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 Annual Review of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Volume 1, 2004






EFL learners spend a significant time learning lexis.  However, it is difficult to utilise vocabulary in authentic situations since textbooks are unable to offer sufficient information on usage.  The literature reviewed here proposes a new approach to content and methodology, which claims to be crucially relevant to both teachers and textbook writers.  After briefly reviewing some of the reasons for placing emphasis on lexis over grammar, pedagogical implications for L2 vocabulary teaching will be discussed in terms of content and methodologies.  For textbook writers and teachers, it is important to not only present those lexical elements which are essential for accurate and fluent use of the language, such as fixed expressions and lexical patterns (thus answering the question of ‘what lexis to teach’), but also to attempt to design some activities that raise learners’ consciousness (thus offering suggestions as to ‘how to teach lexis’).  By doing so, they encourage learners to realise that lexical items can work as useful tools to help produce more accurate and fluent utterances in authentic situations.



    It seems that teachers and learners spend a significant amount of time on lexis teaching and learning.  Indeed, many EFL learners favour the type of vocabulary book that lists words frequently appearing in entrance examinations.  However, these are unhelpful for the purpose of utilising the language since they do not present information on usage.  Therefore, it is essential to give thought to the treatment of lexis in current English textbooks for EFL learners, and to consider what improvements could be made.  What is significant is not simply a focus on lexical elements, but a careful consideration of the kinds of lexical features that should be presented and applied.  This literature review on classroom teaching of EFL lexis focuses on the contents and methodologies that can help learners identify and use essential lexical features in authentic situations.

    The paper will first consider the importance of emphasising lexis over grammar.  Second, it will indicate the contents of the target lexical material, focussing on lexis used in phrases, such as fixed expressions and lexical collocations. Third, it will discuss lexis teaching methodologies, and elaborate on the relative advantages of   implicit/explicit methods and consciousness-raising activities.  Lastly, it will highlight the value of the proposed approach in terms of helping the students to become better language learners.


Prioritising lexis over grammar

    Teachers should always remember Halliday’s (1975) belief that the learning of a language is essentially the learning of meanings.  Halliday (1978, p.1) believes ‘language is a product of the social process’ and ‘language arises in the life of the individual through an ongoing exchange of meanings with significant others.’  Stevick (1976, p.160) also points out that ‘method should be the servant of meaning, and meaning depends on what happens inside and between people.’

    In order to help learners exchange meanings with each other, through the lexis they have learned, teaching methodologies are important.  Recently, several linguists have proposed the importance of putting lexis, not grammar, at the centre of the classroom in order to help learners develop their ability to use English for real communication.  The importance of putting lexis before grammar is clearly expressed in the words of Lewis (1993, p.89), ‘language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalised grammar’ and ‘grammar as structure is subordinate to lexis.’  Little (1994, p.106) also argues that ‘words inevitably come before structures.’  Moreover, Widdowson (1989, p.135) notes that communicative competence is not a matter of knowing rules, but ‘a matter of knowing a stock of partially pre-assembled patterns.’  He argues that ‘rules are not generative but regulative and subservient’ and that they are useless unless they can be used for lexis. 

    Sinclair and Renouf (1988) point out that focusing on lexis in classrooms has several advantages.  First, teachers can highlight common uses, and important meanings and patterns for frequent words. Both are worth learning because learners may have used this information in authentic situations.  Second, teachers can encourage a learner to make ‘full use of the words that the learner already has’, regardless of the learner’s level (Sinclair & Renouf 1988, p.155).  Willis (1990) also notes that it is easier for learners to start exploration of the language if they start from lexis, which is concrete, rather than from grammatical rules, which are abstract.

    On the other hand, in claiming the importance of focusing on lexis, linguists do not mean that teachers only need to teach lexis, and should exclude grammar from classrooms.  Rather, lexis and grammar are considered inseparable in nature and completely interdependent (Sinclair 1991; Hunston & Francis 1998).  Willis (1993) also notes that grammar and lexis are two ways of picturing the same linguistic objective.  That is, the lexis consists of word - meaning patterns, while the grammar consists of structures, and categorises words according to such structures.  He considers ‘language learners have to work simultaneously with the grammar and the lexicon.’(ibid, p.84)  However, Willis (1990) thinks teachers need to pay more attention to lexical elements in the classroom.  If teachers emphasise grammar too much, the creation of meanings is likely to be put off.  The inseparability of grammar and lexis will be discussed in detail in section, ‘focusing on lexical patterns’.

