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Lexis: changing attitudes
by Jane Herbertson
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Can one teach vocabulary? To answer this one should consider how much vocabulary second language learners need. Estimates vary as to how many words (and indeed what constitutes a 'word') an adult native speaker knows/uses. Twenty thousand word families is the figure Nation & Waring (p7) cite, claiming that students need "3,000 or so high frequency words" (p11). After that they suggest helping students with strategies to comprehend/learn the low frequency items.

Personal experience of learning Spanish included the discovery of the power of reading in a second language. As a beginner I used graded readers, employing the strategy of generally trying to guess unknown language from context - I believe I got to know a lot of new lexis in this way plus having frequent opportunities for noticing. I have actively encouraged reading for my students whereby they borrow a graded reader from the in-house library, read it, (taking a few notes of its main points) and we follow this up with an exchange of views about our chosen books.

There is some debate about the benefits of learning vocabulary from context: Nation & Waring (p11) "studies suggest that first language learners learn most of their vocabulary in this way" (1). Nagy (p71), though questioning this, attests to its importance (p64), stating that words have different meanings in different contexts and adding the benefit of acquiring other vocabulary from the context (apart from explicit instruction). In my experience, giving a definition can be problematic (although for lower levels it may be sufficient) leading to a shallow knowledge of the item in question. To check understanding, I usually ask students to write a sentence indicating the meaning of the said item.

With regard to providing more noticing opportunities, when learners are involved in a listening task, I write vocabulary from the text on the board, and encourage students to listen for it, guessing its meaning from context. Any occasion they have for seeing/hearing English in context will provide further occasions for noticing. This noticing process is believed to be vital in getting to know a word (beginning with recognition, proceeding through tentative production until the item is stored in the long term memory when it is believed students will have the capacity to use it automatically). As well as providing chances to notice lexis in class we should encourage students to watch films, use the internet etc. Chatting to students, outside of a particular language focus in class, will provide further opportunities.

Clearly, in noting new lexical items, we have to take a practical view: what is necessary for students to know at the moment (the proficiency level of the student will also determine to what extent they want/need to know a word and their own personal suggestions). Annotating all aspects of the item (2) would be time-consuming and possibly demotivating.

Some areas I currently focus on:

• record a word's family members (encourage + discourage + encouragement etc).

• keyword strategies (3) - students make a note of typical word partners: sign a contract, one-year contract etc (can be adapted for more general areas of English). However, I have used this technique inadequately, expecting rapid production. This has not happened, as I have not given learners the necessary opportunities for noticing, re-noticing and converting the input into intake.

I mentioned (4) that students should have more time to get to know the item. Lewis' suggestions are pertinent ie training students how to recognize chunks: they should return to the used texts, highlighting and recording any patterns they find. This will help to raise their awareness of the nature of lexical items. After doing this in class, students should be encouraged to look for patterns in their reading (guiding them towards autonomy).
Many authorities mention the primacy of encountering a word (expression) on at least seven occasions before it becomes part of our permanent mental store. Recycling lexis in class is not difficult, though takes some organisation by the teacher. Some of the best ways are class lexical cards: students note down an item they like, need and we put this into the store. These items are recycled during subsequent classes. This can be very interactive and student-centred if the items are posted around the room - students have to move around, changing partners to check definitions. Games such as bingo, noughts and crosses, dominoes and pelmanism are also fun. (They are easy to prepare and can be personalised for the group or published versions of some of these games exist.) Acting the phrase is another aid to memorising the item eg sign the contract, get the sack, go on strike.

One other way of helping students increase their mental lexicon which I will experiment with is noticing (and highlighting) lexical sets. For example students can search for all words connected with particular areas in a text. Another benefit of this is that it will give them vital clues in organising their own texts.

I have already referred to the role of lexis and how it is inter-related with speaking, listening and reading. To help students with writing, course books are useful providing set phrases which learners can use as a model. Ready for First Certificate (p10) is a good example. I have adapted this for pre-intermediate students, whose standard of writing starts to show an improvement by copying some of these multiword items eg Thanks for your last letter, I´m looking forward to hearing from you. It is unnecessary to break down and analyse the grammar of these phrases, though students will begin to see the generative nature of such phrases.

My Spanish students are also preoccupied with prepositions and here too, the best way is to make learners aware of the way they occur with other words eg go home, on business, in the morning. If approached this way, students do not have to think of complicated systematic rules of either prepositions or inclusion of articles.

Lexis: changing attitudes in the classroom: involves raising the status of lexis and changing the traditional attitudes/approaches towards it by both teachers and learners (one of which has been to treat it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself ie pre-teaching it as a way into a text, then using the text to focus on language skills/language systems - rather than exploiting the lexical item). Teachers ought to consider adding a lexical perspective to their teaching. As Lewis points out "implementing the LA does not mean ignoring everything we have done before….it does… provide a practical tool….in an overall strategy based on principled eclecticism." (Implementing the Lexical Approach, p141)

1 Sternberg, 1987
2 see suggestions in 'General Problems For Adult Learners' (above)
3 Wilberg & Lewis (pages 57-76)
4 above 'My Choice of Lexis'


Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the Lexical Approach. LTP
McCarthy, M. 2001. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press
Moon, R. Vocabulary Connections: multi word items in English. (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Nagy, W. On the role of context in first- and second-language vocabulary learning. . (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Nation, P. & Waring, R. Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists. (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Nunan, D. 1991. Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice Hall
O'Dell, F. Incorporating vocabulary into the syllabus. (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Sökmen A. J. Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary. (Vocabulary Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy 1997: Ed Schmitt, N. & McCarthy, M., Cambridge University Press)
Thornbury, S. 2002. How to Teach Vocabulary. Longman
Cited by other authors
Dubin, F. & Olshtain, E. 1986. Course Design. Cambridge: CUP
Hockett, C. 1958. A Course in Linguistics. New York: Macmillan
McCarthy, M. 1992b. English idioms in use. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 25: 55-65
Nation, I. S. P. 1977. The combining arrangement: some techniques. The Modern Language Journal 61 (3): 89-94. Reprinted in English Teaching Forum 17 (1) (1979): 12-16, 20
Sternberg, R.J. 1987. Most vocabulary is learned from context. In M. G. McKeown & M.E. Curtis (Eds.) The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition: 89-105. Hillsdale. NJ:Erlbaum
Norris, R. 2001. Ready for First Certificate. Macmillan Heinemann
Wilberg, P. & Lewis, M. Business English. LTP
Willis J. & Willis D. 1987. Cobuild English Course. Cobuild


Jane Herbertson from Wales has been teaching for 7 years - 5 in Spain and 2 in Poland. She currently works at the British Council, Madrid.

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