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In recent years, thanks to the efforts of course book and methodology writers such as Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley (Innovations, Outcomes, Teaching Lexically), and Leo Selivan (Lexical Grammar), the Lexical Approach has become something of a hot methodology topic in ELT. However, the Lexical Approach was described as far back as 1993 in Michael Lewis’ book The Lexical Approach. Despite this much earlier description, and even a second book in 1997 – Implementing the Lexical Approach, the approach has only more recently found favour among teachers.

While many teachers are now buying into this approach, there remain many who are either unaware of this approach, unconvinced of its usefulness or misinformed about what it is. In this series of posts, hopefully you will become better informed about this approach, even if you remain unconvinced.

What is an approach?

To better understand the Lexical Approach, it useful to start with the second word – ‘approach’. Before you continue reading take a moment to think about how you would define the following (in relation to teaching methodology):

  • approach
  • method
  • technique

The words approach and method are often used interchangeably when we have casual conversations about teaching methodology. However, these words do have specific meanings and they are not the same thing. Did you think about what these three words mean? Ok, if you did, have a look at the commentary below.

When it comes to teaching languages, the word approach refers to a set of beliefs about what language is and how people learn (or acquire) it. A method is a system of practices that are used in teaching a language, and is formulated based upon an approach. Techniques, or procedures, are components of a method. These could include for example drilling.

To look at one example, we could consider TPR. TPR (or total physical response) is a method. It is based on a comprehension approach, and the main technique is a form of drilling imperative commands. Interestingly, this technique has been borrowed into the communicative approach and is still referred to as TPR by teachers.

The intention of this discussion on approach, method and technique is to underline the fact that the Lexical Approach is, first and foremost, an approach. Although much of the literature on the Lexical Approach veers onto the side of method and even suggests techniques (as this series will undoubtedly do too), it is primarily a way of looking at language and its acquisition.

Does the Lexical Approach replace the Communicative Approach?

This is a very good question, and one I initially grappled with in my conversion to this approach. In my view it does not. Instead, we can view the Lexical Approach as a more communicative approach – the Communicative Approach 2.0 if you will.

The opening chapter of Michael Lewis’ The Lexical Approach is simply brilliant in this respect. It unpicks a number of ways in which the Communicative Approach had not lived up to its promise. While he largely seems to be describing a weak form of the Communicative Approach, his points highlight that the Lexical Approach is more about a shift in our perspective than throwing out everything we know and starting again.

In particular the Lexical Approach retains the crucial fundamentals of a communicative view that language is a tool for communication which is best learnt through a combination of meaningful input and output.

What are the key beliefs in the Lexical Approach?

We will be looking at this in more detail in the coming posts in this series. However, we will round off this part I with the most core belief of the Lexical Approach – the importance of lexical chunks.

In short, a lexical chunk is a combination of words that frequently combine together into one single unit of meaning, for example “I don’t mind” or “in person”. Although there is some argument about what exactly constitutes a chunk, researchers estimate that somewhere between 50% and 80% of English is comprised of lexical chunks. Further, writers on the Lexical Approach estimate that native speakers know anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 chunks.

With lexical chunks making up such a large amount of the language, it stands to reason that a language learner will benefit immensely from knowing (both receptively and productively) a large proportion of these chunks. The Lexical Approach therefore prioritises the learning of chunks over both grammar rules and individual words.

what is the lexical approach
The above comic strip includes several chunks including "come on", "a flight to catch", "close the gate", "to check bags", "will be a nightmare", "to make it", "just ... to spare"

Key Takeaways

In this introductory post to an introductory series on the Lexical Approach we have considered the following key takeaway points:

– The Lexical Approach is primarily a way of understanding language and learning.

– It builds upon the Communicative Approach rather than replacing it.

– One of the key principles of the Lexical Approach is that lexical chunks are prioritised over grammar rules or individual words.

Continue Reading

In part II of this series we will continue to look at the beliefs that underpin the Lexical Approach and consider a methodology and techniques for incorporating this approach into lessons.

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Image credit: Insistant Punctuality from Itchy Feet.

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