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The denitive reference in the eld of English language teaching
The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching explores the theoretical and practical
aspects of English language instruction by providing an essential, go-to reference resource for
educators, professionals, researchers, and students world-wide. Over 750 entries written by
leading practitioners and scholars from around the globe reect the collaborative efforts of
a truly international team of editors and advisory board members.
The Encyc lop edia is arranged thematically and entries are ordered A-Z within each of these
themes. Fourteen key topic areas are covered:
Approaches & Methods
Assessment & Evaluation
English as an International Language
Organizational & Administrative Issues
Sociocultural Aspects
Teaching Grammar
Teaching Listening
Teaching Reading
Teaching Speaking & Pronunciation
Teaching Vocabulary
Teaching Writing
Training & Professional Development
Each entry is organized into three sections: “Framing the Issue,” “Making the Case,
and “Pedagogical Implications,” in which the Author presents proven applications and
recommendations that may be immediately employed.
Unparalleled in scope, Th e TESO L En cyclopedia of Englis h L angu age Tea ching is an
indispen sable profe ssio nal re sour ce fo r all ELT/ESL practitioners ever yw here. This work is
also available as an online resource at
JOHN I. LIONTAS, PhD, holds a doctorate in second language acquisition and teaching and is
a tenured associate professor of ESOL and director and doctoral faculty of TESLA (Technology
in Educ ation and S econd Lan guage Acquis ition) a t the Univer sity of S outh Florida . He is
a distinguished thought leader, author, and practitioner in the elds of applied linguistics,
second language acquisition, and ESL/EFL and the recipient of over two dozen local, state,
regional, national, and international teaching awards and honors.
Cover Design a nd Illustration: Wiley
Approaches and Methods in English
for Speakers of Other Languages
Non-Native English-Speaking
Tea ch er s (N NE STs )
Volume II
English Language
Encyclopedia of
John I. Liontas
Project Editor
Margo DelliCarpini
Approaches and Methods
in English for Speakers of
Other Languages
Edited by Ali Shehadeh
Te ac he rs ( NN ES Ts)
Edited by Ali Fuad Selvi
Editor-in- Chief
The TESOL Encyclopedia of
English Language Teaching
Lexical Approach
Framing theIssue
Promulgated notably by Lewis (1993) and Willis (1990), the lexical approach to
second language instruction began in the early 1990s as a reaction to traditional
structural syllabuses—which had as their basis grammatical constructions—and
other types of syllabus that had come into fashion around that time (e.g., notional-
functional syllabuses). One of the fundamental principles distinguishing this
approach from more conventional language teaching approaches is that grammar
plays a subordinate role to lexis. Language is not analyzed in terms of sentence-
level grammatical structures and the vocabulary items that are slotted into them
(i.e., lexicalized grammar). Within a lexical approach, language is considered to
comprise prefabricated expressions and phrases, usually referred to as lexical units
or chunks (grammaticalized lexis).
Not only did the approach encourage reconsideration of the importance of
grammar to the teaching/learning process in favor of lexis, it also served to elimi-
nate randomness from the way lexis had been introduced in traditional language
classes. Findings from corpus research have yielded a wealth of data concerning
the frequency of vocabulary in text and the frequency of the patterns in which lexis
appears. Frequency of usage determines the relative usefulness of these units of
language for learners. While traditional approaches tended to present grammar
constructions in order of ease of acquisition, lexis tended to be included based
strictly on its relevance to the structures into which it was to be slotted. A lexical
approach, informed by corpus data, provides language instructors with a princi-
pled means of introducing lexis into the syllabus.
Classroom practice based on a lexical approach may be considered to be a
type of communicative language teaching (CLT). As in the natural approach that
had become prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, language learning is said to
stem largely from listening and reading input. Communicative competence is
the ultimate goal and emphasis is placed on using the language successfully,
The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, First Edition.
Edited by John I. Liontas (Project Editor: Margo DelliCarpini).
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0169
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Lexical Approach
rather than accurately. Error is intrinsic to the learning process and
sociolinguistic and communicative competence is expected to precede gram-
matical competence.
