English language teaching) during the 1990’s following the publication of Paul Nation’s Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (1987). During this period, Michael Lewis began to describe an approach to language teaching which became (LA), putting lexis at the centre of language teaching and learning in two publications (1993) and (1997)Michael Lewis edited an accessible introduction to this approach for anyone looking to enhance their knowledge and implementation of the method in (2000).

This approach focuses on cultivating the learners’ proficiency in and production of lexis in the form of multi-word ‘chunks,’(groups of words that are commonly found together such as collocations), through which, learners also comprehend grammar. This approach arguably began with J, Nattinger (1980: 1992), however Michael Lewis (1993) coined the term and is the most significant figure in this area. Dieter Kranz (1997) summarises five guiding principles of this approach as follows:


  1. The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy is invalid.
  2. Collocation is used as an organizing principle.
  3. Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language.
  4. The Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle replaces the Present-Practice-Produce Paradigm.
  5. Most importantly, language consists of grammaticalised lexis–not lexicalised grammar.

Lewis (1993) claims that lexis rather than grammar is the basis of language and that a fundamental misconception is to assume that it is necessary to master grammar in order to communicate effectively. Indeed, lexis is the more important of the two for communicative purposes. Lexis is distinguished from vocabulary to the extent that the former includes single words and more importantly word combinations, while the later is comprised of individual words with fixed meanings. “Advocates argue that language consists of meaningful chunks that, when combined, produce continuous coherent text, and only a minority of spoken sentences are entirely novel creations,” Olga Moudraia (2001). The role of formulaic language in L2 acquisition has also been noted elsewhere, Richards & Rodgers (2001).

As Lexis is central to language learning according to this approach it follows that English language teaching should focus on the learners’ putting together pre-made lexical chunks that are relevant and appropriate to a particular context. Teaching should also focus on learners’ understanding and comprehension of patterns of lexical chunks, the ways that they vary and the situations in which they transpire in order to know which patterns to predict in specific situations. Lewis (1993) proposes an Observe-hypothesise-experiment model as an alternative to the now frequently maligned – PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), and sees the approach in general as an extention rather than an alternative to the communicative approach in ELT.  

Various classroom activities follow from this such as: Intensive and extensive listening and reading in the target language, first and second language comparisons carried out on a lexical chunks basis, recycling and repetition, noticing and recording collocations and guessing the meaning of language from context. Recent developments in this approach draw on the research based understanding that the majority of speech produced by L1 users is assembled more from collocations and chunks than individual words. Using this approach in the ELT classroom primarily involves expanding the learners‘ lexis around fixed expressions and collocations… instead of a particular grammatical item such as tense.




Dieter Kranz (1997): Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice, Michael Lewis (1997) TESL-EJ, Vol 3 No 1

Michael Lewis (1993. The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Michael Lewis (1997), Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Michael Lewis & Jane Conzett (Ed) (2000), Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications.

Nation I. S. P. (1987), Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, English Language Institute, Victoria University of Wellington.                                                                                     

Nattinger, J. (1980), A Lexical Phrase Grammar for ESL. TESOL Quarterly, 14, 337-344.

Nattinger, J., & DeCarrico, J. (1992), Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Olga Moudraia (2001), Lexical Approach to Second Language Teaching, CAL, Centre for Applied Linguistics, Online Resources: Digests. EDO-FL-01-0.

Richards J & Rodgers T. S. (2001), Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis (2nd Ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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