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Lexis: changing attitudes
by Jane Herbertson
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The change in status of lexis

The renewed interest in vocabulary is partly attributable to the growth in corpus studies which have made it easier to analyse word patterns more objectively. Results have revealed "the significance and the intricacy of the links between words: for example, their strong clustering tendencies and the patterns which are associated with them" (Moon p50). It was during the 1980s that the status of vocabulary began to grow in importance, manifested in research and the publication of coursebooks eg the Cobuild English Course (1) with an explicit lexical syllabus.

Added to this has been the general trend in learner centred approaches in the classroom (what does the learner want/need; how can the learner help him/herself; increased responsibility for the learner in syllabus content).

The Lexical Approach (LA) is one approach which elevates the status of vocabulary in the classroom. Lewis (2) objects to aspects of more traditional approaches to second language learning, some of which he claims are:

• a concentration on the sentence: one aspect of which was mastering the structural frame and using lexis to fill the gaps. Focus on the sentence is also associated with a bottom-up approach, rather than the more recent view of looking at language in context (top-down processing).

• teachers have been too preoccupied with possible sentences rather than what is actually said (probable utterances) - language corpora can provide the requisite data

• regarding language learning as a linear process eg the past simple is generally taught after the present simple has been 'mastered', thus not allowing students earlier access to some of the most useful items of language

• teachers have been further preoccupied with production. Lewis compares the acquisition of L2 with that of L1, advocating exposure to vast quantities of lexically rich input without the pressure to produce it

• there has been insufficient repetition (he criticises the P-P-P model (3), where teachers using this methodology have adopted an attitude that what is taught equates to what should be quickly learnt - p51, Implementing the Lexical Approach)

• knowing the (sometimes confusing) grammar rules is not the same as knowing how to use them

As far as the LA is concerned, he posits:

• that lexis not grammar lies at the basis of language and this language "consists of chunks which, when combined, produce continuous coherent text" (p7 Ibid.)

• first languages are learnt in chunks which take different forms (4). He advocates learning the fully fixed expressions as wholes and views the semi-fixed expressions as being the most useful and significant (p11 Ibid.).

• chunks are stored in the brain as such. Therefore language should not be broken down and then reassembled. When using language, these readymade chunks are retrieved as wholes (Lewis claims that language is not infinite creativity), resulting in reduced processing time for speaker/listener. Chunking is an aid to fluency.

• chunking will help learners to be more natural with pronunciation - encouraging the use of connected speech

• that lexis is a powerful generator of language and he cites the use of delexicalised words (5) which should not be dealt with grammatically

• the most frequent words encode the most frequent meanings and the rest is largely padding
Putting the LA into practice - Lewis advocates:

• students need to be trained to notice chunks

• teachers should provide plentiful opportunities for noticing and for noticing in different contexts thereby providing a greater depth of knowledge of the lexical item

• the use of lexical notebooks as opposed to recording words. Additionally learners should record lexis in context and in ways that are easily retrievable

• more use of modern, corpus-based dictionaries providing accurate, reliable and useful English

1 Willis & Willis
2 Implementing the Lexical Approach
3 Present-Practise-Produce
4 Chunks can be: words, compounds, polywords (by the way), collocations, fixed expressions (many happy returns) or semi fixed expressions: that sounds great (comprising frames: That's not as.. as you think and sentence heads: What really surprised me was…)
5 eg take, have, put, get

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