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Concourse 2

The Lexical Approach

lupe

There are two key references in this area, both by Michael Lewis:
The Lexical Approach, 1993 and Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory Into Practice, 1997

You should refer to those for more detail.  What follows is only an overview and, like all such things, does injury in trying to be concise.


theory

Theory

Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar
(Lewis 1993: iv)


chunks

Chunks

The theory behind the Lexical Approach hinges on the concept of language chunks.  Briefly, a language chunk is a group of words which are habitually found together.  That definition will include common collocations such as air-conditioning + unit, dry + stone + wall, steering + wheel and thousands of others, of course, as well as fixed expressions such as
    I would like
    Do you mind if
    How are you
etc.  (For more, go to the guide to collocation.)
However, it will also include groups of words which are not normally seen as collocations such as
    look at
    just last week
    tomorrow afternoon
    upside down
    right way up
    out of sorts
    have you heard ...?
etc.  Some of these are multi-word verbs, some fixed phrases and some would be called idioms.  They all count as lexical chunks and are deployed as single ideas.

It has long been recognised that native speakers have a huge pool of language chunks to draw on which serve to cut down on the time we need to process thought into language and this aids fluency.  The theory is that we don't speak fluently by using our knowledge of grammar and then slotting in the appropriate words to make the sense we choose.  What we do is select prefabricated chunks and use our knowledge of grammar in a subsidiary, management role to help the language along.
This is what Lewes means by Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.

Can you pick out the language chunks in the last paragraph?  Click here when you have a few noted down.

There are a number of terms for chunks like these and you'll come across expressions such as binomials, semi-fixed / fixed expressions and so on.

In spoken language in particular, where time pressures on speakers are high, the use of pre-fabricated lexical chunks oils the wheels and allows speakers to produce fluent language.  It is also the case that grammar rules are often relaxed in informal speech and we are, therefore, more dependent on lexis.  For example, how did the speakers in this dialogue produce their utterances?

  1. Did you pick up the shopping on your way home?
  2. No, I clear forgot about it.  Sorry about that.

Click here when you have some ideas.

Clearly, relationships such as collocation will be central to this approach but it goes beyond that.
For example, if we take an expression such as
    pick up the shopping
we can readily see that a whole range of mass nouns can be substituted with the same grammatical relationship to the verb and there are also some other verbs that can have the same relationship with up as pick has.  Furthermore, the pronoun reference will remain the same as will the matter of separability (we can't have *pick up it etc.)  We can, therefore, have:

  • pick up the furniture / information / gossip / news
  • pick it up
  • gather up the crowd / data / flock
  • gather it up
  • clear up the mess / spillage / rubbish
  • clear it up

and so on.
This close relationship between lexis and grammar (colligation) is another key element of the Lexical Approach.  For more on colligation, go to the guide.

 

delexicalised

Delexicalised verbs

Allied to the idea above about the relationships between grammar and lexis is the concept that some verbs are 'delexicalised'.  The most common of these in English are:
do | have | get | go | make | put | set | take
A glance at the dictionary entry for any of these will tell you what's odd about them.  For each of these verbs, an online dictionary entry runs to several pages.  In the case of get, for example, the online Oxford dictionary lists:
receive | experience | contract | attain | fetch | prepare | find | travel by | obtain | contact | reach
and so on before we even get to (!) the uses with prepositions and adverb particles.
(Source: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/get)

Given this demoralising range of meanings, it is little surprise that learners sometimes despair of ever getting the verb at all.  The other verbs in the list exhibit the same phenomenon.
The problem for teaching then is to encourage our learners to notice the variety of meanings that any of these verbs can exhibit and notice, too, that it is second half of the chunk, such as
    make the beds
    do the cooking
    get the message
    have a bath
    go bad
    put in place
    set the clock
    take a minute
etc. which actually carries the meaning.  (If you dislike the term 'delexicalised verb', an alternative is 'empty verb'.)

communicate

Communicative efficiency

Schmitt, 2000:400, states the case like this:

There is a good psycholinguistic basis for believing that the mind stores and processes these chunks as individual wholes. The main reason stems from the structure of the mind itself. It can store vast amounts of knowledge in long-term memory, but is only able to process small amounts of it in real time, such as when one is speaking. In effect, the mind makes use of a relatively abundant resource (long-term memory) to compensate for a relative lack in another (processing capacity) by storing a number of frequently-needed lexical chunks as individual whole units. These can be easily retrieved and used without the need to compose them on-line through word selection and grammatical sequencing. This means there is less demand on cognitive capacity

If this is true, then learners will be better able to communicate if they are equipped with lexical chunks rather than grammatical knowledge.  And there's another reason: lexical chunks form an integral part of functional language use.
For example, expressions like
    Can you let me have ... ?
are both produced and perceived as if they were single lexemes, cutting out the need for the speaker and the listener to process them word by word.  The learner who produces this does not need to understand its constituent parts, nor is it necessary to understand the meaning of any of the five words when heard.  All that is needed is the knowledge that it is a polite request for something to be given to the speaker.

learning

Theory of learning

Once the chunk has been acquired, goes the theory, the learner can analyse it at leisure and notice that can may be replaced by other modals such as would to vary the meaning and let me have can be replaced by any number of phrases.  This means we can generate, e.g.:
    Would you pass the salt?
    Could you open the door?

and so on, virtually ad infinitim.
Thus the grammar is acquired through the medium of lexical-chunk learning.  In other words, grammar is not learned by combining small units into longer ones but by breaking longer units down into smaller ones.


practice

Practice

If you accept all, or even some, of the theory outlined here, it will make sense to you to focus learners much more on lexical chunking than on the grammar of the language.

Noticing

It is clearly undesirable to try to teach the many thousands, possibly millions, of lexical chunks that a native speaker commands so proponents of a lexical approach lay emphasis on noticing.  Learners need to notice that certain combinations of words perform single functions or represent single ideas as in the example above.  Once they have done that, they can then go on to analyse the chunk and in doing so acquire the grammar.
Noticing can be encouraged in a number of ways (and there is a guide to noticing on this site):

  • Teacher-led noticing
    The teacher deliberately uses models in the classroom which are rich in transferable lexical chunks and highlights these as the teaching / learning targets for the lesson.  Typically, this is done through a listening or reading text with the items emphasised in some way.
    The learners go on to using the chunks in authentic, communicative tasks and finally to analyse them.
  • Student-led noticing
    With practice and some familiarity with the approach, learners can become more independent and take examples of language in use to focus themselves on the potential lexical chunks it contains.
    Then they can incorporate them into their own production and go on to analyse them at leisure.
  • Reformulation
    The teacher can reformulate student output (either spoken or written) to focus the learners on lexical chunks.  So, for example, the production of
        I cooked the dinner
        I arrived at the station
    or
        I received a present
    can be reformulated more naturally as
        I made the dinner
        I got to the station
    and
        I got a present
    respectively.
    By the same token, the production of
        I'm going to tell you about ...
    can be reformulated as
        Have you heard that ...
    and so on.

yesbut

Criticisms

A number of criticisms have been made.  Among them are:

  1. Implementing a lexical approach will produce learners whose speech is limited to a range of clich├ęs and who will not have the language means to deal with new or unexpected topics and functional demands.
  2. The lexical approach ignores the way second languages are actually learned and that is by understanding the nature of grammar and using this competence to produce novel and accurate utterances.  Acquiring lexical chunks is part of this, not the origin of it.
  3. Claims for the efficacy of a lexical syllabus are not supported by empirical evidence.
  4. A lexical approach is, in fact, already included in most communicative language-learning approaches and there's nothing new here.
  5. A good deal of the theoretical work on a lexical approach is simply re-labelling the already well known.  Just calling some verbs delexicalised does not alter fundamental issues of colligation and collocation, for example.


Related guides
collocation for more on some of aspects of analysing and teaching lexis
colligation what it is, how it differs from collocation and some implications for the classroom
noticing for more on a key teaching technique
lexis the link to the guides to understanding lexis
methodology the link to the methodology index


References:
Lewis, M (1993), The Lexical Approach, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M (1997), Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory Into Practice, Hove: Language Teaching Publications
Schmitt, Norbert (2000), Key Concepts in ELT: Lexical Chunks, ELT Journal 54(4): 400-401, Oxford: Oxford University Press