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A Lexical Approach for C Low-level Learners

It’s great for high-levels!

Ever since I first read Michael Lewis’s book ‘The Lexical Approach’, I’ve been interested in how to apply its insights into my own teaching and materials writing. However, while giving presentations and running training sessions on teaching lexically, I often come up against the comment that “a lexical approach is good at higher levels”. It’s a kind of compliment, but one that implies a lexical approach is bad for low levels. Why might people think is — and is it true?

Most teachers understand that when a student reaches B2 level, they can use most grammar, albeit with some mistakes. This fact is reflected in grammar syllabi such as Pearson’s Global Scale of English, which is pegged to the Common European Framework, and which 18 new grammatical ‘can use’ statements for B2+, just 3 for a C1 student and none for C2. Furthermore, measures of word coverage in a typical text show how word knowledge needs to develop at an increasingly fast rate to meet the demands of C1 / C2 texts. It is estimated that a student may only require around 2000 words to deal with 80% of a normal text or engage in everyday conversation (sufficient for an intermediate student), but they’ll need knowledge of another 13,000 to cover the next 17% of a university-level text that a proficient student might read. What’s more, as students progress, they not only add new words to their lexicon, but are also add new meanings to words they already ‘know’ already; i.e. new collocations and chunks. 

Teaching high-level learners lexically

So I’d say teachers are absolutely right to say a lexical approach is good for high-level learners! Given the choice, I might well abandon formal grammar teaching at B2 level and above in favour of Michael Lewis’s mantra – ‘language is not lexicalised grammar, but grammaticalised lexis’. In other words, we shouldn’t just present words in collocations and chunks, but should focus consistently on providing reasonable examples of usage so that students get to see how grammar works with those collocations and chunks. If a B2+ student learns the word undermine and then the collocation undermine someone’s authority, we might first explain meaning – make someone weaker – and then give a realistic example: The finance minister’s comments contradicted a previous statement by the Prime Minister and was seen as undermining her [the PM’s] authority. 

Teaching lexically means deepening students’ knowledge of collocations by asking questions that explore what it means to know and use them. This can be done at the moment of teaching, when going through answers to exercises, in response to students’ attempt to use items, as a revision task, etc. Here, we could explore collocations by asking ‘What else can be undermined?’ (confidence / the team / an argument). We could also explore the ‘story’ this collocation might fit into by asking ‘What happens if the Prime Minister’s authority is undermined?’ The answers to these questions may be quite varied and dependent on students’ world and word knowledge — any of the following might come up: sends mixed messages / cause a row / lose control of the cabinet / undermine the government / sack the minister. For those uninterested in politics, you might prefer to explore instead the collocation ‘undermine your confidence’ using similar questions. And, of course, students can then talk about real instances where something was undermined and what happened. That will generate further related lexis as well as allowing practise of a variety of grammar forms. 

What you see here, then, is that teaching lexically at advanced levels encourages a highly communicative, language-rich classroom. However, it’s perhaps this high volume of vocabulary that makes teachers feel a lexical approach is inappropriate at lower levels. Clearly, we cannot ask these kinds of questions or expect a rich set of responses at low levels, but for me a lexical approach has always been of most value at the lowest levels. How might that be?

The problem with low-level materials

Most low-level coursebooks follow a very rigid grammatical syllabus. Beginner books typically start with the verb be for four units, then move on to the present simple, followed by past of be, etc. This rigid syllabus is accompanied by the ‘rule’ that students shouldn’t see examples of forms like was, been, should or best until they’ve been formally presented. Strangely, this pattern is then repeated at Elementary level, where students who have presumably done some previous learning are treated as if they have never seen the word went and will be traumatised if they see it before page 54 after five units on present tenses. As a result, students following these coursebooks without a suitably sympathetic teacher may not be given the opportunity to ask or answer a question like ‘Have you been here before?’ until they have had 150 hours of classes! And this is despite the fact that it may be the first question they get asked when visiting a foreign country – and that been is among the top 100 most frequent words in English. 

This restriction on grammar forms also has an impact on the vocabulary we teach because if we are only using the verb be and then the present tense, there are clearly limited choices about what we can discuss. This is partly why the vocabulary in Beginner books is also quite uniform: countries and nationalities; names of the letters; basic nouns (‘Is this a pen?’); daily activities. However, it is also partly because of the unspoken ‘rule’ that words are best presented in lexical sets, despite evidence that suggests this might not be the most appropriate strategy. 

What does alexical approach to lower levels involve?

We could choose to present the following words, which would represent a similar vocabulary load compared to typical vocab sets: 

1-22 30 40 50 60 how lunch OK
where class how long nice teacher
what time who the break how old how much.

All these words could be used with the verb be, but would allow for a greater variety of exchanges than asking ’Is he Italian / Spanish / German, etc.?’ How many different combinations of questions and answer can you make with these words and forms of be?

Teachers may fear this variety of exchanges, because they potentially lead students to language — especially grammar — they don’t know. However, in many cases, students don’t need the grammar — they can reply Yes / No, instead of Yes, she is / No, she isn’t, for example. At other times, we can provide some of this grammar as words / chunks, so we could easily teach ‘I don’t know’ in the very first lesson: 

‘What’s his name?’
‘I don’t know’

You only need to explain this meaning with a shrug of the shoulders, if you can’t use L1 translation. This a central part of a lexical approach and why it’s so powerful at low levels: it enables basic communication through the teaching of grammaticalised chunks – before that underlying grammar is mastered. It is less about exploring collocations and the networks of words and more about grammar as words, words with grammar, noticing and establishing patterns, and finally about ensuring far more exposure to these patterns.

