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The Value of Teaching Lexis in Combination
by Jake Haymes
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Furthermore, using the learners' existing knowledge of core meanings to draw attention to derivatives, metaphorical use, fixed combinations or other meanings would not only increase lexical ability but provide practice in manipulation. In this sense, the teacher is also facilitating learner autonomy since the student is being guided towards a greater receptive store through attention to systematic patterns, affixations and so on.

I have found contextualised spoken input to be an effective vehicle for overcoming lexical items in which phonological complexity has created impediments. It is also true that many semi-fixed expressions are more common in spoken language. I have recently been using some of the extracts from Mortimer's Dramatic Monologues (1980) as a way of raising learners' awareness of the way fluent speakers use prefabricated language to convey meaning. Equipping learners with highlighter pens to mark chunks of language has proved extremely successful in the early production of examples such as I can fully understand, and the funny thing was and I know there's nothing I can do about it.

However it is often difficult to find contexts which include the groups of items the teacher wishes to focus on. Although there are obvious benefits to teaching items together according to topic, similarity of meaning, grammar, or notion, phonological difficulty or false friends, many of the items included will vary in frequency of actual use. Dictionaries can thus serve to "overcome one of the limitations of contextual exercises, in that, in contrast to the context bound meaning of the word (which may be idiosyncratic or peripheral to its core meaning), the dictionary presents the prototypical meanings of the word." Nunan (1991)

In my experience coursebooks do provide useful exercises illustrating collocates and learners can generally complete the tasks. However, the typical gap fill exercise which follows often fails to address the issue of personalisation. Similarly, the gapped sentences into which the items are to be put are frequently little more then definitions of the items and are therefore unsuitable for use as productive language. Sentence transformation would perhaps be a more beneficial means of providing controlled practice, as the utterance created by the learner can then be actually incorporated into output.

Sökmen (1997) suggests that "the ultimate goal of learning - language use - entails re-contextalisation by the users". Creating a need for new language items and providing opportunities to incorporate them into existing productive ability are vital if new lexis is to be committed to long-term memory. Pelmanism, which requires the learner not only to match collocates but also to give a personalised example, is one good way of providing controlled practice and aiding retention.

Vocabulary notebooks which go further than listing items together with their L1 equivalents are widely viewed as beneficial. Schmitt and Schmitt (1995) suggest incorporating notebooks in classroom activities which aim to promote their value. Referring to these notebooks and enriching the items in them with possible affixes and collocations would lead to frequent re-engagement with new items by learners. This means that they would be encountering the items enough times to speed up acquisition and promote retention. This type of activity would also highlight the holistic nature of language learning in that the learner would be constantly augmenting and consolidating their knowledge of items.

Ultimately a successful approach to teaching lexical items in general would firstly require the identification of students' needs. Learners should be listened to so that what they produce, what they don't and what they struggle to indicate the lexical paths to be taken. Opening channels of communication so that learners can convey their requirements is surely also one of the teacher's essential tasks.

Taking the developing perception of students' needs as an underlying premise of language teaching then, the teacher can focus on the best means of satisfying these needs. In my experience, most learners in low-surrender value situations, rarely progress to native levels of proficiency. Although the tendency has been to concentrate quite intensively on grammar as a means of developing their linguistic competence, what these learners are most often frustrated by is their inability to communicate meanings fluently. The value of lexis is undeniable in this sense and using lexical items as a springboard not only for lexical development itself but even grammar use would be of practical benefit and more expedient in providing them with what they feel they lack.

The presentation of language chunks, as I have argued, lends itself to this kind of approach since they highlight the different uses and meanings of what, in isolation, may appear to be straightforward items. Similarly, they provide descriptive and probable examples of combinations of grammatical elements such as possessive adjectives, nouns, verbs, adjectives, articles and prepositions in combination. This in turn leads to a natural focus on essential aspects of phonology which will further aid speaking and listening and thus can be used to develop all areas of linguistic acquisition simultaneously.


McCarthy, M Vocabulary OUP, 1990

Lewis, M Implementing the Lexical Approach LTP, 1997

Gairns,R & Redman, S Working with Words CUP, 1986

Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M Vocabulary OUP, 1986

Nunan, D Language Teaching Methodology Longman, 1991

Bowen, T & Marks, J Inside Teaching Macmillan Heinemann, 1994

Lightbown, P & How Languages are Learned OUP, 1999
Spada, N

Harmer, J The Practice of English Language Teaching Longman, 1991

Coe, N Learner English (Ed. Swan &Smith) CUP, 1987

Schmitt, N & Schmitt, D Vocabulary Notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions ELTJ Vol. 49/2 OUP, April 1995

Julian, P Creating word-meaning awareness ELTJ Vol. 54/1 OUP, Jan 2000

Nattinger, J Some current trends in vocabulary teaching
in Vocabulary and Language Teaching Ed. Carter,R & McCarthy,M Longman, 1988

Sökmen, A Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary in Vocabulary Ed.Schmitt, N & McCarthy,M CUP, 1997

Ellis, N Vocabulary acqisition: word structure, collocation, word- class, and meaning in Vocabulary Ed.Schmitt,N & McCarthy,M CUP, 1997

Mortimer, J Dramatic Monologues CUP, 1980


Jake, originally from Nottingham in the UK, has been teaching in Madrid since 1997. During this time he has taught general & business English classes and been responsible for the planning & execution of residential courses for professionals.
In 2002 he followed the Cambridge DELTA at the British Language Centre in Madrid. He has been a teacher trainer since 2003.
His areas of interest include helping learners develop their presentation skills, phonology and TBL.


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