Lexical Lessons
English Teaching Professional, 55, March 2008.
Richard Ostick – SQM and Director of Studies, Kingsway English Centre, Worcester
Richard Ostick champions an approach that puts lexis at the centre of learning.


The Lexical Approach, pioneered by Michael Lewis, has now been around for 15 years. In this article I intend to look at what we mean by this approach and assess to what degree it has had an impact on our profession. I will also suggest some practical ideas for using a lexical approach in the classroom.


If the term lexical approach is new to you, here are some quotes from Michael Lewis that I feel sum up the main principles and ideas behind it.
•‘Language consists of grammaticalised lexis not lexicalised grammar.’
•‘The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy is invalid; much language consists of multi-word “chunks”.’
•‘A central element of language teaching is raising students’ awareness of [multi-word chunks] and developing their ability to “chunk” language successfully.’
•‘Grammar as structure is subordinate to lexis.’
•‘Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language.’
•‘Learning a language is not about knowing how to, but about being able to.’
•‘The principal difference between an intermediate learner and an advanced learner is not the complex grammar, but the expanded mental lexicon available to advanced learners.’


I have been a teacher for the last 12 years and have been involved in teacher training for the last five. Many of the teachers I have had contact with (with varied experience and backgrounds) are still very grammatical in their approach and tend to see grammar as the basis for successful language learning and good communication skills. This always surprises me a little. We still seem to be teaching language in a very traditional way: teaching the structures and then teaching the vocabulary to hang off them. The result is that many learners have also come to believe that the key to successful communication is through mastering grammatical nuances such as the difference between the present perfect and the past simple! Let’s face it, how many lessons have you done on this grammar point? The learners still never get it quite right. Many coursebook writers and teachers still maintain that good grammar will inevitably help us become competent in a language. Perhaps you have heard in your staff room something like ‘Well, I’ve done the present perfect, present perfect versus past simple, articles, prepositions, relative clauses and all the conditionals this week. There’s nothing left to do!’


The implications of adopting a more lexical approach are that we move away from perceiving and teaching grammar (in the traditional sense) as the foundation for learning a language and start to see lexis as central. The function of grammar is to enable us to construct the language we don’t already have in our mental lexicon. So it makes more sense to try to teach learners what they need so that they are able to say things, rather than just teaching them how to say them. The result of teaching grammar rather than lexis is that we get:

It is clear that without lexis there is much more scope for inaccuracies. Adopting a more lexical approach, especially when time is limited, can help learners to make more rapid progress. On short courses, we have not got a year (or even a term) to look at the intricacies of grammar and, moreover, people want and need to see results over a short period. After all, grammar is something they can study on their own.


Reflect on your own language learning experience for a moment. Perhaps your first teaching job was in a country where at first you couldn’t speak the language. In my experience, I was much more successful learning words and useful phrases for things and functions and generally developing my vocabulary in terms of lexical chunks, rather than studying the grammar. I feel it is often teachers, rather than learners, who are obsessed with the role of grammar. It is something you are an expert on and, as a result, it can serve as a security blanket. It is something you are familiar with and find easy to teach. We need to remember in our teaching that language is not about knowing how to, but about being able to. Carlos Islam and Ivor Timmis exemplify this well in this example from an article on the BBC British Council Teaching English website:

Chris: Carlos tells me Naomi fancies him.

Ivor: It’s just a figment of his imagination.

Ivor has not constructed this response grammatically by thinking it + to be + article + noun + preposition + possessive pronoun + non-tangible abstract noun! He has simply recalled it in its entirety from his mental lexicon. Chunking language in this way, rather than separating it into little grammatical pieces, represents how we should be presenting language to our learners. Adopting a lexical approach does involve a slight change in mindset from teachers. Of course, we still need to be experts on grammar, but that is something that we can focus on at a much later stage of our learners’ careers. Grammar does play a role in our teaching and learning, but it is not central to it. Complete beginners do not need to master the verb to be in lesson one before moving on. In fact, they could come out of that lesson being able to say things like:

I am from Russia. I work in a hospital. I live in a big house. I am married. I like beer, but I don’t like vodka. Would you like …? Do you like …? Can I have …?


There are small changes that we can make to our teaching to incorporate a more lexical, and successful, approach to learning. Here are a few suggestions I have found useful and effective:
•Encourage learners to notice, record and learn multi-word items as a way of increasing their lexicon. Exercises in collocation will help with this. Linking new isolated items to lexis they already have in their mental lexicon will help learners to remember them and will encourage more accurate recall and usage.
•Use authentic texts and exploit them for any useful fixed expressions, semifixed expressions and collocations.
•Use matching exercises, even with simple collocations; these are useful at all levels: miss – the bus/my family; lose – my keys/my mind; make – a phone call/a promise; do – my homework/business.
•Rather than stumbling over explanations of the exact difference between house and home, injury and wound, simple and easy, understand and realise, list useful collocations and expressions with the words, as this is often where the difference actually lies. This will also encourage learners to store vocabulary in a way that ensures they will really experience the language, and again enables more accurate recall and easier memorisation.
•Rather than doing another lesson on the present perfect, introduce the lexical chucks Do you ever …? and Have you ever …? Get the learners to match them with other chunks of language such as swum with dolphins, go swimming, eaten snails, eat eggs for breakfast, drink beer for breakfast, drunk beer for breakfast. I have found that the underlying ‘grammar’ rules are self-explanatory and meaning becomes evident in this way.
•When correcting, pick up on errors of collocation and give more examples: S: I have to make an exam this summer. T: Are you sure you need to make an exam? The teacher usually does that job. S: Take? T: Yes, that’s right. (teacher writes take an exam on the board) What other verbs do we use with ‘exam’? S2: Pass. T: Good, and the opposite? S2: Fail. T: (adds these to board) What if I fail but get another chance? S2: Re-take. T: And what if the pass is 50% and I get 51%? S1/S2: ??? T: Scrape through!

Teaching grammar in the traditional sense can often be de-motivating and repetitive both for the teacher and the learner. Making small changes in our teaching can really help our learners make faster progress, as it helps them to view language in a more holistic and organic way. I also find that a lexical approach allows me to expose the learners to a larger amount of language, as a more traditional grammatical view is somewhat linear and demands that they must master the simpler structures before moving on to the next one. Helping our learners to increase their lexis in this way should be of central concern for all teachers on any language course.


Lewis, M The Lexical Approach LTP 1993Lewis, M Implementing the Lexical Approach LTP 1997

Lewis, M (Ed) Teaching Collocation LTP 2000

Islam, C and Timmis, I ‘What does the lexical approach look like?’ www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/methodology/lexical_approach.shtml, 2005


Richard Ostick hastaught in both the CzechRepublic and Spain.He is Director of Studiesat the Kingsway EnglishCentre in Worcester, UK,and is interested in allaspects of pronunciation,autonomous learningand teacherdevelopment.


This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional, Issue 55, 2008