Lexical approach

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The lexical approach is a method of teaching foreign languages described by M. Lewis in the 1990s. The basic concept on which this approach rests is the idea that an important part of learning a language consists of being able to understand and produce lexical phrases as chunks. Students are thought to be able to perceive patterns of language (grammar) as well as have meaningful set uses of words at their disposal when they are taught in this way.

In the lexical approach, instruction focuses on fixed expressions that occur frequently in dialogues, which Lewis claims make up a larger part of discourse than unique phrases and sentences. Vocabulary is prized over grammar per se in this approach. The teaching of chunks and set phrases has become common in English as a second or foreign language, though this is not necessarily primarily due to the Lexical Approach.


The lexical syllabus is a form of the propositional paradigm that takes 'word' as the unit of analysis and content for syllabus design. Various vocabulary selection studies can be traced back to the 1920s and 1930s (West 1926; Ogden 1930; Faucet et al. 1936), and recent advances in techniques for the computer analysis of large databases of authentic text have helped to resuscitate this line of work. The modern lexical syllabus is discussed in Sinclair & Renouf (1988), who state that the main benefit of a lexical syllabus is that it emphasises utility - the student learns that which is most valuable because it is most frequent. Related work on collocation is reported by Sinclair (1987) and Kennedy (1989), and the Collins COBUILD English Course (Willis & Willis 1988) is cited as an exemplary pedagogic implementation of the work, though "in fact, however, the COBUILD textbooks utilise one of the more complex hybrid syllabi in current ESL texts" (Long & Crookes 1993:23).

Sinclair & Renouf (1988:155) find that (as with other synthetic syllabi), claims made for the lexical syllabus are not supported by evidence, and the assertion that the lexical syllabus is "an independent syllabus, unrelated by any principles to any methodology" (Sinclair et al. 1988:155) is subject to the criticism levelled by Brumfit against notional functional syllabi, i.e. that it (in this case, deliberately) takes no cognisance of how a second language is learned. Since these observations were made, however, Willis (1990) and Lewis (1993) have gone some way to provide such a theoretical justification.


  • Boers, Frank (2006) "Formulaic sequences and perceived oral proficiency: putting a Lexical Approach to the test," Language Teaching Research, Vol. 10, No. 3, 245-261 doi:10.1191/1362168806lr195oa.
  • Faucet, L., West, M., Palmer, H. & Thorndike, E.L. (1936). The Interim Report on Vocabulary Selection for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. London: P.S. King.
  • Lewis, Michael, ed. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach, Language Teaching Publications, Hove, England.
  • Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach.
  • Ogden, C.K. (1930). Basic English: An Introduction with Rules and Grammar. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner.
  • Sinclair, B. (1996). Materials design for the promotion of learner autonomy: how explicit is explicit? In R. Pemberton, S.L. Edward, W.W.F. Or, and H.D. Pierson (Eds.). Taking Control: Autonomy in Language Learning. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. 149-165.
  • West, M. (1926). Bilingualism (With Special Reference to Bengal). Calcutta: Bureau of Education, India.
  • Willis, J. & Willis, D. (Eds.) (1996). Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann
  • Willis, D. (1990). The Lexical Syllabus. London: Collins.