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Lexical Approach in the TEFL Classroom to Boost Fluency

This article delves into the Lexical Approach, a methodology that prioritizes the acquisition of language in prefabricated chunks, and its practical application within the TEFL classroom. By drawing inspiration from the GTEFL workshop “Using the lexical approach in your classroom” by Gabriel Clark, this paper explores the benefits of chunking for language learners and equips educators with readily implementable activities to empower their students.

The Lexical Approach

Introduction to the Lexical Approach

The Lexical Approach is a paradigm shift in language education that emerged in the 1990s, challenging conventional methodologies that emphasize grammar-first instruction. This approach was pioneered by Michael Lewis, who argued that a profound understanding and acquisition of lexical chunks—pre-assembled phrases or patterns of language—are central to achieving fluency. Unlike traditional models, which compartmentalize language into isolated units of vocabulary and rules of grammar, the Lexical Approach integrates these elements into more holistic, pragmatic units.

The Concept of Lexical Chunks

Lexical chunks, also known as “chunks” of language, are sequences of words that frequently appear together in a language. These can range from collocations (words that are often used together, like “make a decision”), idiomatic expressions (“break the ice”), fixed phrases (“on the other hand”), and sentence frames (“I don’t think that…”). These chunks are stored in the brain as wholes, and fluent speakers access them without conscious deliberation. The Lexical Approach posits that knowledge of these chunks leads to more natural and rapid language production.

Application in Language Learning

Recognizing Patterns

The Lexical Approach encourages learners to recognize and use patterns within the language. This method focuses on helping students identify common phrases and understand their contexts within the language rather than constructing sentences from scratch. By absorbing these patterns, learners can improve their fluency and comprehension skills more effectively.

Materials and Resources

Educational materials designed around the Lexical Approach provide authentic language usage examples, such as dialogues, interviews, and written texts, which exhibit natural language use. These resources help learners to understand the application of lexical chunks in real-life communication.

Teaching Strategies

Teachers implementing this approach use techniques such as chunking, where they break down listening or reading materials into manageable, meaningful phrases. They also emphasize the importance of noticing, where learners are taught to recognize and record new chunks as they encounter them in different contexts. This is often supplemented by activities that focus on repetition and retrieval practice to solidify the chunks in memory.

Advantages of the Lexical Approach

  1. Enhanced Fluency: As learners acquire more chunks, their ability to produce language fluently and spontaneously increases.
  2. Improved Comprehension: Exposure to various contexts where chunks appear enhances learners’ ability to grasp meanings quickly and effectively.
  3. Reduced Cognitive Load: Learning chunks reduces the need to construct phrases from individual words, thus lessening the cognitive burden during language use.

Challenges and Considerations

Despite its advantages, the Lexical Approach faces certain challenges. It requires learners to have significant exposure to the target language, which can be difficult in environments where the language is not widely spoken. Additionally, the focus on recognition and use of chunks may sometimes overshadow the need for explicit grammar instruction, which is also crucial for accuracy in language use.

The Power of Chunking

The Lexical Approach is grounded in the concept of chunking, which posits that language learners acquire and process language in meaningful units larger than single words. These chunks can be verb phrases (“make a decision”), collocations (“strong coffee”), or even sentence starters (“Let me think”). By focusing on chunks, learners can:

  • Improve fluency and comprehension: Memorizing and utilizing chunks allows for faster speech production and enhanced understanding of spoken language, where fluency often relies on the automatic retrieval of these prefabricated expressions.
  • Reduce cognitive load: Chunking alleviates the mental strain associated with constructing sentences from scratch, freeing up cognitive resources for other aspects of communication, such as message formulation and pragmatic considerations.
  • Develop more natural-sounding speech: Chunks represent the way native speakers use language, incorporating idiomatic expressions and natural word order, leading to more authentic communication.

Practical Applications in the TEFL Classroom

The GTEFL workshop “Using the Lexical Approach in your Classroom” provides educators with a treasure trove of practical activities that leverage the power of chunking. Here are a few examples:

  • Listening activities: Expose students to authentic listening materials rich in chunks, followed by tasks that encourage identification and categorization of these chunks based on their grammatical or functional purpose.
  • Reading activities: Guide students through texts while highlighting frequently occurring chunks and prompting them to analyze their meaning and usage within the context.
  • Speaking and writing activities: Provide students with sentence starters or partial chunks and encourage them to complete them with their own words, gradually building fluency in chunk usage.

Empowering Learners Through Lexical Awareness

By embracing the Lexical Approach, TEFL educators can equip their students with the tools to acquire new vocabulary but also develop the ability to use it effectively in real-world communication. This approach fosters a sense of self-discovery in learners, as they become adept at recognizing and exploiting lexical patterns in various contexts. This newfound fluency empowers them to:

  • Recall language more effectively: Chunks are stored in the mental lexicon as complete units, making them easier to retrieve during spontaneous speech production.
  • Become more autonomous learners: The ability to identify and utilize chunks empowers students to engage in self-study more effectively, as they can actively seek out and process language based on these meaningful units.
  • Sound more natural in their communication: By incorporating chunks into their speech, learners move away from grammatically constructed sentences and progress towards more natural-sounding, idiomatic expressions.

Conclusion

The Lexical Approach offers a compelling alternative to traditional language teaching methods. By prioritizing the acquisition and use of language chunks, TEFL educators can empower their students to achieve greater fluency, communication effectiveness, and overall language learning success.

For further exploration and practical implementation, we highly recommend watching the GTEFL workshop “Using the lexical approach in your classroom” by Gabriel Clark: https://gtefl.com/courses/using-the-lexical-approach-in-your-classroom/ .

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