Lexical Teaching Conference

Yesterday I attended the Lexical Teaching Conference at Westminster College, a day of teaching ideas inspired by Michael Lewis’s Lexical Approach.  I felt privileged to be able to hear ideas from some of my TEFL heroes like Michael Hoey, Hugh Dellar, Andrew Walkley , Luke Fletcher, Nick Bilbrough, and Michael Lewis himself.  Here are some highlights from the sessions.

Luke, Kate and Michael Lewis
Kate, Luke and Michael Lewis

The Lexical Approach and Lexical Priming–Michael Hoey

Michael Hoey presented three criticisms of the Lexical Approach and then showed why they are invalid.

Criticisms of the Lexical Approach

1.  It ignores how languages are learnt. 

Not true–there is solid psycholinguistic research, namely semantic and repetition priming, that backs up the idea that we store words as chunks.  One word helps us access a second one faster and more accurately (or slows down access).   For example, if we see the word ‘wing,’ it is harder to access ‘pig’ than ‘swan’ because words are semantically linked in our mind.

2.  There’s no theoretical underpinning.

Again, not true–his theory of lexical priming accounts for collocation and fluency.   There are lots of problems with existing theories of languages anyway.  For example, many theories assume a single language when in fact there are many variations (think dialects) masquerading as a single language.  Also, theories don’t take into account words have multiple meanings yet we know what is meant.

3.  It only applies to Indo-European languages.  

More research is needed, but his preliminary research shows that lexical priming applies also to Chinese.

His conclusion:  The Lexical Approach is safe to use.  

Lexical Priming

When we encounter a word we automatically and subconsciously notice many aspects of it.  Our experience of a word primes us to expect certain associations.

Some of the things we are primed for:

  • collocation (e.g. eyes and ears)
  • semantic association (eyes and ears are body parts)
  • pragmatic collocation (e.g. consequence is often used negatively, result positively)
  • colligation (grammatical patterns)
  • textual collocations  (Is a word likely to be repeated in a text or substituted with a pronoun?)
  • textual colligation  (Where does an expression occur in the text?)

One thing he said that really struck me was that reading primes us so it is important to read in order to learn vocabulary and subconsciously pick up all of those primings.   Learning vocabulary in turn primes us to organize text in writing.  Which leads me to remember the importance of context in teaching vocabulary.  Without context students miss out on primings.  This also makes me wonder about the ongoing debate over whether it’s better to use authentic material or graded.  Lexical priming theory makes me think there’s an argument for authentic material because it primes students for how language is really used rather than an artificial, graded priming.  This kind of priming may also contribute to the intermediate plateau.

Working Exercises Hard–Hugh Dellar

This followed nicely after Lexical Priming because it helped answer a question I had lingering in my head.

How in the world can our students pick up all the priming necessary to really know a word/expression in the short amount of  time they have in class?

Hugh’s answer was that we need to give them this extra priming by drawing their attention to chunks of language from their coursebook and through our boardwork.

Some helpful lesson tips:

  • Spend time prepping lessons, pulling out ‘ambient language’ from exercises and anticipating expressions that they may need and mapping it out beforehand.  Think of more examples of collocations to extend what is in the coursebook.
  • Don’t pre-teach vocabulary.  Instead let students get on with the exercise and spend the time in the ’round-up’ after.  The vocabulary exercise does teach the unknown words in context; otherwise it becomes just a test.
  • Students need less context setting and more meaningful language analysis.
  • Board up whole sentences, not just single words or even chunks.  Remember the longer the phrase, the more that is primed.
  • Write these sentences as a gap-fill.
  • Do vocabulary exercises as a homework so more time can be spent on the round-up.   Love it–flipped learning.  (suggestion by member of the audience)

One criticism from the audience was that the amount of vocabulary was possibly lexical overload.  I suppose it would depend on level and how much the individual students could handle.  Sometimes it might be good to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks because like Lewis said later you know what you are teaching but you can never know what they are learning.  Also, as Kerr said, if students are going to advance to the next level, they need a lot of words (from A1 to A2 400 words, and from B1 to C1 more like 700 0r 800).

