Beginners’ Guide To The Lexical Approach

beginners' guide to the lexical approach

Beginners’ Guide to The Lexical Approach

The term “teaching lexically” was coined by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley, coursebook writers (InnovationsOutcomes) and teacher trainers (LexicalLab), who have proudly taken over from the retired Michael Lewis as torch bearers of the Lexical approach. In this “Beginners’ Guide To The Lexical Approach” I outline the main principles of the lexical approach, the way I see it, and highlight key figures in the history of the Lexical Approach and its main proponents today.


Principle 1: Ban single words

Words are never – well, almost never – used alone. I can think of only a handful of words that can be used on their own:




But most of the time words are used in company of other words. So why record them alone? Why teach accident only to find that a minute later your students say *He made an accident, when you can teach have an accident? Or why write on the board deprived and its definition or L1 translation, when you can immediately provide the nouns it often goes with:

deprived area / childhood / background

Make a habit of writing new words on the board with other words that surround them and encourage your students to do the same in their notebooks. Ideally, write whole phrases or sentences to illustrate how a word is used:

Have you done your homework?

They are investigating the murder of…

That’s it. I’m drawing the line.

If time doesn’t permit, write at least two words together.

do homework

investigate the murder (of)

intense workout

heavy rain

Remember: collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning. 

A bit of theory

The origins of the Lexical Approach can be traced back to John R. Firth (1890 – 1960), who was one of the first linguists to argue that the meaning of a word is determined by the words it co-occurs with and popularise the term “collocation”. His context-dependent view of language is succinctly summed up by his famous quote:

You shall know a word by the company it keeps.  

Useful links and resources

Inspired by J. R. Firth’s quote, Hania Kryzsewksa and Paul Davies’s new book is aptly titled “The Company Words Keep”. The book features more than a hundred activities for raising learners’ awareness of and practising lexical chunks, exploiting authentic texts and supplementing textbook materials.
See the book review HERE and preview sample activities from the book on the Delta Publishing website:


Principle 2: English word ≠ L1 word

Shifting the emphasis from words to collocations and multi-word phrases not only implies recording new language in chunks. You should try to reduce students’ reliance on word for word translation. For example, I refuse to answer the following questions:

What does    (English word)    mean? 


How do you say  (L1 word)  in English? 

Because it, of course, depends on what this word means in a given context and what the student wants to say.  

If you use translation in class, get students to translate whole phrases or collocations. For example, get students translate “soft” in the collocation fork below. Do they always end up with the same word in their L1?
soft skin

Similarly, translation of “abuse” would probably be different depending on the adjective it goes with:


verbal abuse


And do mild cheese, mild injuries and mild sentence correspond to the same “mild” in your students’ L1? I bet you’ll find that, with the exception of scientific terms (e.g. appendicitis), there is NO word for word correspondence between semantic fields of L1 and L2 words.

A Bit Of Theory

Contrastive analysis was an approach to second language acquisition prevalent in the 1960s. It was used to predict difficulties that L2 learners might encounter when mastering new grammatical structures based on the learners’ L1. If features of the learner’s L1 grammar are different to those of the target language, they will cause interference and hinder acquisition of the target language grammar. In recent years, Contrastive Analysis has attracted interest of L2 vocabulary researchers. For example, Laufer & Girsai (2008) show how learners’ acquisition of new vocabulary has improved when the teacher drew their attention to differences between collocations in L1 and English (interlingual differences). Similarly, Nesselhauf (2003) calls for the pedagogical practice of contrasting collocations in English and the students’ L1 collocations when these do not coincide, i.e. the same noun collocates with different verbs in English and L1.

Useful links and resources

If you are teaching in an EFL context and speaks the students’ L1, you can use translation and contrastive analysis to highlight collocational differences between English and L1. But what if you’re teaching in a multi-lingual ESL setting? Ken Lackman’s ebooks are an excellent resource for developing students’ awareness of and training them to notice collocations and lexical chunks through fun classroom activities.

Ken Lackman is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Canada, and is a practical proponent of the Lexical Approach.


Principle 3:  Explain less – explore more

Let’s face it. We, teachers, love explaining. After all, if we don’t, it seems like we aren’t fulfilling our role and students’ expectations. But many things in English (or any other language for that matter) simply cannot be explained. There is no reason why we say heavy rain and not *hard rain, why buildings can be described as both tall and high, but people can only be tall, and how come if we can lookstare and gaze at people, we can look at but not *gaze at a problem. Why not? If I’ve been looking at it for a long time!

By constantly explaining and giving students – often dodgy – “rules”, we actually do them a disservice. Instead of handing students the answers on a plate, invite them on a journey of linguistic discovery. And remind them that language is an organism not a mechanism; and many things in language cannot be explained because… that’s the way it is!

