A web site for the developing language teacher

The Value of Teaching Lexis in Combination
by Jake Haymes
- 2

Vocabulary in the low surrender value learning situation

The move towards learner centred teaching which incorporates an individual's needs, learning styles and circumstances suggests that the student should be actively involved in vocabulary selection, personalisation, storage and retrieval. While course book designers and teachers can select grammar and, to some extent, functions which are relevant to all learners, surely vocabulary is an area which should be most tailored to students' perceptions of need(1), particularly if, as most experts agree, their acquisition is highly dependant on this need. In my view, low level business books often include lexis which would be considered too high for a general course. However, these text-books are catering to a specific and urgent need which means that lexical items are more readily acquired and internalised irrespective of the grammatical structures behind them.

The traditional presentation of vocabulary in terms of individual words within a related word list limits students' ability to produce probable and meaningful language since it burdens them with the need to retrieve the disparate elements on one hand and then apply them to a suitable grammatical structure on the other. In my view, placing a greater focus on what Lewis describes as probable language chunks such as fixed expressions, semi-fixed expressions or common collocations rather than single words, which are rarely used in isolation, would be an efficient and perhaps less arduous way of guiding students towards producing probable communicative English. As Ellis (2) suggests, the learner who has a store of collocations "minimises the amount of clause-internal encoding work to be done and frees himself to attend to other tasks in talk-exchange." Lewis' (1997) assertion that "the lexicon of the language is considerably larger than any list of the 'words' of that language" should certainly be borne in mind when attempting to deal with vocabulary. What is being highlighted is that the majority of communication relies on the myriad of combinations of an otherwise quite limited word bank, indicating that a lexically competent student would ultimately be one who is able to combine words to create meanings rather than store a vast number of individual items.

Furthermore, the nature of language chunks would also appear to have benefits for pronunciation, speaking and listening. Presenting these items means that the analysis of suprasegmental aspects can instantly ensue as the focus is "not primarily on distinctions such as sit/seat, but rather on larger scale features, which have greater communicative value and are more learnable." (Lewis 1997) Multi-word units naturally lend themselves to an examination of sounds in combination, weak forms etc. demonstrating the extent to which ideas are expressed in utterances, and thereby disabusing learners of the misconception that language is produced word by word. Thus, the hesitant speaker can build discourse from larger language blocks and the unconfident listener will not have to struggle to decode meaning on a word by word basis.

Despite the importance of teaching multi-word items or language chunks however, one of the difficulties I have encountered is disengaging students from the first meaning they acquired of the component elements of the collocation. Since so many of these items comprise frequent, de-lexicalised verbs such as take, get, have and give for example, convincing learners that take does not only mean catch (pick up) or have (consume), and that have does not only indicate possession has proved a major obstacle. Perhaps more attention to these de-lexicalised verbs or a more frequency-based and flexible order in their presentation would facilitate the learners' acquisition of these L2 elements as well as providing them with a firm basis for greater lexical development in their subsequent language learning.

An essential aspect of multi-word items is that they do not often fit into a specific semantic field which constitutes both a reason for highlighting them and a difficulty in doing so. Since these items can often be applied to a wide variety of situations (3), they will conform to the linguistic needs of most learners and can be adapted to their own personal experience of the world (4). This perhaps imbues this type of lexis with more possibility for personalisation and in this sense is closer to subjective, emotional items which can be more difficult to teach. As McCarthy (1990) states, "words that denote judgements, opinions, or evaluations…are perhaps less amenable to visual stimuli", reinforcing the idea that as a result, learners are often not exposed to abstract concepts and "the vocabulary for communicating how we really do feel"(5). Another result is, as Julian (2000) suggests, that "upper intermediate learners produce very plain utterances which are unable to convey different emotional loads."

If we assume then that language chunks are extremely useful and should be addressed in the classroom, how they are presented becomes the first obstacle to overcome. Tackling the presentation of new items in context would appear to have several benefits. Providing a suitable context means that students are required to engage with the language immediately in order to infer meaning while also practising strategy development. Indeed, using a context to activate the learners' world knowledge or schemata, which is a common approach to the receptive skills (6), would be similarly useful in presenting vocabulary especially when familiar items are being used in unfamiliar collocations.

Contextualised lexis has the added advantage of usually appearing in its most likely text type, discourse, tense and aspect. Indeed, contexts can be used to heighten learners' awareness of text types and thus develop their appreciation of style and register which are fundamental aspects of lexical use.

Nattinger (1988) argues that "it is only after experiencing a word in its many contexts that one approaches a complete understanding of its meaning" and Richards (1976) suggests that "knowing a word means knowing how often it occurs, the company it keeps, its appropriateness in different situations, its syntactic behaviour, its underlying forms and derivations, its word associations, and its semantic features." Contextualised exposure together with noticing activities can often highlight these essential factors more effectively than teacher led explanations. Similarly, as there are no rules governing collocation, except those dictated by use, exposure would seem to be the best option. Having learners find collocations which are hidden because of the use of pronouns, ellipsis and substitution is an excellent way of maximising the benefit of written discourse which both Lewis and McCarthy refer to. Once collocates have been identified, they can be subjected to componential analysis. Having learners complete the charts themselves is an engaging strategy for providing them with more encounters with previously noted frequent combinations, thereby speeding up acquisition. They can be of value in distinguishing between areas of difficulty such as the differences between wait, hope, expect and look forward to for example.

1. "most learners perceive the relevance of grammatical structures whatever the field of interest….the same cannot be said of vocabulary which is much more content specific" Gairns and Redman (1986)
2. Ellis citing Pawley and Syder op.cit., 192.
3. "Learners need Expressions which are appropriate in as wide a range of situations as possible both linguistically and socially." Lewis, (1997)
4. I have chosen to focus on items such as change your mind, make your mind up, feel down, etc. which can be adapted to the different life experience and needs of students since all of them do these things, whereas only some might do the ironing or meet deadlines.
5. Lewis (1997) quoting Moskowitz (1978) in Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class
6. "It is equally important to activate existing knowledge to make the encounter with the new words more meaningful" McCarthy (1990)

To page 3 of 3

To the lesson plan

Back to the articles index

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing