Skip to content ↓

February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Michael Lewis Tribute

Leo Selivan, known on social media as Lexical Leo, started his career with the British Council as a teacher before moving into teacher training and materials development. He has written for Modern English Teacher, the Guardian Education and his own aptly named blog Leoxicon; he also guest-edited a special issue of Humanising Language Teaching dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the Lexical Approach (in 2013 ). His book Lexical Grammar (CUP) was published last year.

Ken Lackman began his teaching career at the Caledonian School in Prague in 1995, where he spent seven years as an EFL instructor and materials developer. After doing the DELTA course in Wroclaw, Poland, he returned to Toronto in 2002 to become the academic director at EF Toronto. In 2012, he started teaching at ILSC Toronto, where he also served as a CELTA trainer. He is currently working as an EAP instructor at Ryerson University and as a freelance writer. He has had several articles published in English Teaching Professional, and he is a frequent presenter at conferences in Canada as well as at the IATEFL conference in the UK. Email:



The original text was written for  IATEFL Voices which you can view at and is reprinted by permission.

K: I will never forget the day I met Michael Lewis. I had been teaching in Prague when I heard that he would be speaking at the IATEFL conference in Poland. I had no idea what IATEFL was but I knew what Poland was, and I had also recently become familiar with Lewis through his book called Implementing the Lexical Approach. It had had such an impact on me that I’d decided to attend the conference in Wroclaw to hear him speak and, hopefully, get a chance to talk to him.

I was in my second year of teaching at the time, and I had started to discover that the initial training I’d had in Canada was woefully inadequate. So, based on recommendations from other teachers at the Caledonian School, I started reading. I first read the Willis book on Task-based learning, but it was the lexical approach that really intrigued me.  For me, it seemed like a revolutionary idea that, rather than the teacher trying to fill the students’ brains with language, they would, instead, train students to acquire the language through exposure, through what Lewis called, simply, “noticing”. But it was what they were to notice that was equally fascinating. Lewis taught me about the structural nature of the language, and that it didn’t consist of just standard grammar structures, but also hundreds of thousands of what he called lexical chunks, such as collocations and semi-fixed expressions.

L: Surely you knew about grammar structures before you read Lewis.

K: Yes, but I thought there were a few handfuls of them, you know the ones that have names, and then there was all this other language just made up of words. Lewis gave me the insight to see that there was order in that chaos, and, after reading his book, I was determined to train myself to become the sort of teacher that he had written about.

L: I see now. I think like you - probably like many teachers for that matter - I also had this  ‘slot-and-filler’ view of language. If you compare it to a tree - which, in fact, could be Lewis’s own metaphor - traditional grammar structures are the branches and words are the leaves. Lewis turned it upside down by asserting primacy of lexis - note: lexis (i.e. collocations, chunks, patterns), not vocabulary (i.e. lists of words) - and relegating grammar to a secondary position. I remember him saying that grammar is a relative sophistication in the nature of language with grammar competence acquired invariably later, not being the basis of communication.But let’s get back to your story. So you first met at IATEFL Poland in the 1990s then?

K: Yes. It was in Wroclaw. When it was time for Michael Lewis to speak, I made sure that I’d got a seat near the front. I wanted it to be easy for me to get to him after his talk, so I could ask him more about the Lexical Approach. I was actually a bit nervous, as other teachers, knowing about my intentions, had warned me that he was not the world’s most humble person, and that he could be a bit brusque. And what he said to open his talk did nothing to suggest they were wrong. He began with the statement, “I’m pissed off”. And then he continued to complain about how he’d written The Lexical Approach five years earlier, and nothing had changed in the classroom. As shocked as I was that he would open with that statement and expect that he would single-handedly change the way the English language was taught, I had to admire his passion and his dedication to the approach, which I would soon inherit.

As soon as he had finished, I rushed up to the podium and told him how much I loved his talk and all his ideas, and I asked if I could ask him some questions. He told me that he had no time then, but that I could meet him at the LTP stand in the publishers’ area after the day’s last session. When I got there, he wasn’t there, but I ended up talking to someone named Hugh Dellar for quite a while. When Lewis finally showed up, he suggested that he and I sit in a quiet area and talk. I was impressed that he had committed that space and the time to talking to me.

Once we were seated, I told him that really didn’t know that much about teaching, and that, to learn more, I’d read the Willis book and Implementing the Lexical Approach, around the same time. I said that I saw a connection between the two approaches to language teaching and asked if one had influenced the other.

L: I doubt that he appreciated the comparison.