We have found that presenting short realistic dialogues that reflect students’ needs and wants is the best organising principle for teaching language like this. To some degree, the starting point for these exchanges may be a traditional grammar syllabus. So, for example, if we’re teaching numbers, we might consider the variety of questions that can elicit a number response. If we’re learning the verb be, how many different kinds of exchange can we think of that elicit a simple yes / no or a very short answer. This quickly leads to recognising that we need to teach a greater variety of question words from earlier on, and leads to the kind of lexical choices we see above.

Grammar as chunks

At other times, it may mean adjusting the traditional syllabus. For example, when writing Outcomes Beginner, we were encouraged by users to present a simple dialogue for students to talk about plans. This was because in the UK, where these students were based, the Director of Studies felt students were often socially isolated as a result of not knowing this kind of language. A grammar-driven approach starts by establishing forms for all parts (I, you, she, they. Negatives, questions, answers, etc.) and with a variety of verbs and trying to separate, for example, the present continuous, going to, and will. Practice is about these forms, and not necessarily communicative value. A lexical approach focuses on the limited communicative need using chunks and patterning around words. We presented this pattern:

PlanWhere / whatWhen
I’m goingWe’re going home to the gym to the cinemanow later this afternoon at 6 tomorrow on Saturday after the class
to have a coffee to meet a friend to see a film to play football

At this point, students don’t need to know all the subject forms or the negatives as the conversation they’ll have is all about you and me / us. Nor do students yet need to know about potentially differences in meaning between the present continuous and be going to. Students do get a generative pattern, but it’s based more around the word go and how it’s used rather than the ‘tense’ forms. Students can produce their own plans from this pattern. If they know the question Do you want to come? we have the makings of a simple practical dialogue.

Making space for the students

We can also take it further either by asking what students might ask about plans (probably using L1) or by giving this pattern:

What time
are you going?

Students may answer with single words, names of places in L1 or basic numbers. They might use their knowledge of question words to ask things like How long are you going? or Who are you going? — not quite up to native-speaker norms, but effective communication nonetheless. We might also provide What are you doing + [time]? as a general question and provide the pattern I’ll meet you + [time] / [place] to state final arrangements. The grammatical and lexical load here is really no different to, say, learning six forms of the present continuous with various verbs to describe what’s happening now. What’s more, meaning is very clear because the forms are contextualised in a normal conversation for which students can find easy parallels in their L1.

There are two important points to make here. Firstly, I have low expectations of what students will actually produce. Students will get things wrong within these patterns when they try to use them spontaneously. Accuracy, whatever the input and method, takes time. Secondly, it’s important to understand that we are not advocating no formal grammar practice: this use of chunks is a way to initially present forms attached to a meaning within a clear context. In Outcomes Beginner, students then see other subject forms and negatives in future lessons within other conversations and texts. As they progress through the course and continue to higher levels, they will also look more formally at the overall pattern of the present continuous and its different meanings as well as at how it may differ at times from be going to. However, I’d suggest that students are better able to understand this grammar if they’ve learned some typical examples in chunks over time, and because chunks allow us to introduce certain forms earlier, we can include them in texts earlier, and use them more explicitly in our teacher talk as well. 

Not too large a leap 

The strange thing is, many coursebooks and teachers already teach with chunks. We typically start with the chunk ‘What’s your name?’ and will teach the pattern Would you like + [food / drink]? Many classrooms have useful chunks on their walls 

‘How do you say …?’
‘What’s …in English?’
‘Can I open the window?’

Really, this is no different to teaching the chunks above or Have you been to [place]? (answer: Yes / No); ‘What’s the best [place] around here? (answer: L1 name). The difference is that lexical teachers are looking for these kinds of chunks more widely and see how they can be integrated within a more formal grammar syllabus. 


Outcomes is the only course that is consistently focussed on helping students achieve the real-world communicative outcomes they want and need. Now with a brand-new Beginner level, this lexically rich course emphasises students’ need to have the conversations in English that they would in their own language.Containing contemporary and global content, Outcomes reflects English as it is used in the real-world.Outcomes contains:- A clear, evenly paced grammar syllabus with strong links to context. The grammar is presented and practised using guided discovery and is supported by a highly accessible Grammar Reference.- Inspiring National Geographic videos provide real global content and language plus Conversation Practice videos provide a model for real, natural output.- An Understanding Fast Speech feature helps students understand authentic English; an integrated pronunciation syllabus helps students use the language accurately and fluently.


The second edition of Outcomes is the only course that is consistently focused on helping students achieve the real world communicative outcomes they want and need. This lexically rich course emphasises students need to have the conversations in English that they would in their own language. This new edition contains more contemporary and global content, reflecting English as it is used in the world and is visible via rewritten texts and new National Geographic photos and videos.


Andrew Walkley is co-founder of Lexical Lab, which provides training and materials with a lexical twist. With his colleague Hugh Dellar, he has written the methodology book Teaching Lexically (Delta Publishing / Klett) the coursebook series Innovations (Cengage) and Outcomes (National Geographic Learning) among others. Lexical Lab also runs a summer school in north London, where Andrew lives. 

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About author

Andrew Walkley is co-founder of Lexical Lab, which provides training and materials with a lexical twist. With his colleague Hugh Dellar, he has written the methodology book Teaching Lexically (Delta Publishing / Klett) the coursebook series Innovations (Cengage) and Outcomes (National Geographic Learning) among others. Lexical Lab also runs a summer school in north London, where Andrew lives.
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