The Lexical Approach – What is it?

In 1993, Michael Lewis published a seminal piece of work “The Lexical approach” that underlined the need for change in (English) Language teaching. While some of his assertions were adopted and can be found in many of the leading coursebooks used in ELT today, the dominance of grammar-led language teaching has continued and the full impact of The Lexical Approach has not been felt. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from simple problems that simply not many teachers know about this approach, to the more political problems of what makes good-value ELT coursebooks and what meets students’ expectations of the language.  A significant proportion of research in Second Language Acquisition supports many of the central tenets of the Lexical approach, of which we will discuss in this essay. The lexical approach and teaching lexically is a huge topic that can in no way be fully discussed in this short essay. However, further posts will discuss some of these principles in more detail and further reading is suggested at the end of this post.

So what is the lexical approach?

The mantra, if you like, of the lexical approach is simple:

«language consists of grammaticalized lexis not lexicalized grammar”

In other words, the most important aspect of a language is not its grammatical system, but its lexical organism. In “The Lexical Approach”, Lewis outlined that not only is vocabulary teaching at present woefully inadequate, but also we have not been concentrating on the aspects of lexis we should be.

Lewis suggested that Lexis can be broken down into 4 (rough)categories:

  • Words: By far the biggest category e.g. Bicycle. However, this category, surprisingly, is not the most important.
  • Polywords : Words that do not change – ever. E.g., “By the way”, “Cup of tea”, “Overdone”.
  • Institutionalized phrases: They never change, but they also have a different meaning from what they mean, e.g. “What a buzz!” “I see what you mean, but…”, “That’s all very well”.
  • Collocations: Word partners, often found in close proximity, e.g. “close proximity”, “do homework”, “agree to, negotiate, carry out — A contract”
  • Fixed and Semi-fixed expression: Possibly the most important category these sometimes change a little or always remain the same. “I’ll see you soon”, “Just because I’m a _____________ doesn’t mean I can’t __________________”.

With regards to collocation, there is no logical reason for these. It could easily be “make your homework”, however it is not. The choice here is arbitrary and does not follow a particular rule.

Can you think of some collocations that pair with the following words?

  • Imagination
  • Guess
  • Area
  • Presentation

So why are these things important?

Well, we simply do not store these relatively common phrases in our minds in small pieces. We store them as chunks. These chunks give us increased ability to speak fluently.

Imagine that you have been given a task to build a model airplane. Which of these sets would you prefer?

  • In thousands of tiny pieces with no instructions?


  • In thousands of pieces with a picture as an example of what the finished plane should look like.


  • A set where the parts are separate, but the big parts are already put together for you – complete with instructions, so you can see what the plane should look like.


If you gave these to three groups of people, who do you think would finish first? Of course, the answer is the first group. After the first group has completed it, they will have a good idea of how the big pieces are constructed by looking at it. They have  a better view of the overall plane. This metaphor also works with language. As teachers, we should be aiming to give students as much “big language” as possible, especially in the early stages of learning and assisting them in noticing how the language is put together afterwards.

Mistakes – Always grammar?

In 1972, the British Linguist David Wilkins commented “while without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”. This is awakening. When a non-native speaker produces a grammar mistake, it causes few problems for native speakers of the language; however, those with vocabulary problems are a real source of misunderstanding.

Main principles and classroom implications of the lexical approach

  • As language consists of grammaticalised lexis, and not lexicalized grammar, we should focus on giving students chunks of language with real communicative functions at all levels of learning. Phrases like “Have you been to______________?” “I’m thinking of +ing”, “Could you pass the _____________, please?” Can be taught even at the lowest levels. Students will gain grammatical accuracy later in their language learning and much of their language learning will be derived from their knowledge of these chunks.
  • Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language. As teachers, we should ficus more on student expressing meaning successfully rather than accurately.
  • Grammatical error is natural to the learning process. Grammar errors that do not impede communication should be given less focus when we correct our students.
  • Listening has enhanced status. Listening is an important part of the learning process.
  • Language should be recycled over and over. Teachers should drop phrases like “we have done the present perfect” from their vocabulary. Only through meeting vocabulary items and grammatical structures often will students master them.
  • Teacher talking time is useful only when it is comprehensible and relevant. However, teacher-talking time is one way for student to get lots of input.
  • Teachers should help students notice grammar and vocabulary patterns.
  • Lexis should form the organizing principle of a course.
  • Students should be taught phrases and expression along with collocations without grammatical analysis, especially at lower levels.

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,JackC.RichardsandRichard 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.

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