How can foster a culture of lexical exploration in the classroom? Encourage students to ask questions about how words are used. Get them to look at the examples (and not only definitions!) in an online dictionary or show them concordances with the target word. Arouse their curiosity about language. You’ll know that you’ve succeeded when students start asking you not only “What does the word mild mean?” but:

What else can be “mild”?


Can we say “a mild punishment”?

A Bit Of Theory

Corpus Linguistics is the study of language through samples obtained from real-world linguistic data. The work of John Sinclair, one of the corpus linguistics pioneers, exerted great influence on Dave Willis (Lexical Syllabus, 1990) and Michael Lewis (The Lexical Approach, 1993).  Sinclair showed that we do not build sentences out of single words, and that frequent multi-word units, such as mild heavy rain, exert influence, I’ll get it, Have you done your homework? are stored in the mind ‘as wholes’. Sinclair referred to this phenomenon as the idiom principle.

Useful links and resources

Once the remit of corpus linguists, many corpora are easily accessible today online. There are also plenty of user-friendly, corpus-based tools which can help you plan vocabulary lessons, i.e. look up common collocates, identify word patterns and find natural examples.  See a collection of such tools on my blog:
If you are interested in learning more about corpus, how to perform various corpus searches as well as building your own corpus, check out Mura Nava’s blog EFL Notes. He is a real corpus connoisseur.


Principle 4: Pay attention to what students (think they) know

This is important for two reasons. If students know take and place, does it mean they known take place? Or if they are familiar with both play and host, does it mean they will understand the meaning of play host (to)? What about make do (as in “it’ll make do for now”)? The meaning of many multi-word units cannot be determined from individual words they are comprised of (these are known as non-compositional lexical units). Secondly, there are many collocations, whose meaning is semantically transparent (i.e. compositional collocations) which is precisely the reason why students fail to “notice” them and later have difficulty incorporating into their own lexicon, such as take a photo or do homework (students often produce *make in these combinations).

Also, interestingly, many expressions in English (whether compositional or not) consist of the most common words such as: get, do, come, well, fall etc. 

I’m running late

it has nothing to do with…

I’m coming down with something

get a grip

lose your cool

make ends meet

do well in…

have a word with…

don’t get me wrong

Advanced level students overlook these, paying more attention instead to long, sophisticated words such as “dejectedly” and “amenable”. But revisiting the words they already know and exploring new meanings associated with them (by virtue of new collocations) they can actually get more mileage, i.e. improve their fluency and naturalness of expression.

A bit of theory

A new theory of language, known as Lexical Priming, lends further support to the Lexical Approach. Its father, the neo-Firthian linguist Michael Hoey (University of Liverpool), argues that words occur in predictable combinations because language users store words in the context in which they have heard or seen them and then reproduce those contexts in speaking or writing. In other words through encounters with words in recurring patterns we become primed to replicate these patterns.  By drawing students’ attention to collocations and common word patterns we can accelerate their priming, enabling them to become more fluent and sound more natural.

Useful links and resources

Over the past 20 or so years, Michael Lewis’s Lexical Approach has attracted a number of followers but has not been immune to criticism. In his plenary talk at IATEFL 2014, Prof Michael Hoey provides compelling evidence for the Lexical Approach by drawing on corpus-linguistic and psycholinguistic research as well as his own theory of Lexical Priming.

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  • Rob Waring says:

    No, it wasn’t coined by Hugh and Andrew, they drew their inspiration from much earlier work – probably that of Michael Lewis, Decarrico, Sinclair, Willis and many others. There have been references to teaching lexically for more than three decades.

  • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

    Sure. The work on the approach has been done by Willis (Lexical Syllabus), Nattinger & Decarrico (Lexical Phrases), Lewis (Lexical Approach) but I’ve never seen anyone refer to it as “lexical teaching / teaching lexically” which is a strange term if you think about it (what’s the opposite? teaching grammatically?)

    Thank you for your comment, Rob. I’m familiar with your work and cite some of your studies in my lectures.


  • Oscar says:

    Explain less explore more and pay attention to what students know, these two principles can be used for teaching other subjects too. Amazing post, worth sharing.

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    You say “Words are never – well, almost never – used alone. I can think of only a handful of words that can be used on their own: Hurry!, Silence, Tragic”.

    What? Really? Seriously? Almost never? No! Nonsense! How’s that: 5 out of the 6 words just used were used on their own. Hundreds of words are daily used on their own in everyday communication in all mediums. Single words are used for naming things, commands, warnings, requests, questions, greetings, farewells, exclamations, comprehension checks, affirmations, discourse markers, cohesive devices, and so on. Furthermore, hundreds of words are usefully taught on their own. To take just nouns, are you seriously suggesting that we should never teach things like numbers, days of the week, parts of the body, family members, jobs, buildings, countries, means of transport, animals, fruit, vegetables, etc, etc. on their own?