The primacy ofchunks
In the earliest formulations of the approach, lexical units were said to include
individual vocabulary items along with multiword combinations. Gradually,
however, the focus of the approach has shifted towards multiword items or lexical
chunks almost exclusively. These chunks of language are the primary organizing
elements of a lexical syllabus. These are lexical structures, rather than grammati-
cal ones and may be canonical (i.e., abide by the rules of grammar) or not (e.g., be
that as it may; by and large). They also vary in terms of fixedness, the degree to which
the multiword expression allows substitutions, inflections, and so forth. For
example, on the other hand is considered to be a fixed expression (since on the other
hands and on another hand are unacceptable), while make a (very/extremely/rather)
long story (very/somewhat) short is less so. Chunks differ in terms of their composi-
tionality as well. This refers to the extent to which the meaning of the expression is
revealed through an examination of its individual words. Thus, a compound like
banana yellow is highly compositional, but many idioms are not (e.g., bite the big
one; meaning die).
There are as many means of categorizing lexical chunks as there are researchers
investigating them. Most classifications include the following:
individual words
polywords: short, relatively fixed phrases, including
compounds (hot dog, blue-collar)
phrasal verbs (come across, run out of)
binomials and trinomials (apples and oranges; this, that, and the other)
idioms (on cloud nine; get someone’s goat)
similes (like a fish out of water; as fast as lightning)
proverbs (ignorance is bliss; honesty is the best policy)
sentence frames: longer, usually discontinuous phrases used to build larger
statements and arguments (not only X, but also Y; the ______er, the ______er)
institutionalized utterances: conventional expressions serving specific func-
tions in social interaction, usually full sentences (Thank you for having me; Give
me a break; There’s a call for you.)
collocations: prompted by the results of corpus studies, this category includes
any pair or group of words that co-occur in higher than chance frequencies
(e.g., negotiate an agreement, a substantial number, splitting headache); it also
includes frequently occurring fixed phrases from written and spoken texts not
included above (by far, for instance, you know).
Well-selected chunks in the syllabus offer the learner the practical value of being
among the most frequent, and hence most useful, elements of the language.
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Lexical Approach 3
Making theCase
Much of the theoretical background upon which the lexical approach was based
stems from the results of corpus linguistics research. The Collins COBUILD pro-
ject at the University of Birmingham was particularly influential. Building upon
these findings, Sinclair (1991) argued against an open-choice principle for an idiom
principle. The open-choice principle refers to the view that language consists of
grammatical structures with slots into which vocabulary items are inserted to
make sentences. Thus, to take a structural view of the doctor crossed the street is to
suggest that the language was produced by way of processes requiring the selec-
tion of a subject (nurse, astronaut, your mother, etc.), a verb (is crossing, will cross, ate,
etc.) and an object (the road, the river, a cheeseburger, etc.). As this would involve an
almost limitless number of choices, Sinclair argued that this view of language did
not provide enough constraints on the choices necessary to produce language in
real time.
The idiom principle, however, suggests that language users have vast numbers
of accessible, prefabricated phrases at their disposal during language produc-
tion. While it may seem obvious that hot dog, supreme court, and of course are
probably stored in memory as single, unanalyzable units, more complex and less
idiomatic phrases may also be stored similarly. A _____ of, for example is a very
high-frequency English expression used to quantify (e.g., a lot of, a few of, a number
of) and to describe units (e.g., a piece of, a bottle of, a pound of). While it may not be
clear from introspection that language is stored in these types of lexical phrases,
the argument for the lexical approach is that their fluency of use—as well as fre-
quency of use, as revealed through corpora—necessitates conceptualizing lan-
guage in terms of such prefabricated chunks.
Another argument in favor of the idiom principle and a lexical approach to lan-
guage teaching is seen in the example sentence If I were you, I’d wait. When asked to
parse this in two, language teachers have traditionally split the expression into
clauses (i.e., If I were you + I’d wait). Lewis (1997, p. 257) points out that this is simply
“incorrect. We recognize that If I were you is ALWAYS followed by I’d, so the lexical
boundary between chunks is after I’d.” This kind of reconceptualization—from
“slot-and-filler” grammar-vocabulary to chunks of prefabricated language—is
central to the lexical approach.
