Much ado about the lexical approach

london-2242001_960_720Last night, I went over to YouTube to watch LEXICAL LAB ENGLISH BOOST course 2017: Hugh Dellar teaching. There’s been some excitement about the lexical approach and this video in particular, so I was curious to see what it’s all about.

The lexical approach is a way of analyzing and teaching language based on the idea that it is made up of lexical units rather than grammatical structures. The units are words, chunks formed by collocations, and fixed phrases. In case you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s a 20-minute demonstration of the way Hugh Dellar goes about teaching vocabulary – in this case, vocabulary connected to going out and celebrating. 

Now, I have to stress that I can’t help looking at any teaching video like this through my L2 learner/L2 teacher/keen linguist glasses. By that, I mean that although my beliefs about language teaching are constantly formed by SLA research findings, they are also tinted by my own language learning experience.

I’ve always been inclined to believe that the best way to teach English is through meaningful communication and that most of the time in the classroom should be allotted to negotiating meaning and completing meaningful tasks. Only a small proportion of class time should be devoted to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary. My students would probably confirm that this is my preferred way of teaching.

Back to the video now. I’m not sure what the aim of this particular lesson was, but given the fact that the Hugh Dellar is a vocal advocate of the lexical approach, my guess is the aim was to teach students to understand and subsequently produce a set of vocabulary items related to a specific topic. But I’m only guessing.

First of all, I don’t think it’s clever to set yourself such a goal as the main aim of a lesson (no matter how important/frequent/useful you believe the vocabulary is). Given the fact that learners can only absorb a very limited amount of new expressions per lesson, it’s really absurd to demand so low.

However, and I’m finally getting to the point, I think that the teacher in the video actually achieved more than what the proponents of the lexical approach primarily aim for. In effect, it appeared to run counter to the basic principle of the lexical approach, which, to my knowledge, is to explicitly teach a huge amount of lexis. As I see it (through my L2 learner/L2 teacher/keen linguist glasses), the vocabulary items around which the lesson revolved were anchors rather than the ultimate goal, and I didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction anyway. Contrarily, I witnessed quite a lot of casual talk and I found the lesson pretty engaging.

My point is that even if I remembered none of the super-useful words written on the board (which is obviously very unlikely), I would learn a lot because the teacher did a good job. And I think I actually did learn something myself by watching this video. I often caught myself focusing on what the teacher and the students said by the way instead of trying to zoom in on the core vocabulary all the time. And if I were a participant of the course, I’d definitely want to chip in on and off. This communicative interaction might then lead to implicit learning, which, I think, is a valuable outcome of any language teaching.

The trouble is that such outcomes are unpredictable and thus can’t be planned and put on paper in advance. What you can plan, I suppose, is what your lesson will revolve around – and here the lexical approach comes in handy. And let’s be honest, if a group of students come all the way from Russia to England to boost their English, you need to have a plan, or something, to stick to (be it just a set of collocations and idioms). What I believe is important is what happens in the slots.

 

 

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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7 Responses to Much ado about the lexical approach

  1. Hugh Dellar says:

    Hi Hana –
    Saw a link to this via Twitter, so popped by. Firstly, thanks for bothering to watch the video and record your thoughts on what you were seeing. Always interesting to get other teachers’ takes on what one does in class. I’ll try to give my angle on some of the issues you raise.

    Firstly, I guess I’d take slight issue with the claim that “the lexical approach is a way of analyzing and teaching language based on the idea that it is made up of lexical units rather than grammatical structures.” For me, first and foremost, THE LEXICAL APPROACH is simply a 1993 book by Michael Lewis that forms part of a far broader stream of writers who view language in a lexical way. I see it much more as an approach to language rather than to teaching. I guess I’ve been very influenced by the findings of corpora linguists, certain lexicographers, etc. in terms of how I’ve come to see language, but in terms of teaching, I think much (though not all) of what I do falls under the broad umbrella of CLT-style activities and beliefs. For what it’s worth, I also don’t see teaching as being exclusively about “words, chunks formed by collocations, and fixed phrases”. Obviously, I will focus on all of those – and more – at various times during my lessons, as will most teachers these days, I’d imagine, but I’m certainly not adverse to focusing more on structures at other times, and have long been interested in teaching vocabulary with the grammar it’s often used with – and grammar with the vocab it’s often used with. In other words, in bridging the artificial gap that has long existed between the two areas in ELT.

