Dellar’s Lexical Approach 2


In the previous post, I looked at Dellar’s attempts to implement Michael Lewis’ “Lexical Approach”, and posed a few questions. Anticipating no response from Dellar, I addressed some of the questions myself in comments on that post, but let me here give a fuller account.

Nattinger and DeCarrico and “the lexical phrase”

Let’s start with an alternative to Lewis’ lexical approach. Nattinger and DeCarrico (1992) argue that the examination of big corpora by computers (which suddenly made it possible to do concordance searches of huge selections of text in minutes) suggests that “the lexical phrase” is at the heart of the English language. They argue that linguistic knowledge cannot be strictly divided into grammatical rules and lexical items, that rather, there is an entire range of items from the very specific (a lexical item) to the very general (a grammar rule), and since elements exist at every level of generality, it is impossible to draw a sharp border between them. There is, in other words, a continuum between these different levels of language.

The suggested application of Nattinger and DeCarrico’s (1992) argument to language teaching is that lexis – and in particular the lexical phrase – should be the focus of instruction. This approach rests on two main arguments. First, some cognitive research (particularly in the area of Parallel Distributed Processing and related connectionist models of knowledge) suggests that we store different elements of language many times over in different chunks. This multiple lexical storage accords no privilege to parsimonious, non-redundant systems. “Rather, they assume that redundancy is rampant in a model of language, and that units of description, whether they be specific categories such as “word” or “sentence”, or more general concepts such as “lexicon” or “syntax” are fluid, indistinctly bounded units, separated only as points on a continuum” (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992). If this is so, then the role of analysis (grammar) in language learning becomes more limited, and the role of memory (the storage of, among other things, lexical phrases) more important. I’m not saying for a moment that this view of language and language learning is correct, but it’s an interesting alternative to Lewis.

The second argument is that some research suggests that formulaic language is highly significant. Peters (1983) and Atkinson (1989) show that a common pattern in language acquisition is that learners pass through a stage in which they use a large number of unanalyzed chunks of language – prefabricated language. This formulaic speech is seen as being basic to the creative rule-forming processes which follow. Starting with a few basic unvarying phrases, first language speakers subsequently, through analogy with similar phrases, learn to analyze them as smaller patterns, and finally into individual words, thus finding their own way to the regular rules of syntax.

Both these arguments deserve serious attention, and indeed have received attention in many quarters, including Bates and MacWhinney’s development of their Competition Model (see, for example MacWhinney, 2002) and Skehan’s (1988) very interesting work on unpacking and re-packing formulaic chunks. They indicate that principled arguments can be made, and, in my opinion, they highlight the weaknesses of Michael Lewis’ “Lexical Approach” (1993) which takes a much more strident, less nuanced view. Lewis (1993, 1996) says that “grammar is not the basis of language acquisition, and the balance of linguistic research clearly invalidates any view to the contrary” and flatly proclaims that “Language is not lexicalised grammar, rather it is grammaticalised lexis”. Lewis (borrowing piecemeal from work done by Pauley and Syder, Nattinger and DeCarrico, Sinclair, Biber, Willis and others) asserts that native speakers have a vast stock of lexical prefabricated items or chunks, and that fluency depends on having rapid access to this stock of lexical chunks. Since lexis is central in creating meaning, and grammar plays a secondary role in managing meaning, teachers should devote themselves to teaching lexical chunks.

Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory

Lewis doesn’t develop his assertions about the nature of language, but Hoey, a serious scholar in the field of corpus-based linguistics, decided to have a go at a theory of language in his 2005 book “Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language”. The book gives a marvellous account of what it is to know a word, but fewer than 20 pages are given over to explaining how we get this knowledge, and I get the strong impression that he’s not really interested in all this psycholinguistic memory stuff – he’d much rather talk about what all the data tells us about patterns of text and the fascinating links between words. So anyway, Hoey says that we get all this knowledge by “subconsciously noticing” everything that we have ever heard or read, and storing it all in a massively repetitious way. “The process of subconsciously noticing is referred to as lexical priming. … Without realizing what we are doing, we all reproduce in our own speech and writing the language we have heard or read before. We use the words and phrases in the contexts in which we have heard them used, with the meanings we have subconsciously identified as belonging to them and employing the same grammar. The things we say are subconsciously influenced by what everyone has previously said to us.”

The whole theory hinges on the construct “noticing”, a construct which Hoey says almost nothing about. Without more work, Hoey’s theory is circular and thus empty – it explains everything we know by describing everything we know. To the extent that it simply claims that language learning is the result of repeated exposure to patterns of text, and the more the repetition the better the “knowledge”, then it’s a crude version of behaviourism. As Chomsky argued when he demolished Skinner’s behaviourist view of language and learning, language use is “stimulus independent” and “historically unbound”. It’s stimulus independent because, Hoey notwithstanding, virtually any words can be spoken in response to any environmental stimulus. It’s historically unbound because what we say, again Hoey notwithstanding, is not determined by our history of priming, as is made clear by the fact that we can and do say things that we haven’t been trained to say and that we have never heard anybody else say.

