November 1997 — Volume 3, Number 1
Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice
Michael Lewis (1997)
Hove UK: Language Teaching Publications
ISBN 1-899396-60-8 (paper)
US $ 29.95
When Michael Lewis’ (1993) book entitled The Lexical Approach was published, it focused upon a cluster of problems, ELT today, and a solution, the Lexical Approach. Geoff Hall, a lecturer at University of Wales College of Cardiff, wrote a review (Hall, 1994) of the book in which he acclaimed its ambitious scope and the plea it put forward for a new centrality of lexis. In particular, lexical phrases were seen as a productive resource for learners, aiding in the production, comprehension, and necessary analytical reflection on the forms and meanings of the target language. Lexical fields represent knowledge in a language, but there is much more to vocabulary than simple lists of words, nouns or verbs.
The Lexical Approach can be summarized in a few words: language consists not of traditional grammar and vocabulary but often of multi-word prefabricated chunks. Teachers using the Lexical Approach will not analyse the target language in the classroom, but will be more inclined to concentrate learners’ attention upon these chunks. This new approach is understood as a serious attempt at revaluation for the individual teacher and the profession as it develops many of the fundamental principles advanced by proponents of Communicative Approaches. The most important difference is the increased understanding of the nature of lexis in naturally occurring language, and its potential contribution to language pedagogy. Language teaching claims to be a profession. If it is, its practitioners cannot simply rely on recipes and techniques; they also need an explicit theoretical basis for their classroom procedures. According to Lewis, too few language teachers exhibit the kind of intellectual curiosity and readiness to change that is normally associated with professional status. It is disappointing that so few teachers are anxious to inform themselves and their learners about recent changes in linguistics and methodology; it is even more disappointing that many teachers are hostile to anything which challenges the central role of grammatical explanation, grammatical practice and correction, all ideas which the Lexical Approach demotes or discards. The hesitating or even actively negative position of teachers can be explained (but not shared or understood) by summarizing the guiding principles of the Lexical Approach:
- The grammar/vocabulary dichotomy is invalid.
- Collocation is used as an organizing principle. [-1-]
- Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language.
- The Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle replaces the Present-Practise-Produce Paradigm.
- Most importantly, language consists of grammaticalised lexis–not lexicalised grammar.
In considering questions of such a practical nature, examples should be quite helpful. No better example exists than one where implementation efforts have been successful in changing the way students learn languages. Implementing the Lexical Approach in classes does not mean a radical upheaval, likely to upset colleagues, parents or learners. On the contrary, if introduced with thought and sensitivity, its introduction will be almost invisible, involving perhaps 20 or even 50 small changes in every lesson, each in itself unremarkable, but the cumulative effect will be more effective teaching and more efficient learning. This is exactly the primary concern of this book, based on the reactions of many teachers to the Lexical Approach, thus contributing to the continuing debate.
A creditable feature of the book, with its eleven chapters, glossary, and bibliography, is the amount of space that Lewis devotes to practical exemplifications of his ideas, to the evaluation of existing materials, and to classroom reports written by teachers who have exploited the Lexical Approach in different ways depending on their own areas of interest or expertise and their learners’ level, needs and interests. I particularly appreciated those sections of the book depicting activities which are fully consistent with the approach or which have modified it. I found particularly convincing the way in which the teachers were happy with the new activities and the improvements in their learners’ performance. Six colleagues have modified their teaching, which they report as being in some way more successful than their previous practice: 1. Cherry Gough describes a way of introducing collocation to a class. 2. Ron Martinez describes an activity based on the delexicalised verb get. 3. Mark Powell describes sound scripting, which integrates lexis and phonology. 4. Jonathan Marks reviews the whole area of pronunciation. 5. George Woolard describes imaginative, literature- based group writing activities. 6. Heinz Ribisch describes how he has extended his learners’ notebooks.
The book thus gives support to teachers who believe in humanistic values and in inspired innovative reform in classrooms. I believe, as does Lewis, that the lexical view of language impacts on almost every aspect of current practice, sometimes in potentially disturbing ways.
Teachers will undoubtedly like the idea that communication of meaning is placed at the heart of language and language learning, [-2-] but equally dislike its consequence: emphasizing lexis necessarily reduces the role of grammar.
Language teaching once restricted input, insisting that learners master one bit before they met the next. That practice is now discredited but its influence remains. Learners tend to want to understand every word, teachers to explain and laboriously practise a small number of supposedly important new items. That is why for the moment the challenge of implementing the present understanding of the Lexical Approach rests with administrators, schools, and perhaps most importantly, (conservative) teachers. The author has chosen a persuasive way by supplying readers with tasks (and suggested solutions and keys) and exercises on how to use this method to the benefit of language learners. Teachers should never take a doctrinaire approach, whether their methods are audio-lingual, structured, communicative, or lexical. A little well-chosen variety is better than dogmatic adherence to any set of principles. The implications for teacher training are clear. The present teacher as performer must be replaced by the teacher as one who understands language and language learning.
The book does what it wants to do: it shows how lexis, grammar, and phonology interact in ways that directly affect the ways learners store new language. It provides teachers with a comprehensive set of step-by-step changes and discusses in detail the importance of noticing, the value of repeating tasks, the design of lexical exercises, 30 sample exercise types, 50 activities with their lexical focus explained, and classroom reports from teachers already using the approach.
In language teaching and learning we do need a constant openness to revision in the light of research and experience. If it is true that society in general and the foreign language education profession in particular are in the midst of incredible advances in digital technology, every teacher should be grateful that Lewis gives an answer (or answers) to the question “Could I do this in my classroom?” without focusing on or even needing computer-enhanced language learning procedures or methods. He points to some of the specific ways in which teachers have been able to provide opportunities for more self-reliant learning. I hope these ideas and suggestions will give both reassurance and stimulation to teachers and others who wish to step into the chilly waters of classroom innovation. There is no doubt that a new climate must be created, that teachers who are in the process of achieving these attitudes will develop modes of building freedom suited to their own style, one that grows out of free and direct interaction with students.
Implementing the Lexical Approach is well written and exciting . . . , but dangerous! It is likely to challenge the way teachers think concerning what is important in foreign language learning and teaching. Lewis has done an excellent job of reminding [-3-] us that only by attending to the genuine needs of students– knowledge, safety, affection, respect, and responsibility–can we obtain the educational goals we have set, making the foreign language classroom into the better and even different organization that it needs to become.
Hall, G. (1994). Review of The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward, by Michael Lewis. ELT Journal 44, 48.
Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Hove, UK: Language Teaching Publications.
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Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-4-]