Monday, June 3, 2013



Lexical approach’ is a term bandied about by many, but, I suspect, understood by few. What does taking a lexical approach to language teaching mean? What are the principles and tenets behind a lexical approach? What problems will teachers have to face if they wish to adopt a lexical approach?
For the present purposes, I will be using the term lexical approach to mean that lexis plays the dominant role in the ELT classroom, or at least a more dominant role than it has traditionally, which has largely been one of subservience to ‘grammar’ (Sinclair & Renouf 1988). The approach stresses the necessity of using corpora to inform pedagogical materials and the importance of regularly recycling and reviewing the language taught. I should make clear from the start that my understanding of the term lexical approach is not necessarily the same as Michael Lewis’ (e.g. 1996, 1997, 2000), although I imagine that my take on the principles and problems inherent in implementing a lexical approach probably have a considerable amount in common with Lewis’ own views.
The article begins with a brief outline of what I mean by the term lexis, before briefly outlining two of the tenets which in my view constitute a lexical approach. The same tenets are then problematic at greater length. Finally, while it is argued that there is still much to be done before a lexical approach is accepted by a majority of practitioners and researchers and integrated into mainstream ELT, I close by claiming that the approach can be seen as having many of the same concerns as state-of-the-art applied linguistics.

The concept of lexis

Language teaching has traditionally viewed grammar and vocabulary as a divide, with the former category consisting of structures (the present perfect, reported speech) and the latter usually consisting of single words. The structures were accorded priority, vocabulary being seen as secondary in importance, merely serving to illustrate the meaning and scope of the grammar (Sinclair & Renouf 1988).

However, a number of studies (e.g. Altenberg 1990; Erman & Warren 2000; Kjellmer 1987; Pawley & Syder 1983) have shown that the Chomskyan notion of a native speaker’s output consisting of an infinite number of “creative” utterances is at best a half-truth: in fact prefabricated items form a significant part of a native speaker’s spoken and written output. Only this can account for what Pawley & Syder (1983: 193) call the puzzle of nativelike selection: a native speaker’s utterances are both “grammatical” and “nativelike”, and while only a “small proportion” of grammatically well-formed sentences are nativelike, that is, “readily acceptable to native informants as ordinary, natural forms of expression”, these are the sentences which native speakers produce. It would seem, then, that speakers need both a prefabricated, automatized element to draw on as well as a creative, generative one—both “idiom” and “open choice” components (Sinclair 1991).

Once the importance of prefabricated language is acknowledged, the traditional grammar/vocabulary distinction becomes problematic: as the above studies show, native speakers are prone to using much of the same language over and over again rather than starting from scratch each time they speak/write. For the purposes of this article, therefore, when I use the term lexis I have in mind strings of words which go together (i.e. prefabs and collocations) as opposed to the single words language teaching traditionally called ‘vocabulary’: rather than consisting of a repository of content words, lexis is not easily distinguishable from the concept traditionally labelled as ‘grammar’ (e.g. Singleton 1997). This fuzziness suggests that lexis is more powerful than was once thought, and hence deserves a higher priority in syllabuses.

Principles of taking a lexical approach


At the centre of a lexical approach is the insistence on teaching ‘real’ English and a rejection of the ersatz language found in the average ELT coursebook; and indeed a number of corpus-based studies (e.g. Holmes 1988; Hyland 1994; Mindt 1996; Williams 1988) confirm that the language coursebooks teach is “not what people really say” (Lewis 1997: 10), it is “TEFLese” (Willis 1990: vii). Hence it can be argued that the only way to avoid distorting the language with this TEFLese English is for the coursebook writer to access the authentic language via corpora, as opposed to relying on their intuition. It is well documented that intuition (even native-speaker intuition) often fails to accurately reflect actual language in use (e.g. Biber, Conrad & Reppen 1994); in contrast, corpora can instantly provide us with the relative frequencies, collocations, and prevalent grammatical patterns of the lexis in question across a range of genres. In addition, light is shed on lexical variation (cf. Fernando 1996; Moon 1998). To illustrate the point, I draw on data from an earlier study (Harwood 2000) comparing the language found in a native-speaker corpus (the British National Corpus) with the language in a selection of coursebooks. In Bell & Gower’s coursebook (1992: 150), for instance, no variation of the phrase You must be joking is included, giving the learner the impression the form is frozen. However, the BNC includes the following variations:

I says [sic] you’re joking                               You’re flipping joking!
You are joking me?                                      You’re joking
You are joking, aren’t you?                          You’re joking, aren’t you?
You gotta be joking!                                      You’re joking, of course
You have got to be joking                            You’re not joking?
You have got to be joking me                     You’ve got to be fucking joking
You have to be joking                                 You’ve got to be joking!
You must be bloody joking!                        You’ve gotta be joking mate
You must be fucking joking!                        You’ve gotta be joking!
You must be joking                                      You’ve just got to be joking

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