It’s all in the Mind: Neurobiology and the Lexical Approach

Today we’re proud to present a guest post from Bruno Leys, who works at VIVES University College, Bruges, Belgium. Bruno can be contacted on: and would love to hear any comments or questions you have. Over to Bruno:

When Michael Lewis published The Lexical Approach in 1993, it’s fair to say that the book was not received with universal acclaim. Indeed, there were quite possible some grammarians who considered the work as no less than sheer blasphemy. On the other hand, many teachers, including myself, were inspired by Lewis’s views and felt that he was striking a chord. The view that lexis deserved a prime position in language teaching and learning seemed to make a lot of sense and was in line with many language teachers’ intuitions. More recently, more and more neuro-biological research has given some added credence to Lewis’s ideas.


In Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Richards and Rodgers (2001) concluded about The Lexical Approach that “it remains to be convincingly demonstrated how a lexically based theory of language and language learning can be applied at the levels of design and procedure in language teaching, suggesting that it is still an idea in search of an approach and a methodology.”

In the introduction to Implementing The Lexical Approach (1993) Lewis himself listed some reactions to The Lexical Approach. The Raf Erzeel (VVLE Newsletter 3, 1996 – quoted in Lewis, 1997) comment probably paints a very accurate picture of the book’s reception among (some) teachers:

“… at first the reader is (metaphorically) nodding in agreement, be it sometimes with certain reservations, but halfway through the book eyebrows are being raised, wrinkles appear in the forehead, and finally mouths drop open in astonishment or even plain indignation.”


Over the years, more and more language studies have emerged to suggest that language is a primarily lexical phenomenon and that language learning is about learning, storing and connecting lexical items. Michael Hoey’s Lexical Priming (2005), for instance, was a research-based publication that reinforced the ideas of The Lexical Approach. Hoey found evidence for these beliefs in the psycholinguistic research. Priming itself is a psychological concept; it is a factor that influences the accessibility of information in the memory. Hoey’s theory shows that our prior experience of words makes us expect to re-encounter words in the company of other words (collocations), in certain grammatical situations (grammatical colligations) and in certain positions (textual colligations). Recurrent encounters with collocations and colligations will therefore, make these sets of words stick – or at least go some way towards making them stickier!

In Jean Aitchinson’s Words in the Mind (2012), she compared the way words are stored in the mind with social networks in a town: “groups of people who know one another and interact fairly often.” According to her, “each ‘lexical town’ will contain numerous clumps of words with strong ties to one another – though each clump will also have bonds, yet weaker ones, with other groups.” The more we can connect words with other things in our mind, the easier it will be to retrieve them.

The impressive publication Neurobiology of Language contains a chapter entitled Language Development in which the authors state that there is increasing evidence that at least some of young children’s grammar is item based. This means that they produce grammatical structures through reproduction and gradual tweaking of constructions that they have taken in from other people’s speech (Dick a.o., 2015). Dick a.o. report observational and experimental studies indicating that early language is highly sensitive to statistical patterns in the ambient language. They have also noticed, though, that school-age children remain sensitive to the frequency of syntactic constrictions they hear.

The research mentioned also seems to find a law-like relationship between vocabulary size and grammatical complexity, “whereby total vocabulary size, irrespective of age, predicts grammatical complexity” (Dick a.o., 2015). This lawful relationship between lexis and grammar appears to hold over different languages. The authors therefore conclude that “grammar is not a completely separate process from word learning, nor does grammar simply require some word knowledge to get started.”  (Dick a.o., 2015).

In Language Development, Hoff (2009) refers to connectionist views, stating that linguistic processing in adults does not require positing a symbolic rule system. She continues to mention that processing is carried out by a network of elementary units, which are known as nodes. What results from this processing will depend on the input to the network and on the nature of the connections among units in that network.

Despite all of the above, a limited view of structural grammar still dominates present day ELT and remains at the heart of the bulk of coursebooks in use. Insights from The Lexical Approach, Lexical Priming and neurobiology have, however, solidly challenged that status. When will publishers, materials writers and teachers realise that many aspects of grammar can, and preferably should, be treated in a lexical way? I believe it is high time.

A brief bibliography

Aitchinson, J. (2012) Words in the Mind. Wiley-Blackwell

Dick, F. a. o. (2015) Language Development. In: G. Hickok & S.L. Small (Ed.) Neurobiology of Language (pp. 373-388). Academic Press.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming. A new theory of words and language. Routledge.

Hoff, E. (2009) Language Development. Cengage Learning.

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and a way forward. LTP.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing The lexical approach: The state of ELT and a way forward. LTP.

Leys, B. (2016) More than words… On the Importance and Shape of Vocabulary Lists. In HLT Magazine. Year 18. Issue 1.

Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (2001) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

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  • Leo Selivan

    Hi Bruno,

    Good to see your guest-post on Hugh and Andrew’s website!

    Naturally, I agree with everything you say here, although some sources you mention are new to me. Thank you!
    Also, I’ve never seen/heard the raised eyebrows and wrinkly forehead quote from Lewis’s book :) But then, ILA has always been my least favourite of the three.


    • Hugh Dellar

      I’ve always felt there was very much a law of diminishing returns and that The Lexical Approach was great, the other two that followed far less so. Still, left us space to squeeze into, so can’t complain!

    • Lexicallab

      I’ve always felt there was very much a law of diminishing returns and that The Lexical Approach was great, the other two that followed far less so. Still, left us space to squeeze into, so can’t complain!

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