Is teaching Lexis an easy task?

Classes have just started and there is a high level of enthusiasm and motivation among both teachers and students. We have already started thinking of new (or not so new) fun activities and games for class, and planning for the whole year. Lexis is one of the topics that we will find most frequently in lessons, and the simplicity of terminology (e.g. food and drink nouns, job nouns, adjectives expressing feelings) may lead us to believe that teaching and learning it may not be very difficult. Let us stop and reflect on lexicon teaching and the issues it entails.

Introducing new terms
The initial stage in teaching lexical content consists in conceiving a presentation scheme. We often spend time searching for and printing captivating visual aids, devising games and even employing an engaging song that uses many examples of the new nomenclature. Up to this point, everything seems to be fine. However, the first risk lies in that the words we teach might appear isolated –that is, without a context, either linguistic or situational– to be “noticed” in their real usage, or perhaps ignoring the usual ‘chunks’ or collocations in which they often appear. This leaves students with vocabulary that they will probably have to memorize from lists that are commonly found in coursebooks. Another danger is that our presentation might cover a comparatively long time, leaving little or even no time for practice. This is the point when we should reconsider what our aim is: presenting, or providing opportunities for practice?
Real-life practice
The second danger in the paragraph above raises an issue: do our students have the opportunity to revisit the vocabulary they studied in the lesson, to use it in a memorable and life-like manner? We are commonly under pressure to comply with the contents of a textbook, and for this reason we may be satisfied with presenting it so that we can move on to another topic, such as reading or grammar. Conversely, we may feel satisfied with having our students repeat the words by themselves, and not in statements or realistic conversations. The truth is, displaying vocabulary is not enough, especially if we are planning to test our students in this type of content. The solution is not hard to discover: how about choosing three new lexical items and insert them into questions to generate discussion? Even an activity as simple as “find someone who” can become very communicative and useful if the new content is added. If the texts we are using provide lexis in decontextualized boxes, we have an incredible opportunity to adapt this material to apply the principles of contextualized presentation and maximized practice.
Higher levels
When students have reached a level close to B2 (intermediate-upper intermediate), most English grammar has already been studied, but the same cannot be said of lexis. For this reason, vocabulary deserves special attention at all levels. One typical question from our students is how to increase their already good-sized vocabulary. Although the typical answer involves further exposure to the language, we are ignoring a crucial factor: the students’ interest should direct them to authentic (non-graded) material that they will find enjoyable. Some students may be familiar with comics, online tutorials and others, so why not try them in English? Familiarity with certain types of discourse and contents is a hugely motivating factor, and taking advantage of it can be extremely beneficial for our students.
A final word
Teaching vocabulary, as opposed to teaching grammar, may appear simple and easy, but it is not. Context, practice and further development are necessary in order to guarantee a true increase in our students’ proficiency.
What do YOU think?
How do you challenge your students to use new lexis communicatively in class?
Lewis, Michael (1993). The lexical approach. LTP/Heinle, London.
Scrivener, Jim (2011). Learning Teaching, Third Edition. Chapter 8: Teaching Lexis. Macmillan, London.


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