    To say that “collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning” is not just false, it’s preposterous. And to make “Ban single words” the first principle of teaching lexically is to absurdly oversimplify the case for paying attention to collocation.

    So, son, what do you think of it so far? Rubbiish!

    And I’m afraid it doesn’t get any better. Each of the “principles” is a poorly-expressed and unwarranted generalisation that doesn’ bear critical scrutiny. None of the “bits of theory” are properly explained or offer serious support for the assertions made. I’ll give a full reply soon.

    • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

      Hi Geoff,

      “What? Really? Seriously?..” You didn’t get far with that list of single words, did you? because the rest of your comment consists of chunks:”hundreds of words”, “on their own”, “daily used”, “in everyday communication”, “naming things” and so on. Mind you, as a good language learner (the one who has been primed through massive exposure to rich input) you said:

      “ON their own” – not *by their own
      “daily used” but “in everyday communication” – why not *everyday used?
      “naming things” – not *calling things names

      What you suggest is that we should deny learners access to what makes you, as a native speaker, fluent and proficient, and teach them instead: on, his/her/their, own, daily, everyday as single words. And what’s the difference between the last two (daily/everyday), if not their different collocational behaviour?

      Yes, you can teach days of the week, means of transport and jobs as single words, but do not throw your hands up in despair when students say “in Tuesday”, “I came on car” and forget to add the auxiliary TO BE when describing someone’s job. Because I teach all these as:

      – on Tuesday,
      – by car/bus/train
      – He/She is a doctor/teacher/journalist.

      Besides, there is another problem with your suggestion. Teaching lists of parts of the body, family members, animals etc – has been convincingly and consistently shown (that’s a nice chunk, come to think of it!) to be ineffective. You’re welcome to stop by my blog for references – see here:

      Thank you for your comment. I wouldn’t bother with a longer reply if I were you, especially if it’s going to fall along the same lines. I ‘m well-versed on the subject of L2 vocabulary research so don’t challenge me.

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    Nice thick smoke Leo, but you do not reply to the main criticisms.
    1. The claim that words are almost never used alone is falsified thousands of times a day by English users. A large number of words are routinely used alone to express a wide variety of functions in English.
    2. The claim that “collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning” is preposterous.
    3. To exhort teachers to “ban single words” is also preposterous. It’s self-evidently ridiculous, an absurd overstating of the legitimate case for the importance of collocation to propose as the first principle of ELT that we should never teach single words.
    I should add that I didn’t suggest teaching LISTS of parts of the body, family members, etc., I limited myself to suggesting that such nouns don’t always have to be taught with their collocates.
    Your claim to be “well-versed in the subject of L2 vocabulary research” is consistently thrown into doubt by what you say in posts on your blog, I certainly will challenge you, and I’ll try to demonstrate the many weaknesses in your “Beginners’ Guide” in a post of my own.

    • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

      Yes, a large number of words used alone (but many more are used in chunks), as is borne out by your original comment above. (“What? Really? Seriously? Nonsense”). Yet, the lists of words you suggest which should be taught as single words – whether in LISTS or not – are words that are hardly ever used alone (“Cousin”, “Lion”, “Knee” – how can these be used alone?). So you’re saying that many nouns can be taught without co-text (and then, somehow, magically, students will put them to good use by themselves), but your examples of single words routines used alone are all comprised of interjections and questions. A bit of contradiction there, don’t you think?

      I’ve written this post for teachers seeking quick-and-dirty practical guidelines for implementing the lexical approach, or, in Ivor Timmis’s terms, adding a lexical dimension to your teaching- this is the way I see it. I’m also familiar with your criticism of the Lexical approach, particularly its theoretical underpinnings. I’ll be looking forward to a post of your own, but you really should work out the contradictions such as the one above if you want to express balanced criticism of my views on language learning/teaching AND provide helpful guidelines to teachers. I’ll be also happy to hear of any L2 vocabulary research studies that I’ve misinterpreted on my blog and read better analysis and interpretation thereof.

      Regarding your comment no. 2, I’ll reply in single words (sorry if it doesn’t make much sense):

      Collocation. Important. Meaning. Firth. Unit. No. Word. Good. Preposterous? No.

      Lexically yours,


  • Geoff Jordan says:

    I see no contradiction in pointing out that you’re wrong, as a matter of fact, to say that words are hardly ever used alone and then giving a few very widely-used examples. The examples were random; any examination of a big corpus of spoken English will show examples of a wide range of functions, including, as I’ve already said, for naming things (Paris), commands (Wait), warnings Careful!), requests (scalpel), questions (Where?), greetings (Hi), farewells (Bye), exclamations (Wow!), comprehension checks (right?), affirmations (Absolutely!), discourse markers (however), cohesive devices (next), and so on. Of course these single words are said in context, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you’re wrong on a truly massive scale to claim they’re hardly ever used.

