Hugh Dellar Discusses The Lexical Method

Hugh Dellar Discusses The Lexical Method

As part of our series on The Lexical Method to English language teaching, Hugh Dellar discusses The Lexical Method with Ger Counihan


Lexical Lab is Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley. They met at University of Westminster in 1997 and have worked closely as teachers, trainers and materials writers since then. They have written two five-level General English coursebook series for National Geographic Learning: Innovations (which was twice nominated for a British Council ELTON award) and Outcomes. They have also produced an online Teacher Development course called Teaching Lexically and are currently working on a methodology book of the same name for DELTA Publishing.

Hugh and Andrew have recently opened ‘London Language Lab’ which offers 4 and 8 week courses in July and August, with 20 lessons a week. The course is focused on teaching large amounts of vocabulary, with the emphasis being on listening and speaking.

“Our summer classes will teach you a large amount of vocabulary and show you how to use it with grammar. While you can expect to do some reading and writing on the course, the summer classes place a greater emphasis on developing Speaking and Listening. You will be guaranteed one of our experienced teachers who will respond to your language needs as they teach you through our usual mix of intelligent conversation, humour and real-life tasks.”

General English course to improve your social, professional and academic English. We will teach you a large amount of vocabulary and show you how to use it with grammar.

GENERAL ENGLISH 15 plus LONDON CULTURE – One extra classroom-based lesson on an aspect of London culture and society every Monday followed by a related visit to an area or sight in London accompanied by the teacher.


GENERAL ENGLISH 15 plus IELTS – Three hours of additional lessons a week preparing students for the IELTS academic exam. While you will get to understand all aspects of the exam through these lessons, the main focus will be developing writing skills and additional work on academic vocabulary.



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  • Geoff Jordan says:

    Dear oh dear! Did anybody think of editing this? From the “long winded” baloney at the start to the equally badly-expressed talk that follows, this discussion will surely be of little use to anyone hoping to learn about the lexical approach. I’ll limit myself to one sample.

    At the 6.40 mark in the podcast Dellar says:

    “When you’re communicating, first what drives your communication is the words you’re looking for, right? When you’re abroad you can go into a shop and you can go “I want, um, coffee, um sandwich”, OK? What drives that communication is the vocabulary. And what then happens is that as your language becomes more sophisticated, more developed, you learn to kind of grammar the basic content words that you’re adding there. So you learn “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, please.” So you add the grammar to the words that drive the communication, yeah? Or you just learn that as whole chunk. You just learn “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee.” Can I get a sandwich, please.” You learn “Can I get” and you drop in a variety of different things.”

    What does the statement “what drives your communication is the words you’re looking for” mean? And what does “as your language becomes more sophisticated, … you learn to kind of grammar the basic content words that you’re adding there” mean? A beginner says “I want, um, coffee, um sandwich” while the more sophisticated learner says “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, please.” In the second utterance, the speaker has learned to “grammar the basic content words”. Alternatively, he could have learned the chunk “Can I get ..” and then “dropped in a variety of different things”. What’s the point of this? How does one teach learners “to grammar the basic content words that you’re adding there”? And when is it better to teach “the whole chunk”?

    There is, of course, a perfectly good point to be made about the usefulness of learning lexical chunks, but Dellar fails to make it clearly or succinctly. He expresses himself very badly, and, typically, chooses a very bad example. Why not tell students that when we’re asked what we’d like in shops, bars, cafes, etc., we usually reply by just naming what we want: “Hi. A coffee and a sandwich, please.”? What is gained by teaching learners to use the redundant, not to mention illogical “Can I get…” chunk?

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Ah, the return of Geoff Jordan. A man so certain of the validity of his own opinions that he feels entitled to belittle and insult others who have different ones.

      One can only assume his public interactions are intended as models for his MA students of how to engage in academic debate and discussion.

      I’ll leave it to the listeners and readers to decide whether or not attempting to teach a chunk like CAN I GET is redundant and / or illogical.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Not quite sure why you feel the need to be so rude, Geoff, or how you can be so sure of what will or won’t be useful to other teachers.

      I think you also seem to assume this should have been some kind of complete manifesto or ‘how to’ guide, which is to perversely misunderstand the nature of what this is: it’s a chat done online in response to questions that Gerard asked.
      That’s all.
      It has no pretence of being anything more.

      It’s also grimly ironic that you should berate the podcast for being over-long, and yet demand lengthy clarification of points that no-one else has yet seen fit to fail to understand, but there you go.