The lexical approach also finds support in arguments from the psycholinguis-
tic literature. As per the open-choice principle, these arguments posit that English
speakers would need to select from a near infinite number of single-word items
in order to speak fluently. At the same time, speakers must attend to the rules of
grammar and topical/situational constraints to produce accurate speech. Further,
there is pragmatic need to produce “nativelike” language. Given the array of
considerations involved in the production and comprehension of fluent speech,
language users’ cognitive resources would quickly become taxed if language
were not accessible as prefabricated chunks. These prefabricated expressions
facilitate and expedite the language selection process. The number of lexical
chunks in English is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands (Pawley &
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Lexical Approach
Syder, 1983). If language were not stored in these chunks, nativelike fluency
would be almost unattainable. On the contrary, if language is retrieved from
memory as prefabricated chunks, it can be retrieved more efficiently, freeing cog-
nitive resources to devote to larger structures of the discourse and to the social
An argument against adopting a lexical approach is that the goal of language
learning continues to be communicative competence, of which the mastery of lexis
and multiword units is, for most learners and instructors, merely a single
component. The lexical approach promotes a view of language as the grammati-
calization of lexis, and may indeed lead learners to successfully discover chunks
of language. However, the approach does not specify how comprehensive lan-
guage competence may be achieved via these means. Indeed, most attempts to
create a strictly lexical language program have thus far proven unsuccessful.
Moreover, critics of the lexical approach claim that it is not actually an approach
to language learning at all. That is, it may not be founded upon a coherent and
complete theory of language and the way languages are learned. There is an
inherent contradiction in any syllabus that stresses natural input, but at the same
time introduces awareness-raising activities as one of its main classroom
Pedagogical Implications
Initially, the implementation of the lexical syllabus in the language classroom
was similar in a number of ways to that of the natural approach. Teacher talk
was to be a major source of input for learners. The traditional presentation-
practice-production (PPP) model was rejected for a more learner-centered focus,
emphasizing the students’ roles in their own discovery of the language. This
has been characterized as Task-Planning-Report in task-based applications of the
approach (e.g., Willis, 1990) and as Observe-Hypothesize-Experiment (Lewis,
1993). Teachers’ roles too are transformed in a lexical approach. Rather than
being vessels of knowledge or drill leaders for the mastery of grammatical
structures, instructors are called upon to create an environment that allows stu-
dents to discover and learn the features of language (i.e., lexical chunks) on
their own.
Classroom activities developed within a lexical approach were originally con-
ceived of as being predominantly receptive in nature. Teacher talk and other
authentic language would provide input from which learners were to recognize
chunks of language to be acquired. Classroom procedure today involves the
utilization of both receptive and productive skills. A typical class might consist
of all of the following: raising awareness/discovery of lexical chunks, adding
knowledge of usage restrictions to vocabulary already known by students, pro-
viding practice opportunities for communicative use, and encouraging the
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Lexical Approach 5
retention of lexical knowledge by way of elaborative tasks, vocabulary note-
books, and other means.
Despite increased interest in the role lexical chunks play in language and lan-
guage learning, premade materials and textbooks designed specifically to imple-
ment a lexical syllabus remain limited. An important aspect of the teacher’s role in
the classroom, then, is to provide vocabulary learning materials that demonstrate
the use of lexical units in context. Teachers subscribing to a lexical approach may
find themselves presiding over corpus and concordance software to allow learners
to discover lexical patterns in class. As explained above, however, the number of
lexical phrases in English far exceeds the classroom hours required to either teach
them explicitly or to have learners discover them naturally. Thus, introducing
strategies to aid in the autonomous discovery of chunks is also a key feature of a
lexical methodology. Success within a lexical curriculum may best be measured in
terms of the student’s ability to learn how to chunk authentic language, and to
acquire the strategies necessary to continue to do so with authentic language
beyond the classroom.
Readily available concordance software now affords teachers and students the
opportunity to discover lexical chunks through hands-on corpus research.
