Lexical Approach 1 - What does the lexical approach look like?

This is the first part of an article looking at the theories of language which form the foundations of the lexical approach to teaching English.

Lexical Approach 1 - What does the lexical approach look like? - methodology article


  • Introduction
  • The theory of language
  • Principle 1 - Grammaticalised Lexis
  • Principle 2 - Collocation in action
  • About the authors
  • Further Reading

The principles of the Lexical Approach have been around since Michael Lewis published 'The Lexical Approach' 10 years ago. It seems, however, that many teachers and researchers do not have a clear idea of what the Lexical Approach actually looks like in practice.

In this first of two articles we look at how advocates of the Lexical Approach view language. In our second article we apply theories of language learning to a Lexical Approach and describe what lexical lessons could look like.

We have also produced teaching materials for you to try out in your own classrooms. Your feedback, opinions, comments and suggestions would be more than welcome and used to form the basis of a future article.

The theory of language
Task 1
Look at this version of the introduction. What do the parts printed in bold in square brackets have in common?

The principles of the Lexical Approach have [been around] since Michael Lewis published 'The Lexical Approach' [10 years ago]. [It seems, however, that] many teachers and researchers do not [have a clear idea of] what the Lexical Approach actually [looks like] [in practice].

All the parts in brackets are fixed or set phrases. Different commentators use different and overlapping terms - 'prefabricated phrases', 'lexical phrases', 'formulaic language', 'frozen and semi-frozen phrases', are just some of these terms. We use just two: 'lexical chunks' and 'collocations'.

'Lexical chunk' is an umbrella term which includes all the other terms. We define a lexical chunk as any pair or group of words which are commonly found together, or in close proximity.

'Collocation' is also included in the term 'lexical chunk', but we refer to it separately from time to time, so we define it as a pair of lexical content words commonly found together. Following this definition, 'basic' + 'principles' is a collocation, but 'look' + 'at' is not because it combines a lexical content word and a grammar function word. Identifying chunks and collocations is often a question of intuition, unless you have access to a corpus.

Here are some examples.

Lexical Chunks (that are not collocations)

by the way
up to now
upside down
If I were you
a long way off
out of my mind

Lexical Chunks (that are collocations)

totally convinced
strong accent
terrible accident
sense of humour
sounds exciting
brings good luck

Principle 1- Grammaticalised lexis
In recent years it has been recognised both that native speakers have a vast stock of these lexical chunks and that these lexical chunks are vital for fluent production. Fluency does not depend so much on having a set of generative grammar rules and a separate stock of words - the 'slot and filler' or open choice principle - as on having rapid access to a stock of chunks:

"It is our ability to use lexical phrases that helps us to speak with fluency. This prefabricated speech has both the advantages of more efficient retrieval and of permitting speakers (and learners) to direct their attention to the larger structure of the discourse, rather than keeping it narrowly focused on individual words as they are produced" (Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992).

The basic principle of the lexical approach, then, 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.

Let's look at an example of lexical chunks or prefabricated speech in action:

Chris: Carlos tells me Naomi fancies him.
Ivor: It's just a figment of his imagination.

According to the theory we have just outlined, it is not the case that Ivor has accessed 'figment' and 'imagination' from his vocabulary store and then accessed the structure: it + to be + adverb + article + noun + of + possessive adjective + noun from the grammar store. It is more likely that Ivor has accessed the whole chunk in one go. We have, in Peters' words, in addition to vocabulary and grammar stores, a 'phrasebook with grammatical notes'. Probably, the chunk is stored something like this:

It is/was + (just/only) + a figment of + possessive + imagination

Accessing, in effect, 8 words in one go allows me to speak fluently and to focus on other aspects of the discourse - more comments about Carlos, for example. We can make 2 more points about this example:

  • A number of friends and colleagues were asked to give an example of the word 'figment'. They all gave an example which corresponds to our chunk above. When asked to define the word 'figment', hardly anyone could do this accurately. This is an example of how native speakers routinely use chunks without analysing the constituent parts.
  • There is nothing intrinsically negative in the dictionary definition of the word 'figment', yet it is always, in my experience, used dismissively or derisively. This is an example of how we store information about a word which goes beyond its simple meaning.

Principle 2 - Collocation in action
In an application form a candidate referred to a 'large theme' in his thesis. This sounded ugly, but there is nothing intrinsically ugly about either word, it's just a strange combination to a native-speaker ear. In the Lexical Approach, sensitising students to acceptable collocations is very important, so you might find this kind of task:

Underline the word which does not collocate with 'theme':

main theme / large theme / important theme / central theme / major theme

Task 2
Complete the following sentences with as many different words as you can.

(a) The Lexical Approach has had a strong…………….on me.

(b) Carlos and Ivor ……………..me to try out the Lexical Approach.

