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Unit 2


What is lexis?
Lexis refers to individual words or sets of words, for example: tree, get up, first of all, all's well
that ends well, i.e. units of vocabulary which have a specific meaning.

Key concepts
What kinds of meaning can words have?
We often speak of the meaning of words. In fact words have different kinds of meaning. Firstly,
there is the meaning that describes the thing or idea behind the vocabulary item, e.g. a tree is
a large plant with a wooden trunk, branches and leaves. This meaning is called denotation, and
we speak of denotative meaning'. Then there is figurative meaning. We speak, for example, of
the tree of life' or 'a family tree'. This imaginative meaning comes from, but is different from, a
word's denotative meaning. There is also the meaning that a vocabulary item has in the context
(situation) in which it is used, e.g. in the sentence 'We couldn't see the house because of the
tall trees in front of it' we understand how tall the trees are partly from knowing the meaning of
tall and partly from knowing how tall a house is, so the meaning of tall in this sentence is partly
defined by the context.
The meaning of some vocabulary items can also come from their form, e.g. from prefixes,
suffixes or compounds (nouns made from two or more separate words). Adding prefixes or
suffixes to base words (the basic words or parts of a word from which other words can be made)
can, for example, give them an opposite meaning (e.g. unsafe, illegal) or a comparative (e.g. easyeasier), or superlative meaning (e.g. new-newest). It may also change their part of speech (e.g.
instruct-instruction, quick- quickly). The process of adding affixes is called affixation. Compound
nouns get their meaning from being together (e.g. telephone number, bookshop). They have a
different meaning from the individual words they are made up of.
There are also words that regularly occur together, such as collocations, fixed expressions and
idioms. Collocations are words that often occur together (e.g. to take a holiday, heavy rain, arrive
at, depend on). There are many words which collocate in a language, and the degree of
collocation can vary. For example, watch out is a very strong collocation as these words very
often occur together, whereas watch a video is less strong and watch the postmen is not a
collocation. The words in watch the postmen can occur together but don't do so often enough
to make them a collocation.
Fixed expressions are expressions which cant be changed (e.g. to tell you the truth, new born,
its up to you). Idioms are a kind of fixed expression as they can't be changed, but their meaning
is usually different from the combination of the meaning of the individual words they contain
(e.g. to be under the weather, to have green fingers, once in a blue moon). Collocations, fixed
expressions and idioms are all different kinds of chunks. Chunks refers to language that occurs in
(semi-) fixed units and that we usually learn as one piece. Have a good trip, I'd like to ... , how
about ... , my name's ... are further examples of chunks.

Words also have different relationships with one another. They may, for example, be synonyms
(words with the same or similar meanings) or antonyms (words with opposite meanings). They may
be part of the same lexical set (groups of words that belong to the same topic area, e.g. family,
furniture, food). They may also belong to the same word family (words that come through
affixation from the same base word, e.g. real, really, realistic, unreal).
False friends, homophones, homonyms and varieties of English are other ways in which
words can relate to one another. False friends are very important in language teaching and learning.
They are words which have the same or a similar form in two languages but a different meaning.
Embarazado, for example, means pregnant in Spanish. It does not mean embarrassed, though it
looks as if it does to an English speaker! Homophones and homonyms are important, too, in
language learning. Homophones are words with the same pronunciation but a different meaning
or spelling (e.g. know-no; whether-weather; there-their). Homonyms are words with the same
spelling and pronunciation as another word, but a different meaning, e.g. 'they sat on the river bank',
he put all his savings into the bank'. Words can also relate to one another through being examples
of different varieties of English, i.e. different kinds of English spoken around the world, e.g.
Indian, Australian, US, South African, British. These varieties sometimes affect lexis as the same
things can be called by different names in different varieties, e.g. flat (British English), apartment
(US English), unit (Australian English), or cookie (US English) and biscuit (British English).
The table below shows examples of some of the form and meaning relationships of two words.

We can see from this table that words sometimes have several denotations. The context in which
we are writing or speaking makes it clear which meaning we are using. Words can also change their
denotations according to what part of speech they are, e.g. The adjective clear and the verb to
clear. We can also see from the table that not all words have all the kinds of form or meaning

Key concepts and the language teaching classroom

Read these tips and tick the ones which are most important for you.

