Episode 87: Michael Lewis, IATEFL, and Visual Aids

Welcome back to The TEFLology Podcast – a podcast all about teaching English as a foreign language, and related matters.

In episode 87, Rob discusses the work and ideas of MICHAEL LEWIS, Matthew leads a conversation about the use of VISUAL AIDS, and Matt presents reflections on IATEFL from Sandy Millin, Yasmine Abdelhamid, and Neil McMillan.

The book by Clark and Miller mentioned in Matt’s section can be found here.

Here are Rob’s episode notes on Michael Lewis:


  • Teacher trainer, writer, and popularizer of the Lexical approach.
  • Not much biographical information. He seems to have been a rather private man, and it’s difficult to find much in the way of his background.
  • This section is based on blog posts by people who knew him such as Hugh Dellar, comments on those blog posts, his published work, and discussions of his work.
  • Lewis Taught English in Sweden to all levels of students. According to Jimmie Hill, who he worked with for many years, Lewis seems to have had relatively little practical language teaching experience, but did a lot of work as a teacher trainer.

Language Teaching Publications

  • Lewis and Hill founded Language Teaching Publications together in 1981
  • Together they published the book Practical Techniques for Language Teaching (1985), which Hill describes as a collection of all the advice they had come up with in their work as teacher trainers. It is an extremely practical book, and as an experienced teacher, I found a lot of it to echo the advice I got on my CELTA, and then picked up over the years at the chalkface. I think it’s a much quicker, simpler, and more ‘common-sense’ read than many of the more popular training books like those by Harmer, Scrivener, and Ur (not to disparage them!) and I would recommend people, especially early career teachers, take a look at it.
  • Lewis’ second book was The English Verb: An exploration of structure and meaning. This was written in response to other grammar books, which Lewis felt relied too much on French and Latin, and propagated myths about the English verb structure. The English Verb is a very readable and straightforward guide that starts from the position that English grammar is systematic and straightforward, and that a lot of the descriptions we as teachers give to students are reductive and fallacious. This can be seen as a development of some of the ideas raised briefly in his previous book.
  • There are two strands that unify Lewis’ work up to this point: His skeptical, debunking of common myths, and his focus on lexis and meaning.

The Lexical Approach

  • These two strands were brought together in his most famous book The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward. This book appears on numerous Delta and MA reading lists, and has been an inspiration for many teachers.
  • Many people have noted that the subtitle almost seems more appropriate than the title, because a lot of the book is spent critiquing the current state of ELT. It seems like this is a hangover from the genesis of the book. Jimmie Hill notes in a comment on Hugh Dellar’s blog that Lewis originally wrote a book called “Sense and Nonsense in Language Teaching”, which Hill refused to publish. Instead, Lewis went back and rewrote the book focusing on couching his critique within a proposal for something new. This was the Lexical Approach.
  • The Lexical Approach was not completely new. As many writers have noted, Lewis owes a debt to Dave Willis’ book The Lexical Syllabus, as well as work on lexical phrases by Pawley and Syder and Nattinger and DeCarrico. However, Lewis’ contribution was in drawing these ideas into something resembling a full method.
  • As Thornbury notes in his book 30 Language Teaching Methods, “whereas structuralist approaches had foregrounded grammatical patterns into which a restricted vocabulary was ‘slotted’, Lewis argued that language was primarily lexical”, and that grammar was there to support the meaning encoded in words. As Lewis puts it in the book “Language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar”. The lexical approach focuses on students learning collocations and fixed expressions, above sentence-level grammar.
  • While this book claims to sell an ‘approach’, it doesn’t really rise to that challenge. Instead it can be thought of as a theory of language, but not a theory of learning. Lewis’ book doesn’t actually give a clear way to tie this to teaching or to a syllabus.
  • This resulted in two further publications (making a loose trilogy), Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice (1997), and finally Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach (2000), which Lewis edited, rather than authored.
  • However, criticism of the lexical approach is still ongoing. Scott Thornbury was an early critic, in his article “The Lexical Approach: A Journey Without Maps?” in Modern English Teacher magazine in 1998.

