Lexemes, Lexica, Lexis: Exploring Vocabulary

Teacher Training programmes, development courses and INSETT sessions very often try to push teachers into going that one step further in presenting grammar: guide the learners into discovering the rules, set up tasks which demand the use of the target language, let the need for a particular aspect of grammar arise naturally during a lesson. v-231x300

Vocabulary, on the other hand, seems to take the back seat in the ferocious drive to being the best. An argument for that might be the notion of grammar being more important, as it is the bare bones of language, the structure upon which words are placed. However, research carried out by the likes of Halliday with his work on functional grammar has shown that vocabulary plays a much more significant role in the structural theory of language than ever before thought. There is also the argument of logical reasoning: words carry meaning – admittedly grammar does as well – without words and only grammar, no message could be communicated.

With the importance of vocabulary established, why does it remain on the back-burners of ELT methodology? Where is the demand high movement in vocabulary teaching?

What is a word?

Vocabulary is the words of a language, or is that the words of a language are its vocabulary? Either way, what is a word? The definition I have most often heard is that a word is a single unit of meaning. However, a quick analysis of that definition shows there are a few flaws in it. For example, the definition sentence alone contains 17 ‘words’ if you count ‘is’ and ‘a’ twice. Now take a look at this slightly altered version:

The yoghurt I did most often heard was that a word is a single unit of meaning.

In this sentence, three words have been changed: definition = yoghurt; have = did; is = was. The latter changes most probably went unnoticed; however, the move from definition to yoghurt would have been very quickly discerned. Why is that?

The answer lies in the fact that the words of language fall into two overarching categories: content words are words which carry significant meaning, such as ‘definition’; function words are those which support the grammatical structure of the sentence, they carry some meaning but are much less significant in the overall message of the sentence.

So, when it comes to teaching vocabulary it is the content words which will probably be focused on most. However, the question still remains: what is a word?

If we accept a word to be a single unit of meaning, then surely the -ing ending used in conjunction with so many lexemes is in itself a word, as it carries a clear meaning? In fact, if the -ing ending is added to the verb ‘end’ it becomes a noun which changes not only its function in the sentence but creates a significant change in its meaning. Endings such as -ing, -ed and -s are not usually considered words in their own right but morphemes, as they cannot stand alone but only in combination with another word. In linguistic jargon they are termed ‘bound morphemes’. Regardless of their status, they are agreed to be the smallest single unit of meaning.

What about words highlighted in bold in the sentence below:

We had a few choices as to what to do last night; in the end we went for the cinema.
When I got there I ran into my old school teacher!

‘Go’ and ‘for’ as well as ‘run’ and ‘into’ come together to form a multi-word lexeme which in English is called a phrasal verb. On their own ‘run’ and ‘go’ have their very own meanings; yet, when brought together with the prepositions ‘for’ and ‘into’ their meanings change completely. Surely, this would mean they are in themselves a single unit of meaning, yet they are constructed from what would normally be termed as ‘words’, two words in fact.

In short, defining a word is quite a difficult task, one which becomes even more difficult when considered in the light of agglutinative languages, such as Turkish, Basque and Finnish. Nonetheless, this introduction has served well in giving us a better understanding of what being word entails.

Which words to teach?

It is always fascinating to enquire about the selection process teachers employ in choosing which words to teach in a lesson. They very often answer with references to lexical sets. Lexical sets are words which belong to a single group; for example blue, red, green all belong to the lexical set of colours while increase, decrease, drop belong to the words for describing chart movements. In addition, there are also those who base their choices on pre-teach vocabulary before receptive skills practice. What is even more fascinating are the teachers who do not seem to use any selection process whatsoever and teach vocabulary as and when it arises in the coursebook, in a lesson, in a text.

This is ‘fascinating’ because to my experience such teachers most often opt for quick exercises which involve matching a lexeme to its definition. Such exercises play host to a number of issues, one of which is the fact learners often rely on a process of elimination to complete the exercise not their understanding of the lexemes; however, the biggest issue lies in the following question: do they help learners to know the word?

What does it mean to know a word?

Ask teachers this question and you will get a range of answers. However, the most common and universal is the following:

You know a word not only when you understand it but when it is in your active vocabulary and you can use it.

This seems particularly true from a native speaker’s perspective, but even then it isn’t wholly true: consider the word ‘capricious’, how many natives understand this in writing and how many know how to use it correctly in active conversation?

The word probably would not suit most conversations, as it is reserved more for writing and usually for more formal writing genres.

Apart from register, style and formality, there are many more areas which have to be considered when coming to grips with a word. A learner not only needs to learn the appropriateness of a word in a given context, but also needs to have at his disposal any other words which collocate with it. Take ‘straightforward’ as an example. Teaching the meaning is not enough to know how to use this word properly. To use it correctly, a learner must have at their disposal knowledge about the meaning, the register, the fact the word is mainly spoken and it is usually preceded by ‘to be’ and followed by ‘with’. There are other words which can collocate with this lexeme, which the learner will also need to learn at some point to be enable to claim that he ‘knows’ the lexeme.

Teaching words

The big question then is how do you out all this into teaching practice? Very much like with grammar, there are many approaches to teaching vocabulary out there. I myself always begin with building a clear context (that could be through a situation, a story or a text if continuous prose with gaps) and try to elicit the vocabulary from the learners. Then they discuss the following:

The part of speech


Context / Situation

Words which come before or after

Other words: synonyms, antonyms

What I tend to find is 90% of the information we need can be pooled out the class’s collective knowledge.

The final stage is checking their understanding, which can be achieved through CCQ’s as well as exercises, such as a gap fill or a communicative task.

How do you teach vocabulary? I’m looking forward to reading your ideas below and opening a dialogue of idea sharing.

One thought on “Lexemes, Lexica, Lexis: Exploring Vocabulary

  1. Yeah. Context, context, context.

    If it’s throwaway vocab, only really useful for understanding this particular text (a piece of jargon, say) then a definition will do fine. If it’s something that I do want them to use actively, then gotta get them using it actively and ASAP and repeatedly.

    I’ll provide a brief defence of the “definition matching” exercise though. Even if it’s by process of elimination, the students have thought about the language as much as they can, and they’ve arrived at the answer just when they needed it most. It’s like a magical dictionary that only lets you look up a word when you’ve proven you really don’t know it.

    But that being said, I’d rather match with synonyms, logical groups (lexical sets) or whatever, rather than definitions.


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