    Similarly, you’re wrong, as a matter of judgement, to propose the principle “ban single words”, because they are times, even if not anywhere like as many as most teachers assume, when words can usefully be learned without their collocates.

    My point is very simple: you grossly overstate your case, thus distorting the part collocation plays in describing English and in informing ELT practice.

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    I said. “The claim that “collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning” is preposterous.”

    You reply: “Collocation. Important. Meaning. Firth. Unit. No. Word. Good. Preposterous? No”

    Is this supposed to be amusing? Your claim is preposterous because it’s so obviously, manifestly wrong. Do you think Firth (or Sinclair, or Hoey or anybody who knows anything about grammar come to that) would say that individual words have no meaning? It’s particularly ironic that you cite Firth, who coined the term “phonaestheme” and examined properties of morphemes. For example, Firth pointed out that “gl-” can be found in words relating to light or vision, such as glow, glitter, glare, glisten, gleam, and so forth. Firth argued that the remainder of each word (-ow, -itter, -are, -isten, -eam) is not itself a morpheme and does not make meaningful contribution to the words. Considering this, do you think Firth would support your silly assertion?

    Once again, you’re trying to emphasise the importance of collocation and making a complete mess of it.

  • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

    I was hoping to see a comment made up of single words, but was bitterly disappointed (collocation) when your last two comments contained so many prefabs (e.g. manifestly wrong, the part it plays, a wide range of etc.).

    Joking apart now, as I said, Geoff, I shall be looking forward to your own article giving the due emphasis to collocation in ELT without overstating the case.

    I don’t understand what “phonaestheme” has anything to do with the discussion in hand – or are you trying to show off your knowledge? – and how the fact that “gl” is related to light, “fl” is often found in words relating to water, movement and transient states (flow, flee, flake, flutter), while “st” signify a lack of movement (stand, steady, stable) diminishes the role of collocation in creation of meaning or, more specifically, the importance of teaching collocations.

    If you would like to be critical of my “banning single word” claim, I wish you referred to the examples I USED to support the claim in the article. Otherwise, you’re just making a complete mess of your own criticism.

    And yes, I believe Firth would agree with my silly assertion and the use of the word “ban” because he would have seen it in context it was used in! Sinclair would agree for sure. If you find my claim about collocations being units of meaning preposterous, I suggest you re-read his work. As far as I’m concerned, this discussion is over.

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    The point that went over your head was that Firth, like everybody except you, it would seem, sees the morpheme as the minimum unit for meaning, not words with their collocates.
    All your blustering does nothing to answer these points:
    1. The claim that words are almost never used alone is false.
    2. The claim that “collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning” is false.
    3. The claim that words should always be taught with their collocates is preposterous.

  • Nick Bilbrough says:

    Excellent post Leo -beautifully and simply expressed. It’s called ‘A beginner’s guide to teaching lexically’ and the issues that you address are real concerns in the many classrooms around the world where teaching lexically doesn’t really happen. There are lots of teachers who would benefit from reading it, and lots of writers of exams. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Geoff Jordan is right too, of course; there are many things which can be expressed with a single word. I’d like to say many of those single word utterances to him right now but I’m censoring myself.

    • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

      Thank you for stopping by, Nick.
      Sure, many things can be expressed in single word utterances, such as commands/imperatives. But where I was coming from is that I’d rather teach “wait for me” which students can then shorten to a simple “wait!”, rather than teach “wait” and let students figure out by themselves what it should be followed by. That’s of course simplifying it but I’m sure you get the gist.

      • Nick Bilbrough says:

        Yes – I agree with you completely Leo. My comment about ‘single word utterances’ was a failed attempt at sarcasm. I think I’ll stick to the day job 🙂

  • Eric Roth says:

    Thank you for writing this provocative post and generating this engaging discussion. Teaching collocations remains a fantastic way to help many English language learners avoid “good mistakes”, especially with pesky prepositions. Context often remains king.

    Yet dogma is dogma. I would suggest that Bob Dylan’s classic song “Hard Rain” shows that the phrase is sometimes used.

    Bottomline: teaching words – especially for advanced learners – by the company they keep remains a powerful, if under-appreciated, method.

    • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

      Thank you for your comment, Eric. And the song.
      I agree that collocation/co-text becomes even more important at higher levels as advanced level words tend to be more “restricted” and learners need to be made aware of these collocational restrictions.

  • Phil Wade says:

    Well, this got heated quickly.

    I’m sure the late Frank Kelly who played Father Jack would have had some interesting words to add. As he is no longer with us, perhaps ‘drink’ would be a good addition 😉

    It seems like we have crititicised all the ‘classics’ that my TEFL course was a mishmash of to the point that we probably shouldn’t teach much on teacher training courses. The academic version of ‘here’s X approach’ but now ‘here’s all the criticism’ just seems a bit daft now. Maybe techniques are all that’s left or to some worksheets. Or another idea is just to cut out all the learning and criticising and just skip to helping teachers create their own theory of learning and teaching and then their own tool set. That would save them 10 years and countless courses and books.

