Absolutely central to lexical teaching is a view of language. A starting point on the road towards understanding this view is the commonly stated observation that without grammar you can say little, but without vocabulary you can say nothing. Take the following sequence of words. What do you think is being communicated?
want see film ages
film want see ages
see ages want film
ages film see want
Uttered by a language student, these words are far more likely to get closer to communicative success than the unlikely scenario of them producing only the grammar:
I have been -ing that for . . .
Indeed, the very fact that we cannot really imagine the second scenario should tell us that it is words that drive communication. Words drive language development too as knowing more words allows students to access more texts. This may then enable students to employ more of the reading and listening skills (1) they have in their own language and in turn to acquire more language.
The learning of lexis is a much bigger task than learning grammar. A native speaker university student is estimated to recognise around 20,000 word families (2). Even taken as single words, that means far more items than there are grammar rules presented over a typical series of coursebooks. And that’s before we even consider lexis as being beyond single words or as varied forms of one root lemma.
We should be very clear from the start that none of the above is to say that lexical teaching means never teaching grammar rules or that we should only teach words. Far from it – as we shall see when we develop our principles and beliefs further. What it DOES mean, however, is changing the priority of many courses.
Applications of this principle
– Make students aware of the huge amount of lexis required if fluency is their goal.
– Ensure they are exposed to and have the chance to acquire sufficient vocabulary.
– Make teaching vocabulary a central part of every lesson or homework activity.
(1) See studies cited by Catherine Walter:
( 2) See studies cited by Nation and Waring: