Jan 26, 2013

Start teaching lexically in 2013

Many readers of this blog have read my rants about badly designed coursebook or digital activities and heard me moan about preoccupation with single words in ELT. This has probably left you wondering what kind of approach to teaching I actually believe in. This post describes the main principles of lexical teaching.

The term "teaching lexically" was coined, I believe, by Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley, coursebook writers (Innovations, Outcomes) and teacher trainers (University of Westminster), who have proudly taken over from retired Michael Lewis as torch bearers of the Lexical approach.

Before I go on, some caveats. This post is aimed more at people who are interested in the basics of the lexical teaching, so some of the suggestions may seem obvious to teachers familiar with the approach. Second, like with any post of this kind (Main principles of...), this is my take on lexical teaching and other proponents of the "lexical movement" may see things differently. Finally, as you're about to discover, teaching lexically doesn’t require a major upheaval in your teaching but rather minor "tweaks" to what you probably already do.

Principle 1: 

Ban single words
Words are never – well, almost never – used alone. I can think of only a handful of words that can be used on their own:


But most of the time words are used in company of other words. So why record them alone? Why teach accident only to find that a minute later your students say *He made an accident, when you can teach have an accident? Or why write on the board deprived and its definition or L1 translation, when you can immediately provide the nouns it often goes with:

deprived area / childhood / background

Make a habit of writing new words on the board with other words that surround them and encourage your students to do the same in their notebooks. Ideally, write whole phrases or sentences to illustrate how a word is used:

Have you done your homework?
They are investigating the murder of...
That's it. I'm drawing the line.

If time doesn't permit, write at least two words together.

do homework
investigate the murder (of)
intense workout
heavy rain

Remember: collocations - and not individual words - are minimum units of meaning.

Useful links
TeachingEnglish has a number of articles on teaching and recording collocations. OneStopEnglish offers expert advice on teaching vocabulary, including collocations.

Principle 2: 

Explain less – explore more
Let's face it. We, teachers, love explaining. After all, if we don't, it seems like we aren't fulfilling our role and students' expectations. But many things in English (or any other language for that matter) simply cannot be explained. There is no reason why we say heavy rain and not *hard rain, why buildings can be described as both tall and high, but people can only be tall and how come if we can look, stare and gaze at people, we can look at but not *gaze at a problem. Why not? If I am looking at it for a long time!

By @sandymillin via eltpics
By constantly explaining and giving students - often dodgy - "rules", we actually do them a disservice. Instead of handing students the answers on a plate, invite them on a journey of discovery. And remind them that language is an organism not a mechanism; and many things in language cannot be explained because... that's the way it is!

Useful link
Humanising Language Teaching has a section entitled Corpora Ideas with a range of articles touching upon raising students' awareness of chunks, developing their tolerance of ambiguity and exploring lexis in class.

Principle 3: 

English word ≠ L1 word
Shifting the emphasis from words to collocations and multi-word phrases not only implies recording new language in chunks. You should try to reduce students' reliance on word for word translation. For example, I refuse to answer the following questions:

What does    (English word)    mean? 
How do you say ___(L1 word)     in English? 

Because it, of course, depends on 

what this word means in a given context


what the student wants to say

If you use translation in class, get students to translate whole phrases or collocations. For example, earlier this month (see my previous post: News Quiz 2012 - vocabulary review), I drew my students' attention how soft is not the same "soft" in L1 depending on the nouns it goes with:

soft skin

And do mild cheese, mild injuries and mild sentence correspond to the same "mild" in your students' L1? I  bet you'll find that, with the exception of scientific terms (e.g. appendicitis), there is NO word for word correspondence between semantic fields of L1 and L2 words.

Following on from Principle 2, if you set off on a journey of discovery, you should foster a culture of exploration in the classroom. Encourage students to ask questions about how words are used. Get them to look at the examples (and not only definitions!) in an online dictionary or show them concordances with the target word. Arouse their curiosity about language. You'll know that you've succeeded when students start asking you not only "What does the word mild mean?" but

What else can "mild" be used with?
Can we say "a mild punishment"?

