Lexical Approach to Second Language Teaching
Olga Moudraia, Walailak University, Thailand
The lexical approach to second language teaching has received interest in recent years as an alternative to grammar-based approaches. The lexical approach concentrates on developing learners’ proficiency with lexis, or words and word combinations. It is based on the idea that an important part of language acquisition is the ability to comprehend and produce lexical phrases as unanalyzed wholes, or “chunks,” and that these chunks become the raw data by which learners perceive patterns of language traditionally thought of as grammar (Lewis, 1993, p. 95). Instruction focuses on relatively fixed expressions that occur frequently in spoken language, such as, “I’m sorry,” “I didn’t mean to make you jump,” or “That will never happen to me,” rather than on originally created sentences (Lewis, 1997a, p. 212). This digest provides an overview of the methodological foundations underlying the lexical approach and the pedagogical implications suggested by them.
A New Role for Lexis
Michael Lewis (1993), who coined the term lexical approach, suggests the following:
· Lexis is the basis of language.
· Lexis is misunderstood in language teaching because of the assumption that grammar is the basis of language and that mastery of the grammatical system is a prerequisite for effective communication.
· The key principle of a lexical approach is that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.”
· One of the central organizing principles of any meaning-centered syllabus should be lexis.
Types of Lexical Units
The lexical approach makes a distinction between vocabulary—traditionally understood as a stock of individual words with fixed meanings—and lexis, which includes not only the single words but also the word combinations that we store in our mental lexicons. Lexical approach advocates argue that language consists of meaningful chunks that, when combined, produce continuous coherent text, and only a minority of spoken sentences are entirely novel creations.
The role of formulaic, many-word lexical units have been stressed in both first and second language acquisition research. (See Richards & Rodgers, 2001, for further discussion.) They have been referred to by many different labels, including “gambits” (Keller, 1979), “speech formulae” (Peters, 1983), “lexicalized stems” (Pawley & Syder, 1983), and “lexical phrases” (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992). The existence and importance of these lexical units has been discussed by a number of linguists. For example, Cowie (1988) argues that the existence of lexical units in a language such as English serves the needs of both native English speakers and English language learners, who are as predisposed to store and reuse them as they are to generate them from scratch. The widespread “fusion of such expressions, which appear to satisfy the individual’s communicative needs at a given moment and are later reused, is one means by which the public stock of formulae and composites is continuously enriched” (p. 136).
Lewis (1997b) suggests the following taxonomy of lexical items:
· words (e.g., book, pen)
· polywords (e.g., by the way, upside down)
· collocations, or word partnerships (e.g., community service, absolutely convinced)
· institutionalized utterances (e.g., I’ll get it; We’ll see; That’ll do; If I were you . . .; Would you like a cup of coffee?)
· sentence frames and heads (e.g., That is not as . . . as you think; The fact/suggestion/problem/danger was . . .) and even text frames (e.g., In this paper we explore . . .; Firstly . . .; Secondly . . .; Finally . . .)
Within the lexical approach, special attention is directed to collocations and expressions that include institutionalized utterances and sentence frames and heads. As Lewis maintains, “instead of words, we consciously try to think of collocations, and to present these in expressions. Rather than trying to break things into ever smaller pieces, there is a conscious effort to see things in larger, more holistic, ways” (1997a, p. 204).
Collocation is “the readily observable phenomenon whereby certain words co-occur in natural text with greater than random frequency” (Lewis, 1997a, p. 8). Furthermore, collocation is not determined by logic or frequency, but is arbitrary, decided only by linguistic convention. Some collocations are fully fixed, such as “to catch a cold,” “rancid butter,” and “drug addict,” while others are more or less fixed and can be completed in a relatively small number of ways, as in the following examples:
· blood / close / distant / near(est) relative
· learn by doing / by heart / by observation / by rote / from experience
· badly / bitterly / deeply / seriously / severely hurt
Lexis in Language Teaching and Learning
In the lexical approach, lexis in its various types is thought to play a central role in language teaching and learning. Nattinger (1980, p. 341) suggests that teaching should be based on the idea that language production is the piecing together of ready-made units appropriate for a particular situation. Comprehension of such units is dependent on knowing the patterns to predict in different situations. Instruction, therefore, should center on these patterns and the ways they can be pieced together, along with the ways they vary and the situations in which they occur.
Activities used to develop learners’ knowledge of lexical chains include the following:
· Intensive and extensive listening and reading in the target language.
· First and second language comparisons and translation—carried out chunk-for-chunk, rather than word-for-word—aimed at raising language awareness.
· Repetition and recycling of activities, such as summarizing a text orally one day and again a few days later to keep words and expressions that have been learned active.
· Guessing the meaning of vocabulary items from context.
· Noticing and recording language patterns and collocations.
