What is the Lexical Approach?

How To Teach English


How much language do you need to get a coffee?

Will the right grammar or a few choice phrases get you served in a French cafe?

Think about when you have just arrived in a foreign country, perhaps on holiday or maybe to teach English there.

You don’t speak the local language but you need to communicate.

So you learn a few phrases and head out:

Good morning!
A coffee, please.
A croissant, please.
How much is it?

And so on. Rather than sit down and learn grammar, you learn useful phrases which means that almost immediately you can talk to local people – albeit in a very limited way!

This, in essence, is the basis of the Lexical Approach to language teaching.

Some Lexical Chunks

Although people have been teaching and learning this way for a long time, it was first formalized and put down by Michael Lewis in 1993.

Till then many teaching methods were all about grammar but Lewis put words/phrases at the center of language teaching. He recognized that communication was the main goal of language so while we can get away with bad grammar, if we don’t have the words to communicate then it simply won’t happen.

The Lexical Approach is all about recognizing and producing lexical phrases as chunks and using them effectively to aid communication. If students, according to Lewis, got enough exposure to these chunks they’d soon pick up the grammar around them. Thus in teaching it’s all about bringing into the classroom a set of fairly standard expressions which occur frequently in spoken language such as:

I’m sorry
I couldn’t tell
How much it is?

And so on. Rather than getting the class to create original sentence, they learn and practice these set phrases.

With the Lexical Approach receptive skills, such as listening, are given priority.

Vocabulary and Lexis

The lexical approach makes a distinction between vocabulary – traditionally understood as a stock of individual words with fixed meanings, and lexis, which includes not only the single words but also the word combinations that we store in our mental lexicons.

So, for example, we have Lewis’ classifications of lexical items:

  • words (e.g., book, pen)
  • polywords (e.g., by the way, upside down)
  • collocations (e.g., community service, absolutely convinced)
  • institutionalized utterances (e.g., I’ll get it; We’ll see; That’ll do; If I were you . . .; Would you like a cup of coffee?)
  • sentence frames and heads (e.g., That is not as . . . as you think; The fact/suggestion/problem/danger was . . .)
  • text frames (e.g., In this paper we explore . . .; Firstly . . .; Secondly . . .; Finally . . .)

What we’re talking about here, in essence, are standard phrases. Rather than break language down into individual words (or even smaller), the Lexical Approach tries to keep things as big as possible.

In Lewis’ words, “Instead of words, we consciously try to think of collocations, and to present these in expressions.”

Useful Links

TEFL Course – learn the various TEFL methodologies

TEFL Methodologies – an overview of different teaching methods

Lexical Chunks – groups of words taught in the Lexical Approach

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