Can we get a pineapple?


Lost and Unfounded

Leo Selivan’s and Hugh Dellar’s recent contributions to EFL Magazine give further evidence that their strident, confidently expressed ideas lack any proper theoretical foundations.

We can compare the cumulative attempts of Selivan and Dellar to articulate their versions of the lexical approach with the more successful attempts made by Richards and Long to articulate their approaches to ELT.  Richards (2006) describes what he calls “the current phase” of communicative language teaching as

a set of principles about the goals of language teaching, how learners learn a language, the kinds of classroom activities that best facilitate learning, and the roles of teachers and learners in the classroom ( Richards, 2006:2)

Note that Richards says this on page 2 of his book: he rightly starts out with the assumption that “a set of principles” is required.

Long (2015) offers his own version of task based language teaching and he goes to great lengths to explain the underpinnings of his approach. His book is, in my opinion, the best example in the literature of a well-founded, well-explained approach to ELT. It’s based on a splendidly lucid account of a cognitive-interactionist theory of instructed SLA, on careful definitions of task and needs analysis, and on 10 crystal clear methodological principles. Long’s book is to be recommended for its scholarship, its thoroughness, and, not least, for its commitment to a progressive approach to ELT.

So what do Selivan and Dellar offer?

In his “Beginners’ Guide To Teaching Lexically”, Selivan makes a number of exaggerated generalisations about English and then outlines “the main principles of the lexical approach”. These turn out to be

  1. Ban Single Words
  2. English word ≠ L1 word
  3. Explain less – explore more
  4. Pay attention to what students (think they) know.

To explain how such “principles” adequately capture the essence of the lexical approach, Sellivan offers “A bit of theory”for each one. For example, Selivan says “A new theory of language, known as Lexical Priming, lends further support to the Lexical Approach.  ……. By drawing students’ attention to collocations and common word patterns we can accelerate their priming”. Says he. But what reasons does he have for such confident assertions? Selivan fails to give his reasons, and fails to give any proper rationale for the claims he makes about language and teaching.

In his podcast, Dellar agrees that collocation is the driving force of English. He claims that the best way to conduct ELT is to concentrate on presenting and practising the lexical chunks needed for different communicative events. Teachers should get students to do things with these chunks such as “fill in gaps, discuss them, order them, say them, write them out themselves, etc.” with the goal of getting students to memorize them. Again, Dellar doesn’t explain why we should concentrate on these chunks, or why teachers should get students to  memorise them. Maybe he thinks “It stands to reason, yeah?”

At one point in his podcast Dellar says that, while those just starting to learn English will go into a shop and say “I want, um, coffee, um sandwich”,

…. as your language becomes more sophisticated, more developed, you learn to kind of grammar the basic content words that you’re adding thereSo you learn “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, please.” So you add the grammar to the words that drive the communication, yeah? Or you just learn that as whole chunk. You just learn “Hi. Can I get a cup of coffee? Can I get a sandwich, please?” Or you learn “Can I get…” and you drop in a variety of different things.

This is classic “Dellarspeak”: a badly-expressed misrepresentation of someone else’s erroneous theory.  Dellar doesn’t tell us how we teach learners “to grammar” content words, or when it’s better to teach “the whole chunk” – or what informs his use of nouns as verbs, for that matter. As for the “can I get…?” example, what’s wrong with just politely naming what we want:  Good MorningA coffee and a sandwich, please.”?  What is gained by teaching learners to use the redundant Can I get…. phrase?

But enough of Dellar’s hapless attempts to express other people’s ideas, let’s cut to the chase, if you get my drift. The question I want to briefly discuss is this:

Are Selivan’s and Dellar’s claims based on coherent theories of language and language learning, or are they mere opinions?


Models of English 

Crystal (2003) says: “an essential step in the study of a language is to model it”. Here are two models:

  1. A classic grammar model of the English language attempts to capture its structure, described in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology (see Quirk 1985, and Swan, 2001, for examples of descriptive and pedagogical grammars). This grammar model, widely used in ELT today, is rejected by Hoey.
  2. Hoey (2005) says that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts. So grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. There is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical (Hoey, 2005).

Selivan and Dellar uncritically accept Hoey’s radical new theory of language, but is it really better than the model suggested by grammarians?

Surely we need to describe language not just in terms of the performed but also in terms of the possible. Hoey’s argument that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax strikes most of us as a step too far. And I think Selivan and Dellar agree, since they both routinely refer to the grammatical aspects of language. The problem is that Selivan and Dellar fail to give their own model of language, they fail to clearly indicate the limits of their adherence to Hoey’s model, they fail to say what place syntax has in their view of language. In brief, they have no coherent theory of language.

Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory

Hoey (2005) claims that we learn languages by subconsciously noticing everything (sic) that we have ever heard or read about words, 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.

This theory hinges on the construct of “subconscious noticing”, but instead of explaining it, Hoey simply asserts that language learning is the result of repeated exposure to patterns of text (the more the repetition the better the knowledge), thus adopting a crude version of behaviourism. Actually, several on-going quasi-behaviourist theories of SLA try to explain the SLA process (see, for example, MacWhinney, 2002; O’Grady, 2005; Ellis, 2006; Larsen-Freeman and Cameron, 2008), but Hoey pays them little heed, and neither do Selivan and Dellar, who swallow Hoey’s fishy tale hook line and sinker, take the problematic construct of priming at face value, and happily uses “L1 primings” to explain L1 transfer as if L1 primings were as real as the nose on Hoey’s face.

Hoey rejects cognitive theories of SLA which see second language learning as a process of interlanguage development, involving the successive restructuring of learners’ mental representation of the L2, because syntax plays an important role in them. He also rejects them because, contrary to his own theory, they assume that there are limitations in our ability to store and process information. In cognitive theories of SLA, a lot of research is dedicated to understanding how relatively scarce resources are used. Basically, linguistic skills are posited to slowly become automatic through participation in meaningful communication. While initial learning involves controlled processes requiring a lot of attention and time, with practice the linguistic skill requires less attention and less time, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. To explain this process, the theory uses constructs such as comprehensible input, working and long term memory, implicit and explicit learning, noticing, intake and output.

In contrast, Hoey’s theory concentrates almost exclusively on input, passing quickly over the rest of the issues, and simply asserts that we remember the stuff that we’ve most frequently encountered. So we must ask Selivan and Dellar: What theory of SLA informs your claims? As an example, we may note that Long (2015) explains how his particular task-based approach to ELT is based on a cognitive theory of SLA and on the results of more than 100 studies.

Hoey’s theory doesn’t explain how L2 learners process and retrieve their knowledge of L2 words, or how paying attention to lexical chunks or “L1 primings” affects the SLA process. So what makes Selivan and Dellar think that getting students to consciously notice both lexical chunks and “L1 primings” will speed up primings in the L2? Priming, after all, is a subconscious affair. And what makes Dellar think that memorising lexical chunks is a good way to learn a second language? Common sense? A surface reading of cherry-picked bits of contradictory theories of SLA? Personal experience? Anecdotal evidence? What? There’s no proper theoretical base for any of Dellar’s claims; there’s scarce evidence to support them; and there’s a powerful theory supported by lots of evidence which suggests that they’re mistaken.


 All Chunks and no Pineapple 

Skehan (1998) says:

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.

If Selivan and Dellar agree that there’s a need for a balance between rule-based performance and memory-based performance, then they have to accept that Hoey is wrong, and confront the contradictions that plague their present position on the lexical approach, especially their reliance on Hoey’s description of language and on the construct of priming. Until Selivan and Dellar sort themselves out, until they tackle basic questions about a model of English and a theory of second language learning, so as to offer some principled foundation for their lexical approach, then it amounts to little more than an opinion, more precisely: the unappetising opinion that ELT should give priority to helping learners memorise pre-selected lists of lexical chunks. 


Crystal, D. (2003) The English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, N. C. (2006) Language acquisition and rational contingency learning. Applied Linguistics, 27 (1), 1-24.

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 Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

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

O’Grady, W. (2005) How Children Learn Language Cambridge, Cambridge Universiy Press.

Richards, J (2006) Communicative Language Teaching Today. Cambridge University Press.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, London: Longman.

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

Swan, M. (2001) Practical English usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

9 thoughts on “Can we get a pineapple?

  1. Good to have you back on your soapbox again, Geoff. But I can’t resist correcting your ascribing ‘All chunks no pineapple’ to Skehan. It was actually me (in The Lexical Approach: A journey without maps?’ MET Vol 4 Issue 7, 1998, p. 12 – a pdf is available on my blog). Annoyingly my one bon mot is either unattributed (e.g. by Swan) or wrongly attributed (by your good self.)


    1. Hi Scott,

      There’s hardly room to stand on a soapbox down here in the bunker, but thanks for welcoming me back!