· Working with dictionaries and other reference tools.
The Next Step: Putting Theory Into Practice
Advances in computer-based studies of language, such as corpus linguistics, have provided huge databases of language corpora, including the COBUILD Bank of English Corpus, the Cambridge International Corpus, and the British National Corpus. In particular, the COBUILD project at Birmingham University in England has examined patterns of phrase and clause sequences as they appear in various texts as well as in spoken language. It has aimed at producing an accurate description of the English language in order to form the basis for design of a lexical syllabus (Sinclair, 1987). Such a syllabus was perceived by COBUILD researchers as independent and unrelated to any existing language teaching methodology (Sinclair & Renouf, 1988). As a result, the Collins COBUILD English Course (Willis & Willis, 1989) was the most ambitious attempt to develop a syllabus based on lexical rather than grammatical principles.
Willis (1990) has attempted to provide a rationale and design for lexically based language teaching and suggests that a lexical syllabus should be matched with an instructional methodology that puts particular emphasis on language use. Such a syllabus specifies words, their meanings, and the common phrases in which they are used and identifies the most common words and patterns in their most natural environments. Thus, the lexical syllabus not only subsumes a structural syllabus, it also describes how the “structures” that make up the syllabus are used in natural language.
Despite references to the natural environments in which words occur, Sinclair’s (1987) and Willis’s (1990) lexical syllabi are word based. However, Lewis’s (1993) lexical syllabus is specifically not word based, because it “explicitly recognizes word patterns for (relatively) de-lexical words, collocational power for (relatively) semantically powerful words, and longer multi-word items, particularly institutionalized sentences, as requiring different, and parallel pedagogical treatment” (Lewis, 1993, p. 109). In his own teaching design, Lewis proposes a model that comprises the steps, Observe-Hypothesize-Experiment, as opposed to the traditional Present-Practice-Produce paradigm. Unfortunately, Lewis does not lay out any instructional sequences exemplifying how he thinks this procedure might operate in actual language classrooms. For more on implementing the lexical approach, see Richards & Rodgers (2001).
Zimmerman (1997, p. 17) suggests that the work of Sinclair, Nattinger, DeCarrico, and Lewis represents a significant theoretical and pedagogical shift from the past. First, their claims have revived an interest in a central role for accurate language description. Second, they challenge a traditional view of word boundaries, emphasizing the language learner’s need to perceive and use patterns of lexis and collocation. Most significant is the underlying claim that language production is not a syntactic rule-governed process but is instead the retrieval of larger phrasal units from memory.
Nevertheless, implementing a lexical approach in the classroom does not lead to radical methodological changes. Rather, it involves a change in the teacher’s mindset. Most important, the language activities consistent with a lexical approach must be directed toward naturally occurring language and toward raising learners’ awareness of the lexical nature of language.
Cowie, A. P. (Eds.). (1988). Stable and creative aspects of vocabulary use. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary and language teaching (pp. 126-137). Harlow: Longman.
Keller, E. (1979). Gambits: Conversational strategy signals. Journal of Pragmatics, 3, 219-237.
Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (1997a). Implementing the lexical approach: Putting theory into practice. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (1997b). Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 255-270). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nattinger, J. (1980). A lexical phrase grammar for ESL. TESOL Quarterly, 14, 337-344.
Nattinger, J., & DeCarrico, J. (1992). Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pawley, A., & Syder, F. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: Native-like selection and native-like fluency. In J. Richards & R. Schmidt (Eds.), Language and communication (pp. 191-226). London: Longman.
Peters, A. (1983). The units of language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching: A description and analysis (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sinclair, J. M. (Ed.). (1987). Looking up: An account of the COBUILD project in lexical computing. London: Collins COBUILD.
Sinclair, J. M., & Renouf, A. (Eds.). (1988). A lexical syllabus for language learning. In R. Carter & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary and language teaching (pp. 140-158). Harlow: Longman.
Willis, D. (1990). The lexical syllabus: A new approach to language teaching. London: Collins COBUILD.
Willis, J., & Willis, D. (1989). Collins COBUILD English course. London: Collins COBUILD.
Zimmerman, C. B. (1997). Historical trends in second language vocabulary instruction. In J. Coady & T. Huckin (Eds.), Second language vocabulary acquisition: A rationale for pedagogy (pp. 5-19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This digest was prepared with funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED, OERI, or NLE.
Taking a lexical approach to teaching: principles and problems1
Canterbury Christ Church University College
After briefly reviewing some of the reasons why the traditional grammar/vocabulary distinction is no longer adequate, this article describes two key principles which are claimed to be at the core of teaching according to a lexical approach. There are, however, a number of major difficulties which necessarily co-occur alongside any attempted classroom implementation. Having discussed how these difficulties may be overcome, the article closes by conceding that there is still much work to be done before the approach can hope to become more fully integrated into the mainstream ELT coursebook.
