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Relax, it’s just lexis!

Lexis is a technical term that refers to the vocabulary of a language. When teaching a language, we should focus on helping our students improve their range of vocabulary in order to communicate more effectively. McCarten starts her book (2007) by asking how many words there are and how many words we need to teach. The author claims that this is a complicated business. For instance, go is a word, but is goes a new word or the same word in a different form? How about get up? Is it one word or two? In order to solve this issue, Thornbury (2006) claims that we should use the term lexical item (or lexeme) to refer to them. It “means ‘any item that functions as a single meaning unit, regardless of its different derived forms, or of the number of words that make it up’” (2006:120).

It is clear that studying grammar structures is essential. However, we cannot communicate without a wide range of lexical items. Imagine someone wants to borrow a calculator. If they do not know the word calculator, it does not matter how many structures to borrow an object they know. They might say, “Is there any way you can lend me your… […]?’ Even though they know a sophisticated structure, communication was not successful due to the lack of lexis. Grammar is very important indeed, but lexis gives speakers more chances to communicate effectively.

When teaching any lexical item – a word, a multi-word verb, a phrase, an idiom, etc – we must always provide students with meaning, form, and pronunciation. These three aspects of any lexeme that allow learners to be able to recognize and make use of them meaningfully. Of these three, meaning is the most important, since the part of speech or spelling of a lexical item as well as its spoken form might not convert its meaning, which is what actually allows communication to make sense. Therefore, meaning should be the first one for us to convey.

Having said that, we can take a look at different ways to convey meaning. There is not a more effective technique than the others. There is, though, the most suitable form for a particular lexeme. You should judge the most effective form — or forms — to “teach” the word. We can and should also vary the techniques so that we do not get students used to a single form or bored. Some ways to convey meaning are:

Definition: say what the word means. In class, you can give them the definition and elicit the lexical item or do a matching activity.

Visual aid: show a picture, a GIF or a video. In class, you can show these visual stimuli and elicit the word.

Realia: show the real object. In class, you can bring the target language if possible to provide students with a more meaningful experience.

Synonym: give them a word that has a similar meaning. In class, you can use a synonym to explain a word students do not understand.

Antonym: give them a word that has the opposite meaning. In class, you can display opposite adjectives randomly for students to match the opposite ones.

Examples: provide examples to that lexeme. In class, you can elicit the word (e.g. sticky) by saying things that are sticky (glue, gum, blu tack, etc).

Storytelling: tell a story to contextualize the meaning. In class, you can tell a story and elicit or show the target language.

Cline: draw a line with a range of extreme words, especially to teach what is between them. In class, you can draw a continuous line ranging from freezing cold to boiling hot in order to teach words like chilly, cool, warm, etc.

Collocation: say some complements that take the same verb and elicit the word. In class, you can board the words pictures, a shower and a chance. Then, elicit the verb that we use with these noun phrases (to take).

Miming: mime the action. In class, you can mime an action for students to guess what it is.

What do students need to know for any lexeme? In terms of meaning, it is interesting to cover information about the connotation and usage. In terms of form, focus on spelling, grammar observations and collocations. In terms of pronunciation, clarify the phonemes in the word, stresses and intonation.

Finally, it is essential that we help our students learn — not only know — vocabulary. We must provide them with a wide range of activities in order to help them internalize vocabulary and incorporate lexemes into their repertoire.


McCarten, J. (2007). Teaching vocabulary. CUP.

Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Macmillan.

Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Longman Pearson.

About author

is an educational consultant, teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and speaking examiner. He works as an academic consultant at Troika. He is currently the first vice-president of the BRAZ-TESOL Rio Chapter. He holds a teaching degree in Languages and other certifications and diplomas, such as the Cambridge CELTA, Delta and Train The Trainer, as well as other language teaching and training certifications from the University of Oregon.
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