A second important aspect of the Lexical Approach is that lexis and grammar are closely related. If you look at the examples above, you will see in (a) that 3 semantically related words - impact, influence, effect - behave the same way grammatically: have a/an impact/influence/effect on something. In (b) verbs connected with initiating action - encourage, persuade, urge, advise etc all follow the pattern verb + object + infinitive. This kind of 'pattern grammar' is considered to be important in the Lexical Approach.

About the authors
Carlos Islam teaches ESL and Applied Linguistics at the University of Maine. He is also involved in materials writing projects, editing Folio (the journal of the Materials Development Association www.matsda.org.uk ) and language acquisition research.

Ivor Timmis is Lecturer in Language Teaching and Learning at Leeds Beckett University. He teaches on the MA in Materials Development for Language Teachers, works on materials development consultancies and is also involved in corpus linguistic research.

Further reading
Baigent, Maggie (1999). Teaching in chunks: integrating a lexical approach. Modern English Teacher 8(2):51-54.
Lewis, Michael (1993), The Lexical Approach, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, Michael (1996). Implications of a lexical view of language. In Challenge And Change In Language Teaching, Jane Willis and Dave Willis (eds.). Oxford: Heinemann.
Lewis, Michael (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory Into Practice. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, Michael (2000). Language in the lexical approach. In Teaching Collocation: Further Developments In The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis (ed.), 126-154. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Nattinger, James R. and DeCarrico Jeanette S. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pawley, Andrew and Syder, Frances Hodgetts. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: native like selection and native like fluency. In Language And Communication, Jack C. Richards and Richard W. Schmidt (eds.), 191-225. London: Longman.
Thornbury, Scott (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote 'noticing'. ELT Journal 51(4): 326-334.
Thornbury, Scott (1998). The Lexical Approach: a journey without maps? Modern English Teacher 7(4): 7-13.
Willis, Dave (1990). The Lexical Syllabus: A New Approach To Language Learning. London: Collins ELT.
Woolard, George (2000). Collocation- encouraging learner independence. In Teaching Collocation: Further Developments In The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis (ed.), 28-46. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Carlos Islam, The University of Maine Ivor Timmis, Leeds Beckett University


Submitted by bogusia2011 on Tue, 04/27/2021 - 07:28



could you be so kind and provide the date of publication od this article as I am using it in my thesis and I need to provide full information of my source?

I'd be really grateful.


Best Regards




This article was first published on the site in July 2003.


TE Team

Submitted by PhoebeYeok on Tue, 05/27/2014 - 02:15

Can you give me more examples on lexical approach which can be used in the classroom? Thanks. And in simple words, how do we help students to learn lexical chunks as a whole rather than focusing on the grammar part?

Submitted by Dianita Acosta on Tue, 04/12/2011 - 21:05

I think this is a traditional approach, for that reason i disagree to use it totally in a classroom in order to teach a second language. A teacher can use some of its principles. For example as the article said is that a teacher should spend time helping ss develop their stock of phrases, and less time on grammatical structures. Taking into account the above statement, it is useful to guide the ss or help them in order to use their own vocabulary.

The second article "lexical approach 2" has an important argument: learners have to draw upon their hundreds of thousands of lexical chunks in order to produce fluent, accurate and meaningful language. We as teacher can help the ss to carry out this approach, with simple exercises conversation or role plays.

This shouldn't be accepted without looking around a little bit more, but from what I know, the lexical approach is typically applied in psychology as a way of studying the way humans format language and communicate. The basic idea is that humans store language information in clusters called "lexical chunks." These chunks are phrases with words that are very commonly found together. The word "odor," for example, is defined as the description of a smell, but people typically associate it with a negative smell. That is because odor is usually found in lexical chunks like foul odor, strong odor, disgusting odor, or rank odor. These are all associations that people make when they hear the word "odor." Another example of a lexical chunk is the term "figment of (pronoun) imagination." People rarely use the word figment except in reference to that lexical chunk.

Submitted by joe on Wed, 03/26/2008 - 11:02

Elisabeth Boeck, Germany
From the lexical approach activities in the TRY section I especially found the piece MY BEST FRIEND KYLE a treasure trove of lexical items. The suggestion to highlight texts for lexical chunks when presenting them in class as a means to sensitize students to the phenomena is, to my mind, particularly effective; and I could imagine, when it comes to reproduction, perhaps it might be useful for the teacher to gap-read the text not in one go but paragraph by paragraph for better retention on the part of the students.

Also, in my experience, the value of the lexical approach is demonstrated beautifully and convincingly by juxtaposing English and native language expressions. In that way students realize that in most cases a word-for-word translation won't help, when previously they perhaps thought that it might do to sling together a few words picked up from the dictionary. I like to say, when presenting idiomatic phrases, standard expressions, social and spoken language chunks etc. "That's the way native speakers typically say things."

And I remember Michael Lewis, in the course of a presentation which he gave here in Germany some years ago, saying this: "Whenever someone asks me "why is that?" - with reference to the structure of some language item - I will answer: "That's how it is in English." - Period!"

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