‘Lexical approach’ is a term bandied about by many, but, I suspect, understood by few. What does taking a lexical approach to language teaching mean? What are the principles and tenets behind a lexical approach? What problems will teachers have to face if they wish to adopt a lexical approach?
For the present purposes, I will be using the term lexical approach to mean that lexis plays the dominant role in the ELT classroom, or at least a more dominant role than it has traditionally, which has largely been one of subservience to ‘grammar’ (Sinclair & Renouf 1988). The approach stresses the necessity of using corpora to inform pedagogical materials and the importance of regularly recycling and reviewing the language taught. I should make clear from the start that my understanding of the term lexical approach is not necessarily the same as Michael Lewis’ (e.g. 1996, 1997, 2000), although I imagine that my take on the principles and problems inherent in implementing a lexical approach probably have a considerable amount in common with Lewis’ own views.
The article begins with a brief outline of what I mean by the term lexis, before briefly outlining two of the tenets which in my view constitute a lexical approach. The same tenets are then problematized at greater length. Finally, while it is argued that there is still much to be done before a lexical approach is accepted by a majority of practitioners and researchers and integrated into mainstream ELT, I close by claiming that the approach can be seen as having many of the same concerns as state-of-the-art applied linguistics.
The concept of lexis
Language teaching has traditionally viewed grammar and vocabulary as a divide, with the former category consisting of structures (the present perfect, reported speech) and the latter usually consisting of single words. The structures were accorded priority, vocabulary being seen as secondary in importance, merely serving to illustrate the meaning and scope of the grammar (Sinclair & Renouf 1988).
However, a number of studies (e.g. Altenberg 1990; Erman & Warren 2000; Kjellmer 1987; Pawley & Syder 1983) have shown that the Chomskyan notion of a native speaker’s output consisting of an infinite number of “creative” utterances is at best a half-truth: in fact prefabricated items form a significant part of a native speaker’s spoken and written output. Only this can account for what Pawley & Syder (1983: 193) call the puzzle of nativelike selection: a native speaker’s utterances are both “grammatical” and “nativelike”, and while only a “small proportion” of grammatically well-formed sentences are nativelike, that is, “readily acceptable to native informants as ordinary, natural forms of expression”, these are the sentences which native speakers produce. It would seem, then, that speakers need both a prefabricated, automatized element to draw on as well as a creative, generative one—both “idiom” and “open choice” components (Sinclair 1991).
Once the importance of prefabricated language is acknowledged, the traditional grammar/vocabulary distinction becomes problematic: as the above studies show, native speakers are prone to using much of the same language over and over again rather than starting from scratch each time they speak/write. For the purposes of this article, therefore, when I use the term lexis I have in mind strings of words which go together (i.e. prefabs and collocations) as opposed to the single words language teaching traditionally called ‘vocabulary’: rather than consisting of a repository of content words, lexis is not easily distinguishable from the concept traditionally labelled as ‘grammar’ (e.g. Singleton 1997). This fuzziness suggests that lexis is more powerful than was once thought, and hence deserves a higher priority in syllabuses.
Principles of taking a lexical approach
PRINCIPLE 1: TEACH REAL LANGUAGE, NOT ‘TEFLESE’; USE COMPUTER CORPORA BUT BE CORPUS-BASED, NOT CORPUS-BOUND
At the centre of a lexical approach is the insistence on teaching ‘real’ English and a rejection of the ersatz language found in the average ELT coursebook; and indeed a number of corpus-based studies (e.g. Holmes 1988; Hyland 1994; Mindt 1996; Williams 1988) confirm that the language coursebooks teach is “not what people really say” (Lewis 1997: 10), it is “TEFLese” (Willis 1990: vii). Hence it can be argued that the only way to avoid distorting the language with this TEFLese English is for the coursebook writer to access the authentic language via corpora, as opposed to relying on their intuition. It is well documented that intuition (even native-speaker intuition) often fails to accurately reflect actual language in use (e.g. Biber, Conrad & Reppen 1994); in contrast, corpora can instantly provide us with the relative frequencies, collocations, and prevalent grammatical patterns of the lexis in question across a range of genres. In addition, light is shed on lexical variation (cf. Fernando 1996; Moon 1998). To illustrate the point, I draw on data from an earlier study (Harwood 2000) comparing the language found in a native-speaker corpus (the British National Corpus) with the language in a selection of coursebooks. In Bell & Gower’s coursebook (1992: 150), for instance, no variation of the phrase You must be joking is included, giving the learner the impression the form is frozen. However, the BNC includes the following variations:
I says [sic] you’re joking You’re flipping joking!
You are joking me? You’re joking
You are joking, aren’t you? You’re joking, aren’t you?
