Lexical Approach according to Hugh Dellar… and me

During his third visit at the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano Hugh Dellar discussed the Lexical Approach in a meeting with the students and teachers of the Instituto Profesional Chileno Norteamericano – IPCHN.

This time I didn’t have the chance to do an interview as I did last year, since his agenda was really tight, but I participated in his talked that was, as usual, really interesting and full of practical examples.

Hugh is a teacher, a teacher trainer and a writer. He’s the co-author of the book series Innovation that is used by our students of the Bilingual Careers at the IPCHN. Currently he works for the University of Westminster in London, UK.

In this opportunity Hugh talked about the Lexical approach and some of the basic principles of this methodological approach that are the most important according to him.

The Lexical Approach is a method of teaching foreign languages described by M. Lewis in the 1990s. Lewis’ most famous statement is that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar”.

According to Dellar’s point of view, the 5 more important basic principles of Lexical Approach are:

  1. Vocabulary is more important than grammar: “without grammar you can say little, without words you can say nothing”. If you don’t have the structure but you have the words you can solve simple things.
  2. Lexical is bigger than words: Understanding by lexis collocations, chunks, fixed expressions, etc.
  3. Prototypical is better than atypical: students must learn things that are going to be useful in the future, real situations in real contexts.
  4. Grammar and vocabulary are interdependent: Dellar referred to the fact that words carry their typical grammatical information (colligation) so that learners should be taught to use words along with their typical structures. As an example Dellar demonstrated that the word “arrest” is almost always used in the simple past and often in the passive voice (“was arrested…”) and hardly ever in future tense.

Hugh also mentioned 2 other important considerations when teaching English as a foreign language.

–       Input is more important than output. Students have to be exposed to English as much as possible to learn how to use the language. Learning grammar without learning conversations and vocabulary is useless.

–   He also suggested that the teaching profession might need to change content (or focus), not so much the methodology of language teaching.

In The Lexical Approach published in 1993 Michael Lewis proposes several thought provoking ideas that build on the central importance of lexis. For Lewis a fresh look at how language behaves will show the central role of words and word partnerships as opposed to traditional dominance of sentence grammar. In Lewis’ words, “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.” This statement reflects an earlier insight by Linguist John Sinclair that language should not be understood as a dichotomy of vocabulary on the one side and grammar on the other. Dellar also suggested that students would take a look at another revolutionary book Lexical Priming (2005) by Michael Hoey which takes Sinclair’s ideas one step further and suggests a “new theory of words and language”.

And what’s Lexical Approach to me?

Listening to Hugh took me to the time when I learned English. I remember that it was so easy for me to learned it that when I strted to teach I couldn’t understand why was so difficult to others.

Now I got it. It was the method. I learned through chunks and collocations and just talking in English using those groups of words I learned. It was the same way I learned how to speak Spanish. I learned some chunks, then I tried them in different situations until I realized when that were really appropriate.

Then, when I started really using English in the “real life”, I used those big groups of words and I was able to communicate. Sometimes I didn’t find the way to say something, but I knew the opposite and I could make it. Or I just simply used gestures with isolated words and I did it. Because what you really need to do is to communicate.

I remembered once when I traveled to UK with a group of experts English Teachers. In that opportunity I saw one of those teachers so frustrated because even though she had an excellent level of English and several International certifications, she wasn`t able to communicate with a Pakistani’s taxi driver.  She was not able to communicate in a simple and daily situation because she was so structured and based on grammar that she just didn’t make it.

There are so many theories about how to teach English, so many methods and techniques, but the teacher is the one that have to choose which one to use in every situation. We, as teachers, have to observe the needs of our students and apply the method more appropriate to them.

If you teach English to students of Rural Areas in context maybe they won’t understand. In those cases you have to start teaching them the context. Or maybe it will be enough to show them how close they are to English.

I used to ask my students the first day of class how much they used English in their everyday life. They usually answered “none”. Then I gave them an example and asked them to bring a list of at least 10 words they frequently used in English every day for next class.  They always bought about 20. Shopping mall, sweater, sandwich, hot dog, CD, DVD, Fitness Center, Drugstore, where the most common. If you asked children or teens, they would list an endless list of words related to video games and computing, such as download, post, picture, search, etc. , and they understand the meaning. So words are really important. With words you definitely will be able to communicate. Then you can improve your English revising grammar, but first you just need to learn words and group of words. You probably don’t remember how you learned your mother tongue but maybe you had a younger brother or sister or cousin or your own children to confirm this. Actually is simpler than that. Do you remember when did you leaned grammar (of your mother tongue) for the first time?


6 responses to “Lexical Approach according to Hugh Dellar… and me

  1. I can’t be more agreed with you, I’ve been teaching for more than 20 years and I’ve used the same strategy about words used in the students’ every day life. I think the best way to teach english or any other language is talking in that language as much as the teacher can during the class. I really thank you to share this article with other teachers who enjoy teaching like me. Thanks a lot. Myriam

    • Hi Myriam, it is good to hear about you!

      It is good to know that you speak english in your classroom all the time. We can’t forget that for most of our students the only chance they have to listen to English is in their English class.

      I’m glad to know that you enjoy my posts.


  2. Thank you for sharing that article.I agree: vocabulary in context is practical because students have the sense of learning when they are able to produce an expression by themselves,taking the risk whether somebody else understands what they are saying.Then we could explain some grammar patterns,which provides confidence to learners.

    • I absolutely agree Rosa. Encouraging students to speak without fear is the first step. Communicating is the goal.
      Good to hear from you!

  3. Jo,
    I agree with this proposal, in fact, in the university where I work, we have been using the Innovation series for several years, grammar is not a topic itself, but it is taught as part of a conversation, since, the relevant point is to make our students use the expressions, collocations etc that the text gives us to help them start speaking,

    see you,
    Luis Patricio Valdivia

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