Review: The Lexical Approach – Michael Lewis

For one of my NILE MAPDLE Core Module assignments, I had to prepare a set of materials that ‘taught’ (in some way) a piece/pieces of language. As I am very much against prescriptive grammar teaching and was recommended against doing something focused on phonology, I opted for lexis – and focused on formulaic language for writing application letters. I will eventually get around to doing a write-up of this assignment, but I will mention that a lot of reading was involved, especially around lexis. I finally got my hands on a copy of Michael Lewis’ The Lexical Approach, and, without giving too much away, I’ll say that I found it insightful – and useful for the assignment! What follows here is my review of the book, complete with what I liked, didn’t like, and who I think should read it.

“Paradoxically, within an essentially organic, holistic perception of language, it becomes increasingly clear that when language is viewed analytically, our earlier analyses were mistaken. Language is not words and grammar; it is essentially lexical.”

Lewis, 1993, p.196

Three-sentence summary

Michael Lewis’ The Lexical Approach – The State of ELT and a Way Forward is a book that aimed to profoundly influence our industry through encouraging teachers to reevaluate their perceptions of language, especially the heavy emphasis often placed on grammar, and incorporate more ‘lexical teaching’ into their practice. Lewis takes the reader through his rationale for his thoughts, often going deep into the philosophy behind certain aspects of the Lexical Approach, and later provides a limited amount of practical examples of how teachers might implement the approach in their classrooms. Lewis’ book, whilst at times a little dense, provides teachers with a revolutionary look at why lexis is superior to grammar, and why certain changes in our teaching practices need to change so that learners can be more successful.

Three take-aways

As usual, there are many, many take-aways, and three is very limiting. This being said, I’ll aim for the three that I think are most important.

“Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar.”

Lewis, 1993, p.VI
  • Language is grammaticalised lexis: This Lexical Approach principle can be found/stated in loads of methodology books. But I don’t think I fully understood what Lewis actually meant until I read this book. In essence, Lewis asks us to re-think our view of language, and rather than seeing grammar as superior to lexis, we should see lexis as superior to grammar, with each piece of lexis having its own ‘grammar’ (called word grammar). Basically, at sentence-level, we are talking about collocations, although this can also refer to many other lexical items (e.g., polywords such as taxi rank and of course, and institutionalised expressions such I see what you mean). In terms of grammar acquisition, Lewis writes that “grammar will, to some extent at least, be acquired through generalising”, with generalising taking place after lexical items and unanalysed chunks are presented and learnt.

“Grammar is the search for powerful patterns. Historically, this has led to what Willis calls ‘an inordinate attention’ being paid to the verb phrase. But many other items within the more strictly grammatical side of the syllabus deserve increased attention within the Lexical Approach.”

Lewis, 1993, p.137
  • Grammar is actually present in the Lexical Approach: Much to many teachers’ surprise, I am sure, grammar does play an important role in the Lexical Approach. This role, however, is very different to traditional perceptions of grammar teaching. For one, Lewis emphasises that too much ‘grammar teaching’ focuses on sentence-level grammar, and this is actually where word-grammar is needed (with some exceptions). The grammar that is pushed in the Lexical Approach can be seen below, although throughout the book the one aspect of grammar that I feel is emphasised the most is that of supra-sentential linking. Don’t know what that means? Neither did I until my handy friend Google helped out. It means linking between sentences, and emphasises that language occurs in a context and with a co-text, i.e., the language around it.
    • Basic morphology and word formation: Things like plural -s and most past endings -ed. These are beneficial to learners as they “are a part of pattern generating systems” (Lewis, 1993, p.137).
    • Auxiliary manipulation: Lewis writes that auxiliaries contribute to fluency in spoken English as they are “central to at least six major functions – expressing negatives, questions, tags, making short answers interested responses, and adding emphasis to what is said” (Lewis, 1993, p.138).
    • Oppositions: Lewis says that it is relatively impossible to identify an opposite of a word; however, he writes that a set of collocations for a word should be created, and then a set of oppositions identified.
    • Negation: Lewis writes that negation is generally viewed as “essentially structural idea” (1993, p.138). He refutes this as says that whilst structural negation may be possible, it may not be “the normal pragmatic way of negating an utterance” (1993, p.138).
    • Adjuncts: Things like Interestingly and More importantly are useful for structuring discourse as they help connect extensive discourse and provide the user with communicative power.
    • Grammatical holophrases as lexis: These are basically longer stretches of language or sentences that have “more or less institutionalised pragmatic meaning” (Lewis, 1993, p.139). An example he provides is Oh hello, I haven’t seen you in ages (p.139). He emphasises that these should be taught at even the lowest levels as they provides learners with plenty of communicative power.
    • Supra-sentential linking: Basically, cohesive devices. These help keep the text together, connecting meaning and making it flow.

“Practice should be directed towards helping students collocate words, and grammaticalise from word to sentence. […] Words carry more meaning than grammar so, in general, words determine grammar. Lexical exercises should exploit this, but it is also important to remember that they are to help students acquire the ability to grammaticalise.”

Lewis, 1993, p.128
  • Language should be presented, practised and recorded, although through an Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment paradigm: Ok, a lot to unpack here. Firstly, Lewis writes that decontextualised language practice can be beneficial, especially for raising awareness of word grammar. So, for example, he recommends presenting a word and then identifying collocates for this word. From their learners can analyses the set of collocations and identify the word grammar for the word. He emphasises that we should be aiming to present the most ‘probable’ formulations of language, not all that are possible (and this is where corpus linguistics can help us out a lot). I think this is important to keep in mind. And lastly, he writes that language should be recorded in a non-linear manner, rejecting the idea of the traditional vocabulary book. From what I gather, he advocates recording vocabulary in terms of collocations, generally, although also says that these ‘recordings’ could also be grouped by functions and notions.

What I liked

  • Old, but still relevant: So, this was written back in 1993, and from what I know it was pretty revolutionary for its time. What I will say now is that the ideas presented are still revolutionary for most teachers, in my opinion. I think that if our industry were to move more towards working in the way Lewis writes here, I think we would see some really positive things happen. This is not to say that I agree with everything Lewis writes (will get to that soon), but I do think his emphasis on teaching in an evidence-based manner and moving away from the PPP paradigm is great.

  • He openly criticises the PPP paradigm: So, this follows from my previous point, but I think it warrants a point on its own. Why? Well, at the time, PPP was still very much in fashion with most teachers and course books. It went against the grain, which I love. Fast forward to today, twenty years later and we know that PPP is still one of the most common planning frames that teachers use, albeit less openly at times. This being said, I must admit that course have tended to move away from this now.

“I do not believe that there is a method, or set of methods which guarantees successful learning and is appropriate in all circumstances. Language and learning are complex phenomena, and the simple answer of ‘the best method’ will always be an unhelpful over-simplification. But eclecticism is sometimes an excuse for confusion.”

Lewis, 1993, p.189 (emphasis in original)
  • He states that there is no one method, but also presents a warning for eclecticism: In the chapter titled Teaching, Teacher Training and Methodological Implications, Lewis makes clear that he believes that there is no one method. He goes so far as to say that eclecticism is a word that is thrown around carelessly as an excuse to do whatever, although in a much ‘nicer’ way. Both of these I agree with, as do many others (e.g., see Kumaravadivelu’s From Method to Post-method). This idea of principled eclecticism is something trainers should be pushing, but also supporting teachers in achieving (e.g., by raising awareness of methodological principles and implications of certain methods, or helping teachers navigate SLA research).

“Every piece of language which we ultimately produce comes from outside us and, as such, is initially based on receptive rather than productive skills. The early stages on a [learning programme] should unashamedly pursue a methodology based on receptive skills.”

Lewis, 1993, p.194
  • A strong emphasis on receptive skills at lower levels: Lewis emphasises that receptive skills, especially listening, should take priority in the initial stages of a language learning. This falls in line with a lot of what we know about SLA. This being said, much of current day language teaching pushes low-level learners to produce, produce and produce (with the PPP paradigm pushing this even more). Whilst research shows that production is important, we know that learners need plenty of exposure to English, and they also need to be placed in situations in which their receptive skills are used with content that is somewhat understandable. One way of doing this is with input-based tasks, which are tasks where learners need to listen to/read something and then respond using either their linguistic or non-linguistic resources (e.g., movement). Whilst Lewis doesn’t necessarily talk about input-based tasks, he does advocate task-based methodology and the use of listening tasks in general, which is positive in my book.