You gotta be joking! You’re joking, of course
You have got to be joking You’re not joking?
You have got to be joking me You’ve got to be fucking joking
You have to be joking You’ve got to be joking!
You must be bloody joking! You’ve gotta be joking mate
You must be fucking joking! You’ve gotta be joking!
You must be joking You’ve just got to be joking
and while it is relatively simple to use native-speaker intuition to point to the fact that You have got to be joking me, for instance, or I says [sic] you’re joking are relatively untypical examples of variation on this phrase, and hence not worth teaching (especially since, if the learner is familiar with more common variations, they would understand and be able to respond to this variant in any case); and while it is similarly straightforward to determine that variations such as You’ve got to be fucking joking cannot be included in international teaching materials because of their potential to offend, we are nevertheless left with a number of typical, ‘polite’ variations which Bell & Gower’s material fails to cover—and which corpus data has brought to the fore (Harwood 2000: 14-16). However, by dismissing some of the variations as inappropriate and hence not being necessarily constrained by corpora, we are being what Summers (1996: 262) calls “corpus-based but not corpus-bound”.
PRINCIPLE 2: RECYCLE AND REVISIT
Nation (1990: 44-45) concludes that coursebooks’ lack of recycling “provide[s] considerable cause for alarm”, before claiming that lexis should be recycled between 10 and 12 times for higher-level learners, and warning that teaching vocabulary without incorporating the necessary recycling is wasted effort. Similarly, Kojic-Sabo & Lightbown (1999) stress that an EFL learner’s need for recycling/reviewing is perhaps more acute than a non-native speaker who is surrounded by the L1 (i.e. an ESL learner): since EFL learners are not continually surrounded by the target language they cannot be said to benefit from any spontaneous reviewing which may result. Regardless of the amount of ‘practice’ material which accompanies the initial presentation, what is needed is repeated exposure over a given period, as opposed to exposing the learner to the lexis once, ‘practising’ it, and never recycling it again (Harwood 2000; Lewis 1997).
Problems of taking a lexical approach
PROBLEM 1: CORPORA AND TEACHING ‘REAL’ ENGLISH
Real English, corpora, and ‘learner overload’
The case of you must be joking discussed previously illustrated that corpus data requires adjustment before it can be allowed to serve pedagogical ends: for instance, untypical or culturally inappropriate items will need to be removed from the handout which is given to the learners. However, it is likely that further adjustments will still be required, due to teachability and learnability factors: that is, since anecdotal evidence (and common sense) suggests there is a limit to the number of items learners can learn at any one time (i.e. in a single lesson), including every lexical variant at every opportunity will complicate the issue unnecessarily. Learners will be overwhelmed and will fail to learn any—or at least learn fewer—lexical strings less well than if they had been presented with a smaller, more manageable list in the first place. So implementing a lexical approach requires a delicate balancing act: on the one hand, the teacher will wish to consult the appropriate corpora to avoid the ersatz English of the textbooks which reflects little of the language’s lexical variations and predominant patterns. On the other hand, however, teachers will be anxious to ensure learners are not “overloaded” with too much lexis which would result from exposing the class to as many lexical strings as the corpus describes (cf. Cook 1998). We should be aware of the dangers of teaching learners unusual or deviant variations when, since we have neither the time (as teachers) or the space (as materials writers) to include more than some variations in our lessons or coursebooks, we should ensure these are the variations which will be most useful to the learners. Hence intuition regarding both linguistic and pedagogical matters needs to be exercised: in addition to asking ourselves whether any of the attested corpus examples are untypical in the skill/genre we are attempting to teach (e.g. academic writing: the research paper), pedagogical judgements such as the accessibility/difficulty/volume of material also require reflection, since, while corpora can tell us much, pedagogical concerns such as these are clearly not addressed by the data (Cook 1998).
Some additional limitations of corpora
Although corpora are no pedagogical panacea (e.g. Cook 1998; Widdowson 2000), I do not believe that corpora in themselves necessarily make the implementation of a lexical approach problematic. The key issue is rather how corpus data is selected and manipulated. To take one example of the potential misuse of data, there is a popular but mistaken belief that the frequency with which lexis occurs in a corpus will determine its priority in our syllabus. In fact, I would suggest that the more advanced the learners’ level, the more apparent it becomes that something more than frequency counts is required. Although much has been made of Willis’ (1990) assertion that the most frequent 700 words of English constitute 70% of text, the problem of what one should teach subsequently remains. As Willis’ figures show, this is much less easily prescribable:
The 700 most frequent words cover 70% of text, but coverage begins to drop rapidly thereafter. The next 800 words cover a further 6% of text and the next 1000 words cover 4%…It is true that general frequency is not the sole criterion [for identifying the appropriate lexis for a syllabus]. (Willis 1990: 47)
Hence, while the frequency factor should not be ignored in our attempts to mirror real English in the classroom, it is clear that frequency should not be the only, or even the principal, factor in determining the lexis to teach. Relevant also is work on text type (e.g. Biber et al. 1994) and genre analysis (e.g. Bhatia 1993; Swales 1990), showing that a research article, for instance, will feature different types of structures and phrases when compared with a business letter; and that to a certain extent such features are predictable. So we would do well to bear in mind learners’ wants and needs (cf. Biber et al. 1994): it is evident that the materials designer will have to consult very different corpora when designing materials for pre-sessional postgraduate learners enrolled in English-medium universities who need to develop their academic writing skills, for instance, compared to an intermediate-level general English group who wish to explore some of the most common ways native speakers open a conversation with their peers.
