The Lexical Approach

The lexical approach is a method of teaching foreign languages described by Michael Lewis in the early 1990s. The basic concept on which this approach rests is the idea that an important part of learning a language consists of being able to understand and produce lexical phrases as chunks.

A lexical approach to language teaching refers to one derived from the belief that the building blocks of language learning and communication are not grammar, functions, notions, or another unit of planning and teaching but lexis, that is words and a combination of words (Richards and Rodgers, 2001).

In the lexical approach, instruction focuses on fixed expressions that occur frequently in dialogues, which Lewis claims make up a larger part of discourse than unique phrases and sentences.

Vocabulary is prized over grammar in this approach. Students are thought to be able to perceive patterns of language (grammar) as well as have meaningful set uses of words at their disposal when they are taught in this way.

The basic principle of the lexical approach is: “Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar” (Lewis 1993). In other words, lexis is central in creating meaning; grammar plays a subservient managerial role.

If you accept this principle then the logical implication is that we should spend more time helping learners develop their stock of phrases and less time on grammatical structures.

Features of Lexical Approach

  • The role of the teacher is creating an environment in which learners can operate effectively and then helping learners manage their own learning.
  • Emphasis is on successful communication, not grammatical mastery.
  • The syllabus and materials are designed based on lexical principles rather than on grammatical principles.
  • This approach takes lexis as a starting point with its prime focus on comprehensible and generalizable materials.
  • Grammar is acquired by a process of observation, hypothesis, and experiment.

Classroom Procedure

Classroom procedures typically involve the use of activities that draw students’ attention to lexical collocations and seek to enhance their retention and use of collocations.

Woolard (2000 as cited in Richards and Rodgers, 2001) suggests that teachers should reexamine their course books for collocations, adding exercises that focus explicitly on lexical phrases.

They should also develop activities that enable learners to discover collocations themselves, both in the classroom and in the language they encounter outside the classroom.

Hill (2002 as cited in Richards and Rodgers, 2002, p.138) suggests the following classroom procedures.

  1. Teaching Individual collocations
  2. Making students aware of collocation
  3. Extending what students already know by adding knowledge of collocation restrictions to known vocabulary
  4. Storing collocations through encouraging students to keep a lexical notebook.

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