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Teaching Lexical Phrases -by Thomas Lavelle

The question I am taking up this week is: " How can I teach Lexical Phrases?


First, what is lexis? Very briefly, lexis is a word in all its various relationships with other words.  Lexical phrases, (first mentioned in 1975 by Becker) according to Nattinger and Decarrico (1992), are multi-word chunks of language of varying length that run on a continuum from fixed phrases like in a nutshell to slot- and- filler frames like  the _____er, the _________er.

English is full of multi-word expressions but lexical phrases distinguish themselves in that they are pragmatic and functional (for example, you've got to be kidding me, Guess what? The second reason is??/font>). Fight fire with fire is also a fixed phrase but I don't think it would be considered a lexical phrase but rather an idiom or a metaphorical expression.

The question raised assumes that we should attempt to teach Lexical Phrases. Well, I think, yes.But let me qualify that. In writing, important and common lexical phrases are a must for struggling writers (The purpose of this essay is to?? In general?? An example of this is). You can't achieve any coherence in writing without them. They are the macro and micro-organizers of the writing message. I spend a great deal of time on them and any good writing textbook will too.

 In reading, as in writing, students can benefit from understanding the prediction value of certain lexical phrases. These phrases signal the intentions of the author and frame our expectations of what is to come. Almost any decent reading selection will be full of them and you can easily highlight them for students and discuss their functions.

For listening, even advanced students have difficulty following a lecture because they don't catch the macro-organizing lexical phrase meanings that might help them find the direction the speaker is going and when the topic shifts. Lexical phrases in lectures are more formal. (On the contrary, all this says is, there is much more to say on that but on to, It's worth mentioning that??/font> ). The best teaching resource I have found on this subject of teaching lexical phrases for listening comprehension is Lebauer, (1984) which shows ways to use lecture transcripts for listening comprehension.

But it's in the conversation class that I wonder about how much emphasis to place on teaching lexical phrases. Admittedly, lexical phrases give you a lot of ??/font>bang for your buck (that's not a Lexical Phrase). The 'chunks' of language are prefabricated so a lot of meaning can be conveyed (so far so good, you've got to be kidding! ??/font>) without having to stop and analyze every word of the phrase. Second, textbooks, at least for conversation, often omit the good, juicy lexical phrases that carry lots of emotional force and are of interest to English students who want to be a little more hip in expressing themselves. (Give me a break! See, the thing is, ____, That's beside the point.)  Third, each phrase has a clearly defined role that guides the flow of conversation. Because of this, it can be taught relatively straight forwardly by explaining the discourse role and then practicing a million times.

The problem is that (lexical phrase) as soon as a student masters one way to say goodbye, that's it. You can teach him 10 other juicy lexical phrases to say a variation of goodbye but he will go on to use the original way he first learned. I do that too in my study of Chinese. Once I'm pretty sure that a certain phrase does the job in a given situation, I think a bird is worth two in the bush (nope, not a lexical phrase.) and I don't feel the pressure to complicate matters by learning more ways to say the same thing. That mystery would make a decent research project, I guess.

If you still want to introduce Lexical Phrases in the conversation classroom, I have some suggestions. For the last several years I have turned to three books again and again: Conversation and Dialogues in Action by Dornyei and Thurrell, Gambits by Keller and Conversation Strategies by Kehe and Kehe. They cover a lot of ground and have a lot of ready-made activities for a low to upper intermediate class and can give you a lot of ideas to adapt other lexical phrases for teaching. Just pick and choose carefully and don't try to teach everything.

For the speaking class, one way to get a whole lot of good lexical phrases in a semi-realistic way for intermediate level and above is to use videos of daytime soap operas.  I used to use the Guiding Light. I would pull out short segments and focus on various phrases of interest and create worksheets, mini-plays and other activities. They speak slower and more like everyday life. This is a lot of prep work, though, and may not be practical,

Whatever level you are teaching, whatever activity, the key I think is repetition. One activity I like is to give a student a phrase I have highlighted, like, by the way, or that reminds me then have the students circulate and make small talk. The only requirement is that they must use their phrase somewhere in that conversation. They can sit down after a certain number of successful executions of their lexical phrase. Or as a variation, paste a different lexical phrase on the backs of the students. They circulate and make small talk but must figure out a way to work that particular phrase into the conversation.

If you are hemmed in by a required textbook, you can always give your textbook conversation a treatment and show the students how it might go by adding lexical phrases that might be used in real life.

 To sum up, (yes, a lexical phrase) in the big picture of language learning, the combination of seeing, hearing, speaking, writing, noticing and practicing lexical phrases as part of your instruction can definately help students improve their fluency and sophistication in English. One thing I have found out though is that in many cases of speaking and writing, once a student has learned one way to successfully  solve a problem already, it seems there is resistance to learn several more similar phrases that accomplish the same thing. ( Well, I gotta run. Nice talking to you, Well I'd better let you go). But, anyway, for the conversation class,  try to get those books mentioned above. Just don't get your expectations up to high or try to cram too many lexical phrases down your students??throats.


Dornyei,  Z., and Thurrell, S, (1992) Conversations and Dialogues  in Action, International Book Distributors Ltd.

Keller, Conversation Gambits,

Kehe, D., and Kehe, P. (1994) Conversation Strategies ,Pro Lingua Associates

Lebauer, R. (1984) ??/font>Using lecture transcripts in EAP lecture comprehension courses?? TESOL Quarterly 18: 41-54

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