I’ve said elsewhere that I think Chomsky’s UG has very little relevance to an explanation of SLA, but I think it’s an excellent theory of language, unlike Hoey’s. Any theory of language has to confront the question posed by Chomsky which is “How do children acquire aspects of the language which they have never been exposed to?” Thousands of studies (sic) have shown that despite the fact that certain properties of language are not explicit in the input, children possess knowledge of grammaticality, ungrammaticality, ambiguity, and paraphrase relations, for example. The claim made by Hoey that children learn language starting from a ‘blank slate’ and then building knowledge from subconsciously noticed connections between lexical items simply cannot survive the counter-evidence provided by studies of children’s knowledge of language (including knowledge of its grammar, among other things) which doesn’t come from exposure to it.

What theory of SLA informs the lexical approach?

Lewis doesn’t even attempt an explanation of SLA; like Hoey, he accepts Krashen’s explanation of SLA, and I’ve dealt with this in the post “Krashen 1: Hoey, The Monitor, Lexis” which is in the menu on the right of the screen. It’s worth pointing out that the Natural Order Hypothesis contradicts Hoey’s new lexical priming theory, since, while the first claims that SLA involves the acquisition of grammatical structures in a predictable sequence, the second claims that grammatical structures are lexical patterns and that there is no order of acquisition.

Interlanguage Grammar versus Lexical Priming 

In the last 40 years, great progress has been made in developing a theory of SLA based on a cognitive view of learning. It started in 1972 with the publication of Selinker’s paper where he argues that the L2 learners have their own autonomous mental grammar (which came to be known, as interlanguage (IL) grammar), a grammatical system with its own internal organising principles, which may or may not be related to the L1 and the L2.

One of the first stages of this interlanguage to be identified was that for ESL questions. In a study of six Spanish students over a 10-month period, Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) found that the subjects produced interrogative forms in a predictable sequence:

1. Rising intonation (e.g., He works today?),
2. Uninverted WH (e.g., What he (is) saying?),
3. “Overinversion” (e.g., “Do you know where is it?),
4. Differentiation (e.g., “Does she like where she lives?).

A later example is in Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991: 94). They pointed to research which suggested that learners from a variety of different L1 backgrounds go through the same four stages in acquiring English negation:

1. External (e.g., No this one./No you playing here),
2. Internal, pre-verbal (e.g., Juana no/don’t have job),
3. Auxiliary + negative (e.g., I can’t play the guitar),
4. Analysed don’t (e.g., She doesn’t drink alcohol.)

In developing a cognitive theory of SLA, the construct of interlanguage became central to the view of L2 learning as a process by which linguistic skills become automatic. Initial learning requires controlled processes, which require attention and time; with practice the linguistic skill requires less attention and becomes routinized, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. SLA is thus seen as a process by which attention-demanding controlled processes become more automatic through practice, a process that results in the restructuring of the existing mental representation, the interlanguage. The adoption of such a framework gives focus and strength to the research: well-defined problems can be articulated, and other more powerful and daring solutions can be offered to the one that has been tentatively established.

Any lexical approach which adopts Hoey’s theory must either state that a cognitive theory of SLA based on the development of an interlanguage is misguided, an extraordinary example of hordes of scholars marching down the wrong road and pursuing a chimera for 40 years and more, or they must re-work the whole programme so as to replace the misguided grammatical structures with lexical chunks. This, I suggest, highlights the implausibility of a lexical approach which uses Hoey’s theory of language.


As seen above, Hoey’s construct of “noticing” has nothing in common with the usual meaning of the word or with Schmidt’s construct of the same name. It is a sub-conscious process which we are, Hoey insists “entirely unaware of”: we notice things about words “without realizing what we are doing.” Dellar, nevertheless, has adopted lexical priming without ditching the contradictory sense of noticing used by Lewis. When Dellar says “fossilisation can result from saying things in L2 using L1 primings, communicating meaning but not noticing the gap” he’s using noticing to mean something like “being consciously aware of” or “giving conscious attention to”. But any “gap” between a student’s current knowledge of lexis and a native speaker’s knowledge, can’t be shortened by drawing the student’s attention to it, because priming is subconscious. Of course, Hoey’s theory is wrong, but Dellar must sooner or later choose between Hoey’s construct of noticing and Schmidt’s, because he can’t have both.

