The Lexical Approach and natural selection

Today we’re pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by Dr. Ivor Timmis. Ivor works at Leeds Beckett University and has always been one of the people we most look forward to hearing speak at conferences. Ivor has been involved in ELT for around 30 years – as a teacher, teacher trainer MA tutor and PhD supervisor. His main research interest is the analysis and teaching of spoken language. Here, he outlines some of his thoughts on which chunks and collocations we should be aiming to teach. It probably goes without saying that these are his views alone – and that despite our common ground, they don’t necessarily represent the way we personally see things. Over to Ivor . . .

When I first read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis (1993), I felt inspired because he articulated clearly ideas which had been slowly taking vague shape in my own mind. One particular notion that struck a chord was the argument that we spend too much time on the big beasts of the grammar syllabus (conditionals, reported speech, etc.) and too little on what might broadly be termed phraseology.

Though I was inspired, the question in practical terms was, ‘What do I do next?’

The aspect of this question I want to deal with here is, ‘What collocations and lexical chunks should we select to teach?’


Now, it is true that Lewis (1993) himself made some suggestions for selection criteria for collocations and chunks, namely:

  • Discoursal responses (e.g. That must have been awful)
  • Multi-word sentence adverbs (e.g. To put it bluntly; Personally speaking)
  • Discourse-organising sentence heads (e.g. The next point we consider is …)
  • Prepositional phrases (e.g. at the end of the day; in a way)
  • Lexical modality (e.g. the use of ‘tend to’ in examples such as ‘I tend to think’; phrases such as ‘there’s a chance that’, ‘there’s no doubt that’.)

However, it is difficult to see how these categories, which mix formal categories (e.g. prepositional phrases) and functional categories (e.g. discoursal responses), could form the basis of a syllabus. More recently, as a potential aid in the selection dilemma, we have been able to draw on frequency lists for collocations and chunks e.g.

  • ‘Beyond single words: the most frequent collocations in spoken English’ (Shin and Nation 2008)
  • ‘The Phrasal Expressions list’ (Martinez and Schmitt 2012)
  • ‘Developing the Academic Collocations List (Ackermann and Chen 2013
  • ‘The Academic Formulas list’ (Simpson-Vlach, R. and Ellis, N. 2010)

Whilst such lists may be useful reference tools, however, it is still difficult to see how they can be instantiated in a general teaching syllabus (though see the references above for their suggestions). What I am going to argue, however, is that they may provide one selection criterion among a group of other selection criteria, which I outline below:

  • Semantic predictability: this term refers to the ease with which the meaning of a chunk or collocation can be deduced from its constituent parts (e.g. the meaning of the chunk ‘big time’ is not easily predictable from its constituent parts, whereas the meaning of ‘big man’ is). Following this line of argument, we should focus more of our attention on chunks or collocations whose meaning cannot easily be deduced from their component parts.
  • Frequent collocations of frequent words
  • Strength of collocation: Conzett (2000: 74) gives a useful definition of strong collocations: “… the presence of one word means that you strongly expect the other”. In these terms ‘consummate ease’ is a very strong collocation, as it is very difficult to think of many words other than ‘ease’ which could follow ‘consummate’ (as an adjective). By contrast, a collocation such as ‘big city’ would be regarded as weak because ‘big’ can collocate with countless other words. Between the two extremes, we have medium strength collocations such as ‘achieve an objective’ as ‘achieve’ can collocate with a reasonable, but limited, number of other words. Conzett (2000) suggests we should focus most of our attention on these medium-strength collocations (Conzett 2000). While we may be able to make some of these choices intuitively, resources such as collocation dictionaries and free online access to the British National Corpus and the Collins Cobuild Corpus mean that we don’t have to rely entirely on intuition for these judgements of strength of collocation.

Sometimes it is the collocations with delexical verbs such as ‘have’, ‘do’ and ‘make’ which escape learners even at higher levels.

How many times have you heard the following?

  • I did a mistake
  • I’m going to study a degree.
  • We’re making a party



What I am arguing, then, is that armed with resources such as frequency lists and the selection criteria outlined above, we are in a position to exercise professionally informed intuition, or what I like to call ‘systematic opportunism’. One way of exercising this systematic opportunism is to exploit the listening and reading texts we use in class for language work once we have used them for skills work. We apply our selection criteria to the text in the search for collocations and chunks we might want our students to learn. In this way, texts are seen as ‘linguistic quarries’ (McGrath 2002), though Timmis (2008) uses the rather more exotic metaphor ‘panning for gold’. In adopting such an approach to lexical work, we do not need to look far for exercise types: we can turn to some of the most popular language activities from CLT: identification; reconstruction; matching; categorisation. The exercise types are exemplified in Timmis (2008):


Example Task 1

Underline 5 chunks and / or collocations from the text that you would like to learn.Example Task 2Underline 5 chunks and / or collocations from the text connected to business.
ReconstructionExample Task 1

Put the words into an acceptable order to reconstruct sentences from the story.

(a) as if on my life I felt depended the results whole

(b) met a shepherd back the mountain who the way on my Dad showed him

(c) for my Dad a walk the mountains in and lost in the got fog went.

Categorisation tasksExample Task 1

Sort these chunks from the text into 2 groups.

Argue that; propose that; indicate that; claim that; reveal that; show that; suggest that

Example Task 2

Sort these collocations from the text into 2 groups.

Important issue; promote communication; maintain a balance; cultural background; receive attention; foreign language


Matching Tasks

Example Task

Match the verbs and the endings to make chunks from the text.

1 have

2 make

3 go

4 get

5 do

a …a decision

b …a bad experience

c…quite well

d …for a walk

e …nightmares

f …mountain-biking

g …injured


Systematic opportunism: man and machine in perfect lexical harmony.


Ackermann, K. and Chen, Y-H (2013). Developing the Academic Collocation List (ACL) – A corpus-driven and expert-judged approach. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 12: 235–247.

Conzett, J. (2000). Integrating collocation into a reading and writing course. In Lewis, M. (ed.) Teaching collocation: further developments in the lexical approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications, 70-87.

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach. Hove: LTP.

Martinez, R. and Schmitt, N. (2012). A phrasal expressions list. Applied Linguistics 33/3: 299–320.

McGrath, I. (2002). Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Shin, D. and Nation, P. (2008). Beyond single words: the most frequent collocations in spoken English. ELT Journal 62/ 4: 339-348.

Simpson-Vlach, R. and Ellis, N. (2010) An academic formulas list: new methods in phraseology research. Applied Linguistics: 31/4: 487–512.

Timmis, I. (2008) The lexical approach is dead: long live the lexical dimension! Modern English Teacher 17/3: 5-10.

Timmis, I. (2005) Panning for gold: exploiting texts for language work. Modern English Teacher 14/4: 53-57.



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4 Responses

  1. MuraNava says:

    nice post thanks 🙂

    another option in terms of frequency lists are n-grams which are able to address the lack of “grammar”that the frequency lists mentioned in this post have – Towards an n-grammar of English


  2. Geoffrey Jordan says:

    Really good to see the crucial question of “What to teach?” tackled like this. A significant step forward.

  3. […] Today we're pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by Dr. Ivor Timmis. Ivor works at Leeds Beckett University and has always been one of the people w  […]

  4. […] Today we're pleased to be able to bring you a guest post by Dr. Ivor Timmis. Ivor works at Leeds Beckett University and has always been one of the people w  […]

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