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Lexical Approach

This is a book review by David Overton of "The Lexical Approach" by Michael Lewis (1993), Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

David Overton teaches general and company classes in the center and north of Madrid (he lives in Sanchinarro).

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Part 1:

Part 2:

Review of The Lexical Approach:

By David Overton

English-language teaching has made a lot of progress since the days of Audiolingualism when language teaching was based on the building block approach to learning with a structural syllabus, and language was “presented” by the teacher, and “practiced” and “produced” by the students. Or has it really progressed so much? If you find this kind of question intriguing, you’ll love Michael Luis’ book, The Lexical Approach, published in 1993, but still very relevant today.

This book has two main threads; first, a criticism of ELT (English language teaching) today, which generally speaking tends to be conservative and resist innovation, the main focus being predictably the bottom line; and second, a defence of the centrality of lexis in language teaching.

The central idea behind The Lexical Approach is stated immediately in the book, it’s the first “key principle” and is, “Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar”. This means that language is not grammar plus vocabulary as per the traditional view. This is also known as the “slot and filler” approach, which means language competence is knowing sentence level structures such as “subject + verb + object + adverbial”, then inserting words into the slots. However, which words do we insert? What about this sentence, “I took a cup of wine last night”? The fact that this sentence doesn’t really make sense shows that traditional grammar doesn’t take into account how words go together, that is, collocation.

This is one of the main breakthroughs of corpus linguistics; the study of large amounts of language using a computer database, and this has changed the way we view language. This book is mainly about that: a better and more accurate way of viewing language; and of course, the way we view language affects the way we teach it. This book lays down the theoretical groundwork for this shift; and as we can read on the cover, it shows us “a way forward”. By the way, one thing I admire about Michael Lewis is that he never suggests that this is a “definitive answer”, just a step in the right direction, an improvement.

As I’ve mentioned before, the book has two main threads. The first four chapters are primarily devoted to the current state of ELT. I’ll make brief comments about each chapter, but my comments are just a fraction of what’s in the book. To do it justice, you have to read it yourself of course.

The first chapter is called “Background” and gives a historical perspective of the development of ELT, including a look at the now discredited behaviourist learning theory and how surprisingly common it still is today. This is seen mainly in the lockstep view of learning, which doesn’t reflect the organic nature of learning. This chapter also discusses other important teaching issues such as spoken vs. written language, learning vs. acquisition, teaching vs. learning, and receptive and productive skills.

The second chapter, “Developing Ideas”, includes, among other things, an explanation of the organic nature of learning; a language develops holistically as opposed to linearly; learning is much more chaotic than traditionally thought; and teaching doesn’t necessarily lead to learning. The Lexical Approach takes this into account by exposing the students to large quantities of input (language) combined with awareness-raising activities: the idea is less teaching and more learning. This view also explains why the building block approach and PPP have largely been discredited, yet they are still surprisingly common.

Chapter three is called “The Wider Context” and relates ELT to philosophy and other fields such as science and mathematics; for example, he discusses chaos theory and Hiesenberg’s uncertainty principle to show that science (and art as well) is moving away from the idea that there is an absolute certainty that we can know. This translates to language teaching in the sense that we shouldn’t be pursuing “knowledge about English” but a “procedural knowledge” or “how to” knowledge. This means as teachers we should spend less time explaining English grammar and more time exposing students to useful language and doing awareness-raising activities.

Chapter four, “The Nature of Meaning”, is also quite philosophical. How do we create meaning? Michael Luis states that meaning implies choice; meaning is established by contrasting what we’ve said with what we haven’t said. For example, if I say “The Lexical Approach is a very interesting book”, you understand me because of what I haven’t said; I didn’t say, “a fairly interesting book” or even “a dead boring book”, I said, “a very interesting book”. So meaning is relative: words do not have a fixed one-to-one relationship with reality, thus the importance of context and co-text (the linguistic environment of a word), and of course collocation.

The other main thread running though the book is the centrality of lexis, and units 5, 6, and 7 focus primarily on this. Chapter 5 is called “The Nature of Lexis” and here is where he begins discussing multi-word items such as collocation, which many of us are already familiar with because it has become a common “ingredient” of many recent course books. An easy definition of collocation is “words that often go together”. Going back to the earlier example, we normally say “have a drink” and not “take a drink” as in Spanish; also the expression, “a glass of wine” is far more common than “a cup of wine”.

In this chapter he also discusses the idiomatic nature of language, that is, language is much more idiomatic than we might believe. Said another way, language is more metaphorical and less literal than traditionally assumed. This fits into The Lexical Approach hand-in-glove because its main thrust is how words go together to create meaning.

Chapter 6 is called “Lexis in the Syllabus” and here he discusses the content of a Lexical Approach course book. The Lexical Approach emphasises delexicalized words, which are words which alone don’t have much meaning, such as “get”, “have” and “point”, but which have rich collocation fields, for example, you can say “get better”, “have fun” and “make a point”. This type of word generally requires much more attention in class than words with a high meaning content such as “telescope” or “oxidize”.

Chapter 7, “Lexis in Language Teaching”, is perhaps the most practical chapter in the book. He mentions collocation boxes, where, for example, 5 words which collocate with a keyword are matched; and the use of clozes where the key word in a collocation is deleted. This chapter also discusses what he calls “an embarrassing statistic”: we now know that competent speakers need to know how words combine, which means they need to know far more vocabulary, or rather lexis, than we once thought. This means more emphasis on lexis and a greater memory load for the students: they have to work.

The rest of the book, chapters 8 to 13, continue explaining the ins-and-outs of the Lexical Approach. Unit 8 is called “Grammar Content in the Lexical Approach” and here the shortcomings of traditional grammar teaching are pointed out and the term “word grammar” is introduced. Traditional grammar tends to receive less emphasis in the Lexical Approach, except in the lower levels where students need generative structures to get them going, but after that word grammar is stressed, that is, the set of patterns in which a word occurs.

Chapter 9 is “Explanation and Practice in the Lexical Approach”. Less time is given for explanation (or teaching) and more to “consciousness raising”. This means exposing the students to large amounts of quality language and raising their awareness of how the words go together, but without forcing production as in PPP.

Chapter 10 is called “The Nature of Error”. Here he says, among other things, that we can’t expect perfection from our students. In fact, most of them remain intermediate-level their whole lives. “Successful communication” is valued over formal accuracy.

In chapter 11, “Responding to Error”, he advocates feedback rather than direct correction. When speaking, students’ utterances can be reformulated; in writing written feedback is given.

Chapter 12 is “The Role of Materials”. He mentions dictionaries as an under-used resource. He also mentions that since few books really use the Lexical Approach, they have to be adapted and the students trained to notice interesting and useful collocations in the texts. So learner-training is important.

The last chapter is called, “Teaching, Teacher Training and Methodological Implications”. This is a good summary of many points raised earlier. One point I particularly like is when he says “Language lessons are a combination of input, awareness-raising, learner-training, and language practice”, which I think is a nice summary of the Lexical Approach.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. I’m just sorry that I’ve only been able to give you a taste of the book. I highly recommend it to anybody interested in the issues I’ve mentioned, and especially to more experienced teachers.

This book is mainly about the “why” of the lexical approach. If you’re more interested in the “how”, that is, how to implement it, then you should read Implementing the Lexical Approach, which also is excellent. So, is the Lexical Approach “a way forward”? I recommend you read this thought-provoking book and decide for yourself.

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