A guide to the Lexical syllabus approach in language teaching

Illustration of chunks - representing the lexical syllabus language teaching approach

In the 21st century, language proficiency has become increasingly vital in both education and employment. As a result, the discourse surrounding the most effective method for teaching a new language (being it English, French, Arabic or whichever target language) has taken center stage in language education theory and practice.

The language teaching method we present in this guide is based on the principle that grammatical structures alone are not enough to learn a new language. Originating in the 1990s through the theoretical work of Michael Lewis, the Lexical Syllabus Approach of language teaching challenges the (very) conventional belief that mere grammatical structures are sufficient for acquiring a new language.


What is the Lexical syllabus approach?

The development of the Lexical Syllabus Approach is part of a new approach to language teaching which aims to develop teaching techniques that “take advantage of the learners’ natural tendency to make sense of the language and to learn for himself”.

According to Lewis’ paradigm, language acquisition doesn’t primarily hinge on the assimilation of grammar rules and structures. Instead, it centers around lexical units, stable word segments termed “chunks“, recurrent in everyday language usage. These chunks, selected by speakers for their contextual appropriateness and communicative efficacy, play a pivotal role in language learning. From the learner’s point of view, these chunks have mostly a pragmatic value, i.e. they are chosen by the speaker for their appropriateness to the context, for their ability to pursue a certain communicative goal.


The chunks of language learning

“Language consists of chunks which, when combined, produce continuous coherent text” (Lewis, 1997: 7). Put more simply, chunks are groups of words usually grouped together. Some examples of chunks are:

  • set phrases, such as politeness phrases (greetings, welcoming sentences)
  • collocations (noun + adjective, double noun, verb + adverb, etc.)
  • phrasal verbs 
  • catchphrases 

But what is their importance in the language learning process? As the British Council clearly explains: “a listener or reader uses their knowledge of chunks to help them predict meaning and therefore be able to process language in real-time”. 


Why is it important to teach chunks?

Teaching chunks is fundamental because they constitute a central, though not sole, component of language proficiency.

In fact, as we have seen in the previous list, chunks include expressions that are fundamental to becoming a fluent speaker of a foreign language. According to a Cambridge English research paper:

“A number of studies have attempted to compute the frequency of chunks compared to that of single words, and have established that there are many chunks that are as frequent as, or more frequent than, the most frequent individual words”. 

In short, formulaic language made up of chunks is fundamental to improving learners’ fluency.


Applying the Lexical Syllabus Approach in the language classroom

When constructing a lesson based on learning chunks, it is first important to keep in mind a golden rule: do not try to break down the words that compose a chunk, but instead guide the learners in assimilating them as a whole.

With this principle in mind, there are numerous strategies for guiding students in learning lexical chunks. Exploiting the ‘everyday’ nature of chunks, language teachers can help students identify them in their natural spoken context, found in videos, podcasts, blog posts, and social media for example.

Adopting language learning activities based on reading and storytelling is also an effective way to expand students’ understanding of lexical chunks. Using a written text, in fact, allows students to interact freely with the language and, at the same time, to teach them to recognise lexical chunks. During reading activities, the teacher can ask learners to highlight lexical chunks present in the text. Learners can also be tasked with drawing up lists of chunks or preparing flashcards to review them later. 

In conclusion, the Lexical Syllabus Approach is a practical teaching method that can be useful to consolidate students’ oral production, particularly helping them communicate confidently and using meaningful terms. 

At the same time, it is an effective method of introducing different types of authentic learning content into the language classroom – from YouTube videos to songs to novels – thus making the language learning exercises more interactive and closer to the students’ interests.


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