Schmidt (1990, 2001) attempts to do away with the “terminological vagueness” of “consciousness” by examining three senses of the term: consciousness as awareness, consciousness as intention, and consciousness as knowledge. In regard to consciousness as awareness, the two are often equated, but Schmidt distinguishes between three levels: Perception, Noticing and Understanding. The second level, Noticing, is the key to Schmidt’s eventual hypothesis: Noticing is focal awareness. I won’t go through all the steps of Schmidt’s argument here (see the page on “Processing Approaches to SLA” in the list on the right of the screen for an account), but, having given a very careful definition of noticing, Schmidt develops the distinction between input and intake by noting the distinction Slobin, and Chaudron make between preliminary intake (the processes used to convert input into stored data that can later be used to construct language), and final intake (the processes used to organise stored data into linguistic systems). Schmidt proposes that intake be defined as “that part of the input which the learner notices … whether the learner notices a form in linguistic input because he or she was deliberately attending to form, or purely inadvertently. If noticed, it becomes intake.” (Note that noticing something inadvertently is still a conscious act.) Those adopting a cognitive approach to SLA have accepted that Schmidt’s theory of noticing makes a major contribution to our understanding, and also has important teaching implications. However, the distinction between input and intake (which Lewis attempted to preserve) is completely at odds with Hoey’s lexical priming theory, a point I’ll return to shortly.

Lewis + Hoey = Dellar’s Lexical Approach???????

Thornbury (1998) cites Richards and Rodgers (1986) who say that an approach “refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning that serve as the source of practices and principles in language teaching”. As I said in Part 1, Dellar needs to explain the theories of language and language learning which guide his version of the lexical approach. Dellar relies on Lewis’ theory of language, but, as Thornbury (1998) points out, it’s not clear what implications Lewis’ view of language have for syllabus specifications. Lewis rejects both a “grammatical PPP” syllabus, and, “given the holistic nature of language”, any step-by-step linear syllabus. Task-based syllabuses are also ruled out. But no proper alternative syllabus is proposed. To quote Thornbury again “While he provides examples of the kinds of activities such texts and discourses might be subjected to …, the failure to specify how such texts and discourses would be selected and organised makes it difficult to visualise how the Lexical Approach is operationalised in the long term. Lewis offers us the prospect of a journey, even an exciting one, but it is a journey without maps”.

Thornbury also cites Skehan (1998), who points out “there is a danger… that an exemplar-based system can only learn by accumulation of wholes, and that it is likely to be excessively context-bound, since such wholes cannot be adapted easily for the expression of more complex meanings’ (p. 89)”. That is to say that phrasebook-type learning without the acquisition of syntax is ultimately impoverished: all chunks but no pineapple. It makes sense, then, for learners to keep their options open and to move between the two systems and not to develop one at the expense of the other. The need is to create a balance between rule-based performance and memory-based performance, in such a way that the latter does not predominate over the former and cause fossilization’ (ibid. p. 288)”.

As to a theory of language learning, Lewis provides none, and neither does Hoey. Lewis borrows from Krashen in order to stress the importance of “comprehensible input” (whatever that is) and of unconscious acquisition rather than conscious learning, but at the same time, Lewis insists that conscious attention needs to be given to various aspects of the languiage. As Thornbury says, Lewis insists that ‘students need to develop awareness of language to which they are exposed’ (LA, p. 195)…., which suggests that he recognises a role for consciousness-raising (a position that Krashen would not accept). ‘Accurate noticing of lexical chunks, grammatical or phonological patterns all help convert input into intake’ (ILA, p. 53). The implication is that these noticed chunks are stored in memory and retrieved ‘undigested’, as it were. That is, they engage the learner’s item-learning capacity rather than the rule-based one. This places formidable demands on the learner’s memory: but, as we have seen, Lewis offers no clear guidelines as to selection and grading…How is one to achieve this enormous task?…. Lewis seems to assume that massive exposure will do the trick; ‘It is exposure to enough suitable input, not formal teaching, which is the key to increasing the learner’s lexicon’ (ILA, p. 197). If this is the case, then this raises the question as to whether many of the ‘teaching’ ideas included in Lewis’s books are redundant, and not only that, a drain on time that could be more usefully spent simply reading. (It also raises the selection-and-grading question yet again: what is this ‘suitable input’ and how is it organised?).”

Note that Thornbury wrote the article before Hoey published his Lexical Priming theory. Thornbury rightly points to Lewis’ inconsistency in adopting Krashen’s acquisition/learning distinction while at the same time claiming that input becomes intake as the result of conscious noticing, but Thornbury wasn’t to know that Hoey would later insist that the noticing which takes place in lexical priming is subconscious. There is, as I said earlier, now a clear contradiction between noticing as Lewis (following Schmidt) used it, and noticing as Hoey uses it. Since Dellar now uses L1 priming and L2 priming to diagnose and prescribe, it follows that he’s bound to take Hoey’s view of noticing. Both good news and bad news follow this forced choice. The good news is that Thornbury’s problem about how learners can possibly be expected to consciously attend to the masses of information contained in lexical chunks is solved, because it’s all done subconsciously. The bad news is that it makes Thornbury’s remark about the redundancy of the teaching ideas in Lewis’s books even more salient. Dellar thus confronts the uncomfortable decision about what to do with all his teaching ideas, including those aimed at helping learners to consciously “notice the gap”. Hoey’s theory implies that most teaching is a waste of time because a sufficent condition for SLA is masses of input – lexical priming will do the rest. The implication of Hoey’s theory is that all language learning is implicit: we acquire communicative competence in an L2 without realizing what we’re doing.


