ERIC Identifier: ED455698 Publication Date: 2001-06-00
Author: Moudraia, Olga Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Lexical Approach to Second Language Teaching. ERIC Digest.
The lexical approach to second language teaching has received interest in
recent years as an alternative to grammar-based approaches. The lexical approach
concentrates on developing learners' proficiency with lexis, or words and word
combinations. It is based on the idea that an important part of language
acquisition is the ability to comprehend and produce lexical phrases as
unanalyzed wholes, or "chunks," and that these chunks become the raw data by
which learners perceive patterns of language traditionally thought of as grammar
(Lewis, 1993, p. 95). Instruction focuses on relatively fixed expressions that
occur frequently in spoken language, such as, "I'm sorry," "I didn't mean to
make you jump," or "That will never happen to me," rather than on originally
created sentences (Lewis, 1997a, p. 212). This digest provides an overview of
the methodological foundations underlying the lexical approach and the
pedagogical implications suggested by them.
A NEW ROLE FOR LEXIS
Michael Lewis (1993), who coined the
term lexical approach, suggests the following:
Lexis is the basis of language.
Lexis is misunderstood in language teaching because of the assumption that
grammar is the basis of language and that mastery of the grammatical system is a
prerequisite for effective communication.
The key principle of a lexical approach is that "language consists of
grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar."
One of the central organizing principles of any meaning-centered syllabus should
TYPES OF LEXICAL UNITS
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. Lexical approach 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.
The role of formulaic, many-word lexical units have been stressed in both
first and second language acquisition research. (See Richards & Rodgers,
2001, for further discussion.) They have been referred to by many different
labels, including "gambits" (Keller, 1979), "speech formulae" (Peters, 1983),
"lexicalized stems" (Pawley & Syder, 1983), and "lexical phrases" (Nattinger
& DeCarrico, 1992). The existence and importance of these lexical units has
been discussed by a number of linguists. For example, Cowie (1988) argues that
the existence of lexical units in a language such as English serves the needs of
both native English speakers and English language learners, who are as
predisposed to store and reuse them as they are to generate them from scratch.
The widespread "fusion of such expressions, which appear to satisfy the
individual's communicative needs at a given moment and are later reused, is one
means by which the public stock of formulae and composites is continuously
enriched" (p. 136).
Lewis (1997b) suggests the following taxonomy of lexical items:
words (e.g., book, pen)
polywords (e.g., by the way, upside down)
collocations, or word partnerships (e.g., community service, absolutely
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 ...) and even text frames (e.g., In this
paper we explore ...; Firstly ...; Secondly ...; Finally ...)
Within the lexical approach, special attention is directed to collocations
and expressions that include institutionalized utterances and sentence frames
and heads. As Lewis maintains, "instead of words, we consciously try to think of
collocations, and to present these in expressions. Rather than trying to break
things into ever smaller pieces, there is a conscious effort to see things in
larger, more holistic, ways" (1997a, p. 204).
Collocation is "the readily observable phenomenon whereby certain words
co-occur in natural text with greater than random frequency" (Lewis, 1997a, p.
8). Furthermore, collocation is not determined by logic or frequency, but is
arbitrary, decided only by linguistic convention. Some collocations are fully
fixed, such as "to catch a cold," "rancid butter," and "drug addict," while
others are more or less fixed and can be completed in a relatively small number
of ways, as in the following examples:
blood / close / distant / near(est) relative
learn by doing / by heart / by observation / by rote / from experience
In the lexical
approach, lexis in its various types is thought to play a central role in
language teaching and learning. Nattinger (1980, p. 341) suggests that teaching
should be based on the idea that language production is the piecing together of
ready-made units appropriate for a particular situation. Comprehension of such
units is dependent on knowing the patterns to predict in different situations.
Instruction, therefore, should center on these patterns and the ways they can be
pieced together, along with the ways they vary and the situations in which they
Activities used to develop learners' knowledge of lexical chains include the
Intensive and extensive listening and reading in the target language.
First and second language comparisons and translation--carried out
chunk-for-chunk, rather than word-for-word--aimed at raising language awareness.
Repetition and recycling of activities, such as summarizing a text orally one
day and again a few days later to keep words and expressions that have been
Guessing the meaning of vocabulary items from context.
Noticing and recording language patterns and collocations.
*Working with dictionaries and other reference tools.
Working with language corpuses created by the teacher for use in the classroom
or accessible on the Internet&mdashsuch as the British National Corpus
(http://thetis.bl.uk/BNCbib) or COBUILD Bank of English
(http://titania.cobuild.collins.co.uk)&mdashto research word partnerships,
preposition usage, style, and so on.