K: He seemed a bit offended by this suggestion and told me that there was a big difference between the two. When I asked him what it was, he told me that Task-based Learning was really based on production, and his approach was not. I explained that I understood the primacy of noticing, but that I felt that the students needed to practice the language that they had extracted. He disagreed. I asked him when students were supposed to get a chance to practice and he said, “There’s a sign that you see on some British pubs that says, ‘Free beer tomorrow.’” It took me a few seconds to get it and then I asked him, “Are you saying ‘never’?” He then listed off some high school subjects, like history and maths, and said that none of them required production, so why should it be different for language learning? I don’t know where I got the boldness to say what I said next. I can only assume it came from sheer ignorance. I said that none of those subjects were nearly as complicated or difficult as learning a language. I will never forget what happened next. He paused, looked at me and then said, “You’re right.” That was my first experience with him. What about you, Leo? How did you first come to know Michael Lewis and his work?

L: Well, in my case I don’t have a personal anecdote to tell, but Hugh Dellar is also featured in my story. My encounter with Lewis’s work started through Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley’s coursebook series Innovations. The Lexical Approach had been covered somewhat scantily on my CELTA course. It wasn’t until the teaching centre where I was working (British Council) stocked copies of Innovations Intermediate that I got to know it better. Full of juicy colloquialisms and idiomatic expressions, with a strong emphasis on lexis (not vocabulary!),the book stood out from the rest of the coursebooks of the time. But the main reason the other teachers were reluctant to use it was its unusual approach to grammar. It didn’t fit the traditional coursebook format with the Present Simple in Unit 1, Present Continuous in Unit 2 etc, i.e. careful sequencing of grammar points according to the order of their perceived difficulty. Instead, right away in Unit 1, students had to talk about something funny, frightening or embarrassing that had happened to them using the Past Simple and Past Continuous, then, in Unit 2, ask questions in the Present Perfect Continuous. You can imagine how confusing it was for teachers who were used to coursebooks based on a grammar syllabus.

K: That’s interesting. I had no idea that you’d discovered the Lexical Approach through Innovations. For me, it was the other way around. So what motivated you to investigate the approach further?

L: The way the coursebook was organised, the kind of language that was presented and practiced, the repeated focus on patterns that were not traditionally covered and, not least importantly, the very helpful notes in the teacher’s book. It all really opened my eyes to another way of teaching language. I was keen to find out more about the theory behind the approach taken in the series and started reading the Lexical Approach: the State of ELT and a Way Forward. This was in mid 2000s, more than 10 years after the book was published.

K: What did you think of the book? Did you also read Implementing the Lexical Approach (1997)?

L: The Lexical Approach was my bedtime reading for some time. I was reading and rereading it, underlining bits and decorating the pages with post-it notes. There were some bits I initially disagreed with, but overall the book was nothing short of an epiphany. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Everything I’ve been doing till now is wrong’. It is still my favourite of the Lexical Approach trilogy. Implementing the Lexical Approach is probably the least favourite of the three because there was not much new for me in it neither theoretically nor in terms of implementation – the key principles had been masterfully put to practice for me in Innovations, which I think is still the only true, unadulterated coursebook implementing the Lexical Approach in its pure form.What about his earlier book The English Verb? Do you know that it’s almost impossible to get a copy of it as it’s out of print?

K: Actually, it was on the reading list for my DELTA course but I confess that I only leafed through it. I managed to get hold of a copy about ten years ago and read it properly. It ended up completely changing the way I understood and taught the tense system. It really should be required reading for any English language teacher.

L: Yes, it is truly eye-opening and unconventional. I like how he tries to find one core, primary meaning for each grammatical structure. For example, the present simple refers to a single, undivided whole - a description which subsumes all 5-6 different functions of this tense that are normally found in pedagogic grammar books.

K: So, did you ever actually meet Michael Lewis?

L: Yes. In 2012, I hinted to Hugh Dellar, whom I had met a couple of years before that – the same time as you - I believe, at my first IATEFL in 2010, that the following year would be 20 years since the publication of the Lexical Approach. I thought that we should do something to mark the work of the man who has profoundly influenced and changed our teaching. In May 2013, the Lexical Approach conference was held at the University of Westminster. A couple of months before that I had written an article in the Guardian Education entitled Why has the Lexical Approach been so long in coming?, in which I had misquoted Lewis. Can you imagine that?

K: So we both upset Michael at some point in our careers.

L: Something like that. It was a typo, really. I simply reversed the words in his famous quote, the main dictum of the Lexical Approach: “Language consists of the grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalized grammar.” Michael emailed me pointing out the mistake. But I also know – from one of his close collaborators – that he was happy that his work was remembered and honoured. A month and a half later, we met at the ‘anniversary’ conference. We had a nice chat in the pub after the event. I didn’t find him brusque. Perhaps with age his brusqueness had subsided.

K: I think you may be right about that. I met him again a few years ago at an IATEFL conference, and he seemed very gracious. I told him how much his work had meant to me and how it had impacted virtually everything I had done in ELT. He seemed pleased to hear that. And then, I literally begged him to present again at IATEFL. He thanked me but said he had retired. His retirement, like his death, came much too early.

Tagged  Voices 
  • Michael Lewis Tribute
    Ken Lackman, UK;Leo Selivan, Israel