“There is a fundamental conflict between the teacher’s natural desire to give clearly focused and effective lessons, and the non-linear nature of language and learning. Although there is substantial theoretical support for task-based goal-oriented syllabus specification, most teachers continue to demand much more specific linguistic objectives for each lesson.”

Lewis, 1993, p.108
  • Lewis encourages the reader to work with learners’ internal syllabus, not against it: Whilst he steers away from going too deep into interlanguage development, Lewis does write that much of current day teaching is at odds with what we know about interlanguage development, namely how language learning is not an additive undertaking. So, in essence, we shouldn’t be prescribing ‘grammar’ or have success criteria that are based on linguistic outcomes. In saying this, the Lexical Approach emphasises presenting lexis that is useful to the learner, often in a decontextualised manner. Lewis (1993, p.109) writes, however, that the Lexical Approach “is not a lexical syllabus, and explicitly recognises word patterns for (relatively) de-lexical words, collocational power for (relatively) semantically powerful words, and longer multi-word items, particularly institutionalised sentences, as requiring different, and parallel pedagogical treatment”. I gather that this means that the lexis in the course could go anywhere, based on learners needs.
Lewis, 1993, p.131
  • There are some very interesting activities: Whilst there are not a lot of activities, there are a few that really interesting. For example, the activity above encourages learners to agree and disagree though lexical devices as opposed to grammatical, following findings from discourse analyse that state we often do agree using lexical devices.
  • Discourse analysis is brought in a lot: One of my favourite ELT people, McCarthy, is reference a lot in this book, especially his work within discourse analysis and spoken grammar. It was nice to see that Lewis brought this in and presented it in a way that left no doubt about his opinion, which is that we should be teaching what is used (i.e., descriptive use of language), not what books say we should use (i.e., prescriptive use of language).

“Working through a course book – perhaps omitting bit, and almost certainly supplementing it – is almost always better than working entirely without a course book.”

Lewis, 1993, p.183
  • Published materials: Lewis writes that many published materials are structurally based and therefore not great for teaching/learning. However, he does see the value in them because they provide a tool for teachers to use and a bank a resources to exploit. He talks about seeing teacher-made materials and, to put it lightly, he things that the majority of them are terrible (something I feel I agree with, to a point!). He mentions that time constraints, ability to actually create materials, and views of language all come into play when creating materials, and generally teaching are severely disadvantaged mainly because of time, hence the course book is presented as a useful tool.

What I didn’t like

  • It reads like a manifesto at times: Now, this is not necessarily a ‘gripe’ that I have with the book, but I can see how it would put some teachers off reading it, which is a shame. In the first few chapters, Lewis does go deep into the philosophy behind the Lexical Approach, very much the same as other methodology writers (e.g., see Long’s masterpiece Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching). I do believe that we as teachers, as we become more experienced and take our development and different kinds of teaching knowledge further, should explore the philosophy and theories behind certain methods, approaches and trends; however, I can imagine a teacher picking up this book and getting stuck in chapter 3 or 4 because that is not what they are looking for.
  • Not many examples: Lewis does give plenty of information regarding what makes up the Lexical Approach, but I thought that there should have been many more activities/examples showing what he meant. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very clear examples, but I wanted to see more, especially regarding the Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment paradigm.
  • Lewis writes a bit densely: I read a lot of book about ELT and SLA. I’ve even read a lot from other fields. Some paragraphs in this book though made me feel like I had never read at all. They were very dense, for me at least, and I had to go back and read them a few times. In the end, I understood what Lewis was saying, but I felt that it could have been said much more simply. I hope this doesn’t put anyone off reading the book, as what he has to say it really interesting, but it is worth mentioning.

“It is not self-evident that correction helps. Indeed, I know of no research evidence which suggests that it does.”

Lewis, 1993, p.173
  • The focus on corrective feedback: For those that read my blog a lot, you will know that I am an advocate for a Focus-on-Form approach to language teaching and corrective feedback (following Long, Ellis, Skehan, Shintani, and many others). I also know that there has been a lot of research on corrective feedback (having read a bit of it myself), and we know that there is no one best way to provide corrective feedback – but we do know that it should happen, and that a mixture of techniques is recommended (e.g., see Ellis et al.’s Task Based Language Teaching – Theory and Practice). Lewis writes that if corrective feedback is to take place, it should be done in an implicit manner through reformulation. Now, whilst reformulation/recasts are certainly a useful corrective feedback technique, we know that in general explicit feedback seems to be more effective than implicit, but again a mixture is recommended.