Fully knowing a word involves understanding its form and meaning, e.g. what part of speech
it is, how it is pronounced and spelt, all the meanings it can have. This cannot take place the
first time a learner meets a new word. It takes learners a long time to fully understand and
use a word. At first they will probably just learn its most frequent denotative meaning, its
spelling and pronunciation.
Learners need to meet the same words again and again as they advance in their language
learning. In this way their memory of them will be consolidated and they will get to know
more about the word, e.g. other meanings, collocations, the lexical sets they are part of.
They can meet words again in texts, or in vocabulary extension activities (i.e. activities that
give more practice), such as brainstorming, labelling, categorizing, making lexical sets.
Whether we are learning our first or our second language, we often recognize a word before
we can use it, and we can often recognize the meaning of many more words than we can
use. The words we recognize are called our 'receptive' vocabulary; the words we can use
are called our 'productive' vocabulary. A teacher usually teaches learners key (important)
words and exposes them to many more. The learners pick these words up, initially only
recognizing their meaning, then eventually using them productively.
As words can get part of their meaning from context, and context helps to show the meaning
of words, it is useful to teach them in context rather than in isolation, e.g. through texts,
stories or descriptions of events that we tell the students about.
We can use the relationships in meaning between words (synonyms, lexical sets, word
families, etc.) and the ways in which they can be built (prefixes, suffixes, compounds) to
make activities to help our students extend their knowledge of words, e.g. making
opposites, building words through affixation, brainstorming lexical sets and word families.
When we teach learners new words we can check if these words have any false friends in
their language or if these words are homophones or homonyms of other they know. Then
we can point this out to the learners and help to save them from misunderstandings.
At beginner level and with young learners, we often teach general words for categories first,
then gradually introduce different items from that category. For example, we may teach
clothes before teaching jeans, shirt, T-shirt, etc.

A lot of language often occurs in chunks, e.g. collocations, fixed expressions. Experts think
that children learning their first language learn the chunks as a whole rather than in parts.
This helps them to remember them better and recall (remember) them more quickly. As
teachers we can highlight (draw learners' attention to) chunks of language for learners.
It is useful for learners to keep vocabulary records in which they record the meaning of the
new words, their part of speech, examples of use, any collocations, their pronunciation, any
synonyms, etc. Students can return to add information about individual words as they learn
more about them.

See Unit 11 for factors affecting the learning of vocabulary. Units 16, 18 and 22 for techniques for the teaching
and assessment of vocabulary and Unit 23 for resources for teaching vocabulary.


1. What does each of these sets of words have in common? Are they synonyms, antonyms,
lexical sets, compounds, idioms, collocations, word families, homophones, words with
prefixes or words with suffixes?
A table, chair, sofa, bed, bookcase, chest of drawers, desk
B old-young, bright-dark, loud-quiet, fast-slow, first-last, long-short
C to be over the moon, all roads lead to Rome, pay through the nose
D a straight road, a brilliant idea, hard work, no problem, extremely grateful
E neat-tidy, precisely-exactly, to doubt-to question, nobody-no one
F microwave, toothbrush, paper clip, lampshade, bottle top
G illness, badly, useless, doubtful, affordable, ability, practical
H imperfect, rewrite, unable, illiterate, incorrect, ultramodern
I learn, learner, learning, learned
J bear-bare, flour-flower, sea-see, which-witch, right-write

Think about these teachers' comments. Which do you agree with and why?
1. There are some advantages in using translation to teach meaning, but some disadvantages,
2. I think it's really important for my learners to keep a vocabulary notebook in which they
write the word, its meaning(s), its pronunciation, its collocations, etc.
3. Getting to now words is like getting to know a friend - you learn more about them bit by bit.


1. Look up three words from this unit in an English-English dictionary. What kinds of
information are given for each word? Decide which information is important for your
2. Look at Chapter 7 'Vocabulary' in Learning Teaching (Second edition) by Jim Scrivener,
Macmillan 2005. It tells you more about the meaning of words and gives lots of ideas for
teaching vocabulary.
3. Perform a search on 'How to teach lexis' and analyze the information you find.
4. Look at these sites. How could they be useful for you as a teacher?
Would they be useful for your students? Write your answers in your Teacher Portfolio.
5. Would these vocabulary activities websites be useful for your students in order to extend
their vocabulary?
6. Use a dictionary or the TKT Glossary to find the meanings of these terms: phrasal verb, multiword verb, root word.