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A ‘Chunk’ of ELT: the Lexical Approach

Sinan Mısırlı, Turkey

Sinan Mısırlı is a senior teacher trainee at Gazi University, English Language Teaching Department and going to become an English Teacher in a few months with a BA degree. He has been involved freelance teaching experiences. His main areas of inquiry are teaching culture and literature, culture in ELT and lexicology. He has also published an article on games in ELT. E-mail:


The Lexical Approach a descriptive study
Introduction : developments in linguistics
Corpus linguistics and basic descriptions
Corpus linguistics and language teaching
Lexis and lexical phrases
The Lexical Approach
Key principles and implications
Lexis in the syllabus
Lexis in language teaching and learning
Lexical exercises and basic exercise types
Dealing with…
Dictionaries, grammar books, course books
Evaluation of the Lexical Approach
Using the Lexical Approach: Why and How?

The Lexical Approach a descriptive study

Introduction : developments in linguistics

The Lexical Approach was put forward by Michael Lewis in 1993 when the first book named “The Lexical Approach: the state of ELT and a new way forward”. However, the background should be taken into consideration first because there has been developments in the area of linguistics lately. Here, two developments will be introduced, one of which is corpus linguistics and the other is lexis. The basic descriptions in corpus linguistics and its relation with language teaching will be cleared as well as the description of lexis and its relation with English Language teaching.

Corpus linguistics and basic descriptions

In recent years of the history of EFL, scholars have devoted much time on computer and language studies and dealt with to what extent computers can make it easier language learning or whether they can do it at all. ‘’One specific area on the computer frontier which still remains quite open to exploration is Corpus Linguistics’’ (Krieger, 2003:1).

Corpus, concordancing or concordancers are the most frequently mentioned terms in Corpus Linguistics. ‘’Corpus is a collection of all the writing of a particular kind or by a particular person’’ (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 1995:308) and a concordancer is a software program, which analyses corpora and lists the results.

Corpus Linguistics arrived to the field in the last decade and affected the notions of scholars on what is known and unknown about the native-speaker selection of a language. Fundamentally, this field collects the data of a particular language to see what parts of language are most used by the native-speakers of that language. In it, the aim is to collect data of all the information related to the vocabulary of a written work or of a society to see what is common and what is not. ‘’The main focus of Corpus Linguistics is to discover patterns of authentic language use through analysis actual usage’’ (Krieger, 2003:1). This leads many modern languages to have corpora, which shows it is highly regarded as a novel idea among language scholars. However, Corpus Linguistics is heterogeneous (Kaszubski, 2003: 416) for many people have many different ideas on it even if they all apply it.

Corpus Linguistics’ dramatic effect is on the dictionaries. The Collins COBUILD English Dictionary is one of the dictionaries prepared according to the corpora of English, showing the level of registers and using frequencies of lexis of the authentic English and ‘’corpus also continues to bring a wealth of new and unexpected insights into the organization of the English language (cited in Beaugrande in 1999 from Sinclair)‘’.

Today, many popular corpora projects are available at the English Departments of Universities and one of the most powerful of them is the COBUILD Project at University of Birmingham, UK. In addition to this, corpora of English and other languages are available in the Internet.

Corpus linguistics and language teaching

Corpus Linguistics put forward some implications for ELT scholars and EFL learners such as native-like selection or fluency. According to Barlow (cited in Krieger 2003 from Barlow) three realms in which Corpus Linguistics can be applied to teaching are syllabus design, materials development and classroom activities.

In syllabus, by analysis the corpus of the work that will be used in the lesson, it is possible to decide on the needs of the students such as vocabulary items. Materials can be developed in the light of a corpus published beforehand so that the students can use language in a way closer to the actual usage. ‘’Classroom activities can consist hands on student-conducted language analysis… this exemplifies data driven learning, which encourages learner autonomy by training students to draw their own conclusions about the language (Krieger, 2002:2) ‘’

An important dimension of Corpus Linguistics is its possible effect in empowering grammar teaching. ‘’Although only one aspect of Corpus Linguistics - concordancing - tended to be emphasized for classrooms, most ESL grammarians would agree that, by the end of the 20th century, Corpus Linguistics was also radically changing grammar research’’ (Conrad, 2000: 548) What is more, Corpus Linguistics activated the notions about the lexis and lexicography in language teaching, which caused dramatic results such as Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach.

