Which is more important to teach, grammar or vocabulary?

How to teach 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 the 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 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.


  • Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: LTP.
  • Widdowson, H. G. (1990) Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

12 thoughts on “Which is more important to teach, grammar or vocabulary?”

  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. 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. 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.

  4. Rajnikant kokate

    I am agree opinion of jayesh and manjusha. I am vernacular Medium student. When I started to learning english I would learn only vocabulary. It is totally waste of my time 8 months . Then I joined english speaking class and I started learning grammar. Resulting I can write Speak/understand english if you are beginner I think student should start first learn grammar first then learn vocabulary

  5. I am totally agree that grammar play vital role while writing speaking ,if u don’t know proper formation of words and line how can u express the vocabulary.vocabulary needs when u want to express yourself differently in a different manner .if u have good knowledge of grammar and vo can bu u surely impressed the people and the best presentation u can give .people will mesmerized and fall in a heap and u will b in seventh sky..Sunita dube

  6. If you see at the age of 4 we all were aware of our mother tongue without any learning any grammer.
    The main focus was adding new words to our vocabulary.
    We learn second language with grammer first and we learn writing and reading first and we struggle more.

  7. I disagree that grammar is traditionally taught before vocabulary. I was in grade school in the 80s and home schooled my own daughter in the 90s. I can tell you that vocabulary comes first, until about 4th grade, when grammar is really focused on, but in conjunction with vocabulary. Ideally, you will never stop learning either one, but will grow progressively knowledgeable at both.

    However, you are learning vocabulary and grammar from the moment you are born. Especially if people read to you. For example, having no grammar training at all, my 4-year-old granddaughter would say, “Grandma, pick up it.” Now, that is a small thing to most people, and it sounds funny to most people because we tend to reverse the “up” and “it” in such sentences. But, as an editor and lover of grammar, it thrilled me that she has learned to use the preposition and its object correctly just by listening to proper speech and our reading to her.

    You state that grammar and vocabulary are related. You are correct. But, for one to learn that, one must be exposed to the proper use of both. If not in the formal classroom, then in everyday life.

  8. We begin learning vocabulary and grammar tha day that we are born. A persons vocabulary is, by definition, all of the words that he or she knows and understands. Good grammar is using our vocabulary correctly. I believe that they go hand in hand and should be taught together, but grammar should be emphasized because our vocabulary grows throughout our lives. While we are in the classroom, having a conversation, reading a book or watching a movie we learn new words without realizing it. We should also teach our children that some words are not acceptable and should not be used.

  9. Vocabulary is/are the words with which Grammar is made up of. Grammar is the written and spoken language with which we use vocabulary to communicate with. You cannot have one without the other. The dictionary is full of vocabulary, but it is meaningless without the grammar with which to communicate. Grammar should be taught first and one’s vocabulary increases with one’s experiences and wisdom.

  10. Vikas, sunita and Rajnikant your English grammar is incorrect in your post “I am agree” I am totally agree” If you see at”

  11. Pingback: Vocabulary Vs Grammar: It’s Not What You Think

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