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.