Luke’s Lexical Learning 

Despite what the world sometimes expects of me, I cannot actually be in two places at once, but since I do have the good fortune of working with Luke Fletcher, I was able to attend a preview of his fabulous presentation.  It was full of useful teaching ideas and excellent IWB use.

‘Students will only start to record things in chunks if we write things in chunks.’

So true, so true.  I remember the frustration of checking my students’ notebooks only to find they had written single words after I’d told them time and time again to write expressions.  And then I looked at our IWB slides.  What had I written?  That’s right–guilty.

Students have to be trained to notice things so the teacher should highlight chunks (in bold, with a highlighter pen, a different colour pen) when they prepare boards and worksheets.

Some ideas I would like to incorporate into my own teaching:

  • Find someone who….. as a gap-fill with chunks highlighted and missing words given to the side
  • Use the screen tool to cover and reveal the second half of a chunk for vocab reveiw
  • Discussion questions involving chunks from a reading text, dictated to the class
  • Teacher tells an anecdote followed by a chunk gap-fill and retelling of the story
  • Lexical backs-to-the-board
  • Lexical noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe)
  • Using Macmillan free online dictionary    http://www.macmillandictionary.com/ 

Translation and Learning Lexis–Philip Kerr

This was a really interesting talk for me since I did my dissertation on teachers’ attitudes to students’ own language use in the classroom.  I’m looking forward to reading Kerr’s new book when it comes out next year.  But in the meantime here’s his blog:


He also mentioned e-books for teachers who want to get into writing.  http://www.eltteacher2writer.co.uk/

One interesting thing he said is that we need to teach less in class but facilitate learning more because the amount of vocabulary students need to progress is a lot more than what they learn in class.  The average is 4 lexical items per hour of tuition. One useful activity–flashcards.

Reverse translation

This is an old, yet effective, teaching technique where you translate a short text into another language and then back again.  So for us:

English — Learners’ own languages —English

In our mixed language classes we can pair students of the same language together or have them work individually for the first translation stage but together to put it back into English.  We can also use google translate.  Students are going to anyways and this highlights some of the issues that could arise.

One idea I really liked, and not just because it has zero prep, is to take a text we did in class and have students translate it into their language.  Then the teacher holds on to it for a few weeks/lessons and gives it back to them to translate back into English.  It’s motivating, encourages noticing and is good review.

Another one is after you do a gap-fill exercise you could dictate the eight or so sentences back to the students but instead of them writing in English, they have to write in their own language very quickly.  Then they have to translate them back to English with a partner.

(btw here’s the humorous job applicant letter he showed us)

To sum up his talk: translation is a motivating, effective way for learners to memorize chunks.

Creativity and Memorisation–Nick Bilbrough

We need to do something to make chunks stick in our minds.  We shouldn’t be creative in language production because most of what we say is made up of pre-fabricated chunks, but there is room for creativity in remembering chunks.  We need to make links between existing language and new.   Links can be through meaning but also form.

We could try linking new language to places.  We have a better memory for images than any other type of data, so if we can visualize where we put new language it helps us remember it.  One useful way is to link expressions to a route when walking.

Teaching ideas:

  • Jumbled sentences with chunks

Put jumbled sentences on board for students to unscramble.

It’s difficult to unjumble:

smokers  like  heavy  looks  jam  think  traffic

because our mind is primed to notice chunks.

  • Poems with chunks help with memory

Put a number of chunks on the board.  Students choose a number from 1-however many chunks you’ve written.  Then show chunks and students have to write a poem with the chunk corresponding to their number, in this form:

By the way

I want to say

That from today

I’m going to stay

By the way

  • Keep/Let classification activity

Teacher puts stickies of expressions around the room (e.g. fingers cross, off steam).  Students walk around and memorize them.  Then walk back to desk to record in the correct column.

(answer to jumbled sentence: Smokers think traffic looks like heavy jam.)