In summary, corpora in no way constitute a pedagogical “quick fix”: while corpora should undoubtedly stand at the centre of a lexical approach, the teacher and materials designer will need to be aware of the many variables which will influence corpus selection and data manipulation.
From printout to handout
The materials designer needs to acknowledge that there is likely to be a degree of learner (and teacher) resistance to corpus-based materials if the data is handled insensitively, due to the fact such materials are untraditional and also because, more generally, some perceive computers (and therefore computer-based learning) negatively. Such resistance will, of course, only increase should an impenetrable amount of corpus data be simply reproduced straight onto the textbook page (Cook 1998; Leech 1998; Widdowson 2000).
Hence the requirement for the designer and/or teacher to “do” something with the data. One example of what should be done, if communicative language teaching is to be believed, is to ensure the learner feels involved, investing something of themselves in the material (e.g. cf. Allwright 1981; Coady 1997; Sökmen 1997). The materials designer will need to present the (potentially impersonal) corpus printouts in such a way as to stimulate the learners’ personal involvement (cf. Aston 1995); and while various researchers have been developing Johns’ (1991) practical ideas for exploiting corpus printouts in the classroom for some time (e.g. Fox 1998; Lewis 1997; Milton 1998; Thurston & Candlin 1998; Willis 1998) the same ideas are crucially lacking in published commercial materials (Harwood 2000; Moon 1997). Although this may have been more excusable in the past, when corpus-based descriptions were harder to come by, these days designers’ over-dependence on introspection and intuition is less and less justifiable (Harwood 2000).
Existing published materials are not corpus-based
Since there is evidence that designers are failing to exploit corpus data to shape coursebooks’ lexical syllabuses, the teacher who wishes to push lexis up the agenda on their course is obliged to produce their own corpus-based materials. This constitutes a serious difficulty for the spread of a lexical approach: however willing the individual teacher may be to teach lexically, their institution may well prevent them from doing so (Baigent 1999). In addition, of course, time restraints and an excessive workload result in many teachers introducing only a minimum of their own material onto a course. All of this suggests that the influence of a lexical approach will be negligible while there continues to be a dearth of available published material which abides by its tenets.2
I close this section on corpora and a lexical approach by supposing that, in spite of the difficulties described above, a teacher wishes to consult the appropriate corpora to design lexically based materials. Assuming the teacher has access to the necessary computing technology (a considerable assumption—most teachers around the world do not have such access), they will still be faced with the fact that ELT publishers refuse to grant them access to consult many corpora. Other corpora, such as the British National Corpus, require access fees that the teachers’ institutions may be less than willing to provide. And while it is true that there are now cheap corpora available such as the BNC Sampler, teachers of EAP who require soft and hard science sub-corpora to help students write across the disciplinary spectrum will continue to be denied access because of publishers’ commercial interests.
PROBLEM 2: TEACHING AND LEARNING REAL ENGLISH
Whatever the problems involved in accessing the appropriate corpus data, a more fundamental concern is whether it is desirable to even choose to teach “real” (i.e. nativelike) English. The question is obviously enormously complex, and I limit myself to sketching out four related issues.
Respecting learners’ wishes
There is evidence to suggest that many learners have no wish to learn real lexis and sound like an L1 (e.g. Anglo-American) user: despite the fact that many teachers (consciously or unconsciously) hold the nativelike model up as the “ideal”, the learners’ non-native variety can constitute a separate cultural identity, marking the L2 speaker out from the native community (cf. Beneke 1981; Carter 1998; Dellar 2000; Hinnenkamp 1980; Kasper & Blum-Kulka 1993; Littlewood 1983; Prodromou 1996; Wray 1999). Meanwhile the Anglocentric coursebook continues to predominate, which presumes a degree of integrative motivation on the part of the learner and implicitly denies or devalues local Englishes (Beneke 1981; Prodromou 1988). (Such problems, of course, necessarily involve questioning the “global” strategy of the major ELT publishers: if local varieties of English, which differ considerably, are to be the target, then perhaps publishers should be more concerned with marketing local, rather than international, “one product fits all” coursebooks. This is discussed further below.)
In sum, however “real” the lexis is, teachers cannot assume that learners will be prepared to learn lexis simply because “native speakers say it” or “it’s in the coursebook”.
Perceptions of ‘real lexis’
Perhaps some of the objections to teaching real language arise from our perceptions of what exactly real lexis is: I suspect that to many teachers it consists of what Leech (1998) tactfully calls the “less admirable features” of language, which we may not wish our learners to reproduce.3 Alternatively, other teachers may bring to mind the various idioms and idiomatic phrases course and resource books periodically dig up which could be described as parochial and of limited relevance to the class: Hobson’s choice; to send someone to Coventry (Harwood 2000). Yet I would claim that such language, however “real” it may be, is not the kind of lexis which a teacher would be contemplating teaching by following a lexical approach: if learners’ needs remain to the fore, real lexis does not have to be impolite, irrelevant or outlandish. As we saw above when discussing corpus data, to identify a piece of lexis as authentic is not sufficient justification for including it in the syllabus: what is essential, then, is to prioritize (real) lexis according to need.
One of the objections to emphasizing real lexis is due to the fact that the majority of English teachers worldwide are non-natives. How well-equipped are non-natives to teach “real” current British slang? In any case, prioritizing this kind of language would reinforce the alleged supremacy of the native speaker teacher as “expert” (Prodromou 1996). However, take what is perhaps a more common example: the non-native speaker teaching an EAP class. In this case, the real lexis in question should present little problem for the non-native teacher who is well-versed in the conventions of academia and is therefore no less expert than a native speaker.
Varieties of real English
Another key question is what we mean by real English and real lexis: do we mean American, Australian, British, Caribbean, Indian, or South African English, to name but a few varieties? Are we striving to perpetuate an educated or less educated model? Where does the English of the millions of speakers of English as a second or foreign language fit in (Hyde 1998; Leech 1998; Prodromou 1996)? Again, I would suggest such questions are best answered by attempting to address the learners’ needs and wants, although it is well for the teacher to bear in mind that issues like world Englishes and intercultural pragmatics are complex: being acutely aware that real lexis will vary immensely depending on the user should help ensure the classroom atmosphere is not one of small-minded prescriptivism.4
PROBLEM 3: RECYCLING IN PRACTICE
Coursebooks fail to recycle lexis systematically
A recent study of 12 upper intermediate and advanced coursebooks found that none of the prefabricated language or metadiscourse examined was systematically recycled (Harwood 2000). As Littlejohn (1992) claims, ELT materials are failing to keep pace with applied linguistics research, which in this case would suggest that recycling should be a standard feature of the coursebook. And while it should be conceded that recent studies of lexis (e.g. Sanaoui 1995) have emphasized the importance of the learners managing their own vocabulary learning by means of skills the teacher has helped them develop, I do not believe this exonerates materials (or those who design them) from responsibility for recycling. Rather, I would contend that many teachers in fact underestimate the part recycling plays in language learning, and that the coursebook should engage in recycling to underline its benefits to learners but also to remind teachers to incorporate recycling into their lessons regularly.5
Coursebooks have a role to play in encouraging teachers to recycle
However highly teachers rate the importance of recycling, in many classrooms they have little power to ensure it features regularly. Since many institutions worldwide oblige their teachers to follow the coursebook slavishly (cf. Baigent 1999; Dubin & Olshtain 1986), how can the teacher be expected to recycle if recycling activities are left to their whim and are not included in the material?
Recycling needs to consist of more than “doing the same thing twice”
A possible explanation for the apparent reluctance of materials designers (and teachers?) to recycle sufficiently can be found in Lewis’ (1997: 51) assertion that “ “Doing the same thing twice” is still widely considered time-wasting and potentially boring”. As Lewis implies, while a recycling/revisiting strategy should be at the heart of a lexical approach, it is also vital that teachers and material writers ensure recycling is done in an interesting and refreshing way, so that the learners’ interest is still engaged. Variety and novelty, rather than rote learning and staid predictability, should be the cornerstones of the recycling component in a coursebook.
PROBLEM 4: FACE VALIDITY FOR TEACHERS AND LEARNERS
Learners’ and teachers’ perceptions
I wish to reiterate that it is essential that a lexical approach is implemented with sensitivity by the teacher: it is not a case of throwing out all established pedagogy. With this in mind, I now turn to the question offace validity. Although the term is normally associated with the field of language testing, where it is used to examine how acceptable and credible a test is to users (e.g. Alderson, Clapham & Wall 1995), for this article I take it to mean what learners and teachers expect to devote time to in the language classroom. I will now attempt to illustrate the importance that face validity has when utilizing a lexical approach, and potential difficulties which may arise which can be traced to worries about face validity.