    Actually, I’ve lost track of where we are supposed to be now. The post-methods period was ages ago. Tech reigns supreme so perhaps we could actually say we are in the tech world and ideas of how students learn and how we should teach are secondary or third to which apps we can use.


    • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

      I hope you were not being serious about how students learn being secondary to which apps we use.

      I never considered the Lexical approach as a method – if you listen to Hugh Dellar’s podcast on here you’ll see he’s of the same opinion. It’s an approach, the way you see language, which, in turn, informs your classroom practice. All this, in my opinion, is still relevant in the post- post-methods era.

      Bottoms up!

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    Dear Nick Bilbrough,

    You want to thank and congratulate Leo Selivan for his post. Good for you. But what’s the point of adding that you’re censoring yourself by not throwing single word insults at me “right now”? Real restraint would be to say nothing; a good alternative would be to say, as forcefully as you cared to, what you objected to in my comments. But this?

    • Nick Bilbrough says:

      This post is called ‘A beginner’s guide to teaching lexically’ . I wanted to congratulate Leo on the post because I think it does exactly what it says on the tin; that is, it shows teachers who are less experienced in teaching lexically some very practical things they can do in the classroom, and a reason for doing these things. I disagree with your comments on here and I don’t like the way that you made those comments, which I see as overly aggressive, unnecessarily critical and downright rude. This post, in my view, was written in the spirit of sharing knowledge. I’d hate to think that teachers would be put off experimenting with the ideas that Leo puts forward because of your ranting.

      There – not a one word utterance in the end. Thank you for suggesting that I expanded, and thank God for lexical chunks!

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    Dear Nick (if I may),

    Thanks for the explanation.

    First, you disagree with my comments. So you disagree that
    * The claim that words are almost never used alone is false.
    * The claim that “collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning” is false.
    * The claim that words should ALWAYS (my emphasis) be taught with their collocates is exaggerated.
    Second, you say my comments were overly aggressive, unnecessarily critical and downright rude. I can only say that I think this is unfair. My comment “What do you think of it so far? Rubbish!” was supposed to be light-hearted (a reference to Morecombe and Wise and an example of using a single word to effect) but I accept that it could give offence, but apart from that, I don’t think my comments were as you describe them.
    In any case, I sincerely apologise to Leo if I offended him.

  • Nick Bilbrough says:

    Dear Geoff,

    I think we are coming at this post from different angles. I’m a teacher, a teacher trainer and a trainer trainer and I’m interested in methodology. I keep coming back to the point that it’s called, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Teaching Lexically’ For me this post is about classroom practice – not theory. It’s about strategies that teachers can employ to help their learners notice, store and retrieve chunks of language. I think that in language classrooms in many different contexts worldwide (where in my experience there may be too much of an emphasis on the meaning and learning of individual words) there is a real need for teachers to experiment more with such strategies. Of course theory is also very important – why should anybody do anything if they don’t believe it has value – but I think Leo strikes the right balance here with the way that he ends each section.

    As regards how you express your contempt for the article, I don’t think that you using language like……

    ‘everybody except you, it would seem’, ‘preposterous’ ‘Is this supposed to be amusing?’ ‘it’s so obviously, manifestly wrong’ ‘your silly assertion’ ‘making a complete mess of it’, ‘you’re wrong on a truly massive scale’ ‘Similarly, you’re wrong, as a matter of judgement’, ‘It’s self-evidently ridiculous’ , ‘an absurd overstating’ , ‘Your claim to be “well-versed in the subject of L2 vocabulary research” is consistently thrown into doubt’ , ‘I’ll try to demonstrate the many weaknesses in your “Beginners’ Guide” in a post of my own’, ‘is not just false, it’s preposterous’ ‘absurdly oversimplify’, ‘And I’m afraid it doesn’t get any better’, ‘Each of the “principles” is a poorly-expressed and unwarranted generalisation that doesn’t bear critical scrutiny’, ‘None of the “bits of theory” are properly explained or offer serious support for the assertions made’

    ….is useful if the aim of the post is to encourage and enable teachers to teach with more of a focus on lexical chunks.

  • Russell Crew-Gee says:

    The aspect regarding all the different approaches to Language Teaching or even Teaching itself which so many ignore in the lecturing of what is right and wrong, is the student’s intelligence. The so called Dellar and Walkley Lexical approach is arrogance of the highest order, “The Lexical Laboratory, putting language back into language teaching”. What an insult to all language teachers throughout time? Is not language the basis of language teaching? All smoke and mirrors of academic gobbledygook. The student and their memory abilities should be at the heart of learning not a load of academic piffle. As a foreign language learner every adult with a basic education standard understands how language works and how words join each other to create concepts which can be understood in the target language. Lexical/vocabulary, who cares, every word is lexical or vocabulary since they all have specific concepts within the structure of any specific language. Every word is a grammar word, since grammar is about structure and linguistic analysis. Language teaching has always been about the totality of any language. There is a time and place for single word, clause, phrase, sentence, paragraph explanation etc.etc. The Learning Approach would be a far better road to pursue if one was truly interested in the ability of a student to retain and use their target language in the shortest time possible. The REAL problem.

