Over twenty years since the publication of Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach[1] and having followed all the debate on it[2], where do we stand in relation to the teaching of vocabulary? A little review of the materials we use in our classrooms and our own attitude to vocabulary teaching/learning may prove useful, so let’s get started with 5 questions:

  1. How much prominence does our chosen ELT coursebook give to the teaching of vocabulary? Does it make a grammar/vocabulary distinction (or dichotomy?) which is not exactly useful for students?
  2. How is lexis presented? In lists of words related to a theme, in useful chunks which students may regard as patterns? Does the lexical syllabus take advantage of similarities with students’ L1?
  3. What kind of vocabulary retaining and expansion strategies are students presented with? Are there any examples of vocabulary logs, word webs, words/expressions banks?
  4. How much classroom time is spent on vocabulary building?
  5. Is the teacher encouraged to raise students’ awareness of aspects of vocabulary e.g. similarities with the students’ mother tongue, suffixes, collocations, patterns in general? Or is the teacher still a walking dictionary students resort to most of the time?

The fact that lexical chunks can potentially accelerate beginning students’ ability to communicate from a very early stage has been largely accepted. However, most syllabi are still somewhat shy in their presentation of lexis and still display under “grammar” the core of the course. It is not suggested here that one should exclude the other, but a little more attention to lexis wouldn’t hurt.

It usually takes quite some time for the ordinary classroom to benefit from research findings or for new ideas to be tried, tested and incorporated, but it’s time all the work on corpus linguistics had a bigger impact on ELT materials and classroom practice. Both the traveler who finds him/herself somewhere where their command of the local language is not enough even to read road signs and the competent speaker who need to use the language in unfamiliar situations will benefit from a pocketful of “useful chunks”.


[1] Lewis, M., The Lexical Approach: the State of ELT and a Way Forward, Hove, Language Teaching Publications (1993).

Lewis, M., Implementing the Lexical Approach – Putting Theory into Practice, Hove, Language Teaching Publications (1997).


[2] See Leo Selivan’s blog for a good summary at http://leoxicon.blogspot.com.br/2016/02/lexical-approach-criticism.html accessed on August 4th, 2017.