What Should the Learner Focus On More – Grammar or Vocabulary?

by Marshall Cavendish Education | Jun 05, 2017

This topic pretty much begs the question – why? Why the need for a duel between Batman and Superman, when they both achieve the same end result – the greater good of mankind? In that vein, the question that needs to be asked is why wonder which of these two essential areas of the English language the learner should focus on more when they both work together to produce the same end result – a proficient learner! Let us now examine how and why this holds true.

The Grammar Police

We have all met the Grammar Police – the one who insists on everyone speaking in perfect, error-free English, the one who believes the way to master the language is to master the syntactic rules. Learn the difference between your past tense and past perfect tense! Get your subject-verb agreements correct! Know your nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc.!

Proponents of this school of thought believe that the focus on vocabulary without emphasis on grammar rules is not sufficient for a learner to be proficient in the language. Emphasis on grammar teaching has ebbed and flowed over the years. Should grammar rules be taught explicitly or is it sufficient to provide enough comprehensible input to students such that they will be able to internalise the rules unconsciously, as claimed by linguist Stephen Krashen.

Should grammar teaching be meaning-focused or rules-focused? And what do we make of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that Chomsky claimed everyone is born with and which enables us to acquire and produce language?2 So many questions surround the teaching of grammar and how it was taught depended very much on current trends and beliefs surrounding the gravitas of grammar’s role in language learning.

After all that was said and done, what can safely be concluded is that grammar is important to the learner. In fact, language without grammar has been likened to ‘a chicken without bones’.3 It allows the user to form an unlimited set of sentences. It breaks down the language for the user and allows meaning to be conveyed clearly and without ambiguity. Here is a famous example that highlights the confusion that punctuation can cause:

Example 1: “Let’s eat, Grandpa!”

Example 2: “Let’s eat Grandpa!”  

A good grasp of grammar rules ensures that writing can be understood. It also enables the learner to understand clearly what he is reading and listening to.

Let us consider the English Language spoken colloquially in Singapore known as Singlish. It has its own syntax derived from a mixture of grammar rules from Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil, the most common Mother Tongue languages spoken in Singapore. It is not uncommon for a foreigner to lament that he does not understand the English that he hears in the streets. Here’s a phrase in Singlish that is commonly spoken: “Don’t play, play!” Translated into standard English, that would mean, “Don’t mess around!” This example illustrates how when standard grammar rules are not followed, it makes comprehension very difficult.

Research has proven that the explicit learning of grammar rules helps the learner learn the language at a faster rate than those who do not learn the rules explicitly.4 However, this explicit learning of rules cannot be done in isolation or one will end up with a good knowledge of the rules but be unable to use them correctly. This then leads us to the flip side of the language learning coin – vocabulary.

The Vocabulary Hero

To communicate effectively in a language, you have to know the words. It is as simple as that. In fact, David Wilkins writes, “…without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” (Wilkins, 1972, pp. 111-112)2. Much research has been devoted to the learning of vocabulary and have found that vocabulary, that is the knowledge and correct use of words in a language, is more fundamental than grammatical knowledge.

Vocabulary knowledge has also been found to play a critical role in the development of grammar. skills6 Anyone of us who has been to a non-English speaking country and struggled to communicate with the locals will be able to vouch for the importance of knowing the words and the correct use of these words so as to communicate effectively. In such situations, most of us will definitely agree that vocabulary is more important than grammar. The benefits of having a wide vocabulary pertaining to the area of communication does not stop there. A good reservoir of vocabulary ensures that your communication is more effective and efficient. You are able to choose better or more precise words and understand better what is being heard or read.

Laufer (1992b) has shown that when there is a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and the level of reading comprehension.7In other words, having a good vocabulary allows the reader to better comprehend what is being read. Interestingly, a person’s vocabulary level has been found by the researcher and educator Johnson O’Connor to be the best single measure for predicting occupational success in every area.8 In other words, it can be interpreted that the time invested in vocabulary learning actually pays off in your future! A wide vocabulary expands your background knowledge and empowers your thinking and communication skills. Thus, we can see how strong vocabulary can result in future occupational success.

Another reason why a learner would want to focus on vocabulary is how a greater knowledge of words opens up your mind to new thinking, ideas and lines of reasoning.9 A good example to illustrate this point, albeit from a work of fiction, is George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. The language devised by the authoritarian government in the novel, Newspeak, eliminates words that convey meanings traitorous to the state such as justice and democracy. By purging these words from the vocabulary of its people, the ideas conveyed by these words also failed to exist. Although this scenario is borne from the imagination of Orwell, we can extrapolate that when we learn new words, we also open our minds to new ideas and thinking.

So What Should the Learner Focus on More?

A study by Dongbo Zhang has concluded that vocabulary knowledge contributes significantly to how students performed in a reading comprehension task as compared to grammar knowledge which only showed a weak contribution.10

Language learning utilises both our declarative memory (used for facts, words and phrases) as well as our procedural memory (used for skills).11 Grammar rules can be learnt as facts and thus become part of our declarative memory. With sufficient usage and practise, these may become part of our procedural knowledge. A wide vocabulary, learnt as chunks of words or ‘declarative items’ contributes to a large declarative reservoir which allows us to use not only the correct words but also use them more fluently. In addition, it has also been found that a large declarative reservoir complements and facilitates grammar learning (Nation, 2004, p. 336).12 Being familiar with commonly used words and phrases allows us to be more familiar with grammar rules and exceptions to the rules.

Having considered the evidence from both camps, it a personal opinion that both grammar and vocabulary are important to the learner simultaneously. More importantly, the learning of grammar, both as explicit rules and as part of communication and incidental learning, together with vocabulary, enables the learner to learn the language at a faster rate. This also allows the learner to pick up vocabulary chunks or declarative items which then contribute to crystallising grammar rules. Any English Language curriculum should have the twin features of extensive reading and frequent related grammar practises.

So, instead of making the grammar-vocabulary dichotomy into a chicken or egg issue, a pragmatic approach to take might be that of a symbiotic relationship between these two superheroes of language learning!


This article is contributed by Chitra Pillay Chua, Associate Lecturer of Marshall Cavendish Institute. 

About the author 
Chitra Pillay Chua has been an English Language teacher for 16 years. She is fascinated by the idea of helping children explore and connect with the world around them through texts of various form. She holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching from the National Institute of Education, Singapore and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the National University of Singapore. She also holds a Diploma in Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). As a former school Head of Department for the English Language, she is experienced in the development, implementation and evaluation of the English Language curriculum and programmes. Currently, she is focused on developing a customised Reading Comprehension Skills programme for underperforming students.



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