Teaching Grammar Lexically–Hugh Dellar

In this talk Hugh criticised a structural, PPP (present, practise, produce) approach to teaching because focusing on structures in isolation distorts the reality of how language is used in conversation.  Following this kind of syllabus where grammar and vocabulary are separate actually makes it harder for students.  Students feel just because they’ve seen it once, they’ve done it, but being able to speak about English is not the same as being able to speak in English.  They need less metalanguage and more real-life , frequently-used sentences like

How long have you been doing that?

or I’ll see you later.  

or Why did you decide to do that, then?  Well, I was thinking of…

rather than studying present perfect continuous, will versus going to, past continuous, conditionals, etc.    They need to experience how conversations develop, not look at structures in isolations.

It’s not grammar, but lexis, that makes someone’s language more advanced.

Lower levels need to learn ‘grammar-as-lexis,’  whereas higher levels need practice ‘grammaticalising’ and on rare occasions looking at more obscure structures but only in clear contexts.

He’s not saying to ignore teaching grammar but to focus more on language patterns than verb tenses and teach the lexico-grammatical chunks that go with the grammar.  For example:

Just because I’m single it doesn’t mean I’m desperately lonely!

Do you fancy going out somewhere tonight?

I agree with him but it makes me wonder how much I actually do this in my own teaching and how much I teach more traditional grammar because it’s easier–it’s what is presented in the book and how I first learned to teach.  It’s what students expect.  It gives, especially lower levels, something to build on.  It makes things more manageable for the students and like he said, gives them a feeling of progress.  I’ve never been a fan of PPP.  I have a problem with the word ‘present’ and much prefer ESA (engage, study, activate) because it puts the emphasis more on the student, getting them involved in the learning, but still I have trouble seeing these as isolated stages.  Surely the learners should be engaged and activating their language at all times in their study.  But maybe like grammar can be comfort for insecure newbie learners, PPP (or ESA) is the same for novice teachers.  Should teacher training be more lexically focused?

Q & A with Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis was truly brilliant making us all laugh.

Changes he said we should all make:

  1. get grammar out of our heads–studying structure is an inefficient way to learn language
  2. get individual words out of our heads–it’s all about chunks
  3. students should stop practising grammar to ‘get it right.’  They need to get it wrong to learn.  We don’t learn by practising what we already know.
  4. don’t ignore Teacher Talk Time–students need the correct input teachers provide
  5. stop breaking language down
  6. teach examples rather than rules
  7. if you have to teach from a structural syllabus–dump it.
  8. teach longer utterances because phrases have tunes but words don’t. It’s easier to remember a tune.
  9. teach less material but more thoroughly
  10. just because students like rules doesn’t mean it’s good for them.  We don’t go to the doctor for the doctor to say what you want to hear, but to tell you what’s wrong.

Language learning is much messier than teachers and learners want to think.  He used the analogy of watering a plant.  We have to water it for it to grow but we can’t say which leaf it is we’re watering.  We know we’re helping the plant grow, but we don’t know how.  People’s lexicons are like that.

plant in hands

Further reading:

Hoey, M.  (2005).  Lexical Priming: A new theory of Language.  London and New York:  Routledge.

Lewis, M. (1993).  The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice. Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (ed.) (2000). Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach. Hove: Heinle Language Teaching Publications.

Woolard, G.  (2013).   Messaging:  Beyond a Lexical Approach in ELT.  e-book available on kindle

7 thoughts on “Lexical Teaching Conference

  1. Pingback: #Lexconf2013 – The Lexical Teaching conference 2013 | EFL Notes

  2. Thanks so much for this write-up, Laura. I couldn’t afford either the time or money to go to this conference, but if they do it next year, I think I will try harder to make it happen! I obviously missed a great day!

    1. Thanks. It was a great day and I almost didn’t even go. I couldn’t afford it either. I hate that about TEFL lectures/conferences–I find most of them prohibitively expensive for mere teachers. Our school was paying for our Head of Teaching and another to teacher to go, but the other teacher fell ill and I got to take her place at the last minute. I know my blog isn’t the same of being there but I hope you enjoyed it.

  3. Pingback: Lexical Teaching Conference | blog de Álvaro Iriarte S.

  4. Pingback: Embassy English Teacher Summer Swapshop 2015 | English Language Teaching

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