The Lexical Approach

Vocabulary learning

vocabularySince the publication of the “Lexical Approach” by Michael Lewis in 1993, Language teaching practices have been widely reviewed and discussed. So what are the features of the  Lexical Approach? Is it a revolution in the profession of language teaching or just an evolution? What are its claims?  How can it be implemented in the classroom?

Theory of language

The Chomsky’s notion of a native speaker’s output consisting of an infinite number of “creative” utterances is at best a half-truth. In fact prefabricated items represent a significant portion of a native speaker’s spoken and written output. Native speakers have a vast stock of these lexical prefabricated items or chunks and 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 as on having rapid access to a stock of lexical chunks. It would seem, then, that speakers need both a prefabricated, automated element to draw on as well as a creative, generative one.

Once the importance of prefabricated language is acknowledged, The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy becomes obviously false. In fact, language has long been analyzed as consisting of grammatical structures and a set of usually single vocabulary items. Grammar has been given priority over vocabulary. The latter has been seen as secondary in importance, merely serving to illustrate the meaning and scope of the grammar. In the lexical Approach this dichotomy is irrealistic and considered to be based on false assumptions about language. Language is basically its lexicon. The key principle of a lexical approach is that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.” In other words, lexis is central in creating meaning, grammar plays a secondary role in managing meaning. When this principle is accepted, the logical implication for teachers is that we should spend more time helping learners develop their stock of phrases, and less time on grammatical structures.

Nature of the lexis

There is a distinction between vocabulary, traditionally thought to be constituted of single items, and lexis, which includes not only the single words but also the word combinations that we store in our mental lexicons. Lexical approach advocates argue that language consists of meaningful chunks that, when combined, produce continuous coherent text, and only a minority of spoken sentences are entirely novel creations. Michael Lewis present this taxonomy of Lexical items:

  • words (e.g., book, pen)
  • polywords (e.g., by the way, upside down)
  • collocations, or word partnerships (e.g., community service, absolutely convinced)
  • institutionalized utterances (e.g., I’ll get it; We’ll see;That’ll do; If I were you . . .; Would you like a cup of coffee?)
  • sentence frames and heads (e.g., That is not as . . . as you think; The fact/suggestion/problem/danger was . . .) and even text frames (e.g., In this paper we explore . . .; Firstly . . .; Secondly . . .; Finally . . .)

The Lexical Approach pays attention not only to single words but more importantly to collocations and institutionalized utterances and sentence frames. Michael Lewis states that

“instead of words, we consciously try to think of collocations, and to present these in expressions. Rather than trying to break things into ever smaller pieces, there is a conscious effort to see things in larger, more holistic, ways” (1997a, p. 204).


A collocation is the readily observable phenomenon whereby certain words co-occur in natural text with greater than random frequency and is not determined by logic or frequency, but is arbitrary, decided only by linguistic convention. Some collocations are fully fixed, such as:

  • to catch a cold
  • rancid butter
  • drug addict

Other Collocations are more or less fixed and can be completed in a relatively small number of ways, as in the following examples:

  • blood / close / distant / near(est) relative
  • learn by doing / by heart / by observation / by rote / from experience
  • badly / bitterly / deeply / seriously / severely hurt

Lexis in the classroom

Central to the lexical approach is the focus on teaching real English and a shift away from the artificial language found in ELT textbook and which is drawn from the intuition of textbook designers. In fact, the approach contends that the language course books teach is “not what people really say.”  That is why it is urgent to avoid distorting the language with course book writer intuition and access the authentic language via corpora (a large amount of written and sometimes spoken material collected to show the state of a language). Intuition often fails to accurately reflect the real use of language. Corpora, however, can instantly provide us with the relative frequencies, collocations, and prevalent grammatical patterns of the lexis in question across a range of genres. In addition, light is shed on lexical variation. This leads to the collection of thousands of vocabulary items that cannot be taught in the traditional PPP (Present-Practice-Produce) framework. So how does the Lexical Approach deal with the teaching part? Even if the approach doesn’t present a clear theory of learning there are some  hints about how the teaching looks like within the approach.

  • Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language. Emphasis is on successful communication not grammatical mastery.
  • 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. We can also use whole phrases without understanding their constituent parts.
  • Noticing and recording language patterns and collocations.
  • Grammar is acquired by a process of observation, hypothesis and experiment. That is, the Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle replaces the Present-Practise-Produce Paradigm.
  • Grammar exploration instead of grammar explanation.
  • Intensive and extensive listening and reading in the target language.
  • First and second language comparisons and translation—carried out chunk-for-chunk, rather than word-for-word—aimed at raising language awareness.
  • Repetition and recycling of activities.
  • Guessing the meaning of vocabulary items from context.
  • The language activities consistent with a lexical approach must be directed toward naturally occurring language and toward raising learners’ awareness of the lexical nature of language.
  • Working with dictionaries and other reference tools.


The Lexical approach is not really a revolution but an evolution as it tries to develop principles already known by communicative language teachers. The aim of ELT is still the teaching of communicative abilities by focusing on successful language rather than accurate language. The originality of the approach lies in its claims about the nature of language. The distinction between grammar and vocabulary has become less valid and a more realistic view about language, based on the supremacy of lexis over grammar is advocated. The challenge that the approach is facing is how to convince teachers to change their mindset in favor of this new vision about language.


Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997a). Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997b). Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 255-270). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Other sources:

Wikipedia: Lexical Approach

Scott Thornbury: L is for (Michael) Lewis

7 thoughts on “The Lexical Approach”

  1. I just wish the people who control the curriculum were listening. I have been trying to teach [and write course books and interactive materials] this way for the last 30 years but have been continuously thwarted by the politically correct establishment who insist on teaching to test and doing it ‘their’ way.

  2. I have to agree with everything in the article above. I stumbled upon the idea of Lexical teaching when I worked at a Test-prep company, and have applied it to my TOEFL & TOEIC classes ever since. The one thing I would add to all of this talk about effective language learning for adults is that many classes lack an “emotional” element to the lessons, wherein students have some feeling or connection to the content; these emotions, I have found, contribute greatly to information retention. That’s why I am continually trying to bring humor and laughter into the classroom–which is sometimes difficult when teaching a test!

    The one question I would ask, which was touched on above but never quite answered, is how much students should utilize 1st-language reference material when studying English? A lot, a little, or only when completely necessary?

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