In my opinion, Dellar has been too uncritical of Lewis’ lexical approach and too hasty in his adoption of Hoey’s lexical priming theory. Lewis threw the baby out with the bathwater. If you’re going to be so radical, then you need to put something decent in place of what you throw out, and Lewis failed to do so. To repeat Thornbury’s well-expressed assessment: “Lewis offers us the prospect of a journey,… but it is a journey without maps”. Dellar has made no attempt to deal with the weaknesses, gaps and inconsistencies in Lewis’ lexical approach. He continues to tell teachers what language “really” is, and what they should and shouldn’t do in class (conversations must be given priority; don’t teach single words; what gets you from intermediate to advanced isn’t grammar, it’s layer upon layer of lexis) all based on the dubious assumption that Lewis provides a matchless blueprint for ELT. Dellar has made things worse for himself by talking about lexical primings, L1 primings, L2 primings, and so on, as if Hoey’s theory were now part of some new, enriched lexical approach.

Surely both Lewis’ strident claims and Hoey’s lexical priming theory should be dismissed as wrong and unhelpful. Surely the work of Nattinger and DeCarrico, Pauley and Syder, Peters, Biber, Sinclair and others is more likely to provide the “theories about the nature of language and language learning that serve as the source of practices and principles in language teaching”, as Richards and Rogers put it. Widdowson (1989), attempting a synthesis of the various strands of work in corpus linguistics, suggests that communicative competence can be seen as “a matter of knowing a stock of partially pre-assembled patterns, formulaic frameworks, and a kit of rules, so to speak, and being able to apply the rules to make whatever adjustments are necessary according to contextual demands. Communicative competence is a matter of adaption, and rules are not generative but regulative and subservient”. In a different text, Widdowson (1990) says “Competence consists of knowing how the scale of variability in the legitimate application of generative rules is applied – when analysis is called for and when it is not. Ignorance of the variable application of grammatical rules constitutes incompetence”. To quote from Thornbury (1998) again: “In other words, two systems co-exist: a formulaic, exemplar-based one, and a rule-based analytic one”.

If, as Widdowson thinks, we should provide patterns of lexical co-occurrence for rules to operate on so that they are suitably adjusted to the communicative purpose required of the context, then Nattinger and DeCarrico’s work, which identifies lexical phrases and then prescribes exposure to and practice of sequences of such phrases, might be of use. They present a language teaching program based on the lexical phrase which leads students to use prefabricated language but which doesn’t rely too heavily on either theories of linguistic competence on the one hand or theories of communicative competence on the other. “Though the focus is on appropriate language use, the analysis of regular rules of syntax is not neglected” (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992). Is this not a more reasonable, and a more attractive approach? I think it’s only the germ of an approach, but it could be the start of an interesting journey, and one that might grab the attention of people in our profession who are capable of making good maps.


Cazden, C., Cancino, E., Rosansky, E. and Schumann, J. (1975) Second language acquisition sequences in children, adolescents and adults. Final report submitted to the National Institute of Education, Washington, D.C.

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

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. Longman.

Larsen-Freeman, D. and Long, M. H. (1991) An introduction to second language acquisition research. Harlow: Longman.

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

Lewis, M. (1996) Implications of a lexical view of language’. In Willis, J,, & Willis, D. (eds.) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching, pp. 4-9. Heinemann.

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications.

MacWhinney, B. (2002) The Competition Model: the Input, the Context, and the Brain. Carnegie Mellon University.

Nattinger, J., & DeCarrico, J. (1992) Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.

Pawley, A. & Syder, F. (1983) Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. In Richards, J., & Schmidt,
R. (eds.) Language and Communication, pp. 191-227. Longman

Peters, A (1983) The Units of Language Acquisition. Cambridge Universiy Press.

Richards, J., & Rodgers, T, (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Schmidt, R. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129-58

Schmidt, R. (2001) Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sinclair, J. (ed.) (1987) Looking Up. Harper Collins.

Skehan, P. (1998) A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford University Press.

Thornbury, S. (1998) The Lexical Approach; a journey without maps? MET, Vol. 7, No. 4.*

Widdowson, H. (1989) ‘Knowledge of language and ability for use’. Applied Linguistics, 10, pp. 128-37

* Note that Scott has made this article and many others of his available for free download here:

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