Teachers may ask learners to build their own corpora and then, with the aid of
concordancing software, have them examine specific words and the chunks in
which they reside in their natural contexts. Where technology is limited, learn-
ers may do the same with preprinted concordance lines or more simplified
materials. A simple corpus activity of this sort involves distinguishing between
words with similar meanings by allowing learners to discover differences in
their use. While examining the verbs focus and concentrate, for example, learners
may find that both words collocate directly with on, but only focus can be used
in conjunction with attention (focus your attention on, not concentrate your attention
on). Differences noted between the usage restrictions of powerful (engine, not tea)
and strong (tea, not engine) provide another popular example among linguists
and learners.
Similarly, words that learners have difficulty defining on their own may be
easier to understand in context. As an example, groups of learners can be pre-
sented with concordance data for the word system. Have the students cut the
concordance lines into individual strips and ask them to group the lines of text
according to the types of system they think are represented on each. Depending
on the specific data received, learners may discover that system is used to
describe large organizations bound by a specific plan or set of rules (financial
system, legal system), sets of electronic devices (computer system, surveillance sys-
tem), mechanical devices (heating system, plumbing system), networks for trans-
portation or communication (rail system, cable system), internal organs (digestive
system, respiratory system), or the government and its institutions (the system).
Students can later compare their groupings with the entry for system in a cor-
pus-informed dictionary to see how closely they’ve matched the most common
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Lexical Approach
The activities below are based on those introduced by Lewis (1997, p. 261) as
means of raising awareness of lexis and their collocates.
In both of these activities, learners are made aware of collocations in which com-
mon (hence, useful) lexis occurs. These examples also serve to illustrate the differ-
ence between words that collocate strongly (i.e., words that are likely to be found
together; e.g., make a deal or have lunch), those that collocate weakly (do a deal, do
lunch), and those that are merely possible, but unlikely, combinations. Such activi-
ties can be used to reinforce both authentic language arising naturally in the class-
room milieu, and that which appears in texts prepared specifically for didactic
purposes. Drawing attention to similarities and differences between collocations
in a learner’s first language and that of the target language may also aid in raising
awareness of certain usage restrictions. As a final step, it is necessary for the stu-
dent to consolidate the lexical knowledge in memory. Activities designed to help
learners to remember chunks need not be specifically developed for a lexical
syllabus or even for language learning more generally. Any activity that increases
the likelihood that the material will be remembered may be useful. Such activities
may involve structural or semantic elaboration (i.e., deep cognitive processing) or
mnemonic techniques.
SEE ALSO: Communicative Language Teaching (CLT); Functional-Notional
Approach; Natural Approach; Structural Approach; Teaching Lexical Chunks
Activity 1
Which of the following nouns do NOT fit with the words in capital letters?
Choose only one word for each.
1) HIGH opinion spirits house time priority price
2) MAIN street speed course thing character
3) NEW idea experience food potatoes job
4) LIGHT green lunch rain living entertainment
Activity 2
Choose the words that fit best with the verbs below.
deal mistake risk shower
meeting presentation drink lunch
MAKE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________
DO ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________
HAVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________
TAKE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________
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Lexical Approach 7
Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and a way forward. Hove, England:
Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (1997). Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J. Coady & T. Huckin
(Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition (pp. 255–70). Cambridge, England:
Cambridge University Press.
Pawley, A., & Syder, R. W. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: Nativelike selection and
nativelike fluency. In J. C. Richards & R. W. Schmidt (Eds.), Language and Communication
(pp. 191–226). London, England: Longman.
Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Willis, D. (1990). The lexical syllabus. London, England: Collins ELT.
Suggested Readings
Boers, F., & Lindstromberg, S. (2009). Optimizing a lexical approach to instructed second language
acquisition. New York, NY: Palgrave.
Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, England:
Language Teaching Publications.
Nattinger, J. R., & DeCarrico, J. S. (1992). Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford,
England: Oxford University Press.
Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2014). Approaches and methods in language teaching (3rd ed.).
Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Thornbury, S. (1998). The lexical approach: A journey without maps? Modern English Teacher,
7(4), 7–13.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
Empirically validated techniques to accelerate learners’ uptake of ‘chunks’ demonstrate that pathways for insightful chunk-learning become available if one is willing to question the assumption that lexis is arbitrary. Care is taken to ensure that the pedagogical proposals are in accordance with insights from vocabulary research generally. © Frank Boers and Seth Lindstromberg 2009. All rights reserved.
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