THE NEXT STEP: PUTTING THEORY INTO PRACTICE
computer-based studies of language, such as corpus linguistics, have provided
huge databases of language corpora, including the COBUILD Bank of English
Corpus, the Cambridge International Corpus, and the British National Corpus. In
particular, the COBUILD project at Birmingham University in England has examined
patterns of phrase and clause sequences as they appear in various texts as well
as in spoken language. It has aimed at producing an accurate description of the
English language in order to form the basis for design of a lexical syllabus
(Sinclair, 1987). Such a syllabus was perceived by COBUILD researchers as
independent and unrelated to any existing language teaching methodology
(Sinclair & Renouf, 1988). As a result, the Collins COBUILD English Course
(Willis & Willis, 1989) was the most ambitious attempt to develop a syllabus
based on lexical rather than grammatical principles.
Willis (1990) has attempted to provide a rationale and design for lexically
based language teaching and suggests that a lexical syllabus should be matched
with an instructional methodology that puts particular emphasis on language use.
Such a syllabus specifies words, their meanings, and the common phrases in which
they are used and identifies the most common words and patterns in their most
natural environments. Thus, the lexical syllabus not only subsumes a structural
syllabus, it also describes how the "structures" that make up the syllabus are
used in natural language.
Despite references to the natural environments in which words occur,
Sinclair's (1987) and Willis's (1990) lexical syllabi are word based. However,
Lewis's (1993) lexical syllabus is specifically not word based, because it
"explicitly recognizes word patterns for (relatively) de-lexical words,
collocation power for (relatively) semantically powerful words, and longer
multi-word items, particularly institutionalized sentences, as requiring
different, and parallel pedagogical treatment" (Lewis, 1993, p. 109). In his own
teaching design, Lewis proposes a model that comprises the steps,
Observe-Hypothesize-Experiment, as opposed to the traditional
Present-Practice-Produce paradigm. Unfortunately, Lewis does not lay out any
instructional sequences exemplifying how he thinks this procedure might operate
in actual language classrooms. For more on implementing the lexical approach,
see Richards & Rodgers (2001).
Zimmerman (1997, p. 17) suggests that the work
of Sinclair, Nattinger, DeCarrico, and Lewis represents a significant
theoretical and pedagogical shift from the past. First, their claims have
revived an interest in a central role for accurate language description. Second,
they challenge a traditional view of word boundaries, emphasizing the language
learner's need to perceive and use patterns of lexis and collocation. Most
significant is the underlying claim that language production is not a syntactic
rule-governed process but is instead the retrieval of larger phrasal units from
Nevertheless, implementing a lexical approach in the classroom does not lead
to radical methodological changes. Rather, it involves a change in the teacher's
mindset. Most important, the language activities consistent with a lexical
approach must be directed toward naturally occurring language and toward raising
learners' awareness of the lexical nature of language.
Cowie, A. P. (Eds.). (1988). Stable and creative
aspects of vocabulary use. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), "Vocabulary
and language teaching" (pp. 126-137). Harlow: Longman.
Keller, E. (1979). Gambits: Conversational strategy signals. "Journal of
Pragmatics, 3," 219-237.
Lewis, M. (1993). "The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way
forward." Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (1997a). "Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into
practice." Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (1997b). Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J.
Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), "Second language vocabulary acquisition: A
rationale for pedagogy" (pp. 255-270). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nattinger, J. (1980). A lexical phrase grammar for ESL."TESOL Quarterly, 14,"
Nattinger, J., & DeCarrico, J. (1992). "Lexical phrases and language
teaching." Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pawley, A., & Syder, F. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory:
Native-like selection and native-like fluency. In J. Richards & R. Schmidt
(Eds.), "Language and communication" (pp. 191-226). London: Longman.
Peters, A. (1983). "The units of language acquisition." Cambridge: Cambridge
Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). "Approaches and methods in
language teaching: A description and analysis" (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge
Sinclair, J. M. (Ed.). (1987). "Looking up: An account of the COBUILD project
in lexical computing." London: Collins COBUILD.
Sinclair, J. M., & Renouf, A. (Eds.). (1988). A lexical syllabus for
language learning. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), "Vocabulary and
language teaching" (pp. 140-158). Harlow: Longman.
Willis, D. (1990). "The lexical syllabus: A new approach to language
teaching." London: Collins COBUILD.
Willis, J., & Willis, D. (1989). "Collins COBUILD English course."
London: Collins COBUILD.
Zimmerman, C. B. (1997). Historical trends in second language vocabulary
instruction. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), "Second language vocabulary
acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy" (pp. 5-19). Cambridge: Cambridge
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