Putting your principles into practice: lexical teaching in the age of eclecticism

Eclectic or just confused?

As teachers, we’re often told that we’re now living in a post-method world and that we should all aspire to be principled eclectics, picking and choosing activities and techniques to teach the language. On one level, an awareness of the wide range of general approaches and specific techniques available to us is obviously a good thing in that it helps us to recognise that languages have been taught and learnt in a variety of ways over time and that no one method can claim exclusivity as the one way to learn. However, It can also lead to uncertainty and, ironically, an absence of principles. As Henry Widdowson famously said: ‘If you say you are eclectic but cannot state the principles of your eclecticism, you are not eclectic – merely confused!’

For us, then, as teachers, trainers and materials writers, it is important to be clear what our principles are and how those principles inform our choices about how (and what) to teach. From this point of view, I suppose you could call our methodology ‘a principled eclectic approach’ in that when we put our principles into practice, we make use of a variety of techniques that derive from different areas of language teaching: translation and interpreting; drills and dialogue building; substitutions within patterns; using tasks and spontaneous teaching that comes out of  conversation and chat, and so on. However, by giving our approach a name – Teaching Lexically (or, if you prefer, lexical teaching) – we want to also acknowledge what we see as some key defining principles and to make it clear how our own teaching (and training) comes out of a specifically lexical view of language.

Looking at language lexically

What do we mean by a lexical view of language? On a very basic level, it’s the belief that without grammar you can say little, but without vocabulary you can say nothing; it’s the belief that learning vocabulary is the most important part of learning a language, the most time-consuming part of what learners have to do, and what most drives their improvement in terms of level. However, a lexical view of language is a bit more than that: it’s a view of how language is used and how new language comes into being. Grammar-oriented views of language start with grammar rules and structures into which any words of the correct class can supposedly be slotted. A lexical view of language argues that language begins with words and that the ways in which words combine and the patterns that we perceive as grammar are the result of our experience of language in use. This is why – as Pawley and Syder noted in their seminal 1983 article – we tend not to actually be infinitely creative in the way we use words and grammar: we say it’s ten past six rather than it exceeds six by ten, despite the latter being ‘grammatically possible’. This idea also explains collocation – why we typically say the economy is growing fast or It’s booming, but not my son is growing fast or He’s booming. On top of that, it also explains the huge variety of what Alison Wray calls ‘formulaic language’ – groups of words which people seem to perceive as one ‘unit of meaning’ and say more quickly. This more lexical view of language has developed thanks to a wide range of authors from Pawley and Syder to Michael Lewis, and more recently as a result of Michael Hoey’s lexical priming theory.

From this founding principle that language is essentially lexical, we take the idea that we need to think more about how words and grammar are used or might be used by students in communication and to try and teach vocabulary with grammar and collocation and other groups of words as much as possible – right from the very first lesson with Beginner-level learners. Curiously, this will often mean exposing students to more – and more varied – grammar from an earlier stage, as we might teach (and get students to practise) chunks such as Have you been to + place as a phrase before students have mastered the underlying grammar or have learned the ‘rule’.

Principles underpinning learning

Of course, having a view on language is not the only principle that you need to establish in order to truly be a principled eclectic. You also need to have a view on how language is taught and learned / acquired – and for what purpose. We have tried to identify six key elements in the process, which we believe many approaches share even if they put different emphases on different elements. Essentially, learners need to:

  • understand the meaning of new ‘items’ of language that they encounter
  • hear or see these items being used with other language
  • notice aspects of form and of the surrounding language (what we call the co-text)
  • approximate the sound of the language
  • make use of the language themselves and integrate it with what they already know
  • re-encounter the language over time in new contexts, each time repeating the previously mentioned elements

What constitutes an item of language will obviously depend on your view of language – and in our case, that means a lexical view. Once you start taking a different view of language, you may well come to feel that certain areas suddenly seem less important, while others begin to have more importance. With a lexical view of language, the following principles and emphases may be given:

  • an ‘item’ is more likely to be word combinations than single words or fixed rules
  • meaning needs to be dealt with simply and quickly, because the greater complexity lies in usage and in developing learners’ experience of how language is used
  • noticing language use and being aware of how grammar emerges from the way words work is important
  • the revisiting and recycling of language over time in new contexts is essential, because the complexity of words can’t be learnt in one go (as, indeed, grammar also cannot be accurately produced after learning a rule!)

Overcoming hurdles

While we know many teachers do share a lexical view of language, we have also heard plenty of them express frustration over the years about how they can put their beliefs into practice. They may sometimes teach in accordance with their principles  but at other times may feel isolated and want support and to share their experiences and develop ideas. Sometimes lexically-minded teachers may feel constrained by the school syllabus, by exams or by coursebooks. Many books and courses still tend to be organised around a grammar syllabus, one which follows a building block approach where students might not even see, say, ‘Have you been’ until near the end of their Elementary course. There may be exercises on collocation, but they are inconsistent and essentially still grammar + words. The collocations explored are essentially just used to slot into grammar rules rather than being the starting point for students to communicate their thoughts and feelings or to participate in the business of everyday life.

