How to Use the Lexical Approach in Class

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‘Vocabulary acquisition is the largest and most important task facing the language learner’

Swan & Walter, 1984

This makes total sense when you think about it like this: how many grammar structures do you have to learn and practice? Now, how many words and language chunks?

Another question for you to ponder: can a learner ever really be considered fluent if they can’t utilise ‘language chunks’, e.g. ‘nice day for it’, and ‘by the way’.

I don’t believe that they can.

Why is the Lexical Approach So Helpful?

  • Learning chunks of natural language saves ‘processing time’ – students don’t have to build a sentence from grammatical beginnings.

  • Helps learners sound more natural

So, helping your learners to utilise chunks of language can be a great way to boost their English level.

Using Language Chunks in Class

You probably already do.

Even teaching ‘how are you?’ to young learners – hopefully you don’t break down the sentence into its grammatical components and explain them, you just tell them what it means. Right?

You probably also teach them useful classroom phrases – ‘what does X mean?’, ‘Please can I go to the bathroom?’ and so on.

So why not expand that to other useful, high frequency phrases?

Finding Useful Chunks

There’s a simple formula to use to judge a lexical phrase:

Usefulness + Personal Interest = Good lexical chunk

Simply put, if it’s high frequency or appropriate to the student (i.e. useful) and the student is interested in learning it (i.e. it’s a superhero catchphrase, or the student wants to know).

Teaching Lexical Chunks

I remember reading somewhere that the Lexical approach is really ‘a theory looking for an approach’. Or in other words, although the idea is sound, it’s tough to know how to teach it.

I find that the best way is little and often. Whenever you come across an appropriate chunk, you can introduce it to the class. Whatever system of recording vocabulary you ask your students to use, do the same with your lexical chunks.

Make sure that you keep a record of the lexical chunks you’ve introduced to each class and be sure to use them in context whenever you can.

Have fun with it, and good teaching!