Lexis and lexical phrases

After Corpus Linguistics started to collect data on the actual usage of the language, what is met is the lexis as the basis of the actual language usage. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995), lexis is all the words in a language. Lexis as a base for language teaching appeared in the Lexical Items and Language Teaching of Nattinger and Decarrio in 1990. According to Nattinger and DeCarrio (1990:1), Lexical phrases are the chunks of language varying length, phrases like as it were, on the other hand, as X would have us believe and so on.

The lexis and the Lexical items affected the notions on vocabulary teaching and Lewis (1993) defined a new role for the lexis:

  • Lexis is the basis of the language
  • Lexis is misunderstood in language teaching because of the assumptions that grammar is the basis of the language.
  • Language consists of grammaticalized lexis nor lexicalized grammar(Lewis, 1993)

And he keeps defining the role by identifying four different categories in lexis:

  • Words: old-fashioned vocabulary.
  • Polywords: e.g. the way, upside down.
  • Collocations: the readily observable phenomenon whereby certain words co-occur in natural text with greater than random frequency.
  • Fixed Expressions: e.g. social greetings such as good morning.
  • Semi-fixed expressions: comparatively rare, many are short, often verbless. E.g. not too bad, thanks. ( Lewis, 1993)

The Lexical Approach

The Lexical Approach focuses on the learning and teaching of vocabulary items, which are described as word chunks or word combinations. Below; key principles of it, lexis in the syllabus and teaching and also basic lexical exercise types and examples are clarified. Feedback and materials in the Lexical Approach are included as well.

Key principles and implications

The Lexical Approach, which was reacted debatably in the following years of its arrival to the field, has its own principles that are in the center of the viewpoint and that are kept in mind in the whole stages of its theory and application. These principles center on that ‘’it (Lewis, 1997:15) places the communication of meaning at the heart of language and language learning’’. They are developed relying on the approaches in which the main aim is communication in a foreign language. When the CA is considered, the most cutting difference is that lexis appears in the language without any interference.

According to Lewis (1993: vii) these principles are:

  • ‘’Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, now lexicalized grammar.
  • The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy is invalid; much language consists of multi-word chunks.
  • Collocation is integrated as an organising principle within syllabuses.
  • Evidence from computational linguistics and discourse analysis influence syllabus content and sequence.
  • The primacy of speech ever writing is recognized.
  • Grammar as structure is subordinate to lexis.
  • Task and process … are emphasized.
  • The Present-Practice-Produce paradigm is rejected in favor of a paradigm on the Observe - Hyphothesise - Experiment cycle’’.

Lexis in the syllabus

Historically, the syllabuses were not Lexical but structural or even syntactic. The CA introduces new perceptions in the syllabus design with functions. In the following years, when Dave Willis published his The Lexical Syllabus in 1990, an interest on the Lexical items in the syllabus was appeared. In fact, Willis (1990: vi) defined three major points for lexis in the syllabus:

‘’What should be aimed at is to exposure that is organized in three ways. First, the language that is learners are expected to learn should be graded in some way so that learners do not face such difficulties…. Secondly, the language…should be carefully selected so that they are not given random exposure… Thirdly there should be some way of itemizing the language syllabus…’’

Nevertheless, according to Lewis (1993:109) the structural syllabuses restricted vocabulary to the level of necessary to exemplify structural patterns and ironically Willis explicitly espouses the same principle in his word-based approach. Lewis seems to be against a word-based approach and limiting the vocabulary as a tool of examples in the syllabuses and puts forward his own viewpoint. In the Lexical Approach, the syllabus is not a specific and strict Lexical and it uses the collocations, semantically powerful words and multi-word items in it.

