Module 1 | Describing language and language skills : Lexis


Lexis means one or more words or sets of words that have a particular meaning, e.g. tree, sit down, last of all. 
What does the possible meanings the word ‘head’ have?
  • head – the top part of the body
  • headmaster – the head teacher (a male)
  • headline – a heading at the top
  • head office – the principal office
  • headstart – an advantage available at the beginning of a race
  • head on – direct
  • head over heels – madly in love
As we go through the meanings, we can see that some words describe the thing or idea behind the vocabulary item, e.g. the head as in the image.
This meaning is called denotation.
Then there is figurative meaning. We say, for example, “I’m head over heels with Anne”. This imaginative meaning is different from the denotative meaning of the words ‘head’ and ‘heels’.
However, it is possible that the same phrase can be used to describe an action similar to a somersault which is turning over completely in forward motion.
Now how do we differentiate the meaning behind that phrase?
It is by considering the context (the situation) the phrase is used.

Formation, grouping and register

We can create the meaning of some vocabulary items by:
  1. Adding prefixes or suffixes to base words, e.g. disqualification, creativity.
  2. Making compound words, i.e. multiple words put together as a set which have meaning. For example, bookshop, shopkeeper, postal code, car park.
  3. Collocation, i.e. words that usually occur together. For example, to bear witness, to draw attention, to pay a visit.
When vocabulary items are grouped into synonyms (words that have meanings which are alike) , antonyms (words with meanings that are completely different)and lexical sets, (a group of words with the same topic, e.g. types of clothes, members of the club)  meanings of words can be recognized from other related words.
Look at the following table.

The nerd baby says ...

  • To actually know a word, one must:
    1. Know all the various meanings of the word.
    2. Understand its form (what part of speech it belongs to)
    3. Understand how the word grammatically works.
    4. Know how to pronounce it the right way.
    5. Know how to spell it correctly.
  • Although we can recognise a word, it takes quite a while for us to know it and know how to use it thoroughly whether or not we are learning our first language or a new language.
  • To increase the chance of students remembering words well, teachers need to introduce new vocabulary items and do a lot of revision on what they teach, expanding on their forms and meanings little by little.
  • Before asking the students to use vocabulary items, teachers should introduce them in reading and listening.

Test your knowledge

What do you see in common in each of these words?
  1. Apple, bed, table lamp, fan, bookstore, shop, car
  2. Ugly-beautiful, dark-fair, quiet-noisy, tall-short, thick-thin, fat-skinny
  3. A narrow road, a good plan, no worries, so thankful, difficult job
  4. Unneat-messy, anybody-anyone, not sure-unsure, make-create
  5. Toothpaste, tablespoon, desktop, bed sheet, chairman
  6. Sickness, greatly, useful, truthful, available, shorter
  7. Impossible, reread, unaffordable, illegal, mistake
Write these words in the first column of the table given below (A – H).
Compound words        synonyms        denotations      collocations     lexical sets
Prefix + base word       antonyms         base word + suffix      
Care (noun)
To decide
Sensitive attention
to choose one option after thinking about several
Love and attention, worry
to make up your mind
To hesitate
Politeness, admiration, respect
To think, to hesitate, to wonder
Careful, careless, carelessness
Decided, decidedly
Great care, take care of
Finally decide
Read the comments below given by teachers. What is/are your opinion(s)?
  1. Learners who are at beginner level need only to the denotations of words.
  2. It is not necessary for learners to study names for different kinds of meanings.
  3. There is only one way to learn vocabulary and it is by reading extensively.
Match questions 1 – 5 (vocabulary examples) with  the categories A – F. You will find that there is an extra categories which does not need to be used.