Applying to practice

So, what to take away from Lewis’ The Lexical Approach? Well, I’ve identified two things. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear what your takeaways are, and how you’re going to use the new knowledge in your teaching!

  1. More word grammar – and exploring the word in the moment: So, whilst I am hesitant to follow Lewis’ advice of presenting lexis in a decontextualised manner (I much prefer a text-based approach to vocabulary teaching), what I do like and think would be very useful, is the idea of exploring the grammar of the item as it comes up (word grammar, that is). So, for example, the other day in class, one of my students was searching for the word stain. I provided the word to her and she was able to communicate her message effectively, and learners were able to complete the info-gap task they were doing. Following the task, though, I returned to this word and we looked at it in more detail. I boarded stain and then we brainstormed collocations and identified how it collocates (e.g., something stains something, something can get stained, something can be stained, something can get a stain on it). We also looked at related words like stained-glass windows. As we were exploring this word, learners were noting everything down in their note books. This whole process took about 4-5 minutes, and I feel that learners had a much clearer grasp of ‘stain’. In saying this, I will need to go back to the item, review, recycle, etc.
  2. Institutionalised sentences even at lower levels are useful: Lower level learners struggle to communicate meaning. It’s a fact. But I see massive value at presenting and small number of unanalysed (and this is key) chunks of language that perform clear pragmatic purposes (e.g., offering someone something). When working with lower levels we think that they should be restricted – and this restriction is usually structural. I agree with Lewis is that we shouldn’t view language in that way, and we certainly should restrict learners from using, interacting with, etc. these ‘institutionalised sentences’ that have plenty of communicative power. Their ability to engage with the ‘generative’ grammar will come later – right now we need them to look at this ‘chunk’ and see its purpose/pragmatic use. And, of course, feel comfortable in using it.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers: This is a no-brainer, although a word or warning – it can be dense and somewhat philosophical. If you’re happy with that, then get into it. Like I said, if all teachers moved towards what Lewis is advocating, then I think we’d see plenty of positive things happen in ELT.
  • Delta/DipTESOL/MA takers: Ok, if you fall into this category, you should definitely be reading this book. This being said, if you’re tight on time (which, let’s be honest, you are), then there are two chapters that are going to your priority: Principles and implications of the Lexical Approach and Teaching, Teacher Training and Methodological Implications. All in total, these chapters come to about eleven pages – but they are eleven pages packed with all the necessary info you need.
  • Teacher educators: Educators will find use in this book, especially, funnily enough, the philosophical underpinnings chapters. Also, taking a look at the chapters that focus on the role of grammar and lexis in the Lexical Approach will be useful for discussing language presentation and the role of lexis/grammar with teachers.
  • Syllabus designers: This might sound strange, but if you are designing syllabi, I highly recommend this book. I think that most syllabus designers nowadays should be fairly up-to-date with these things, but Lewis does present some very useful information about the Lexical Approach and how it is not a syllabus, but has implications for syllabus design.
  • Materials writers: This is probably a must for people designing course books and published materials. In fact, after reading this I can already see how the more modern course books have been influenced by the Lexical Approach. If you are writing materials, this book is worth a read.

Final notes

When you finish reading the Lexical Approach, you have loads of questions still. Well, at least I did. I suppose that’s why Lewis wrote Implementing the Lexical Approach, which I have a copy of although don’t have time to read at the moment. Luckily, though, there are some brilliant people out who can simplify things for us. For example, Erin O’Byrne, the owner of the fantastic Everything EFL podcast, has sat down with Hugh Dellar a number of times to talk about the Lexical Approach. You should check out episodes 79 and 60 – both of these will take you less time than reading the books (although I do recommend reading at least the Lexical Approach). All in all, though, the Lexical Approach was a great read and if you’re in ELT for life, then it is one of those books you need to read (in my honest opinion). You may not agree with everything Lewis writes, but there is a lot of really useful stuff in here.


And remember, if you fancy seeing me talking about the book, you can watch the Sponge Review on YouTube!

Book details

Book title: The Lexical Approach – The State of ELT and a Way Forward

Author: Michael Lewis

Pages: 200

ISBN: 9780906717998

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