What Is the Lexical Approach?

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In language teaching, a set of principles based on the observation that an understanding of words and word combinations (chunks) is the primary method of learning a language. The idea is that, rather than have students memorize lists of vocabulary, they would learn commonly used phrases. 

The term lexical approach was introduced in 1993 by Michael Lewis, who observed that "language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalised grammar" (The Lexical Approach, 1993).

The lexical approach is not a single, clearly defined method of language instruction. It's a commonly used term that's poorly understood by most. Studies of literature on the subject often show that it's used in contradictory ways. It is largely based on the assumption that certain words will elicit a response with a specific set of words. Students would be able to learn which words are connected in this way. Students are expected to learn the grammar of languages based on recognizing patterns in words.  

Examples and Observations

  • "The Lexical Approach implies a decreased role for sentence grammar, at least until post-intermediate levels. In contrast, it involves an increased role for word grammar (collocation and cognates) and text grammar (suprasentential features)."
    (Michael Lewis, The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Language Teaching Publications, 1993)

Methodological Implications

"The methodological implications of [Michael Lewis's] Lexical Approach (1993, pp. 194-195) are as follows:

- Early emphasis on receptive skills, especially listening, is essential.
- De-contextualized vocabulary learning is a fully legitimate strategy.
- The role of grammar as a receptive skill must be recognized.
- The importance of contrast in language awareness must be recognized.
- Teachers should employ extensive, comprehensible language for receptive purposes.
- Extensive writing should be delayed as long as possible.
- Nonlinear recording formats (e.g., mind maps, word trees) are intrinsic to the Lexical Approach.
- Reformulation should be the natural response to student error.
- Teachers should always react primarily to the content of student language.
- Pedagogical chunking should be a frequent classroom activity."

(James Coady, "L2 Vocabulary Acquisition: A Synthesis of the Research." Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition: A Rationale for Pedagogy, ed. by James Coady and Thomas Huckin. Cambridge University Press, 1997)


While the lexical approach can be a quick way for students to pick up phrases, it doesn't foster much creativity. It can have the negative side effect of limiting people's responses to safe fixed phrases. Because they don't have to build responses, they don't need to learn the intricacies of language. 

"Adult language knowledge consists of a continuum of linguistic constructions of different levels of complexity and abstraction. Constructions can comprise concrete and particular items (as in words and idioms), more abstract classes of items (as in word classes and abstract constructions), or complex combinations of concrete and abstract pieces of language (as mixed constructions). Consequently, no rigid separation is postulated to exist between lexis and grammar."
(Nick C. Ellis, "The Emergence of Language As a Complex Adaptive System." The Routledge Handbook of Applied Linguistics, ed. by James Simpson. Routledge, 2011)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Lexical Approach?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-lexical-approach-1691113. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is the Lexical Approach? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-lexical-approach-1691113 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is the Lexical Approach?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-lexical-approach-1691113 (accessed June 9, 2023).