04 May Great Trends in TEFL: The Lexical Approach. Face to face with One of Its Most Prominent Advocates: Hugh Dellar @IH Bucharest
“Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.” (Michael Lewis, 1993)
Author: Ilinca Stroe, International House Bucharest
Teaching view 1: “one masters a language when they can use it to communicate accurately. For that point to be reached, one must learn the grammatical rules and a large enough number of individual words in that language.” We might call this the “grammar + word” approach to language teaching.
Teaching view 2: “one masters a language when they can use it to comunicate fluently and naturally. For that point to be reached, one should acquire as many ‘pieces of lexis’ in that language as possible.” We might call that the “lexical approach” to language teaching.
The two distinct teaching philosophies or two “schools” in (English) language teaching became apparent at the end of last century, their different approaches and resulting teaching practices having been examined in Michael Lewis’s seminal work, The Lexical Approach, published in 1993.
From Lewis’s perspective, successful communication consists in producing fluent utterances that are made up of meaningful “chunks of language”. Also called “prefabricated items”, “fixed”/“set” phrases or “formulaic language”, the chunks are combinations of words commonly used together by native speakers in the production of real-life discourse. Rather than generated by grammar rules, chunks result from the co-occurrence of certain words in natural speech/text with great frequency, and they are determined by usage and linguistic convention.
Examples from Lewis’s taxonomy of chunks include (usually two-word) collocations or word partnerships (“totally convinced”, “community service”, “sense of humour”, “strong accent”, “sounds exciting”), polywords (“by the way”, “upside down”, “out of my mind”, “up to now”) or institutionalised utterances (“If I were you”, “I’ll get it”, “We’ll see”, “That’ll do”, “Have you ever…”, “Would you like a…?”).
As the latter examples illustrate, grammatical structures can be viewed (and indeed taught) as lexical chunks themselves, which highlights the central tenet of Lewis’s approach: it is lexis that creates meaning, while grammar only plays a secondary role in managing meaning.
Hence, English teachers should organise their work so that their students develop a stock of phrases (meaningful chunks), instead of (merely) memorising grammar rules. One way to do that is by noticing: observing language patterns, becoming aware of them and gradually developing a collection of thousands of such authentic lexical items which make communication in English natural and successful.
That sums up, roughly, Lewis’s lexical approach to language teaching. It implies, particularly for teachers of English as a foreign language, a change of mindset which most of us can still find challenging. It questions the efficiency of arguably the most popular lesson shape (good old PPP – Presentation, Practice, Production). It’s intuitive, calling for a rather arbitrary native-like “sense” of language, instead of clear fixed rules. And it does require different teaching practices and techniques than the “grammar + word” approach.
Two contemporary trainers and authors address the implications of that change of mindset in English teaching in a trend-reinforcing work published in 2016: Teaching Lexically, by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley. The work is instrumental to teachers who want to be able to design and deliver more lexis-centred lessons, as it both details the theoretical principles of the lexical approach, and provides practical ideas of classroom activities and materials that facilitate the intake and acquisition of lexis by learners.
Of the two authors, Hugh Dellar is going to host, on 6 May from 12.00 to 1.00 Romanian time (UTC+3), a webinar titled “More than just the answers”, which is part of the Coffee@IHBucharest series of workshops launched by International House Bucharest in 2019. The webinar focuses on exploiting different types of vocabulary exercises, it is going to be interactive and it presents practical teaching ideas to take home.
A live face-to-face online training session with one of the most prominent supporters and theorists of the lexical approach in TEFL today. Not to be missed. Any language teacher is welcome to attend, particularly English teachers are warmly encouraged to do so. Registrations can be made here.
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre, as well as training events online, onsite or at partner locations. To sign up for a course or event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.