To Lewis (1993:110), lexis contributes as a syllabus component in the following ways:

  • ‘’Certain words deserve Lexical rather than grammatical treatment
  • Increased attention to the base form of Lexical verbs
  • De-contextualised teaching of semantically dense items
  • Collocations
  • Institutionalized utterances
  • Sentence heads
  • Supra-sentential linking
  • Synonyms within the existential paradigm
  • Synopsising words-summarizing words
  • Metaphorical patterning’’

Lexis in language teaching and learning

The theoretical literature claims there should be more emphasis on lexis than it is on the structures. In the Lexical Approach lexis is thought to perform important roles with its different forms in both language teaching and language learning. As the most efficient learning is the one relying on the real atmosphere of language learning, the lexis as a natural follower in the language production becomes an indispensable part of the language classroom. The teaching process with lexis in the Lexical Approach brings some advantages with teaching purposes:

  • Lexical phrases brings fluency in the second language acquisition
  • Because they are context-bound, they can easily be acquired as chunks
  • ‘’It is evident that Lexical phrases enjoy different degrees of variability and flexibility’’ (Porto: 1998)
  • While teaching, activities used to develop learner’s knowledge of the Lexical chunks include the followings (Moudraia, 2001:1)
  • ‘’Intensive and extensive reading in the target language.
  • First and second language comparisons and translation.
  • Repetition and recycling of the activities.
  • Guessing the meaning of the vocabulary items.
  • Noticing and recording language patterns and collocations.
  • Working with dictionaries.
  • Working with language corpuses created by the teacher or accessible on the Internet’’.

Lexical exercises and basic exercise types

In the traditional perspective, the input and practice centers on the grammatical structures; on the contrary, the Lexical exercises mainly concentrate on the authentic usage of the target language. ‘’Within a Lexical Approach greater emphasis is placed on introducing and practicing lexis’’ (Lewis, 1993:128). At this point, practice is to show the way to the students towards chunking words in a natural way.

All through the Lexical exercises the emphasis goes to the input that the learners are given. The natural acquiring process of the acquisitions of the Lexical chunks is simple: the individual socks the knowledge without analyzing in into its subparts and the Lexical chunks are curved in the brain without much attention. What is concentrated on, in the Lexical exercises are to supply the same environment to the individual in the second language acquisition process.

Lewis (1993:89) orders the basic Lexical exercise types as:

  • ‘’Identifying
  • Matching
  • Completing
  • Categorizing
  • Sequencing
  • Deleting’’

The exercises can be exemplified as:

‘’Exercise 1: Look at the headlines. What do you think the stories about?


Exercise 2: How many expressions can you make which use:

  1. Part of the verb have with:
  2. Part of the verb give with:

  1. A party
  2. Lunch
  3. A pound
  4. A present for…
  5. A present to…
  6. A cup of tea
  7. Time to…
  8. A hand
  9. A cold
  10. The opportunity to…’’

(Lewis, 1993: 129-131)

In the Lexical Approach, it is always kept in mind that words can carry more meaning than grammar so the exercises always represents this notion and the emphasis is more on the activities and tasks than it is on the exercises.

Dealing with errors and reformulation, feedback, marking written work in the Lexical Approach

When it comes to the responding to the errors, the radical shift in the field in the last thirty years caused the understanding of correcting each and every error to leave its place for using errors as a tool for improvement of the learners. However, ‘’ignoring mistakes, even it were theoretically desirable, would not be acceptable. What is needed is a way of responding without correcting in narrow sense… ‘’ (Lewis, 1993: 174)

In reformulation, (Lewis, 1993) students gather ideas to a draft, submit the draft and reformulate it into a new one. The process is not ignoring the mistake or not correcting it in a hard-way but only to supply necessary input to the learner. In feedback, the key formula is to bear in mind that many grammatical mistakes result from Lexical deficiency. In marking written work, as writing is self-based process and much more reflective, in responding to the written errors ‘’ the tendency must be to correct comparatively trivial surface errors, and ignore considerably more complex questions of how the information content is organized’’ (Lewis, 1993:176).

Dictionaries, grammar books, course books

An English-to-English dictionary is probably the most used resource in the Lexical Approach. When the Corpus Linguistics appeared, it dramatically affected all the psychology of the dictionaries and corpora-based dictionaries come into the language teaching stage. This situation brings many advantages to Lexical language teaching: firstly, the general usage of dictionaries for only the meanings unknown words shifted to a more practical way of use with stress, collocational range and characteristic examples to make the learners to take the lexis more seriously.