    Next, you note that you think “the best way to teach English is through meaningful communication”. I have no issue with that at all, but would simply add that ‘meaningful communication’ can mean many things. To my mind, what’s happening in the video – even though much of it revovles around an explicit focus on certain items – is still meaningful and involves plenty of communication, both among students and between me as a teacher and the whole class. I’d also argue that what’s happening here involves the negotiation of meaning and the ‘completion’ (whatever that means) of meaningful tasks. I’d also add that this was a twenty-minute extract from a four-hour class, which also involved a lot of student talking, reformulation of student output, some listening, plenty of pron work, a grammar focus, and so on.

    In terms of goals, the goal for the whole day was to help students talk better about – and better understand conversations about – going out / nights out / celebrations / special days. The goal of the particular extract seen on the video was to find out how well students were already able to use / recognise / understand a particular set of lexis related to the topic, teach the gaps, and expand upon what they were able to do with the items. There was no explicit idea of immediate production, but there was – after what’s shown – a slot where they discussed which of the things they’d done, when., why, which they had no interest in doing, etc. I guess you could see that as “producing the set of vocab” if you wanted to, or simply as having the chance to connect some of the new language to their own lives and experiences (and already-learned language).

    I don’t see how this is aiming low personally. I;’m not expecting all of what’s focused on here to become active vocabulary – possibly ever, in some cases; certainly not immediately in most. Rather,. it’s exploring some language often used to talk about the chosen topic (their selection, in this instance) and showing them more about what’s often done with these items; then giving them the chance to use some of them. These items then get revised and re-encountered in subsequent exercises – the listening, etc. and across subsequent days (and via Quizlet). The way they’re explored here also allows repeated exposure to a lot of other already encountered grammar and lexis as well, via boardwork, TTT, etc.

    I’m confused by the fact you say “it’s absurd to demand so low” yet in the same sentence say ” learners can only absorb a very limited amount of new expressions per lesson”. What’s your point here?

    In terms of whether or not I ‘achieved more than what the proponents of the lexical approach primarily aim for’, I’m not sure I can comment as I don’t know who these so-called proponents are supposed to be or what they’re supposed to be saying. If you mean that ‘proponents’ advocate the teaching of loads of lexis, well I guess I’d include myself in there, then, and do think it is one of the key roles of the teacher yes. I’d argue that there was a lot of language – known, half-known and not yet known – being explored here, all adding to what students know about (and can hopefully do with) the language – and that the effect of regular teaching like this becomes cumulative, boosting level incrementally, item by item. I certainly don;’t see ANYTHING I was doing there as running contrary to a lexical way of looking at language, anyway.

    Thanks again anyway, for the comments.
    Best
    Hugh

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    • Hana Tichá says:

      Dear Hugh,

      I think this is a terrible misunderstanding. I should have made myself clearer, but this post was actually meant to be a defense; it was a response to some not so positive feedback on the video I had come across earlier.

      First of all, I’d like to thank you for clarifying your standpoint on the lexical approach.

      Then you say: “To my mind, what’s happening in the video – even though much of it revolves around an explicit focus on certain items – is still meaningful and involves plenty of communication, both among students and between me as a teacher and the whole class.”
      Earlier in my post, I say: “…the teacher in the video actually achieved more than what the proponents of the lexical approach primarily aim for.”

      You say: “I’d also argue that what’s happening here involves the negotiation of meaning and the ‘completion’ (whatever that means) of meaningful tasks. …. the video also involved a lot of student talking …”
      Earlier in my post, I say: ” … the vocabulary items around which the lesson revolved were anchors rather than the ultimate goal, and I didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction anyway. Contrarily, I witnessed quite a lot of casual talk and I found the lesson pretty engaging.”

      Also, by no means did I say you demanded low (I made it clear right from the start that I wasn’t sure what the aim of the lesson was; I was only theorizing) – I just said that aiming for the acquisition of a few vocabulary items per lesson is demanding low.

      Then you ask: “I’m confused by the fact you say “it’s absurd to demand so low” yet in the same sentence say ” learners can only absorb a very limited amount of new expressions per lesson”. What’s your point here?”
      My answer is: Given the fact that students can absorb only a limited amount of new items per lesson, generally, this approach doesn’t seem to be terribly beneficial acquisition-wise because there is a very limited amount of time (lessons) overall (throughout a course/school year).

      Yes, by proponents of the lexical approach I meant those who advocate the teaching of loads of lexis. And you confirmed that you’d include yourself in there. By the way, I assumed you are an advocate of the lexical approach because you’re the author of a book called Teaching Lexically which “shows what a lexical view of language looks like, and explores how it differs from a more traditional ‘grammar + words’ view”.

