Feb 20, 2016

Criticism of the Lexical Approach

"All chunks and no pineapple?"
Image by Andrew Malone via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Writing an essay or working on a paper on the Lexical Approach and looking to include some sources that criticise it to make your writing balanced? I've collated a list of relevant articles here.

Like all other methods and approaches in ELT, the Lexical Approach has not been without its critics. Here are some articles (in chronological order) that have been critical or sceptical of the Lexical Approach or some of its aspects over the years.

For a list of useful references on the Lexical Approach: click HERE

Scott Thornbury - Lexical Approach: a journey without maps

One of the first criticisms expressed about the Lexical Approach, particularly Michael Lewis's over-reliance on Krashen's view of language acquisition and a lack of guiding principles for building a syllabus. 

Interestingly, Scott Thornbury would go on to write Natural Grammar (OUP 2005), the only lexical grammar book on the market, although it is probably influenced more by Dave Willis's Lexical Syllabus rather than Lewis's work.

Citation: Thornbury, S. (1998). Lexical Approach: A journey without maps? Modern English Teacher 7:7-13
Can be accessed via Scott Thornbury's website: www.scottthornbury.com/articles.html

Seth Lindstromberg - My good-bye to the Lexical Approach

Coming from the perspective of Cognitive Linguistics, Lindstromberg argues against a strong version of the LA, whose proponents downplay the importance of meaning at the word level (they argue that words as such are devoid of meaning without context).

But... see Hanna Kryzsweska's reply - "Why I won’t say good-bye to the Lexical Approach" written with a non-native speaking teacher in mind. Also, Seth Lindstromberg would later co-author "Teaching Chunks of Language" (Hebling Languages 2009). Not a good-bye after all?

Citation: Lindstromberg, S. (2003). My good-bye to the Lexical Approach. Humanising Language Teaching 5(2)

Michael Swan - Chunks in the classroom: Let’s not go overboard

Here's the quote which pretty much sumps up Michael Swan's 'pro-grammar' stance: "Much of the language we produce is formulaic, certainly; but the rest has to be assembled in accordance with the grammatical patterns of language [...]. If these patterns are not known, communication beyond the phrase-book level is not possible - as somebody memorably put it, language becomes 'all chunks but no pineapple'"
I've always thought the memorable pineapple quote was by Swan himself. Not so, it seems.

Citation: Swan, M. (2006). Chunks in the classroom: Let’s not go overboard. Teacher Trainer, 20(3): 5-6
Can be accessed on Michael Swan's website: www.mikeswan.co.uk/elt-applied-linguistics/chunks-in-the-classroom.htm

Ivor Timmis - The Lexical Approach is dead: long live the lexical dimension! 

Despite what the title claims, the article is not so much criticism but an attempt to explain why the Lexical Approach has not gained wide acceptance in ELT and how its elements can still be effectively incorporated into syllabi and coursebooks.

Citation: Timmis, I (2008). The Lexical Approach may be dead, we should add a lexical dimension to our teaching. Modern English Teacher 17(3): 5-10
Can also be previewed HERE

Catherine Walter - Time to stop avoiding grammar

Criticism of the Lexical approach in the popular (non-professional) press. Catherine Walter defends explicit teaching of grammar rules and, by virtue of it, dismisses the approaches and methods that place less emphasis on it.

See my reply on THIS BLOG or in MET

Citation: Walter, C. (2012, September 18). Time to stop avoiding grammar. The Guardian Weekly. Available at: http://gu.com/p/3aa24

Pawel Scheffler - Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction

Scheffler's main argument is that lexically rich input is not sufficient - indeed EFL learners do not have access to massive exposure like native speakers  - and learners need explicit grammar teaching too.

See Chris Jones's response in ELT Journal

Citation: Scheffler, P. (2015). Lexical priming and explicit grammar in foreign language instruction. ELT Journal 69(1), 93–6

In recent years, Geoffrey Jordan has emerged as a vociferous critic of the Lexical Approach, particularly of Hugh Dellar's work, but also of Michael Hoey's Lexical Priming theory which underpins it. Unfortunately, he has taken his blog down. I'm told you can access some of his posts via this automatic web-archiving tool (WARNING: intemperate language).

That's about it. Have I left anything out?


  1. Nicely summarized list of critiques, Leo. For the record, the 'all chunks and no pineapple' meme comes from my 'journey without maps' article - the first in your list. No thanks to Michael Swan for failure to attribute it!

    1. Glad you liked it! And thanks for helping establish the source of the meme - I must have overlooked it. You've packed lots of food metaphors into that article: sour grapes, undigested chunks :)

      And did you think it would become a meme back in 1998? Or would you say a "catchphrase" back then?


  2. Thanks for the mention, Leo, even if it does come with a warning. I'd like to see some justification for calling the language "intemperate". Anyway, I hope you'll let me tell your readers my criticisms of Dellar and Hoey continue herehttps://criticalelt.wordpress.com/


    Geoff Jordan

  3. When we are started to writing in online we face more problems in here. So i think for get more better writing we need to spend lot of time in here. Thanks to write more for us.

  4. Hello everyone. Nice list you have here! Even though I do not totally agree with the lexical approach, it bothers me greatly to see so many people criticizing it so harshly. I firmly believe that this method could work very well if we combine it with other methods. I am not very fond of pattern drils, but I do use lexicals chunks in my classrooms. Unfortunately, when it comes to language teaching and language learning/acquisition, no one has ever managed to provide a single, all-embracing, miraculous method so far. Not even hyperpolyglots such as Kato Lomb or super linguists such as Noam Chomsky, Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson or Eugen Coseriu, to name a few. And not even illustrious communication theorists such as Shannon and Weaver, Paul Watzlawick or Michael Tomasello. That said, I am happy to inform you that my position is somewhere in between and that I totally agree with Michael Agar’s conclusion quoted below:
    “Grammar and the dictionary, language inside the circle, are important, no doubt about it. But grammar isn’t enough to communicate, and communication can occur without all the grammar. Language has to include more than just language inside the circle. To use a language, to live in it, all those meanings that go beyond grammar and the dictionary have to fit in somewhere. The circle that people – and some linguists – draw around language
    has to be erased. Culture is the eraser.” (Michael Agar – “Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation”, New York, Perennial, 2002, p. 20)
    Best regards, Nick

  5. P.S.: I wonder if these people who highly criticize the lexical approach have ever read Hermann Ebbinghaus' or Allen Newell's works. Or at least Vygotsky's, M.A.K. Hallidays, Norbert Schmitt's or Regina Weinert's works.


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