While material which takes a lexical approach can be built around many ‘conventional’ design principles which feature in more traditional ‘grammar-based’ exercises, where there is material which is notconventional, not the stuff of the standard ELT coursebook, the question of face validity is likely to arise, since teachers and learners will not be used to the materials and may well therefore question their validity. Because all materials feature a “hidden agenda” (Nunan 1989), with what the writer sees as being the essential things to be learned coming to the fore, by its very prominence, lexis is implicitly ascribed an unprecedented degree of importance. But will the class accept this? Might they not demand ‘grammar’ in the sense in which it is normally presented? While we have seen that the Chomskyan generative paradigm cannot be claimed to describe language adequately and that the realms of grammar and lexis are neither readily definable nor even necessarily discrete (and hence in teaching lexis one can simultaneously be teaching grammar), this is not to say that many, or even the majority, of teachers and learners would accept this and be prepared to attach a higher priority to the acquisition of lexis. The prudent course of action, then, is not to abandon grammar teaching in the traditional sense, but to ensure that syllabuses and materials include both lexis and grammar (cf. Wray 2000). We should remember that there is a type of ELT which predominates in many parts of the world which is radically different in its underlying assumptions (i.e. it values traditional grammar instruction more highly) when compared with the state-of-the-art Anglo-American type (cf. Anderson forthcoming).6 Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of these more traditional approaches, and however sound the case for a more lexically-oriented approach to teaching may appear, we must proceed carefully if those teachers and learners who see structural grammar teaching as key are to be at all persuaded of the merits of a lexical approach. Cook’s (1998: 60) insistence that a preoccupation with lexis will “inevitably” lead to “a bewildering refusal to teach grammar” on the part of the teacher must be proved mistaken if face validity is to be maintained. Perhaps one of the reasons theCOBUILD course was not particularly successful was that teachers and learners had never seen anything like it before, and face validity became an issue. In contrast, the most recent coursebook associated with the lexical approach (Dellar & Hocking 2000) contains a traditional “grammar” component and does not appear unduly different to the standard coursebook. In sum, then, the way to assuage teachers’ and learners’ fears of a lexical approach is to avoid an iconoclastic call to abandon all grammar activities. We should instead simply call for the teaching of lexis to come higher up the agenda.
Some of the difficulties I have raised concerning the practical implementation of a lexical approach can be connected to face validity. As Thornbury (1998) has pointed out, teachers are unlikely to be interested in a set of pedagogical principles per se: it is only when the same principles can be applied to classroom situations that their worth is evident. Given the lack of guidance available in the literature at present as to how a lexical approach should be implemented, then, the approach is unlikely to be adopted until it is seen by teachers as operationalizable. So although Lewis (1993) gives us an insight into the kind of syllabuses he doesnot favour and a range of classroom activities which bring lexis to the fore (Lewis 1997), we are never presented with a comprehensive syllabus based around a lexical approach that Lewis does approve of (Thornbury 1998). Difficulties such as these which hinder the implementation of a lexical approach necessarily involve face validity: it may seem that either (i) the lack of available commercial materials means the approach is misguided, and that lexis is not so important after all; or (ii) that however legitimate teachers and learners believe the approach might be, the lack of materials makes implementation impossible.
The lack of lexically based materials is now discussed further.
PROBLEM 5: THE WORLD OF ELT PUBLISHING
The lack of available pedagogical material claiming to take a lexical approach can be used to critique the ELT publishing world. The conservatism of the industry is well documented: ELT publishers fail to respond to findings in applied linguistics research quickly, and indeed often never apply these findings (Littlejohn 1992; Thornbury 1998). In order to maximize profits, materials are developed for the global market, despite the fact that the many varieties of international English being spoken suggests that products should cater for individual local markets instead (Prodromou 1988). All of this helps to explain why at the time of writing, with the exception of Dellar & Hocking (2000), Powell (1996), and the COBUILD series, coursebooks purportedly built around any sort of lexical approach are conspicuous by their absence.
Conclusion: a lexical approach and the state of the art
While I have tried to outline what I see as a number of difficulties regarding the implementation of a lexical approach in this article, I wish to emphasize that I am in no way inimical to the approach per se. Hence I close by pointing out that in many ways a lexical approach shares the concerns of the most current research in a number of areas of applied linguistics.
Take, for instance, a lexical approach’s insistence on abandoning the misleading grammar/vocabulary dichotomy which has continued to inform ELT materials. The fuzziness of the grammar/lexis distinction is also currently being underlined by studies in phraseology (e.g. Altenberg 1998; Gläser 1998; Howarth 1996); while the emphasis on the importance of prefabs in a lexical approach is confirmed by work on formulaic language (e.g. Aijmer 1996; DeCock 1996, 1998; DeCock et al. 1998; Granger 1998; House 1996; Moon 1997, 1998; Wray 1999, 2000; Wray & Perkins 2000) and metadiscourse (e.g. Crismore, Markkanen & Steffensen 1993; Hyland 1998a,b, 1999; Intaraprawat & Steffensen 1995; Mauranen 1993a,b). If a lexical approach is implemented appropriately, learners will acquire lexis suitable for their needs, a priority which accords with the recognition of the importance of genre analysis (e.g. Bhatia 1993; Swales 1990), in that research in this area shows clearly that the lexis which is suitable for EAP groups, say, may not be so suitable for conversation classes. Hence a lexical approach recognizes that, in order to design material for an EAP class, it is necessary to consult an academic, rather than a general English, corpus.
As it stands at present, the concept of taking a lexical approach to teaching is work in progress (Thornbury 1998), since there are two main areas connected with the approach which are in need of clarification: while some researchers (e.g. Cook 1998; Thornbury 1998) have critiqued the approach’s purported lack of principled foundation, there is also concern about the practicalities of the approach’s implementation(e.g. Baigent 1999; Lewis 1997; Thornbury 1998). It is hoped that this article has made a contribution to the discussions on both these issues.
1. This article is a version of a talk given at the 35th IATEFL conference. I am grateful to Ron Carter, Alan Cunningsworth, and Gregory Hadley for their helpful comments on earlier versions, and to two anonymous reviewers for their insightful and constructive feedback.
2. Apart from the COBUILD course, a recent exception is Dellar & Hocking (2000).
3. Leech (1998: xix-xx) has various ‘vagueness tags’ in mind here: and things, and stuff like that, or something, which are, as he says, “less admirable” inasmuch as such language tends to be stigmatized, since it is seen as devoid of “real meaning” (see Schourup 1985). However, such formulaic chunks do serve a number of functions: for instance, since they are automatized, they afford the speaker additional processing time (e.g. Dechert 1984; Pawley & Syder 1983; Weinert 1995; Wray 2000; Wray & Perkins 2000). In addition, they serve to manage discourse (Aijmer 1996; Edmondson & House 1981; Keller 1979; Wray & Perkins 2000) and maintain social harmony (Aijmer 1996; Coulmas 1979; Cowie 1994; Moon 1992; Nattinger & DeCarrico 1992; Wildner-Bassett 1984; Yorio 1980). Hence the issue of whether we should teach stigmatized language to learners when it may be useful to them in a number of ways is a sensitive one which I obviously cannot do justice to here. Nevertheless, I suggest it is less straightforward than Leech seems to be implying.
4. Focusing on learners’ wants and needs rather than all-round (nativelike) proficiency has the added advantage of ensuring that much time is not wasted in attempting to instil proficiency in, say, colloquial spoken British English when the learner does not wish it. Hence Rampton’s (1990) preferred term of expert, rather than native speaker, which more accurately reflects the fact that a learner may be proficient (‘expert’) in their chosen field, rather than being obliged to be proficient in all fields (‘native’).
5. I am well aware there is much ‘behind’ the material which the designer intends teachers to exploit (cf. Cunningsworth 1995; Cunningsworth & Kusel 1991; Littlejohn & Windeatt 1989). So if a recycling activity has not been included in the students’ edition of the material, this is not to say that the designer did not envisage the need for it. Indeed, perhaps notes on a recycling stage are included in the teachers’ edition. There therefore remains at least the possibility that we are being too precipitous in our condemnation if we have not consulted teachers’ books. The argument could, of course, be taken even further: there is much behind the material which designers do not even include in teachers’ editions, whereby designers rely on teachers’ experience and intuition to tailor the activity to suit the group’s individual needs and tastes. However, if this reasoning is followed to its logical conclusion, we would never condemn material as being inadequate: we might decide, for instance, that the designer was perfectly aware of the need for the teacher to expand on/extend the activities in the students’ edition, but chose not to record this in the teachers’ notes, as they believed teachers would rapidly identify the need for further consolidation without requiring explicit instructions to this effect in the teachers’ notes. My feeling is that a line must be drawn somewhere: the fact, for example, that none of the data barring a single self-access exercise in the material surveyed in my previous study (Harwood 2000) is recycled as a matter of course elsewhere surely deserves comment and (qualified) condemnation.
6. One of the reviewers also pointed out that there are classrooms which have become so ‘communicative’ that any grammar teaching at all has become taboo. In any case, the message for coursebook writers remains the same: proceed cautiously so as to prevent alienating teachers and learners who favour a more structuralist, or a more ‘communicative’ pedagogy.
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[Received 10/10/02; revised 21/2/02]
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