      Finally, you say: “I’d argue that there was a lot of language – known, half-known and not yet known – being explored here, all adding to what students know about (and can hopefully do with) the language.” And I didn’t say otherwise in my post.

      I apologize once again for all the misunderstanding.

      Best,

      Hana

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      • Hugh Dellar says:

        Hi again Hana –
        No need to apologise. Online communication is inevitably often harder to decode than face-to-face, given we lack immediate feedback channels, etc. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to clarify what you meant in the initial post. A few more things I felt worth expanding on . . .

        In terms of whether or not the lesson did more “than what the proponents of the lexical approach primarily aim for”, I guess I’ll leave that to you to decide. I don’t see it that way myself as to my mind, it was very typical of the way I usually approach vocab exercises (and much else in my teaching) and exemplifies the way a lexical way of thinking about language – where you take not only collocation but also colligation into account, where you ensure repeated exposure to items over time, and where the examples that emerge not only slowly ‘prime’ students, but are also – in varying degrees – co-created by them.

        I think we agree on the importance of avoiding anything resembling lectures (mini- or otherwise) – I’m assuming that’s what you mean by EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION – and of interaction, discussion and negotiation when exploring new items.I think keeping the explanations of meaning short and to the point is crucial, as is the need to pick good examples.

        I also agree completely that those lessons where folk pick, say, seven solitary items and =just present those with a goal towards immediate production (a kind of PPP paradigm transferred over the vocab teaching) aren’t particularly helpful and don;t demand enough of students.

        Think that’s it for now.
        Take care
        Hugh

        Liked by 1 person

  2. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Hana,

    You say “I didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction anyway. Contrarily, I witnessed quite a lot of casual talk and I found the lesson pretty engaging”.

    Where was the causual talk you witnessed? The video starts at O.OO and finishes at 18.47. Can you indicate the parts where the casual talk went on, please?

    What I saw was different. Leaving aside the first 3 minutes when the students looked at a vocab. exercise in pairs, the teacher spoke for well over 90% of the time. The students’ contribution was limited to answering the teacher’s questions, and they did so most of the time in turns lasting less that 1 second. In my opinion, only from minute 12.04 to 12.51 was there anything that could be construed as “casual talk” and then the teacher closed it down and went back to teaching vicabulary.

    What did I miss? Why didn’t you get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction when the whole thing was devoted to it?

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    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Geoff!

      You say: “The teacher spoke for well over 90% of the time.” Firstly, given that this was just a 20-minute demo, that percentage doesn’t really mean much. By the way, the days when TTT was prohibited and a specific (ideal) amount of STT was prescribed are long gone, I hope.

      Secondly, in my language, *casual talk* doesn’t necessarily mean 50/50% interaction. Let me speak from the perspective of an L2 learner for a moment: the teacher undoubtedly spoke a lot, but this was clearly an input lesson. You may disagree but I think the input was delivered in a very engaging way. Also, the teacher provided a valuable source of authentic listening, exposing the students to an appropriate amount of new language. I’ve participated in a couple of workshops on the power of storytelling so I no more believe that the teacher’s presence in the classroom should be reduced to a minimum.

      You say: “The students’ contribution was limited to answering the teacher’s questions.” I remember that Hugh tried to elicit some vocabulary (*fortune*, for example), which immediately spilled out of my mouth, but the students couldn’t recall it although they clearly knew it (you may have spotted the aha moment soon afterward). So maybe, what the students needed was a bit of silent period and lots of exposure to L2 input.
      Anyway, I don’t think we can ever claim that a lesson or the teaching was bad or good unless we see the results.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Hana,

    I agree with all your comments about teaching.

    In my comment above, I didn’t make any judgement on the fact that the teacher spent 90%+ of the time talking, I simply noted it as a fact, and asked you to indicate when the casual talk took place (making an attempt to illicit the word “fortune” doesn’t strike me as a good example) and why you didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction, given that the whole thing was devoted to it.

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    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Geoff,

      to answer your question: I didn’t get the feeling that there was too much explicit instruction because, as I implied in my post, I saw the input, i. e. the vocabulary items the teacher dealt with in the 20-minute demo, as prompts which provided a framework for more (spontaneous) language input. In other words, through centering on the items he wanted the students to understand and later produce, eventually, more language was generated. Whether this was planned or not I don’t know but I guess that a lot of the ‘extra’ language emerged along the way.

      By the way, I didn’t mention the case of *fortune* as an example of casual talk but to explain why I thought the students didn’t create as much output as we might deem satisfactory.

      Like

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