A Lexical Approach

The Lexical Approach was first described by Michael Lewis in his 1993 book of the same name. Its central idea is that much of language is made up of prefabricated chunks of language and that teachers need to raise awareness of these chunks rather than by teaching vocabulary and grammar. The Lexical Approach suggests that vocabulary and grammar are interconnected.

Look at the passage below. What do the parts printed in square brackets have in common?

The principles of the Lexical Approach have [been around] since Michael Lewis published ‘The Lexical Approach’ [10 years ago]. [It seems, however, that] many teachers and researchers do not [have a clear idea of] what the Lexical Approach actually [looks like] [in practice].

All the parts in brackets are set phrases, sometimes called lexical chunks. Basically, lexical chunks consist of words commonly found together. Collocations are a type of lexical chunk.

Examples of Lexical Chunks

by the way
up to now
upside down
If I were you
a long way off
out of my mind
a figment of my imagination
totally convinced
strong accent
terrible accident
sense of humour
sounds exciting
brings good luck

It’s thought that native speakers store vast numbers of these lexical chunks in memory. Without these prefabricated chunks of language, sentence structures would have to be much more complicated and less fluent – exactly the problem faced by many English language learners. Fluency does not depend on a good grasp of grammar and lots of words – the slot and filler approach – but rapid access to lots of chunks of language. These chunks are stored in memory as individual wholes, not as separate words stuck together by grammar.

The Lexical Approach In Action

A student writes about “a large theme”. There is nothing grammatically wrong with this, but it sounds strange. The teacher might point out to words that do collocate with theme, such as main, major, central or important.

When reading, the teacher could point out lexical chunks in a text, and start a discussion as to other possible chunks.

It is impossible to ‘teach’ all of these chunks, or even a large number of them. It is, however, beneficial for learners to gain exposure to chunks and to be able to identify them in input such as reading. Encouraging learners to notice lexical chunks is therefore the role of the teacher.




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