      I’m VERY sorry to have attributed the “all chunks and no pineapple” quip to Skehan, and I can’t understand my mistake: I thought it was a proper quote from his 1998 book.

      Anyway, it’s an excellent bon mot and by no means your only one: you of McNuggets and all. I wonder if some postmodernist will examine your oeuvre (which sounds like egg don’t you think) and conclude that you’re keen to give us all food for thought. I can’t believe I said that. 🙂

      Have fun in Birmingham and PLEASE tell us what you make of Larsen-Freeman’s plenary 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good to have you back.

    I have yet to see a decent paper arguing for the exclusive use of the lexical approach or research that proves anything significant.

    I am good with it as value added to how vocabulary is taught and explored in the classroom.

    But some (not all) of the activities that people talk about were not invented by Lewis – memories are short.

    Recalling now two books, “The Words You Need” (1981) and “More Words you Need” where the authors made use of collocation and componential grids and which were chock-a-block with lexical activities, later presented as part and parcel of the lexical approach.

    That’s more than 10 years before Lewis… The books were not to die for re excitement or reading comprehension tasks but the lexical work was there to deal with for good or bad, depending on one’s teaching ability.

    Anyway – nice to see you back – thought I’d drop by and leave two cents 🙂



  3. Hi Marisa,

    Thanks very much for dropping by. I haven’t seen a decent paper arguing for the exclusive use of the lexical approach either. And of course you’re right: Lewis didn’t invent any of the stuff he ranted on about; it had already been better argued decades before.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Geoff,
    I remember when I first read the ML trilogy I sensed that the origin of his “theory” at least partially resided in the dissatisfaction with the then state of ELT. It was being critical of the received wisdom of language teaching. I think the subtitle of The Lexical Approach read The State of ELT and a Way Forward. Many of the assumptions criticized here seem to be targeted there as well. If we had had such a splendid success record in ELT, why would Lewis ever have wanted to look elsewhere? And if he did not move forward, I can´t see how we have made much headway with or without lexical fondness

    “Hoey rejects cognitive theories of SLA which see second language learning as a process of interlanguage development, involving the successive restructuring of learners’ mental representation of the L2…”

    I do not know what it is exactly, that Hoey supposedly rejects about the interlanguage model. I’d think we would not see interlanguage as a prescriptive and instrumental development factor, rather as the after the fact track record that shifts as experience adds further information” to the Language.

    “… Basically, linguistic skills are posited to slowly become automatic through participation in meaningful communication. While initial learning involves controlled processes requiring a lot of attention and time, with practice the linguistic skill requires less attention and less time, thus freeing up the controlled processes for application to new linguistic skills. To explain this process, the theory uses constructs such as comprehensible input, working and long-term memory, implicit and explicit learning, noticing, intake and output.”

    Much of these seem to hold for Hoey’s view as well with the exception of the explicit aspects.

    “In contrast, Hoey’s theory concentrates almost exclusively on input…” I think the theory revolves around the concept of priming that has allowed Hoey to make sense of language (the artifact). Priming is a child of neuropsychology. It is a well-studied concept and square at home in trying to explain cognitive functions. At least this far, it is not such an amateurish ill-informed “opinion” (the idea of priming has been researched at's BC_Roediger%20&%20McDermott%20(1993).pdf)

    Maybe the complete construct is still missing. It does not mean that it can’t be produced.



  5. Hi Thom,

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see much in your comment to reply to.

    Whatever inspired Lewis, his Lexical Approach remains open to the criticisms made of it.

    Hoey’s Lexical Priming doesn’t explain SLA


    1. 🙂 when I have more time, I will try harder.

      This much, for many the default (language) learning mechanism is implicit. Priming meets the same criteria with the added claim that it explains how anticipation, triggering of specific reactions to prior stimuli, comes about. In simple, and somewhat simplistic terms, neurons that fire together, wire together. This explains certainly not all of SLA, what does? but suggests an answer to, besides many other things, the omnipresence of collocations. I think Hoey took the concept and tested how far he could get with it. Notice, he suggests how priming can account for creative use of language. We are not bound to concrete input. Priming works on a concrete level but allows abstraction as well so that we anticipate category but are free to choose types. I think Hoey manages to demonstrate this.



      1. Hi T,

        I agree that the default (language) learning mechanism is implicit.

        Priming has little explanatory power for the main phenomena under consideration in SLA research.

        Hoey’s hopeless when it comes to explaining SLA. It’s not his field and “suggesting how priming can account for creative use of language” is.hardly helpful.


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