Lexical Approach Research Paper Starter

Lexical Approach

(Research Starters)

The lexical approach is an approach to teaching language that sees words and word combinations as the foundation of language. The lexical approach is in contrast to structuralist approaches because it views lexis as having more creative potential than grammar. Proponents of the approach also believe that much of language is not novel, but instead consists of prefabricated or memorized chunks. The lexical approach is gaining more influence due to the field of corpus linguistics which is making real language data more widely available.

Keywords Collocations; Concordance; Corpus; Corpus Linguistics; Coverage; ESL Vocabulary; Idiomatic Expressions; Lexical Approach; Lexical Item; Lexical Phrases; Negotiated Meaning; Prefabricated Chunks; Polywords; Range


The lexical approach is an approach to teaching language that sees words and word combinations as the basic foundation of language. From this perspective, the language that we use consists of many multi-word "chunks," or groups of words that frequently appear together. Language teaching under this approach attempts to build vocabulary and raise students' awareness of language patterns.

The lexical approach is different from structural approaches because it places vocabulary before grammar. In structural approaches, grammar is viewed as the primary factor that allows for the creation of novel sentences while words are seen as static entities that merely fit into the slots that grammar provides. In contrast, the lexical approach views words as holding the most creative potential. Lewis (1993) writes that "language consists of grammaticalized lexis not lexicalized grammar" (p. vi).

The Word Continuum

Lewis (1993), in one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the lexical approach, describes the generative power of words as existing on a continuum. At one end are "semantically strong" words whose meaning is contained in the word itself. These words have limited "collocational range" for they do not frequently combine with other words to create new meanings. Such words are highly specialized such as "pneumonia" or "electromagnetic". At the other end of the continuum are words that have little or no meaning in and of themselves. These words, such as "this", "of" and "the," get their meaning from the words with which they combine. They collocate widely and have traditionally been viewed as part of English structure. While these are the extremes, most words fall somewhere in the middle.

Given the central position of words and word combinations to the lexical approach, those interested in its tenets generally examine how words create meaning. The first important principle is that words do not have a one-to-one correspondence with real life (Lewis, 1993). While words such as house and dog represent things that exist, it is not true that these words represent one and only one particular house or kind of dog. Rather, these general terms represent a category that can be understood when a hearer or reader applies background knowledge to the word. Perhaps you, as reader, for instance, have a picture of a kind of house or dog that comes to mind when you hear these words. Probably, your meaning is created partially by understanding what each word is not. A dog is not a cat nor is it a house; thus, you define the word by excluding what it cannot be. The meaning of a word can be refined through the addition of words that modify it. A large red house, for example, or a cute fluffy dog should convey a more specific meaning than the general terms house or dog. However, the exact nature of large, or cute, or fluffy is still an abstract concept without a direct correspondence to one and only one match in real life.

Words, Meaning

Within a word, meaning is created by the base meaning of the word and by the derivations of the word created by changing letters or adding affixes (e.g. prefixes and suffixes). Adding -s to house gives us more than one house. Adding -ed to a word like jump changes the time in which the action occurs (Today I jump; yesterday, I jumped). Outside the word, meaning is created by the context in which it occurs. Context can refer to the situation in which the word is produced (e.g. a discussion between two friends or within a formal academic paper). It can also refer to the language that surrounds the word in a sentence or longer text. Both types of context influence the meaning conveyed by a word. Between two friends talking about a problem that has been previously discussed, for instance, knowledge of the ongoing situational context may be all that is needed to understand the word problem in the following conversation:

S1: "How'd your meeting go?"

S2: "Well, the problem has been taken care of"

Within a sentence level context, the surrounding words can provide clues as to what an unknown word may mean. For example, in the sentence, "The problem with my boss is that he always wants me to work late when I already have plans," the words surrounding 'problem' indicate that the problem is a conflict between what the boss and speaker want.

Writers and speakers use words within contexts to convey a particular meaning, but an additional factor in whether the meaning is understood is the hearer or reader. This person brings to the situation an understanding of the writer's/speaker's purpose, knowledge of the context and of the language. All of this knowledge shapes the outcome of the interaction. Because of the hearer/reader's knowledge, he or she can provide help to the speaker/writer by guessing the speaker's intention, providing unknown words, or ignoring or correcting errors. The result of the interaction between the two parties is a negotiated meaning that is unique to the particular participants (Lewis, 1993).

Lexical Phrases

The lexical approach takes into account all of these different ways of creating meaning. The approach emphasizes that students should be exposed to words in real contexts and that learners should become familiar with how context affects meaning. An effort is made to encourage students to negotiate for meaning, and of course, as the name implies, the greatest attention is given to the nature of lexical items themselves and their regularly occurring patterns within text.

One of the central principles of the lexical approach is that much of the language we use exists in our minds as prefabricated or memorized chunks. These chunks have been called by various names including: lexical phrases, formulaic sentences, and ready-made utterances. It is believed that the chunks are probably stored together in the brain in order to increase the brain's processing efficiency. Through the manipulation of thousands of chunks, individuals create new utterances (Boers, Eyckmans & Stengers, 2006).

Because chunking is so important, the lexical approach makes the teaching of lexical phrases a primary component of the approach. The main reasons for this include:

• Being able to use lexical phrases makes the student sound more native-like. Also, because the phrases are unpredictable from grammar rules or the vocabulary of which they are comprised, the only way to learn them is to learn or acquire them in much the same way that irregular spelling is learned.

• Because lexical phrases are thought to be retrieved from memory holistically, knowing more of them is thought to increase fluency in real-life situations.

• The use of these phrases creates a comfort zone for students. If they can use multiword units without error, they will feel more confident about their language use (Boers et al., 2006).

The teaching of lexical units begins with an understanding of what a lexical item is. According to Pawley and Syder, a lexical item is a minimal unit of text whose meaning is not totally predictable from form and which is socially sanctioned (i.e. people are known to use it)(as cited in Lewis, 1993). Lexical items can be words or they can be multi-word units. Though the categorization and labeling of multi-word units is still an active area of research some commonly recognized categories are


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