    The above arguments state the case for giving lexis priority over grammar in the classroom.  However, we must now turn to the practical application of this general principle.  Our first question concerns the selection of lexical content.


Teaching content: lexis in phrases

The advantages of phrases

    Careful attention must be given to the selection of the specific aspects of lexis that teachers need to focus on.  For the purpose of real communication, there is a strong argument for teaching lexis in the form of phrases, not as single words.  When linguists claim the significance of lexical phrases in second language acquisition, it may be for two distinct reasons.  One approach is that phrases are important, because phrases are what constitute language.  The other is that phrases are essential because they are useful to learners.  The arguments of Pawley and Syder (1983), Sinclair (1991) and Lewis (1996) below represent the first approach,  whereas the second is supported by Benson, Benson and Ilson (1997), and Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992).

    Pawley and Syder (1983, p.191) argue that native speakers are capable of fluent and idiomatic control of language because they possess a ‘knowledge of a body of sentence stems which are institutionalized or lexicalized.’  They consider such sentence stems as ‘a unit of clause length or longer whose grammatical form and lexical content is wholly or largely fixed’, such as ‘what I think is …..’ and ‘come to think of it….’, and estimate that native speakers have at least hundreds of thousands of such units.  Sinclair (1991) explains the mechanism of native speakers’ language use with two different principles: the open-choice principle and the idiom principle.  Sinclair (1991) observes that although language users apply both principles, the one which dominates is the idiom principle (most texts will be interpretable by the idiom principle).  Lewis (1996, p.10) also notes that ‘much of our supposedly original language use is, in fact, made of prefabricated chunks, much larger than single words.’

    Benson et al. (1997) stress the significance of acquiring phrases from the perspective of language use.  They believe that in order to express oneself fluently and accurately in speech and writing, learners must learn to cope with the combination of words into phrases, sentences, and text.   Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) present several advantages of learning lexical phrases.  First, learners can creatively construct sentences simply because the phrases are stored and reprocessed as whole chunks, and this can ease frustration and develop motivation and fluency.  Second, since phrases have their origins in common and predictable social contexts, they are easier for learners to memorise, as opposed to separate words.  Third, phrases work as productive tools for communicating with other people.  This can further create social motivation for learning the language.  Fourth, since most phrases can be analysed by regular grammatical rules, and classified into patterns, learning phrases can help learners understand grammatical rules of the language (in the section ‘focusing on lexical patterns’).

    For these reasons phrases are proposed as the essential content for lexis teaching.  I now examine the different ways in which words are combined to create phrases.


Phrases: collocations, idioms and fixed expressions

    When we consider collocation as ‘the restrictions on how words can be used together’ as Richards et al. (1992, p.62) define it, and as ‘a group of words which occur repeatedly in a language’, as Carter (1987, p.47) defines it, all phrases can be considered to contain some kind of collocation.  Sinclair (1991) observes that words seem to be selected in pairs and groups, and that many uses of words and phrases attract other words in strong collocation, as seen in ‘hard work’, ‘hard luck’ and ‘hard facts’.  McCarthy (1990, p.12) points out that languages are full of strong collocations, and therefore ‘collocation deserves to be a central aspect of vocabulary study’.  Also, Nattinger (1988, p.69) says that collocation aids not only in memorising the words involved, but also in ‘defining the semantic areas of a word’.

    Idioms and fixed expressions can be considered items of special collocation.  Carter (1987, p.58) describes idioms as ‘restricted collocation which cannot normally be understood from the literal meaning of the words which make them up’ such as ‘have cold feet’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.  Carter (1987) argues that among collocations there are also other fixed expressions, such as ‘as far as I know’, ‘as a matter of fact’ and ‘if I were you’.  They are not idioms but are also semantically and structurally restricted, which, according to Carter (1987), are described by other linguists as ‘patterned phrased and frozen forms’ (Nattinger 1980) and ‘lexicalized sentence stems’ (Pawley & Syder 1983, p.192), and more generally known as ‘stable collocation’ and ‘patterned speech’.  Furthermore, idioms can be said to belong to fixed expressions.  McCarthy and O’Dell (1994, p.148) define idioms as ‘fixed expressions with meanings that are not clear or obvious’.