  • Russell Crew-Gee says:

    LS said: “somehow, magically, students will put them to good use by themselves”

    Yet another arrogant statement which in reality is an insult to the intelligence of the learner. Learners are intelligent human beings, strange as it may seem, and are more than capable of knowing how to work out structures and lexis. Me for one, because as a learner of a foreign language I find myself constantly desiring the translation of a single word without any added desire to know all the situations it can be used in, my memory system would be crashing in panic as a total beginner. Many language teachers seem to be totally unaware or unwilling to realise/accept that mother tongue learner intelligence can play a major role in the understanding of structure and usage.

    Which chunk?

    “What time does the train leave?”.
    “When does the train leave?”

    “What time” or “when”?

    Are you going to teach every structure into which the above fit or is it at all possible that the learner is more than capable of working it all out for themselves?

    Magically students are more than capable putting it all together by themselves. Incidently you missed “By Tuesday I will ……”
    “Next Tuesday”
    “Last Tuesday”
    “Off Tuesday, on Wednesday”

    Teach situation not language.

    I once had a student who thought “fuck” meant “beautiful”, because she had heard it used as an exclamation of “wow”. It was a speaking skills class and I then posponed prepared lesson and taught a whole range of single words with their sexual meanings with positive and negative emotional meanings. It became a major talking point at International House as to whether it is appropriate to help adult students understand expletives and their usage. When a student says “That’s fucking” meaning “beautiful” because of something they overheard it’s a golden opportunity to use the situation to stimulate a learning process.

    LS: “I ‘m well-versed on the subject of L2 vocabulary research so don’t challenge me.”

    More arrogance? “I know best” syndrome?

  • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

    It seems you disagree with my propositions regarding language teaching but in fact what you suggest in you comment is very similar to the approach I advocate. Many learners of any level often desire the exact translation when they encounter a new word in a foreign language – I don’t deny that. My point was that it is difficult to give the exact translation of a word because words in L1 and English (or any FL for that matter) might not have exact semantic overlap. So what you end up is a translation of a word in a given context or, in your words, situation.

    Then, at no point did I suggest that we should overload the learner with all possible uses of the word; what I would suggest – although I didn’t relate to it in my article – is quite the opposite: focus on the meaning and use of the word in the context it was encountered. It’s what you choose to call it situation but it’s essentially the same thing.

    What we do disagree about is the learners’ ability to successfully combine grammar and vocabulary. Your examples “next Tuesday”, “last Tuesday” are indeed examples of successfully working it out by themselves using what you refer to as the mother tongue intelligence. But, using that same very “mother tongue intelligence”, or in other words, as a result of negative transfer from L1, they can also produce “IN next Tuesday” and “ON last Tuesday”. So my point was that learners need guidance and it is our role as teachers to provide it. Studies show that up to 50% of lexical mistakes are caused by negative transfer from L1, i.e. when learners combine words that would combine in their mother tongue but which do not combine in English resulting in mis-collocation.

    More linguistically minded learners indeed have a heightened awareness of how words combine together to create meanings but many others labour under the assumption that they can learn the rules of grammar and lists of words, and make progress in English. This approach – Alison Wray refers to it as “the Lego approach” when learners break up the language into constituent parts in order to try and understand it – is fraught with problems in that any grammatically well-formed sentence in a language seems possible. But languages just don’t work like that. So yes, indeed, you can work out many things on your own, but in many cases you just need to know the exact – often more precise and concise – way of saying something.

    Yes, learners are intelligent beings – do you imply then that they do not need teachers at all because they can successfully work their way through a grammar book and a good learner’s dictionary (and, of course, a good book or TV series without subtitles)? Perhaps. But as long as they come to us, teachers, it is our responsibility to show them how the English language works and give them tools to “chunk” language effectively and continue their learning journey on their own.

    Finally, regarding my seemingly arrogant remark it was addressed to G. Jordan in response to his comment.

