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Concourse 2

The Lexical Approach


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.



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



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, hope for the best, certain people 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, linked in the list of related guides at the end.)
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 Lewis 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, holophrases, polywords and so on.

In spoken language in particular, where time pressures on speakers are high, the use of prefabricated 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:

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, linked at the end.


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: https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/get)

What is meant by delexicalisation, in Lewis' view, is that the verbs in question do not carry an intrinsic meaning.  What happens is that they acquire their meaning from the noun phrase with which they collocate.  Many of these verbs refer to performing an action so we get, for example:
    hold a meeting
    run a meeting
    give permission
    take a look
    take a chance
    make apologies
    take pity on
    throw a party
    do wonders
    give thanks

There is no semantic choice to be made here in terms of which verb collocates with which noun phrase.
Naturally, all these verbs also have lexical meanings.  For example:
    hold = grasp in the hand
    run = move quickly / flow
    give = present
    throw = project through the air
    take = move to another place

and so on.
The point being made is that in these uses they are delexicalised.

Given this demoralising range of meanings, it is little surprise that learners sometimes despair of ever understanding what the verbs mean (because, in fact, they don't mean anything much).  All the 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.

The use of delexicalised verbs is often semi-opaque.  That is to say that while we can easily see the meanings behind, for example:
    do the cooking
    make dinner
the choice of the verb is not to do with its meaning.  It is the meaning of the noun phrase which determines the meaning of the clause and the choice of verb may seem random.
However, opacity is not an on-off phenomenon because some verbs may be seen as semi-delexicalised.  For example in:
    give thanks
    pay a compliment
    take an interest
    set an example
etc., there is some sense in all cases of the verb's meaning although it is still very difficult to guess which verb will form the appropriate collocation.
It is also the case that even usually delexicalised verbs can be used metaphorically so, for example:
    Take the car to the garage
is the normal lexical use of the verb meaning moving to another place, but:
    Take a hammer to it
has a wholly different, figurative meaning of:
    Hit it with a hammer.

If you dislike the term 'delexicalised verb', an alternative is 'empty verb' and you can get a list of them here.
There is also a lesson for B1 / B2-level learners on delexicalised verbs here (new tab).

The concept of delexicalised verbs is not a new one (although the term is new) because the idea of prime verbs in languages has been around for a while.  The prime verbs in English are usually listed as:
be | bring | come | do | get | give | go | keep | make | put | take
and 5 of those are common to both lists.
Besides the delexicalised nature of many of these verbs in certain collocations, they are also the verbs which are basic to most idiomatic language and which often take the place of more formal or synthetic verbs.  So, for example:

We can render ... ... as this with a prime verb
He appeared suddenly He was suddenly there
They have raised four children They have brought up four children
He attended the meeting He came to the meeting
I executed her instructions I did as she told me
I arrived at the hotel late I got to the hotel late
I handed in my essay I gave my essay in
He travelled to New York He went to New York
Please retain the receipt Please keep the receipt
I prepared dinner I made dinner
She garaged the car She put the car in the garage
I caught the train I took the train
There are, in fact, very few verbal concepts in English which cannot be rendered less formally and more simply by using one of the prime verbs in combinations with adverbials.


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.


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 modal auxiliary verbs 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 infinitum.
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: an analytic rather than a synthetic process.

clip board

A lexical syllabus

Once the focus is taken away from language structure and grammar and placed on the lexical systems of the language, the next decision that needs to be made is what to include in a teaching programme.
This is not an uncontroversial area and different practitioners of a lexical approach (whether whole- or half-hearted) will draw up lists in quite different ways.
Nevertheless, there is some consensus that the following will form the content of the syllabus.



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.
Implementing a lexical approach, in full or as an adjunct to a more traditional approach does not imply a major shift in methodology or techniques in the classroom.  What does alter dramatically, is the content and focus of the teaching and learning.
It is, so to speak, a change in pedagogical mind sets, not a new methodology.



It is clearly undesirable to try to teach the many thousands 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 examples 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, linked at the end in the list of related guides):



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 clichés 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.
  6. What Lewis and others are actually describing is a long-attested tendency in many languages to grammaticalise words, bleaching them of their lexical meaning and converting them to function words.  In other words, nothing new is being described that warrants a change in teaching approach.  For examples of how this has happened in the case of words like will, indeed, let, go etc., see the guide to the roots of English, linked below.

The most telling criticism of The Lexical Approach is however, that it is not an approach at all, leave alone a methodology.  It has very little to say about how to structure teaching in terms of a settled syllabus (although the effort is being made, see above), almost nothing to say about how to teach above the level of raising learners' awareness of the usability and efficiency of language chunks and little that one could call a theory of learning (other than that it involves some serious memorisation of items rather than rules).
It is, as Richards and Rodgers (2001:138) note, an idea in search of an approach and a methodology.

Related guides
empty or delexicalised verbs for a list in PDF format
a lesson on delexicalised verbs this is in the learners' section and opens in a new tab
collocation: essentials for the simpler guide to this area in the initial plus section
collocation for a more detailed guide in the in-service area
colligation what it is, how it differs from collocation and some implications for the classroom
idiomaticity for more about lexicalised phrases, fixed expressions and so on
noticing for more on a key teaching technique
lexis the link to the guides to understanding lexis
roots of English for a discussion of grammaticalisation
methodology the link to the methodology index

Lewis, M, 1993, The Lexical Approach, Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications
Lewis, M, 1997, Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory Into Practice, Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications
Richards, J, and Rodgers, T, 2001, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schmitt, N, 2000, Key Concepts in ELT: Lexical Chunks, ELT Journal 54(4): 400-401, Oxford: Oxford University Press