Lexical Approach 2 - What does the lexical approach look like?

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


  • Introduction
  • The theory of learning
  • Noticing
  • Language awareness
  • 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 the first of our two THINK articles - Lexical approach 1 - we looked at how advocates of the Lexical Approach view language. In this, our second THINK 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.

A theory of learning
In our first article, Lexical Approach 1, we spoke about the vast number of chunks and collocations native speakers store. According to Lewis (1997, 2000) native speakers carry a pool of hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of lexical chunks in their heads ready to draw upon in order to produce fluent, accurate and meaningful language. Too many items for teachers and materials to present to learners, ask learners to practise and then produce even if you believed that a PPP methodology - which has been denigrated in recent years - would lead to the acquisition of these language items.

How then are the learners going to learn the lexical items they need? One of the criticisms levelled at the Lexical Approach is its lack of a detailed learning theory. It is worth noting, however, that Lewis (1993) argues the Lexical Approach is not a break with the Communicative Approach, but a development of it. He makes a helpful summary of the findings from first language acquisition research which he thinks are relevant to second language acquisition:

  • Language is not learnt by learning individual sounds and structures and then combining them, but by an increasing ability to break down wholes into parts.
  • Grammar is acquired by a process of observation, hypothesis and experiment.
  • We can use whole phrases without understanding their constituent parts.
  • Acquisition is accelerated by contact with a sympathetic interlocutor with a higher level of competence in the target language.

Schmitt (2000) makes a significant contribution to a learning theory for the Lexical Approach by adding that 'the mind stores and processes these [lexical] chunks as individual wholes.' The mind is able to store large amounts of information in long-term memory but its short-term capacity is much more limited, when producing language in speech for example, so it is much more efficient for the brain to recall a chunk of language as if it were one piece of information. 'Figment of his imagination' is, therefore, recalled as one piece of information rather than four separate words.

In our view it is not possible, or even desirable, to attempt to 'teach' an unlimited number of lexical chunks. But, it is beneficial for language learners to gain exposure to lexical chunks and to gain experience in analyzing those chunks in order to begin the process of internalisation. We believe, like Lewis, that encouraging learners to notice language, specifically lexical chunks and collocations, is central to any methodology connected to a lexical view of language.

Batstone (1996) describes noticing as 'a complex process: it involves the intake both of meaning and form, and it takes time for learners to progress from initial recognition to the point where they can internalize the underlying rule'. At the same time Lewis (2000) argues that noticing chunks and collocations is a necessary but not sufficient condition for input to become intake. If learners are not directed to notice language in a text there exists a danger that they will 'see through the text' and therefore fail to achieve intake.

Looking back at the tasks and activities, you can see they are designed to promote noticing. Sometimes the noticing is guided by the teacher i.e. the teacher directs the students' attention to lexical features thought to be useful; sometimes the noticing is 'self-directed', i.e. the students themselves select features they think will be useful for them. Sometimes the noticing is explicit, e.g. when items in a text are highlighted; sometimes it is implicit e.g. when the teacher reformulates a student's text (see Thornbury 1997 for an explanation of how reconstruction and reformulation can enhance noticing and practical suggestions for reformulating).

Language Awareness
It is our assertion that learning materials and teachers can best help learners achieve noticing of lexical chunks by combining a Language Awareness approach to learning with a Lexical Approach to describing language.

Tomlinson (2003) sums up the principles, objectives and procedures of a language awareness approach as:

  • 'Paying deliberate attention to features of language in use can help learners to notice the gap between their own performance in the target language and the performance of proficient users of the language.
  • Noticing can give salience to a feature, so that it becomes more noticeable in future input, so contributing to the learner's psychological readiness to acquire that feature.
  • The main objective is to help learners to notice for themselves how language is typically used so that they will note the gaps and 'achieve learning readiness' [as well as independence from the teacher and teaching materials].
  • The first procedures are usually experiential rather than analytical and aim to involve the learners in affective interaction with a potentially engaging text. [That is, learners read a text, and respond with their own views and opinions before studying the language in the text or answering comprehension type questions.]
  • Learners are later encouraged to focus on a particular feature of the text, identify instances of the feature, make discoveries and articulate generalizations about its use.'

In a small research project at The University of Maine, groups of students were exposed to materials (see the first activity here) based on the principles and procedures Tomlinson outlines. The noticing activities asked students to identify, analyse and make generalisations about lexical chunks and collocations.

The students involved in the research were surveyed after using these materials and asked how useful and enjoyable they found the materials.

  • All but one of the students said the materials were very useful and all the students reported the class was either very useful or useful.
  • All the students said the materials would help them learn independently.
  • Over half the students thought the materials were useful for learning vocabulary.
  • All the students said they enjoyed the stories.
  • The teachers said that the readings were 'great', the students understood and could appreciate the materials' relevance for developing reading as well a productive skills.
  • One teacher said he was not sure if making the distinction between different types of lexical chunks was necessary.

We hope these articles and activities shine some light on what a Lexical Approach could look like in teaching materials and provide ideas of how it might appear in the classroom.

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.

Batstone, Rob (1996). Key Concepts in ELT: Noticing. ELT Journal 50(3)273.
Bolitho, R, Carter, R, Hughes, R, Ivanic, R, Masuhara, H, and Tomlinson, B (2003) Ten Questions about Language Awareness. ELT Journal 57/3.
Lewis, Michael (1993), The Lexical Approach, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
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.
Schmitt, Norbert (2000). Key Concepts in ELT: Lexical Chunks. ELT Journal 54(4): 400-401.
Thornbury, Scott (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote 'noticing'. ELT Journal 51(4): 326-334.

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


Submitted by rqc on Tue, 11/22/2022 - 17:31

Hi there! I'm so interested in this article because it seems to be the base of my own research to acquire a second language. I'm afraid the link for materials does not work. Could you fix this, please?
Thanks in advance


Submitted by Cath McLellan on Wed, 11/23/2022 - 12:49

In reply to by rqc

Hi Roxana

Glad your find this article interesting, and thanks for pointing out the broken links - they've been fixed now.

All the best,


TeachingEnglish Team

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