Which is more important to teach, grammar or vocabulary?

Traditionally, grammar is taught first; it has primacy over vocabulary. Vocabulary items were just vehicles to explain grammatical structures. In other words this kind of teaching gives primacy to form and uses lexical items simply as a way to give examples of the structures taught previously.  That’s why, in most traditional textbooks, grammar comes first and it is only later that reading and vocabulary are introduced.

Recently, however, meaning has become of paramount importance in language teaching (or shall I say learning) process. As Widdowson, H. G. (1990: p. 95) points out:

Teaching which gives primacy to form and uses words simply as a means of exemplification actually denies the nature of grammar as a construct for the mediation of meaning. I would suggest that the more natural and more effective approach would be to reverse this traditional pedagogic dependency, begin with lexical items and show how they need to be grammatically modified to be communicatively effective.

Why is vocabulary important?

First, it would be easier to communicate reasonably without many problems if you could use enough appropriate vocabulary in context.  However, one would undoubtedly be unable to communicate relying only on grammatical rules. What gives a structure its raison d’être is mainly the meaning it carries in the lexical words the structure is constructed with. According to Michael Lewis fluency does not depend so much on having a set of generative grammar rules, as suggested by Chomsky,  and a separate stock of words as on having rapid access to a stock of lexical chunks. In the lexical approach, lexis is central in creating meaning, grammar plays a secondary role in managing meaning. The logical implication for teachers is that we should spend more time helping learners develop their stock of phrases, and less time on grammatical structures.

Secondly, a large inventory of vocabulary items is a prerequisite for reading and presumably listening ability. It is evident that one of the most inhibiting problems in reading activities is an insufficient number of familiar vocabulary items. While syntax may help with the construction of text meaning, the cornerstone of any interpretation of the meaning of any text is without any doubt the lexicon. Try to read a text with most of the words unfamiliar to you and you will get the idea that the lexicon is a major contributor to meaning.

Grammar and vocabulary are connected

As mentioned above in a traditional  teaching grammar and vocabulary are taught separately as if they are separate areas of language teaching and learning. Many textbooks have separate sections of grammar and vocabulary. Grammatical structures are taught first and then lists of key vocabulary are presented separately. What this approach fails to show is the connection that exists between vocabulary and grammar. Susan Hunston, Gill Francis, and Elizabeth Manning suggest, in an article on Grammar and Vocabulary: Showing the Connections,  that all words have patterns and that  teachers should focus on teaching these patterns as:

a way of encouraging four crucial aspects of language learning: understanding, accuracy, fluency and flexibility. Patterns contribute to the teaching of both grammar and vocabulary. They can form a part of any syllabus ,but are most logically associated with a lexical syllabus.

To conclude, language must be viewed in its totality with the different components constituting one whole. Believing that grammar must have supremacy over the other components is a fallacy that has to be corrected if we were to give an accurate account of how language works and how it should be taught.


Widdowson, H. G. (1990) Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP.

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4 Responses

  1. Great article!
    While most will agree with the notion that vocabulary is crucial for any language, the obstacle is to find truly effective ways to teach it. It’s been our mission for the last eight years at LearnThat Foundation, and it’s a never-ending journey.

  2. Manjusha says:

    I entirely agree with you. Every aspect of the language must be taught and learned. However, grammar is still more important than vocabulary. That is because we need only a limited number of words to communicate in our day-to-day life. Grammar, on the other hand, is absolutely essential. Actually, you should have a decent understanding of all grammar rules to speak or write properly, but you don’t need to know all the words in the dictionary.

  3. hi,

    I would say the opposite is true. With grammar rules only you cannot communicate but with enough vocabulary items you can get your message through.

  4. jayesh says:

    Grammar and Vocab are like 2 wheels of a cycle. One pushes you forward and the other directs you to the right path.

    To some extent Manjusha is right in telling that one is required to know all grammar but not essentially the large vocab to communicate. To me knowing ‘all grammar’ is in itself brings along the need to know a large bank of words because otherwise the use of advanced grammar will be toothless and meaningless.

    Efficient way/s to build vocab varies from person to person. The common factor to learn fast is the need to use the newly learnt words repeatedly till it becomes natural part of your communication. When you learn new English word, you must first read atleast 3 sentences using that word WITH EACH VARIATION of the word. Eg: Green has multiple variations – Green as color, Green as envy , Green as vegetation, Green as eco-friendly etc.

    You must use the newly learnt word thrice a day for next seven days, twice a day in the next week, once a day in the week there after, and then once in every week for the next four weeks. The word becomes the permanent resident in both your conscious/sub-conscious minds.

    Use different dictionaries and resources to understand the unknown words. Don’t rely on one source. Its not to imply that source might have wrong info, but this need is to understand the word in depth and from all angles. I generally used 2 English dictionaries, 2 local language dictionaries, and browsing for the word from random google search. It solidified my understanding of the word and then immediately I used to use the word to write down my own sentence from the events/memories of my life. It worked well.

    Also, I used to voice record the word- its definition and a sentence or two employing that word. then whenever i sat behind the wheel i plug my phone to the accessory socket so that car speakers relayed the sound play that recording/s and enjoyed my driving with my personalized ‘wordopedia’. The key aspect is to remain in contact with the new word for first few weeks of its introduction to us.

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