The Lexical Approach in Language Learning

Antonio L
5 min readDec 9, 2022


Fluency is the ability to use clichés and multi word units in speech.

The cover of Lewis`s The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward

In 2002, Michael Lewis published “The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward”, which outlined the basic principles of the lexical approach to teaching foreign languages. Here I would like to tell a little about what the essence of the lexical approach is, and how it can be used in the study of foreign languages. The book is addressed primarily to English teachers, but its principles are universal and can be used for teaching other languages.

Key terms to lexical approach are lexical chunks and collocations. Collocation is a combination of words that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance. For example, you can say blonde hair, but you do not say beige hair, although the meaning of the last phrase is clear to anybody.

The term lexical chunk is more complex to define, that is, a union of words, a pair or group of words that are often used together. The term chank is wider, so we can say that every collocation is a chunk, but not all chunks are collocations. The synonyms for chunks can be multi-word units (MWU), formulaic expressions, lexicalised phrases, ‘prefabricated’ phrases etc.

For example, totally convinced, strong accent, sounds exciting, sense of humour, brings good luck, terrible accident are lexical chunks that are collocations. While by the way, up to now, upside down, If I were you, a long way off, out of my mind are lexical chunks, but not collocations.

Multi-word units are the essential building blocks of natural-sounding English. Large-scale corpus studies show that a high proportion (up to 50%) of the language produced by native speakers is formulaic in both written and spoken forms (e.g., De Cock, Granger, Leech, & Mcenery, 1998). On the other hand, for L2 learners, it has been demonstrated that their MWEs knowledge lags far behind their general vocabulary knowledge (Bahns and Eldaw, 1993). Therefore, including such linguistic forms in a course curriculum appears as a requirement.

Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.
(Lewis, 1993)

Native speakers use a huge number of multi-word units that all language learners need to know, otherwise their speech will not be fluent and natural. Fluency is not the result of knowing grammar rules and word lists, but the ability to use clichés and formulaic expressions in speech, which are the building blocks from which we can quickly build a sentence. In speech, we often operate not with individual words, but with whole phrases. It is vocabulary that plays a crucial role in the transmission of meaning, while grammar plays an auxiliary role. This means that more time should be devoted to the ability of students to use fixed combinations of words in speech.

For example, when we use the phrase “it’s the most (beautiful /ugliest) thing I have ever seen” in speech, we operate on it as a whole pattern. If at this moment we would need to remember all the rules for present perfect tense, it would take us a few minutes to compose such a phrase. Fortunately, It turns out that we can immediately use 10 (!) words in speech without thinking about the form and place for each of them.

Pros and Cons of the Lexical Approach to Language Teaching

One of the great advantages of the lexical approach is that it develops a sense of language, and offers as a goal to speak like native speakers do instead of to speak grammatically right. “Whenever someone asks me “Why is that?” — with reference to the structure of some language item — I will answer: “That’s how it is in English.”, Lewis says.

Among the limitations of the approach, it is worth noting that memorizing entire structures can be more difficult, especially at the initial level. Secondly, it might be extremely important for some students to thoroughly understand the structure of the phrase, and not just its general meaning: for them, phrases like “that’s how it is in English” can sound like a nightmare.

A few tips to apply the lexical approach in a classroom

Here is a list of simple steps that might help your students memorize multi-word units instead of separate words.

  • Review the vocabulary lists on your worksheets and exercises for reading texts: give preference to multi word units, e.g. depend crucially on, extremely rich, etc.
  • Bookmark the collocation dictionary and encourage students to do so. For example, for English it can be Longman Collocations Dictionary and Thesaurus or Online OXFORD Collocation Dictionary. Please remember that the concept of a chunk is wider than collocations.
  • Demonstrate to students that the meaning of a phrase is not always equal to the sum of the words it consists of: to be in a mood is constructed from elementary level words, but its real meaning — feeling unhappy or angry — cannot be inferred from the meanings of individual words.
  • Try to find non-banal, memorable examples of the use of collocations, ideally from films or TV shows: then you can also hear how this phrase is pronounced.
  • Motivate students that it is the correct use of clichés and chunks that demonstrates their high level of knowledge and fluency.
  • Having mastered the first steps, try more advanced work with combinations in specialized corpus resources: for example, the British National Corpus, or SketchEngine.

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

De Cock, S., Granger, S., Leech, G., & Mcenery, T. (1998). An automated approach to the phrasicon of EFL learners. In S. Granger (Ed.), Learner English on computer (pp. 67–79). London & New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Bahns, J., & Eldaw, M. (1993). Should we teach EFL students collocations. System, 21, 101–114.