Teaching Lexically: Principles and Practice

Hugh Dellar & Andrew Walkley
Delta Publishing 2016

Teaching LexicallyMichael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach (Lewis, 1993) wasn’t the first work on lexis but it probably made the biggest impact on classroom teachers. And a groundbreaking approach in which the role of traditional grammar is reversed could probably only have come from an independent publisher like Language Teaching Publications (very active in the 1990s). The authors of Teaching Lexically are quick to acknowledge their debt to Lewis, and the tradition of ‘smaller’ publishers producing challenging titles continues with Delta Publishing’s Teacher Development series.

As with other titles in the series, the book is organised into three sections: Part A gives the rationale behind teaching lexically; Part B is a bank of over 100 activities putting lexical principles into practice; Part C looks at wider application of the issues, for example teacher training and materials evaluation. Busy teachers could just dip into Part B, but I strongly advise reading Part A first in full, as it provides a theoretical context for the practical activities.

In Part A, there is a rejection of the idea that language learning = grammar + words + skills, as realised in the vast amount of coursebooks. A very fixed version of the grammar syllabus (show me a coursebook where past tenses are introduced before present tenses) determines the progression of learning; and vocabulary, chiefly single words, is used to illustrate grammatical patterns. The chief objections to this are that words not grammar carry the lion’s share of the meaning of an utterance and that words typically co-occur in combinations which determine grammatical choices. Lexis, understood as word patterning, creates the building blocks for grammar.

What of grammar then? The authors counter the accusation frequently levelled against proponents of a lexical approach, that grammar is downgraded or even eradicated in their view. Grammar hasn’t disappeared. Highly productive rules such as ‘singular noun + s = plural’ cannot be categorised as lexico-grammatical patterns. However, the point is made that whereas grammar is a finite system, lexis continues to grow. Hence, the real problem of language learning is learning which words are most productive in forming patterns that can be used in multiple contexts. The task of the teacher is to help learners to produce the patterns automatically and naturally in their own output.

Part B shows teachers how to do this. The activities are not recipes as such, i.e. worksheets you can rush into class with. Many of the exercises can be used as they stand but the deeper point behind each is to encourage reflection and reinforce the argument of Part A. There are seven chapters, each devoted to an area of the lexical syllabus: vocabulary, grammar, speaking, reading, listening, writing, recycling and revising. Each activity fits on one page with a tripartite structure of Principle, the rationale behind the activity, Practising the principle, which could be done by the reader or with a class, and Applying the principle, in which the activity is analysed in the teaching context.

Two activities give a flavour of the core part of the book. Choosing words to teach examines frequency. The principle is that we should teach higher-frequency words earlier, but our intuition is often a poor guide. The exercise involves deciding which word in a pair is the most used and then checking it in either a corpus-informed learners’ dictionary or the British National Corpus. Try it yourself for the first three pairs (answers at the end): government/apple, fun/serious, store/supermarket. Surprised? Another activity is Withholding the correct answer, based on the important work of John Field (Field, 2009) on listening. Lexis may impede decoding because the items are unknown, obscure in the context or phonologically unrecognisable. Traditional listening comprehension exercises do little to help learners work out what causes the problem. In this exercise, learners separate answers into Completely sure and Not completely sure and take a collaborative approach, referring back to the text, to clarify answers in the latter category. A simple but potent strategy for success.

Part C opens the message up to new environments and considerations. The first section, Assessing materials, is an appropriate introduction because almost all teachers will be following a grammar-based coursebook. This doesn’t mean that teaching lexically is doomed from the start. Materials can be adapted and supplemented if the teacher is aware of the principles and practices raised in the first two parts of the book. The final section, Writing your own materials, offers practical advice for personal, in-house and more ambitious projects. In between these sections, teachers specialising in a variety of contexts, from young learners to EAP, will find something for them.

My only criticism of this part is that each section could be much more expansive, as the single-page treatment of an issue, excellent and provocative as it is, leaves you wanting more. I fully agree with the series editors that ‘This book … is really a tool for development and change, based on firm principles, yet rooted in the pragmatic reality of day-to-day classroom teaching.’ There are books which offer relevant theory but fail to connect with teachers, and books which offer rich resources but provide no cognitive framework for their application. Teaching Lexically satisfies on both counts.

(Answers: government, serious, store)


Field J (2009) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis M (1993) The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications.

Wayne Rimmer is a freelance teacher, trainer and materials writer, recently contributing to the Cambridge Empower series of coursebooks.