Lexical Mathematics 1: Flesh + Bones = Added Bonus

It is widely known that some approaches to teaching in the past consciously placed vocabulary as a secondary feature of language. In other words, one was made to think of grammar as the bones of the language whilst vocabulary as the flesh to be added. However, Harmer (1997) has a point when he states that not only does vocabulary provide the flesh but it also provides the vital organs without which nothing can be conveyed. Since one cannot communicate effectively without the appropriate choice of words, it is crucial that learners are made aware of lexical features, regardless of their level of proficiency.

  • What collocation entails

Within the realm of lexis, vocabulary is typically dealt with by concentrating on aspects like word families (help/helpless), homonyms (leg of the dog/leg of the table), synonyms (great/fantastic), antonyms (dead/alive), hyponyms and superordinates (cat/lion/tiger: animal), topics (The Media/Arts) and phrasal verbs (take off/let down) amongst others.

According to Lewis (2000:132) ‘’Collocation is the way in which words co-occur in natural text in statically significant ways’’. Collocation refers to the ways in which words occur together in a language: e.g.: spend collocates frequently with time and money. The very same thing happens in Portuguese when we say Vou almoçar (I’ll have lunch) or Vou jantar (I‘ll have dinner) yet we never say Eu vou cafezar, whereas the right collocation is Vou tomar café (I’ll have breakfast). There is a pattern to be followed and any foreigner in Brazil saying cafezar will sound awkward since the word cafezar may lead us to associate it with fezes – human biological waste, excrement if you will.

  • Collocations: Features and Challenges for Learners

In order to develop fluency and accuracy, we need to start giving learners substantial amounts of lexis. It is important that learners are exposed to collocations from the earliest stages as good quality input can lead to good quality output.

According to Hill (2000) in Lewis (2000:54) ‘Collocation allows us to think more quickly and communicate more efficiently.’’ This means going beyond word level and looking at useful collocations, particularly those based around the most common verbs in English like get, go, etc and (semi) fixed expressions – after a moment’s silence, the thing is, I’d much prefer to.

Yet, lexis exposure may cause difficulties for learners since lexical items may vary from length to the degree of opacity. Some potential problems are:


a)                           The similarities lexis may (not) bear in relation to form/meaning to L1. ‘’False friends’’ present such difficulty. A Brazilian learner may come across pretend (fingir) and probably come up with pretender (intend).

b)                           Connotation. Lexical items may have positive/negative connotations. A learner may misunderstand the collocation ’we had a hell of a time’ as positive or negative. The word ‘hell’ may impair understanding if the positive connotation of ‘hell’ as being ‘nice’ is not perceived.

c)                           Spelling and Pronunciation. BP follows a regular spelling system; the irregular spelling patterns in English may affect communication when pronunciation is concerned, especially in words like though – thought – through – thorough – tough.

d)                          Multi-word verbs. There is a huge difference between bring somebody up (educate) and bring somebody down (kill). Phrasal verbs are composed of simple words known to learners but can be easily confused when put together.

e)                           How a lexical item collocates may also cause difficulties. People can make/cook dinner but coffee only collocates with make. Some grammaticalised items may also cause difficulties.  A learner may know the chunk ‘That depends!’  but say ‘It depends of the situation’ not on.

f)                            Appropriacy. Some lexical items are used in particular contexts (Pardon my French – not Portuguese), when using language that may be offensive. Learners also need awareness of formality as in ‘Yours sincerely’ – ‘Best wishes’. Some chunks are restricted to a particular register as in medical English (gastric flu); as in baseball (do a home-run), as legal English (file for divorce).


It is a foregone conclusion that there is much more to teaching vocabulary than meet the eyes. Many vocabulary activities would simply require students to match words with their definitions or find the opposites. It is clear that such approach fails to provide learners with suitable exposure to lexis.

Much of the language in our mental lexicons is stored as ready-made phrases. This leads to important implications on the grounds that teaching needs to focus on building learners’ mental lexicon rather than placing too much emphasis on traditional structure and individual words. Nevertheless, under no circumstance does it mean that Grammar and words are underrated.




Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Longman, 1997

Lewis, M., Hill, J. Practical Techniques. LTP 1995

Lewis, M. Implementing the Lexical Approach – Putting theory into Practice. LTP, 1997

Lewis, M. Teaching Collocations – Further Development in the Lexical Approach. LTP, 2000

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Adriano Zanetti

Adriano Zanetti – BA in Letras, Post-graduate in Language Teaching Methodologies, RSA Dip. DELTA. An educator for 30 years, an ELT consultant/teacher trainer at A2Z English Consultancy, a teacher/trainer/coordinator at FISK São João del Rei and Cambridge Assessment English Speaking Examiner. A Pronunciation SIG member responsible for Pronunciation courses for teachers/students. Presented several times in LABCI/ABCI conferences, Braz-Tesol Regional/National Chapters and different institutions in MG. /

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