As teachers, we understand these frustrations. In fact, they were, in part, what drove us to begin writing our own material (we would certainly encourage teachers to do the same, by the way, as writing can help focus the principles you have and force you to think more deeply about how you apply them). At the same time, we have also seen how difficult it can be to move away from the dominant grammar + words syllabus: publishers want to stick to the what they see as the tried and tested; training courses – not entirely unreasonably – want to prepare new teachers to work within this dominant view of language and to be able to use these coursebooks. Training courses do sometimes make explicit the dominant view of language, and an alternative more lexical view may also mentioned, but far too often a lexical view of language and its consequences for teaching practice are simply ignored. This may be either because the trainers don’t hold those principles themselves or else because they are seen as too difficult for initial teachers and non-native speaker teachers to get to grips with.

Beyond recipes: practical pedagogy for everyday application

Given all of this, when we came to  write our first methodology book, we had a number of aims. Of course we wanted to start by outlining an accessible version of a lexical view of language and, alongside this, some basic principles for language and learning; we wanted to make it clear the (many) ways in which our approach relates to other methods; and we then wanted to show how our principles are followed through in our teaching practice. More importantly, though, we felt it was crucial to show how these principles can be applied to any material, whether it was written for the classroom or not, or written with a lexical view of language in mind or not. We also wanted to provide techniques that teachers can apply and practise on a daily basis. In other words, we were not aiming to present a collection of recipes or activities, but rather were trying to share and develop teaching processes. Finally, we wanted to show how these processes can be practised in ways which are suitable for both new teachers with no experience and also experienced teachers looking to change or refresh the way they approach their teaching.

To do this, we explored what a lexical view of language might mean when it comes to teaching familiar aspects of traditional coursebooks such as vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening, reading and writing. Much of what we suggest involves developing certain habits of mind and building certain routines into your lesson planning. In terms of teaching grammar, this might mean:

  • thinking about how probable the examples you’re going to teach are; asking when might they be said, who by and to whom – and then rejecting any less likely sentences.
  • concept checking particular structures when going through coursebook exercises
  • drawing students’ attention to the co-text that often accompanies answers in exercises
  • getting students to keep the same examples as those found in an exercise, but to change the co-text
  • eliciting extra examples and reformulating student output
  • helping students to create mini-texts around certain examples in coursebook exercises
  • presenting fully grammaticalised sentences as single phrases that can be memorised and practised in mini-dialogues
  • asking about tense usage in sentences that appear in vocabulary exercises or reading texts
  • drawing attention to syntax in sentences that appear in vocabulary exercises or reading texts
  • Helping students use two-way translation in order to raise awareness of L1-L2 differences.

In our methodology book, we explain the basic principle behind each of these techniques (and many more), give readers a chance to practise the principles and then suggest ways you can apply each one in your own teaching. So, for instance, the following task helps teachers practise reformulating student responses to questions about examples of grammar:

A    Look at two sentences that teachers have decided to explore. In each case, you can also see students’ responses. For each response, decide:

  • if you would accept it as it is, reformulate it, ask questions about it (if so, which questions?) or reject it.
  • what – if anything – you’d write on the board as part of your reformulation.

1    The teacher says: “What could you say here after No, I haven’t? Any ideas?”

A:    Have you ever been to the UK?

B:    No, I haven’t.

Student 1: Have you been?

Student 2: It’s great.

Student 3: How is it like?

Student 4: It’s a place not my taste.

2    The teacher asks: “What else could you say here apart from I’m going to Liverpool? Anyone”

I can’t come on Thursday. I’m going to Liverpool.

Student 1: I’m having an exam.

Student 2: I make appointment my friend.

Student 3: I’m sleeping.

Student 4: I must to work lately.

For over a hundred more tasks like this and a far more detailed discussion of lexical teaching than we have room for here, please do have a look at TEACHING LEXICALLY (Delta Publishing) – and you may also want to think about taking one of our Teacher Development courses this summer.


Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language Routledge

Lewis, M. (1993) The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward Language Teaching Publications

Pawley, A. and Syder, F.H. (1983) Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency in Richards, J.C. and Schmidt, R.W., eds. Language and Communication Longman.

Widdowson, H. G. (1990) Aspects of Language Teaching Oxford University Press.

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2 Responses

  1. Rod Murdison says:

    Excellent article, I came to teaching from my interest in linguistics so loved to read the background to your ideas and the bibliography.
    Also, as a ‘homestay’ teacher of English (so solely 1 to 1, occasionally 1 to 2) I have had to create virtually all my lessons as course books say ‘form your class into groups of three’ which is obviously impossible, so encouraging teachers to think and then create their lessons rather than slavishly following a grammar book is a great idea.

  2. Philip NEWMAN says:

    Interesting. Always good to read an article that stimulates reflection. First thoughts for me revolve around the chicken-and-egg (vocab. and grammar) principle and whether one really takes precedence – as you say with words. But then, most of my reading comes rather from outside the TEFL box than within. So, it’s good to dip a toe ‘in’ from time-to-time. I’ll keep musing and thank you for that.

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