      Anyway, to address the questions you raise here:
      (1) When I said “What drives the communication is the words you’re looking for”, I guess what I meant was that when you don’t speak a language well, and want to express an idea, what you may well come up with is a very simple, often ‘ungrammared’ way of expressing that idea basically using the minimum number of known words to you at that time, sop students say things like ‘Me no like football’ or ‘Next year want go America’ or ‘I want see that film for long time’ where you basically have a string of words that convey a message that’s intelligible, but crude. I’d imagine anyone who’s ever taught low-level learners will be very familiar with these kinds of utterances.

      (2) The next statement you asked about was “as your language becomes more sophisticated, … you learn to kind of grammar the basic content words that you’re adding there”. Well, I think one of the things that happens as students get better and more competent at using a language is they learn the grammar that attaches itself to the kinds of basic messages mentioned above, so they may well get to a stage where they can say ‘I don’t like football’ or maybe even ‘I don’t really like football’ . . . ‘I’d like to go to America sometime next year’ and ‘I’ve been wanting to see that film for ages’. This seems to me to be one of the things that marks a higher-level learner out from a lower-level one. They can do more of what Diane Larsen-Freeman calls ‘grammaring’.

      (3) I also think that presenting students with small, re-useable chunks in contexts of use earlier on MAY help them to grammar their more basic single-word strings more quickly, so students could meet and practise things like I’D LIKE TO . . . SOMETIME LATER THIS WEEK / OVER THE HOLIDAYS / SOMETIME IN THE NEXT FEW YEARS or they could meet and practise I’VE BEEN WANTING TO . . . FOR AGES.

      (4) How one actually ‘teaches’ learners to ‘grammar the basic content words’ is by teaching in such a way – and using materials – that the chunks / frames / blocks of language (call them what you will) needed for a particular communicative event are presented and practised by the students. In our coursebooks, Outcomes and Innovations, we try to show students how certain patterns operate within certain kinds of of conversations, we try to get them to do things with them – fill in gaps, discuss them, order them say them, write them out themselves, etc. – and tio try and use them within the contexts of those conversations (or pieces of writing). In this sense, I don’t think we’re doing anything particularly different to the way any teacher tries to get students to learn anything. What’s maybe different is the actual language we’re trying to focus on, and (perhaps) the emphasis we’d place on both outcomes / communicative goals and on memory and the importance of working on memorisation.

      (5) As for the whole issue around whether or not you feel it’s worth teaching CAN I GET, in a sense that’s your choice. If you feel it’s more useful to teach just “Hi. A coffee and a sandwich, please?” then fine, teach that. The idea that CAN I GET is somehow illogical depends on a particular interpretation of what you think the chunk means. I suspect you may have had a teacher at school who preferred MAY I HAVE or something similar. All of thee choices are determined by our age, social background, etc. My own feeling would be that as it’s a remarkably common chunk that’s used to perform a particular pragmatic function – maybe not by you personally, but my millions of others – then it’s worth teaching. I’m not alone in thinking this. It’s a feature of English as it used which has attracted much commentary from lexicographers, linguists, etc. For example:

      Meanwhile, such bastions of right-wing conservatism as The Daily Mail are desperately trying to resist its use:

      In the end, it’s your choice. Once students know how to say A COFFEE AND A SANDWICH, PLEASE already, you can decide if you think that’s enough or if at a higher level, perhaps, you want them to learn CAN I GET or MAY I HAVE or whatever.

  • Gerard Counihan says:

    I would like to thank Geoff Jordan for listening to the piece, which sought to be an unpretentious, spontaneous conversation, and did not aspire to great academic breakthrough statements. If nothing else, some less qualified teachers of English – myself included – might derive something from the piece.

    I hope this forum continues to give a voice to everybody who has something to say about EFL, all the while acknowledging that not everybody is hugely precise, learned or articulate.

    Obviously, some minimum standards have to be met, and all advice that can be put into practice is welcomed.

    It is certainly humbling to see words like “baloney” and “badly expressed”.

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    I’ll leave it to readers to decide if Dellar’s ad hominem attack is a good reply to my criticisms.

    I hope most listeners will agree that the chunk “Can I get…” when used to ask for things in bars and shops is redundant: it adds nothing in terms of information, politeness or the illocutionary force of the request.

    Possible Exchanges:

    Shop assistant: Good morning.
    Customer: Good morning. A loaf of brown bread, please.

    Shop assistant: Good morning. What can I get you?
    Customer: Good morning. A loaf of brown bread, please.

    Shop assistant. Good morning.
    Customer: Good morning. Can I get a loaf of brown bread, please?
    Shop assistant: No, it’s all right; I’ll get it for you.

    Dellar playing shop assistant: Hi. What will you be breading today?
    Student playing customer: Can I get a bread of brown loaf, please?
    Dellar playing shop assistant: Not a problem.

    • Jamie Clayton says:

      ‘Can I get a black coffee?’ sounds more polite to me than just ‘black coffee.’

      And if your shop assistant asks ‘what can I get you?’ then it makes sense to teach the chunk ‘can I get….’, if only for receptive purposes, no?

  • Gerard Counihan says:

    Seriously, this is the first time I have ever been involved (albeit tangentially as it turns out) in an on-line discussion. And, do you know what, I am … dare I say it … learning something – from both Hugh and Gordan.

    PS I am a bit/fairly/quite/rather old-fashioned, and always try to address people by their first names.(A sensitive, Irish child, being called Counihan struck me with fear; possibly because this appellation was mostly used by teachers in the 60s and 70s, many of whom embraced corporal punishment with gusto).

    Confessions of a baloney-peddler!

  • Geoff Jordan says:


    ‘Can I get a black coffee?’ sounds more polite than just ‘black coffee’ to me too. But “Can I get a black coffee, please?” doesn’t sound any more polite than “A black coffee, please.” to me. I think we should make it clear to our students how important it is to use “please” and “thank you” in these exchanges.

    The problem with replying “Can I get a black coffee?” to your shop assistant who asks “What can I get you?” is that two different meanings of “get” are being used. The shop assistant means “go and get” / “fetch” / “supply you with”, while you mean “have”. So I don’t think this is a good example of reciprocity.

  • Geoff Jordan says:

    I just think you went on a bit too long about the “If you only had 1 word…” situation and the “Let it never be said” example.
    More importantly, I think you could have tried a bit harder to get Dellar to clarify some of his inarticulate assertions and to justify the ones that were more or less coherent.
    As to the use of first names, I wasn’t addressing Dellar, I was referring to him.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Lest we forget, Geoff . . . or do you prefer Jordan (?) . . . inarticulacy seems to very much be in the ear (or mind) of the beholder.
      I haven’t seen any other comments screeching for clarification or saying I was incoherent.
      Of course, this could mean not many other people have bothered to listen. That’s always a possibility. 🙂
      Or it could just be you.

  • Gerard Counihan says:

    Long-windedness can probably be un-learned, although the amount of job interviews where I have tied myself in knots whilst trying to get to the point …

    In fairness to Hugh, we agreed it would be a relatively unplanned conversation. I must also confess that, while I did prepare and research before the piece, I was probably not 100% comfortable with my knowledge of the lexical area, even though it looks straightforward enough.

    And then again, things are not always so straightforward, which makes English – life even – so interesting.

    Tips to teachers & students: always read a comment carefully before assuming anything, eg the use of one’s second name

  • Russell Crew-Gee says:

    GJ, (name problem resolved) is absolutely correct. The example given by GJ is without doubt inarticulate and a layman listening to the video would get the impression that the example given by GJ could very easily give the impression the speaker lacks the theoretical and practical knowledge required to confidently (ok, ok, ok) explain a concept which in fact is also lacking in credibility. The lexical approach is yet another EFL academic smoke and mirrors act of renaming the teaching of functional language or is that situational language or even subject language, which in fact has always been the case. Dellar, and others are also being very prescriptive, forbidding anything in teaching which caters for a student’s need or request is in my humble opinion the arrogance of the uniformed. With regard to the “can I get” example I can easily think of further reasons as to it’s inappropriateness. GJ’s comments gets it perfect and to add to it, the use of “Can I get” can also give out the wrong emotional message about the speaker. The Lexical Lab itself is extremely arrogant in saying it is “putting language back into language teaching”, an insult to all those teachers who have been just as successful if not more so, over millenniums, in teaching other humans to communicate in a common language. What truly needs addressing is speeding up the learning process not the perenial debate on what to teach or the renaming of existing concepts. (Structure vs chunk. This structure/chunk is used in various situations) The prescriptive aspects of this so-called ‘approach’ also calls into question it’s validity. As for those who refuse to explain a single word, provide the grammar for this one; Emolinguistics.
    Motivating students, memory techniques, use of technology, student learning etc.etc.etc. is the best approach to helping other humans to speedily absorb another language with the appropriate register in relation to the situation, the status and personality of the learners.

  • Antonia De Cabernet says:

    Russell –
    I’m really interested to learn more about Emolinguistics.
    I think this is the first time I’ve encountered the term.
    I tried Googling it, but there’s not much out there.
    Could you maybe enlighten me?
    Thanks in advance.

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