Useful link
Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley often post questions that emerge from classroom discussions about language on their Facebook page

Principle 4: 

Pay attention to what students (think they) know
This is important for two reasons. If students know take and place, does it mean they known take place? Or if they are familiar with both play and host, does it mean they will understand the meaning of play host (to)? What about make do (as in it'll make do for now)? The meaning of many collocations cannot be determined from individual words they are comprised of (these are referred to as non-compositional or idiomatic). Secondly, there are many collocations, whose meaning is semantically transparent (i.e. compositional collocations) which is precisely the reason why students fail to "notice" them and later have difficulty incorporating into their own lexicon.

Also, interestingly, most expressions in English (whether compositional or not) consist of the most common words such as: get, do, come, well, fall etc. 

Hand of Time by Looking Glass
via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
I'm running late
it has nothing to do with...
I'm coming down with something
get a grip
lose your cool
make ends meet
do well in...
have a word with...
don't get me wrong

Advanced level students are often drawn to sophisticated words such as "dejectedly" and "amenable". But revisiting the words they already know and exploring new meanings associated with them (by virtue of new collocations) they can get more mileage.

Useful link
Luiz Otavio Barros in his post Teaching vocabulary: five tips you can't ignore talks about how to draw students' attention to new combinations of already known words. The other tips are worth noting too.


But what about grammar? 
Another post on the role of grammar in lexical teaching will follow soon.


  1. Leo,
    I am really looking foward your post on grammar too. For the past few days, I have been hunting on the web for more lexical tools that I could use to boost vocabulary learning. I have come across with some of them so far.
    As for this post, I liked your tips and Luiz´s as well. I was thinking on the syntacmatic and paradigmatic relationships as a way to explain a teaching and learning approach of lexis and grammar. Let me explain: Have the students find a collocation or phrase they rate as very useful. (this sets the syntacmatic phase) then ask them to use the same grammatical model to create a different sentence using old words. (paradigmatic).
    For example: (from your post): "who have proudly taken over from retired Michael Lewis as torch bearers of the Lexical approach". Now: Julio Palma has recently taken over from Leo´s blog as a torch bearer of the lexical approach. Am I off-base here? I would have never built such a sentence if I hadn´t noticed that pattern.

    1. Hi Julio
      If you're looking for more lexical tools, you've come to the right address :) You can find a collection of online tools here under Essential Lexical Tools above.

      I absolutely agree with the procedure you describe above as this is how I deal with language in class. You start with lexico-grammatical patterns with slots that can be varied (semi-fixed chunks) and get students to fill the slots with the words they know, personalise etc. You may have seen my earlier post on syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships too: bit.ly/OaGHkg

      Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to comment!


    2. Thank you Leo. No, I didn´t read your article but I will today. I am glad there is some common thoughts here on the teaching of productive grammar. Your Lexical tools are great. Would you accept other lexical tools I have found interesting? My focus right now is designing an engaging exersice where students get to use those tool productively. Perhaps a presentation for VenTESOL as well. Again I applause your outstanding work on helping the rest of us to teach lexically in 2013.

  2. Solid advice, Leo. You make a great case for anyone teaching lists of vocabulary, even if placed contextually.

  3. Thank you, Ty.
    Unfortunately many regard context as absolutely necessary for teaching vocabulary. I think co-text (surrounding text: what comes before, what goes after) is more important.

    1. Not sure I`d agree with valuing one more than the other. Without knowing what context certain vocabulary is used in makes knowing that vocabulary pointless, really.

  4. I've been doing these things much more since your talk at TesolFrance. Thanks, as always, for the clear advice :-)

    1. Thank you, Sue!
      I am happy that I inspired you - that's probably the best compliment one can get :)

  5. Wow! Thank you Twitter for pointing out "similar accounts" :-)
    What a great post! Most of the things you have written down here are no news to me. But seeing someone else putting them down so clearly and with useful references and further hints, makes it all much clearer and my own hunches get confirmed.
    I LOVE the first principle of NO SINGLE WORDS ... I'm a non-native speaker myself and a single word with no context to help with connotation and more subtle meaning, well it's quite useless, to be honest.
    And I so much agree with the no direct translation too! However, I never thought of asking my students to translate the sentence as a whole when only one particular word posed problems. Great tip!
    So once again! Great post, great blog, will be visiting!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I was aware that there wasn't anything new in my claims for experienced audience - that's why I added a "disclaimer" at the beginning :) But I thought it would be nonetheless useful for those taking their first steps in the lexical direction.

      Translating (whole sentences and phrases!) and contrastive analysis are very useful for drawing students' attention to collocational differences between English and their L1.

      Thank you for stopping by!

  6. Great post Leo. I particularly like Principle 1. In my previous school, I had to spend the first ten minutes of class going through a vocabulary list of individual words. I put the words in context but really felt the students should have something more than a booklet with a list of single words in English and the Korean translation. As you say, 'most of the time words are used in company of other words'.

    Also, some of the words died out in the 80's. I could never imagine a situation for any Korean teenagers to use them.I tried, in vain, to get the school to reconsider it's policy. If I go back there I will hand them a printout of this post :)

    1. Oh schools and their policies... I must admit I've been lucky with the schools I've worked for.

      I believe co-text is more important than context. By co-text I mean collocations, surrounding words, what comes before and what goes after. When you teach single words out of context it is indeed difficult for students to put them in a meaningful context. But when you start with collocations as minimum units it's easier to contextualise them.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Barry!

  7. Thanks Leo! It couldn' be better explained. Hard work to make teens and young adultsunderstand though , as tjey look for exact translation of words something doesn't obviously exist.
    Looking forward to your tips on grammar


    1. I know, Carmen. It's human nature. We like structure and safety of the rules, especially when learning a foreign language for the first time. I think if you're learning another foreign language (L3), you are generally more tolerant of ambiguity.
      Thank you for,dropping by

  8. Sensible, straightforward and SHORT! :-) An excellent post! There is only one little thing I would like to add - a book recommendation. "Teaching Collocation" by M. Lewis (ed) [LTP 2000] is all about these principles! When I first read it some years ago it totally transformed the way I taught! Highly recommended!

    1. Indeed, Nick. Teaching Collocation is a great recommendation. In my case, it was his earlier book The Lexical Approach (1993) that had a powerful transforming effect on me.
      Thank you for the comment. Good to have you here!

  9. If you don't mind getting your feet wet in a sea of programming try out the Natural Language Toolkit. Very powerful stuff. www.nltk.org

  10. Great post, Leo. I find that teaching chunks really helps my IELTS students boost their score. I have written a couple of posts about it in my blog.



    Your blog is a wonderful resource. Keep it going!


    1. Hi Mike,

      Somehow I only saw your comment now. I'll be sure to check out your posts. Thank you for your comment and sorry for belated reaction.


  11. Hi, Leo! Great post! I admit that I'm guilty of teaching some of the words you've asked to ban. Although we are on the same page of not allowing direct translation in teaching vocabulary. I also agree that we shouldn't do a lot of explaining. Using authentic materials and pictures helps a lot in teaching vocabulary.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ted.
      Re explaining (as opposed to supplying good, context-rich examples) I have another post in mind that I'l hopefully find time to write soon.

  12. I was almost sure about those of the reviews but with the time it became important to get everything with simple manner, hopefully this would indeed let us to figure many other instances.

  13. This is becoming difficult for students to put them in a meaningful context. But when you start with collocations as minimum units it's easier to contextualise them. The thesis literature review should be clear and authentic.

  14. Thank you a lot for writing this article. It is informative and beneficial as well as really interesting. Your idea about writing new words on the board. It is said that everything illustrated on a paper or on the board is better to remember: statistics, details, names, annotated bibliography tips, schemes, and so on and so forth. Also, what your wrote about "explain less - explore instead" is a totally beneficial pharse. Nothing teaches better than a practice. When you write - it is better for your writing skills than when you read "How to write". The same is with each other occupation.


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