    Sinclair (1991) points out that words and phrases tend to co-occur with certain grammatical features, or grammatical patterns, such as “to-infinitive” and “-ing” forms.  Sinclair and Carter (1987, p.59) note that teaching collocation would be seriously incomplete ‘if grammatical patterning were not included alongside lexical patterning.’  Hunston and Francis (1998) observe that highly frequent collocation, such as “it occurs to me that” and “drive me mad”, which seem to be fixed phrases, are actually extreme cases of patterning, where lexis is particularly restricted.  The interdependence of lexis and grammar will be discussed in more detail in section ‘focusing on lexical patterns’.

    Willis and Willis (1996) point out that the learning of phrases is open-ended.  Therefore, teachers should not try to present as many examples as possible for further memorisation.  Instead, teachers should raise learners’ consciousness of the importance such elements.  This issue will be discussed in detail in ‘conducting consciousness-raising activities through implicit and explicit methods’. 

    The phrases recommended as teaching content in the current approach are thus seen as recurrent combinations of words, or patterns of language.  The collocational restrictions of these patterns are a function of their usefulness to the learner.


Focusing on lexical patterns

    Sinclair (1991, p.112) believes a description of English cannot divide the language into two separate components, lexis and grammar, since grammatical features are decided by lexis and all lexical elements can have grammatical patterns.  He observes that ‘many uses of words and phrases show a tendency to co-occur with certain grammatical choices’ (as an example gives the phrase ‘set about’).  He also points out that it is ‘unhelpful to attempt to analyse grammatically any portion of text which appears to be constructed on the idiom principle’ (ibid, p.113).  For instance, the phrase “of course” is useless to analyse as the combination of a preposition and a noun.

    Hunston et al. (1997, p.208) consider that although grammar and lexis have been treated separately in traditional course books, it is possible to connect them by focusing on patterns, which are ‘the grammar of individual words’ (ibid, p.208).  They also note that teaching patterns is essential for promoting learners’ understanding, accuracy, fluency and flexibility.  First, since ‘patterns can themselves be seen as having meaning’ (p.213), through the relationships between patterns and meanings, learners may be able to guess the meaning of an unknown word with the help of context.  Second, knowing which patterns are used with particular words is indispensable to develop learners’ accuracy.  Learners can be encouraged to register new vocabulary as phrases with certain patterns, rather than isolated, individual words.  Third, patterns may be said to extend the effectiveness of knowing ready-made phrases, since with a good command of patterns learners can connect several patterns together, and produce more complex utterances with fluency.  As an example, they link the sentence “He understood that she wanted to quarrel with him” with three different producible verb patterns, such as “understand that-clause”, “want to-infinitive” and “quarrel with noun”.  By possessing a variety of patterns to express one meaning, it is possible for learners to develop flexibility in expressing their ideas.

    To summarise so far, lexis should come before grammar in teaching English, and classroom teachers and textbook writers need to focus on the significant of lexical elements.  It is essential to focus on phrases and patterns as contents of lexis teaching; however, this does not mean that teachers should ignore grammar.  What is truly expected from teachers is to make bridges between grammar and lexis (e.g., lexical patterns may bridge grammar and lexis).  I now turn from the question of content to that of method.


What about teaching methods?

    It is impossible to teach everything learners need to know, since the number of lexical elements is seemingly infinite.  Therefore, vocabulary should be taught by neither implicit nor explicit methods exclusively, but by combining both approaches to maximize the effectiveness of lexis teaching.  A variety of activities should be employed to help learners raise their consciousness for developing self-learning strategies.  The following section outlines lexis teaching methods (implicit and explicit) and consciousness-raising activities intended to help learners to develop their own strategies.