  • Russell Crew-Gee says:


    You are absolutely correct in saying it is difficult to give an exact translation however that is not a universal truth for EVERY word. The majority of basic language knowledge however will have the same meaning in the mother tongue and so it is ridiculous to make it a golden rule not to teach single words particular when teaching in a multi-language group of learners environment. Over the many years of teaching I encountered student after student who had problems with “This” and “That” and in a situation like that, (not context because context can also relate to word placement within a structure whereas situation will refer to the subject matter of the situation, a classic difference of emphasis and likely confusion by a foreign learner), it is very important to get across the concept, exclusively for those two words, it requires no collocation). Teaching prepositions of place do not require use of the visual aid, (a table, emphasis for students, concept of surface),for a student to understand how to use the word correctly. However when one then contrasts it with prepositions of time collocation becomes more relevant. A lesson plan on prepositions, I would posit, can rely solely on visual images of the single word. Hence there is a time and place for every approach and being prescriptive in any teaching environment is idiocy.

    Indeed students do have problems with many aspects of mother tongue interference,mainly structural as opposed to vocabulary, however the example you give of “IN next Tuesday” is also a problem of single word conceptual meaning,(in/next) which requires explanation or the student through time encountering the correct form will recognise their mistake or a person will point out the mistake and they will then have a problem in retraining their memory to make the correction. Obviously when a learner employs a teacher then it is the role of the teacher to guide and CORRECT, (are we allowed to do that)the student in cases of single incidences of structural mistakes. Are structural errors collocation errors or structural grammatical differences, something which as a learner as well, I believe to be two completely different ways of analysing the problems you are referring to?

    I believe you yet again are being very dismissive of the intelligence of other human beings and their INDIVIDUAL learning methods. There have been millions of student who have successfully learnt a foreign language by learning the structure of the language and applying their memory to remember as many words as they could and using their intelligence. Every time I enter a foreign supermarket I learn new words in a list like form and the only problem I encounter in using those words is my memory ability and motivation. I wonder how it is possible for so many businesses which sell self learning products, to have been so successful throughout time if there was such a major problem in slef learning. Lego builds absolutely stunning structures. Your arrogance is shinning through again, “But languages just don’t work like that” I for one would challenge that statement, it is far from reality in my opinion, they do in fact work like that, how on earth did we learn our mother tongue? All humans learn a language through its constituent parts and we make thousands of errors/mistakes before we achieve fluency and even then there are millions who never get their own language right.

    Do I believe learners of a foreign language do not need teachers, absolutely because unlike other subject areas it is more than possible to teach oneself another language. My wife learnt French and Italian up to advanced level in six months with out any help from a teacher, she now teaches the two languages to children. Thrown off an English language course at a college in her own country she has now has an honours degree from the Open University. Learners would benefit more from guidance of how to learn as opposed to what to learn.

    Once we are reasonably competent we can through the very long process of learning, (it never ends), build upon our knowledge either through formalised learning sessions, self learning, life experiences with our foreign friends and begin to learn the intricacies of the language, if we so desire. That continues throughout our lives in our mother tongue.

    It is stating the obviously when someone pays a teacher to show then how a language works that it is the teachers responsibility to show them how the language works and to successfully use the structures of the language effectively rather than swallowing “chunks” of meat which they have to chew on for ages and never ever understand why their teacher is using “chunk” instead of “structure” which provides much greater clarity of how language works. Language does not have a chunk, it has a structure.

    Nothing “seemingly” about the remark particularly since you say it was aimed at GJ. You need a dose of Emolinguistics, coming to you courtesy of the internet, shortly.

  • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

    I hope you forgive me if I relate to only a couple of points you raise in your comment.

    Just like another commenter before you, you take the section heading (“Ban single words”) at face value without looking at the examples I use to support the claim. Can you point out how any of my suggested ways of recording new vocabulary (in the section entitled “ban single words”) can harm students? Instead of relating to my examples, you choose to use your own example: prepositions. Fine, let’s go with that.

    Indeed, learners can understand the concept of ON through the use of visual clues. For one, I use a lot of drawings and imagery to teach prepositions – but the article is about the Lexical Approach, not a cognitive semantic approach to teaching prepositions (and phrasal verbs). Mind you, if I’d written about that I could have been just easily accused of being prescriptive. You can throw the word “prescriptive” at anyone then (and garnish it with the word “idiocy”) who writes about, say, using videos to teach language, “You’re being prescriptive. You can also teach through songs!”

    Talking about prepositions of place, of course you can teach them conceptually but you can also highlight the difference, for example, between IN and AT through collocations: AT a wedding / a concert / my friend’s birthday party (patter: AT + events). But how can you teach conceptually ON in ON the train / ON the plane / ON the bus when what you refer to as students’ mother tongue intelligence says it should be IN because you are sitting inside the train, plane etc. Why is it ON? This was, by the way, a real question students asked me last week.

