Horizontal and vertical expansion of lexis

After my first effort at introducing new jargon into a field that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly crying out for more new terminology, you’ll be delighted to know that what follows is my second attempt at introducing new lexical items, nay new CONCEPTS even, into ELT!

As I’m sure you are all aware, for students to truly be able to say they’ve learned a new word to the point where they may actually start being able to use it, they need to know a whole host of things. To mention but a few, there’s pronunciation and / or spelling; word class (is it a noun, an adjective, a verb or what); collocations – the words with which it frequently co-occurs; register – the kind of contexts or genres or situations in which it’ll be most commonly used; related derivations – for instance, knowing that photographer is a derivative of photograph (or vice versa, of course, depending on how you look at things) and so on. However, perhaps the core elements of new lexis that students most need to have clarified for them are meaning – and more particularly the contextual meaning – and the contexts and co-texts of use. This means that whenever we are tackling lexis in class, which is surely in every single class the vast majority of us teach, we have a responsibility to ensure not only that students understand what words mean in the contexts they’re being presented / met, but also that they get to see the contexts in which this new language might be used along with language that may typically occur in these contexts. Exposure to the new lexis in these kind of embedded contexts helps to prime or condition students to expect the lexical items to work if not in exactly the same ways in future then at least in some kind of similar way, in a way that simply learning basic meanings never can.

So far, so obvious, I’m imagining, right? Well, the problem for teachers (and thus, by default, for students) is that the vast majority of coursebooks and classroom materials DON’T actually provide that much in the way  of support with any of these key concerns, and particularly suffer from a lack of attention to (or interest in) common usage. Which is where my concepts for the day come in! Vertical and horizontal expansion of lexis is part of the added value that teachers can bring and part of what students can benefit from in their study of new language.

Let’s explore how this might work in the classroom. I’ve just picked a coursebook at random from the shelves behind and have come up with Just Right Intermediate, published by Marshall Cavendish. Unit 5 is entitled Home and contains a Vocabulary exercise called homes and houses. The exercise requires students see which of a set of words in a box match pictures, and features items like basement, block of flats, bungalow, cottage, fence, flat, first floor, garage, terraced house and studio flat. Once the matching has been done, students discuss which of the pictures is most like where they live and what differences there might be before explaining / writing which of the homes they’d most like to live in and why. An example is given: I’d like to live in the cottage because it’s pretty.

You may well wonder whether or not Intermediate students really need the word bungalow or the degree to which the example sentence really represents how students may actually use the word cottage – or even hear it used, but for better or worse here’s a set of lexis that requires teaching, if you’re using this particular book. Horizontal expansion lies in thinking about what’s said after – or sometimes possible before – by the speaker using the word, so take the word basement. Having lived in a basement flat myself for many years, the sentences around the word which immediately spring to mind are along the following lines:

I live in a basement flat. It’s OK, but it’s a bit dark.

We’re renting a basement flat. It’s quite nice, but the upstairs neighbours make a LOT of noise.

I don’t really get a mobile signal at home because I’m in the basement.

Vertical expansion is to do with thinking about what might be said before or after a sentence containing the lexical item by another speaker. In other words, thinking about how the conversation around this word might develop. So to stick with the same word – basement – I’d expect things like the following:

What’s the rent like?

> It’s not bad, actually. It’s a basement flat, so it’s a bit cheaper than it might otherwise be.

Well, that’s good, then.

I can’t hear you. You keep breaking up.

> Yeah, sorry. I’m in the basement and reception’s really bad here.

Now, once you start thinking about lexis in this way, you not only have a way of expanding upon what’s provided for in the material you’re using, but also of starting to create exercises yourself. In classroom terms, what it might mean is that whilst students are trying a task, you monitor, see which words they’re having problems with and get either horizontally or vertically expanded examples up on the board – ideally, with gaps – so that when you’re rounding up you can use these to both consolidate and expand upon what students know about the words being studied –  and how to use them. For instance, whilst rounding up, I might say something like this:

So some of you weren’t sure about basement. Anyone? yeah, right. It’s the bottom floor of the house and it’s always a little bit or completely below ground level. (Turning to the board) Often, if you’re in a basement, because it’s petty much underground, you don’t get much light, so it can be a bit? yeah, that’s right. (write in the word dark to the sentence above). And if you’ve ever lived in a basement, you’ll know it can be hard to talk on a mobile down there because you don’t really get a signal, because the reception’s bad, so when you’re talking to friends, they might tell you that you keep MMM-MMM up. Anyone? No? You keep breaking up, so they can hear you, then they can’t, then they can, then they can’t. OK. I’ll give you a minute to write now.

