The Lexical Approach

First, a disclaimer. The focus of this article is the best way to teach people who wish to learn English as a second language. The assumption here is that they wish to communicate with English and not learn textbook structures. Now on to the article.

In a previous post, I summarized/interpreted Michael Lewis’ The English Verb. The book provided an alternative view of how the English verb system worked, which made the language more consistent than it seemed from the traditional rules.

Lewis wasn’t done however. He is most famous for The Lexical Approach. Here’s a text (by Ken Lackman) that summarizes the approach and provides some exercises and samples. Don’t let the length scare you; much of it includes exercises and so forth, so if you are only interested in what the approach is about, you needn’t read the whole thing.

I’d like to emphasize/derive a few points:

First, this is NOT phrase book English. We are not teaching students canned phrases; perhaps a better way of viewing this is that vocabulary has been extended to include phrases. These lexemes are generative just like vocabulary – we build upon them to produce more language.

Second, the exercises seem odd, but they make sense when reflecting on where most of English will be learned – outside the class. To this end, really focus on the notion of input vs. intake. Input is simply the receipt of sensory information – which may be a jumbled mess. It’s only intake when the student can process it and learn language from it, and this means the ability to recognize structures.

Third,  to truly learn English, the students MUST immerse themselves in it. Simply showing up to class will lead to very limited gains. The student must try to speak, watch TV and listen to the radio in English. Class can provide the structure and skills to develop an interpretative framework for the language, but the content must be provided by the student outside of class. The world has plenty of content, if the student will let it speak to him/her.

Fourth, our minds are great at finding patterns and forming explanations, so take advantage of that by letting students form their own rules. Your greatest contribution should be the careful selection of representative examples the student is likely to encounter. Avoid giving rules unless the student insists and don’t worry about structures the student is not likely to encounter. Which brings us to the final point.

Fifth, the goal is effective communication and not textbook English. Correct English is what achieves the student’s goals, and may differ from student to student. Take into account what the student is trying to accomplish. A student who just wishes to be able to chat with the neighbors has different needs from one who wishes to get ahead in work.

Further Reading

Michael Lewis wrote the books that started the Lexical Approach:

    The Lexical Approach

    Implementing the Lexical Approach

I thought the second book was clearer, although I read it after the first.


4 thoughts on “The Lexical Approach

  1. An interesting overview of Lewis’s work – and I’m glad to see you also mention my friend Ken 🙂
    I always liked the first book (LA) better but I can understand why many would find the second (ILA) clearer and more practical.

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