Context: implicit teaching

    The importance of using the context for implicit vocabulary learning has been emphasized (Sőkmen 1997) because words have a habit of changing their meaning from one context to another (e.g., The doctor ordered me to stay in bed / He called our names in alphabetical order) (Labov 1973 cited Nagy 1997).  As Nagy (1997) points out, first-language learners pick up most vocabulary from the context, and the acquisition of multi-meaning words is accounted for by this incidental learning.  He also points out that contextual inferences contribute to learners developing an understanding of word meaning at different levels of knowledge: linguistic knowledge (syntactic knowledge, word schemas, vocabulary knowledge), word knowledge and strategic knowledge[I].  The context enables a learner to know different syntactic meanings and functions, to create appropriate word schemas (Nagy  & Scott 1990 cited Nagy 1997), to understand the meaning of surrounding words, to infer the meaning of an unfamiliar word, and to encourage the use of strategy for making deliberate attempts to discover unknown vocabulary (Nagy 1997).  Also, context can expose learners to high frequency vocabulary (Hunt & Beglar 1998).

    Learners can develop skills in guessing meaning from the context by using gapped text -- either traditional or modified cloze procedure -- or by using words with English affixes (Taylor 1990).  However, there are also problems related to inferring the meaning of words from the context.  For example, Sőkmen (1997) points out that guessing words in context is likely to be a very slow process and is not an effective method for second language learners (Carter & McCarty 1988) because they have a limited amount of time to learn vocabulary.  Secondly, inferring word meaning is not an error-proof process. Students often fail to guess the correct meaning (Pressley et al 1987, Kelly 1990 cited Sőkmen 1997) and their comprehension may be low because of insufficient vocabulary knowledge (Haynes & Baker 1993 cited Sőkmen 1997).  Also, Giko (1978) cited in Nagy (1997) claims that context plays a relatively less important role, while explicit instruction has a relatively greater role in the vocabulary growth of second language learners.  This is because second language learners are less effective than native speakers at using context, at least until they achieve a fairly high level of second language proficiency.  Again, the best way of teaching vocabulary is by using a variety of classroom methods.  Explicit teaching methods will therefore be described in the next section.


Exercise: explicit teaching

    To deal with the problems of implicit vocabulary teaching, current research suggests adding techniques of explicit instruction (e.g. Hunt & Beglar 1998; Sokmen 1997).  Explicit teaching is particularly emphasized because of its time-efficiency, its suitability for beginners or low proficiency students, its possibilities of improving word comprehension, and its adaptability.  Firstly, there is a significant emphasis on the explicit teaching of single words at an early stage of second language learning (Coady & Huckin 1997).  Coady and Huckin (1997) emphasizes that the 2,000 high-frequency words should be learned as quickly as possible to the point of automaticizing, because after learning the basic high-frequency words, learners can more easily increase their vocabulary size through reading, especially in the case of low-frequency words or specific purpose words.  Secondly, because adult second language learners, unlike young children learning their native language, have already developed a conceptual and semantic system which is linked to their first language (Ellis 1997), they can easily understand explicit word meanings.  And finally, it is possible to apply vocabulary using various techniques for increasing understanding of the word meaning and for memorization (Sokmen 1997).  However, effective teaching of vocabulary entails not only the presentation of new words, but also the elaboration and development of the meanings of old and new vocabulary (Sokmen 1997).  For example, to elaborate the meaning of newly learned lexis, the teacher should create opportunities for understanding recently learned words in new contexts, or organize exercises that provide new collocations, associations and so on (Hunt & Beglar 1998). 

    Owing to the strengths and weaknesses of different teaching approaches, appropriate use of a variety of techniques can thus increase the effectiveness of vocabulary teaching in class.  By using both implicit and explicit teaching methods, we can raise learners’ consciousness and help them develop independent learning strategies (autonomous learning).  This is the subject of the next section.


Conducting consciousness-raising activities through implicit and explicit methods

    Carter (1987) suggests that one of the reasons why teachers have not placed emphasis on lexis in classrooms is that while structures or grammar appear to be finite, relations within lexis seem to be infinite.  In terms of the infiniteness of lexical elements, Willis and Willis (1996, p.63) also argue that ‘language is so vast and varied that we can never provide learners with a viable and comprehensive description of the language as a whole’.  However, they also note that teachers can help learners by providing them with consciousness-raising activities, which are defined as ‘activities which encourage them to think about samples of language and to draw their own conclusions about how the language works’ (ibid).

    It is important for teachers to reflect on what kinds of activities can actually raise learners’ consciousness of the significant lexical elements, such as fixed expressions, collocations, and lexically-dependent patterns.  Petrovitz (1997, p.206) argues that they must be activities which ‘present and bring attention to aspects of certain lexical items again and again in every skill area within a course of instruction’.  Moreover, Lewis (1996, p.14) points out that they should be activities based more on questions than answers, which encourage ‘in both learners and teachers an acceptance of the ambiguity and uncertainty which underlies language.’