Grammar books are mostly used support in language teaching; however, ‘’the principal problem of grammar reference books is the nature of their organization (Lewis, 1993:181) ‘’. In the Lexical Approach, grammar books should be trustable means of examples. All course books (Lewis, 1993) are obsolesced for their program, sequence, balance and authority. The course books were the body to EFL with the authority they had; however, modern course books are to encourage learners and supply them enough bona fide examples from the target language. The texts, examples and explanations are involved in them and activities together with tasks are of great importance keeping the emphasis on the tasks and activities rather than exercises. ‘’The course books were to be a part of the COBUILD research project in Lexical development. (Willis, 1990: v) ’’.

Evaluation of the Lexical Approach

Lewis, more or less, became effective on people’s impressions about lexis, natural vocabulary acquisition, Corpus Linguistics, syllabuses and collocations. Zimmerman (cited in Moudraia 2001 from Zimmerman 1997) states that the work of Lewis represents a significant theoretical and pedagogical shift from the past. It is also found as invaluable in for developing learners’ accuracy and fluency in second language acquisition process.

The first book -the Lexical Approach, the State of ELT and a new way forward, 1993- was found indefinite because it was theoretical; however, when the second book -Implementing the Lexical Approach, Putting Theory into Practice, 1997- such a criticism stopped standing.

The Lexical Approach stands for its novel notions about vocabulary acquisition, specifically in L1 and for the ideas that based on the appearance of Corpus Linguistics. The language awareness and Lexical syllabuses with points on exercises, tasks and even materials are also to a newly found way.

It is not such a ‘strange’ approach to apply in EFL classes for it does not need and fundamental change in the style or manner of the procedure of the application of an EFL class, ‘’rather it involves a change in the teacher’s mindset (Moldavia, 2001: 2)‘’.All in all, the Lexical Approach stands in the EFL field. It is in the teacher’s hand to reach the desired aims by applying it or just to ignore it.

Using the Lexical Approach: Why and How?

After all the theoretical information, it would be practical to provide a guide for how to use the Lexical Approach in the syllabus and in the course after defining some reasons for using it. Teachers can get the advantage of it in syllabuses and in lessons.

Why use it?

  • It cares about the communication
  • It teaches the language patterns as they are used by the native-speakers
  • It teaches fixed or set phrases
  • It takes it into consideration that language is not learnt but separating sounds but combining sounds and structures.
  • In it, learners are encouraged to engage with texts and make discoveries of lexical items in it.
  • It doesn't need a fundamental change in the syllabus, but a change in teacher's mindset ( Moldovia, 2001: 2)
  • It awakens the language awareness
  • It increases the students' store of lexical chunks
  • Native-like fluency and accuracy is cared

How to use it?

  • by organizing a lexical syllabus
  • by not applying a random exposure of the lexical items in the classroom
  • with activities below:
    • intensive and extensive reading
    • letting learners notice the lexical chunks while reading texts
    • letting learners record language patterns by providing them the opportunity to discover chunks on their own.
    • directing students' attention to the specific chunks in the text
    • guessing meaning from context
    • studying with dictionaries
    • categorizing word chunks
    • completing the missed parts
    • making expressions with have/make/get etc.
    • using sentence heads
    • making stories from the headlines
    • juxtaposing native language and English and comparing them
    • using summarizing words
    • reformulating student's works


Beaugrande R. (1999). Linguistics, sociolinguistics, and corpus linguistics: Ideal language versus real language. Dialogue, 134.

Conrad, S. (2000). Will Corpus Linguistics Revolutionize Grammar Teaching in the 21st century? TESOL Quarterly, 35, 548–560

Kaszubski, P. (2003). Corpora in Applied Linguistics. ELT Journal, 57,416–420.

Krieger, D. (2003). Corpus Linguistics: What it is and how it can be applied to teaching. The Internet TESL Journal, 9(3). Retrieved from at April 3rd in 2007.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach, putting theory into practice. Boston: Thomson Publishing.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach, the state of ELT a new way forward. Boston: Thomson Publishing.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, (3rd Ed.). (1995). UK: Longman Publishing.

Moudraia, O. (2001). Lexical Approach to Second Language Teaching. Retrieved from at 15th of April in 2007.

Nattinger J.R. DeCarrio J. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willis D. (1990). The Lexical Syllabus, a new approach to language teaching. London: Collins ELT.


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