In the same way, a better vocabulary exercise could be constructed, using the lexis mentioned above from Just Right, simply by operating on the same principles. Instead of simply having the lexical set and seeing which nouns were depicted, you could for instance, ask students which place was most probably being described in sentences such as these:

1 It’s a nice flat, but it’s pretty dark down there. We don’t get that much natural light.

2 Now he has problems with his legs, it’s much better for him because he doesn’t have to go up and down the stairs all day long.

and so on.

More words on the page, of course, but also far more support for students, and far more chance of them being primed not only in common usage, but also in terms of exposure to co-text and, of course, covert exposure to a wide range of grammar in action, which teachers can choose to draw attention to and comment on, or not.


4 responses

  1. Hi Hugh,

    That’s a fair point about coursebooks leaving a great deal of language clarification for the teacher to do. It’s something that new teachers tend not to be able to do well, and is part of the craft of teaching you mentioned a post or two ago. I’d like to ask two questions.
    First, in what way is it useful to distinguish between the immediate co-text of the utterance that surrounds the item, what you call the vertical expansion, and the the surrounding discourse with interlocutors, or horizontal expansion? In the example above:

    What’s the rent like?
    It’s not bad, actually. It’s a basement flat, so it’s a bit cheaper than it might otherwise be.
    Well, that’s good, then.

    I can’t see how the other speaker’s question and response clarify more than had the basement dweller said:
    The rent’s not bad. It’s a basement flat…’ etc

    Second, I was wondering why you chose to label them vertical (=proximal) and horizontal (= more distant). I see a dialogue the other way round; the immediate co-text are to the left and right of the lexical item, and the other speaker’s questions, responses, comments, etc are above and below this line (ie vertical). What was your logic? You must be seeing it differently, and I might have got completely the wrong stick!


    1. Hi Daniel –
      Thanks, as ever, for taking the time to read and comment.

      The comment on coursebooks remains one of my life-long bugbears, to be honest.
      It’s a depressing indictment of how little impact the Lexical Approach and insights from corpora research have penetrated the mainstream market, and thus the psyches of the vast majority of teachers out there.

      Thanks for your questions about why I’ve chosen the vertical and horizontal idea.

      You made me realise this morning I’d got my axes mixed up, and I’ve gone back to the original post and amended accordingly.

      The perils of only having time to blog late at night after the stress of getting small, ill children to bed!!

      HORIZONTAL expansion is along the same line, so thinking about what you’d say along with the word you’re teaching, while VERTICAL is thinking about how the word might work in a series of exchanges. The idea is simply to do with the way the examples expand on a page or on a board. Do they expand along the same line or downwards?

      In terms of distinguishing between immediate co-text and surrounding discourse with other interlocutors . . . I don’t have any strong feelings about this either way, to be honest. It depends on the item. Some things more obviously expand horizontally, some vertically. In other words, with some items you can very easily imagine – or more correctly, you actually KNOW, based on your experience of language use – the way they’ll be used in a short exchange, whilst with others it’s hard to do this and a horizontal expansion is more likely.

      What’s important, I think, is that students get exposure – day in, day out, constant exposure during classroom time – to ways in which the language is often used . . . and that teachers spend more time thinking about what is often actually done with the words they’re teaching, and develop a sense of critical perspective on their own examples.

      I’ll take two examples from the Just Right stuff mentioned above:

      (1) With the word FENCE, I find it hard to think of an exchange where I might use this word, but can quite easily imagine saying something like: GENE’S KICKED HIS FOOTBALL OVER THE NEIGHBOUR’S FENCE. I’D BETTER GO ROUND AND GET IT or WE NEED TO GET A NEW FENCE PUT IN. LOOK AT HOW IT’S LEANING.

      (2) With STUDIO FLAT, though, I can easily imagine a short dialogue where the word might be used. For instance:

      Hope that makes sense and answers your question.

  2. […] boarding work included using what Hugh Dellar calls vertical and horizontal expansion of lexis. This will be familiar to many teachers but the nomenclature is a useful heuristic when going over […]

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