    You argue that I’m dismissive of learners’ intelligence but you make a bit of a mess of your argument when you mention mother tongue learning (or acquisition). It is precisely because adult learners are intelligent, congitively developed human beings that they apply “the lego approach” to learning a foreign language instead of memorising whole chunks (I know you don’t like the word but that’s what they are and what dozens of authors before me have called them). In other words, adult learners break up and (over)analyse linguistic input instead of acquiring whole, unsegmented multi-word units like children do in their mother tongue (grammatical awareness starts much later). And yes, our mother tongue learning continues throughout our lives – that’s exactly what Michael Hoey mentioned in my article would say. You see, again, we agree on quite a few points there, but I get the impression that you’re so intent on trashing what I’ve written you fail to see the points in my article with which you in fact agree. I grant that you do acknowledge that it may simply be the case of us different ways of analysing the same problem.

    I shall be looking forward to the launch of Emolinguistics and I hope it is devoid of prescriptivity and arrogance which permeate my article, which I, incidentally, support with evidence from at least 4 theoreticians and a handful of practitioners.

  • Leo.

    How on earth do you know I did not look at the example? I even got as far as this idiocy,(there is no other word for it) “Remember: collocations – and not individual words – are minimum units of meaning.”

    I really do suggest you spend some time to properly analyse and research the concepts, of IN and ON because if you do not know how to teach conceptually the difference you are not doing your job properly because it is very very easy. I can teach the difference without uttering a word, and it would be ingrained in learners minds forever and they could use their own intelligence and knowledge of life to collocate it with every other word which fits the concept.

    Thank you for explaining to me how I and my wife (A highly thought of nursery teacher, so she knows all about teaching English to children, plus having a CELTA qualification) learn a foreign language and I can tell you categorically that we do not agree with you, so there are two people who do not fit your adult learning theory. The problem is not a question of over analysis it is about the ability to orally remember long structures, let alone at times to aurally comprehend, you would be surprised by how many students have problems actually comprehending simple contractions, even at higher levels. We cannot as human beings analyse until we actually have the concepts in or memory. Adults once they understand a structure have the ability to analyse and question however at the end of the day as beginners they still have to acquire the language in the first place and only then, in this way, they are the able to analyse and more quickly absorb the rules and apply them, unlike children who can have a meta language for years. Witness was/were for English speakers and how that can actually impact on their lives, (What you or anyone else may say about ‘chunks’, they are at the end of the day a structure of language, that is the meaning of a “chunk” in your contextual use or should that be collocated with, a chunk of language/chunk of meat/chunk of masonry/chunk of phrases/chunk of structures, ooops that’s the verbal use, plus it also means a “part of something”.) You use chunk and I use structure, I firmly believe that the use of structure or for that matter phrase is far more useful in a linguistic sense and practical sense than the use of chunk and is closer to the linguistic reality, so point being, your comment “but that’s what they are” is Factual wrong. Just because x amount of people believe something to be true does not make it a Factual Reality, particularly when others have an alternative vision. There are obviously points of agreement however there would be no point as far as I am concerned in just commenting, “Couldn’t agree more” when I fundamentally believe that the Lexical Approach is all a load of codswallop. Teachers in general have always taught both individual words and collacatively structures, it is the nature of language learning, and all at the appropriate time. It is quite normal to challenge something which one disagrees with and I have only picked up on the conversation, so making suppositions about my motives is not the most emotionally intelligent road to follow. Guessing people’s motives is a road to nowhere.

    It is prescriptive to only do something in a single way, irrespective of how many people disagree with you through logic and reality. It is also arrogant to tell people not to challenge you. You have been challenged on your use of a structure which can easily be connected to arrogance neither of which has anything to do with theoreticians or practitioners.

    It surely should challenge you to delve more deeply rather than just standing your ground and just argue at the end of the day that you have read books that prove you right. GJ challenged you and also found allies so that 3 theoreticians, (are we not all theorists), have an alternative scenario.

    As far as I am concerned this discussion is over, now where did I see that one?

  • Leo Selivan Leo Selivan says:

    I must say I’m more than relieved it’s over because frankly I don’t have neither the time nor energy to try to make sense of – let alone, reply to your comment.

  • LS

    You mean you cannot dispute the reality and missed the sarcasm so you try dismiss it as incomprehensible, to discredit the writer.
    No wonder you like to ban.
    When confronted by something one does not comprehend open minded human beings strive for knowledge. The mind of a fanatic, simplistic and closed.
    The lexical approach is not the holi grail of language teaching.

  • Just to clarify my stance. I am 100% sure that for all the academic ideas and discussions learners are learning no quicker in the classroom now than they were in the year dot. I make however an exception in the case of students who teach themselves and apply basic memory techniques and ultilise modern technology to help themselves in the endeavour. Suggestions on what to teach as opposed to how to learn is at the end of the day, always been a pointless exercise in EFL. Who needs coursebooks anymore with a resource like the internet available. Teaching learners how to effectively use technology in their learning experience ought to be the number one priority in order that they practise over and over again to place the target language firmly in their memory. Sadly too many teachers seem to believe they are the only people who can place language in a learner’s head. The Learning Approach or even the Learner’s Approach.

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