Later life and legacy

  • Lewis and Hill sold Language Teaching publications in the early 2000s, apparently allowing them to retire in their 50s. Lewis continued to lecture and give talks at conferences, right up until 2013 when a special conference was organized to mark the 30th anniversary of The Lexical Approach. Writers such as Hugh Dellar, Andrew Walkely and Michael Hoey all gave talks, while Lewis himself gave a Q and A at the end. There is an account and summary of all the talks available on the blog eltlaura.wordpress.org, which we’ll put in the show notes.
  • The Lexical Approach itself has never really been realized as a full approach, but has resulted in an increased focus on the teaching of chunks and collocation as part of communicative language teaching.
  • However, a number of recent publications have attempted to breathe new life into the approach. Thornbury notes that usage-based theories of second language acquisition have been adopted by some writers to add a theory of learning to Lewis’ theory of language, and specifically, writers such as Michael Hoey (in his 2005 book Lexical Priming) have attempted to put forward specific theories of how languages are learned which complement the lexical approach. In fact, Michael Hoey was one of the contributors to Lewis’ final edited book Teaching Collocation.
  • From a more practical perspective, Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkey’s book Teaching Lexically (2016) attempts to provide a more practical and teacher-friendly approach to lexically-based language teaching, while Leo Selivan’s book Lexical Grammar (2018) addresses the question of how to get grammar out of the teaching of chunks and collocations. Another recent book is Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach in ELT by George Woolard. As The Lexical Approach increasingly relies on usage-based theories to justify it as a full approach, it has been criticized by those coming at SLA from a more cognitivist perspective. However, it appears to be gaining influence.
  • Michael Lewis sadly passed away in early March of this year, but his Lexical Approach, as well as his reputation for being combative, outspoken, and for questioning ELT orthodoxy, lives on.


ELT Laura (2013) Lexical Teaching Conference. https://eltlaura.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/lexical-teaching-conference/

Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley (2016) Teaching Lexically: Principles and Practice.

Hugh Dellar (2019). In Memoriam: Remembering Michael Lewis. https://www.lexicallab.com/2019/03/in-memoriam-remembering-michael-lewis/

Michael Hoey (2005). Lexical Priming.

Michael Lewis & Jimmie Hill (1985). Practical Techniques for Language Teaching.

Michael Lewis (1986). The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning.

Michael Lewis (1993). The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward.

Michael Lewis (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice.

Michael Lewis (Ed.). (2000). Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach.

Leo Selivan (2018). Lexical Grammar

Leo Selivan (2016). Criticism of the Lexical Approach. http://leoxicon.blogspot.com/2016/02/lexical-approach-criticism.html

Scott Thornbury (1998). The Lexical Approach: A Journey Without Maps? Modern English Teacher.

Scott Thornbury. (2010). L is for (Michael) Lewis. https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/09/05/l-is-for-michael-lewis/

Scott Thornbury (2017). 30 Language Teaching Methods.

Dave Willis (1990). The Lexical Syllabus.

George Woolard (2013). Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach in ELT.

UPDATE: Mura Nava has also directed us to this account of the 2013 conference, which also links to other resources – https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/lexconf2013-the-lexical-teaching-conference-2013/

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  1. good show on Lewis and his works thanks!
    i would like to suggest this link [https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/lexconf2013-the-lexical-teaching-conference-2013/] to the 2013 Lexical Teaching Conference which has archived links to write ups from the defunct Westminster CELT blog (from Andrew Walkley who was one of the organisers of the conference)

  2. […] Let me share my favourite discoveries: Lewis was called an ‘ELT recluse’ and a ‘fashionably dressed beat poet’ (here); he was fuming at Scott Thornbury because of what the latter wrote in his book (here); he enjoyed scolding people for irrelevant questions and also managed to ‘send Italian academic gurus into rage’ (here). After his death in March 2019, The TEFLology Podcast compiled all known biographical information on Lewis on this page. […]

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