    Willis and Willis (1996) give categories of consciousness-raising activities, such as identification, classification, cross-language exploration, reconstruction and training in how to use reference materials.  Hunston et al. (1997) also show examples of activities for raising consciousness of patterns through identification and classification.  They suggest three types of activity: getting learners to identify patterns in texts, encouraging learners to identify groups of the same meanings in word lists, and asking learners to look for a certain pattern (e.g., phrases and collocations).  In respect to cross-language exploration, James (1994, p.212) suggests that raising awareness of learners’ own native language can help learners understand the second language by comparing the two languages and ‘facilitating bridges between them.’  He argues that by contrasting the L1 and L2, learners can recognise that what they already know in the L1 may appear quite new in the L2.  He points out that the comparative activity between the L1 and the L2 can greatly contribute to learners’ learning know-how.  For training in how to use reference materials, it is important to select informative books.  Collins COBUILD English Dictionary (Sinclair 1995), The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations (Benson et al. 1997) and Collins COBUILD Verbs: Patterns and Practice (Francis et al. 1997) are examples of material based on evidence and show useful lexical usages.


Independent strategy development

    As mentioned before, it is difficult to cover all of the vocabulary needed by students in the classroom (Sokmen 1997).  However, it is also essential for students to quickly extend their vocabulary, in or outside the classroom, in terms of not only ‘size’ but also ‘depth’ (Jones 1995).  Thus, the current trend is to help students learn how to acquire vocabulary on their own (Sokmen 1997).  Learners can adopt a number of strategies for coping with new vocabulary, but not all learners are equally good at maximizing their strategic resources (McCarthy 1990).  Therefore, as Leek and Show (2000) point out, it is important to help students develop a personal plan of vocabulary acquisition.  Sokmen (1997) suggests that students should be exposed to a variety of vocabulary exercises and activities in order to recognize their best style of vocabulary acquisition.  Oxford and Scarcella (1994) cited in Coady (1997), also argue that learners should be taught how to continue to independently improve their vocabulary. 

    The recommendation for teaching lexis would thus entail using implicit and explicit techniques, including consciousness-raising activities, leading students to the point where they can develop their own learning strategies.



    This literature review examined the theories that highlight the importance of focusing on lexis in language teaching (Willis 1993; Lewis 1993; Carter 1987; Sinclair & Renouf 1988).  As discussed in this paper, focusing on lexis in the classrooms is highly important because bringing lexis to the centre of classroom activity helps learners develop their ability to use English for meaning and real communication.  Specifically, the approach is based on those theories which show that it is essential to focus on phrases and patterns.  As explained above, this is because phrases are easier for learners to memorise and offer productive tools for communicating with other people. (Sinclair 1991; Francis et al. 1997; Nattinger & DeCarrico 1992).  Given the large number of lexical elements that exists, it is impossible to teach everything learners may face; Phrases, collocations and fixed expressions should be taught, not exclusively by implicit or explicit methods, but by combining both approaches in consciousness-raising ways to maximize the effectiveness of lexis teaching.  By these means, it is hoped that learners may reach a stage of autonomy in further lexis learning experiences (Ellis 1992; Willis & Willis 1996).


About the author

Seowon Lee ( ) is currently a PhD student at the School of Education, Communication, and Language Sciences.  Her research interests are written discourse analysis and second language lexis.



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[I]  Learners can learn  word meaning from the context as follows: 1. syntactic knowledge: the different syntactical behavior of each word can be learned from the context; 2. word schemas: by indicating, e.g., thematic or taxonomic associates, the context can place constraints on possible word meanings;  3. vocabulary knowledge: the meaning of words around a target item can be learned from the context, i.e., learners can infer the meaning of a word  even if they lack the knowledge of other words within the context; 4. word knowledge: the context  enables a learner to select the appropriate sense of an ambiguous word or to infer with the meaning of an unfamiliar word; 5. strategic knowledge: training students in the use of context can enhance students’ ability to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. This strategic knowledge involves conscious control over cognitive resources (Nagy, 1997).