TEFL Alexical approach to second language learning

Over the past four decades it appears that the advanced development of computers and the ready availability of this technology have led to an interest in a lexical approach to second language learning versus the more traditional grammar based approach.

The Oxford dictionary defines lexical as ?connected with the words of a language?, and grammar as ?the rules in a language for changing the form of words and joining them into sentences?. Two additional terms that are relevant to understanding this new approach is concordances, ?a list produced by a computer that shows all the examples of an individual word in a book?, and collocations, ?a combination of words in a language that happens very often and more frequently than would happen by chance?.

One article researched suggest that we live in a world where our ideas about words, language fluency, correctness, and productions have been subjected to analyses to powerful computers and that as early as the 1970s computer generated concordances substantially changed lexicography. It further promoted the advantages of discussing lexemes instead of words because lexeme describes a unit of meaning which may extend (in the case of collocations, phrasal verbs, or idioms) to a length greater than single words. It related that the wildly varying figures for the number of words in a language and for individual vocabulary size are a direct result of a lack of distinction between words, which are individual lexical units, and word families, clusters which include ?the base word, all of its inflections, and its common derivatives?. (The Vocabulary Control Movement: Its History and Legacy, TESL-EJ, Vol. 5. No. 1)

An additional article reviewed focused primarily on the practical application of the lexical approach. It proposed that 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. 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. (Lexical Approach to Second Language Teaching, ERIC Digest, June 2001)

This article identified Michael Lewis (1993) as coining the term lexical approach, and that the term 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 grammatical zed lexis, not lexicalized grammar.? ?One of the central organizing principles of any meaning- centered syllabus should be lexis.

The ERIC article further states that 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. The lexical advocates argue that language consists of meaningful chunks that, when combined, produce continuous coherent text, and only a minority of spoken sentences are a novel creations. Within the lexical approach, special attention is directed to collocations and expressions that include institutionalized utterance and sentence frames and heads.

This article listed the following activities to be used to develop learners? knowledge of lexical chains: ?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. ?Working with language corpuses created by the teacher for use in the classroom or accessible on the Internet.

It would seem that this approach is relatively new in the field of second language teaching and will receive much more attention in the future. I certainly don?t feel qualified to make even a cursory judgment as to its merits but it appears to have some merit as another approach to teach the varied audiences that are to be taught. There is an old saying that something is ?good for all and best for none?. This would appear to be applicable in the education field and maybe the lexical approach should be viewed as a way to individualize our teaching mention, i.e. student focused.


ERIC Digest. Lexical Approach to Second Language Teaching, June 2001

TESL-EJ: The Vocabulary Control Movement: Its History and Legacy, Vol. 5. No. 1, April 2001

Author: Richard F Cox

Date of post: 2006-05-12