Madhu Neupani

Vocabulary and Grammar: Why? How?

* Madhu Neupane

 Language is made up of vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary provides flesh while grammar provides skeleton to language. Something can be communicated without grammar but almost nothing can be communicated without vocabulary. However, these two aspects are interdependent and interrelated that is both aspects are required while using different skills of language (listening, speaking, reading and writing). In the context of Nepal, the instruction on vocabulary and grammar does not seem to have been integrated with language skills. With vocabulary instruction is mostly meaning focused with rather low emphasis on form and use while with grammar instruction is form focused. Such approaches for teaching vocabulary and grammar, guided by textbook and examination, have reduced the effectiveness of grammar and vocabulary instruction in the development of language proficiency learners in real sense.

Knowing a word means knowing more than its meaning. Nation (2004) has underscored this fact by mentioning that knowing a word means knowing its meaning (form and meaning, concept and referents and associations), form (spoken form, written form and word parts) and use (grammatical functions, collocations and constraints on use). The similar concept is highlighted by Harmer (2008) when he mentions that knowing a word means knowing word meaning (meaning in context and sense relation), word use (metaphor and idiom, collocation, style and register), word formation (parts of speech, prefixes and suffixes, spelling and pronunciation) and word grammar (information like countability with nouns, patterns with verbs, position with adjectives and adverbs, etc.). However, in our context much emphasis seems to have been placed on meaning. Even meaning is found to be presented without context neglecting the fact that a word may have different meanings in different contexts. The common strategies that are used to present meaning include L1 translation or simple definitions. Though the trend towards integrating vocabulary with other skills especially reading and listening is increasing, and the examination in school (e.g. SLC) tests vocabulary in contexts with reading texts, the situation is different in colleges where less emphasis is given on vocabulary as such.

There might be many new words for students in a reading text. However, all of them may not be equally important for understanding text. In this regards, Mercer (2005, p. 25) writes, “Clearly, given the mass of words potentially available to learners, there is no way they can learn them all. It would therefore be more useful to teach them strategies for dealing with unfamiliar words.”

Mercer (ibid) has classified these strategies into three different categories:

  1. Memory strategies: Using imagery; using sense relations (lexical fields, synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms, scales, etc.); using cognates, parallels in other languages; using word parts; grouping in patterns (visual, meaning, spatial, etc.); using phonological or orthographic form (rhymes, salient written form, keyword technique, etc.); peg method (associating main word with other memorable words); loci method (using a familiar location to remember a word); using semantic grids; paraphrasing; chunking; create and learn meaningful sentences containing the word (possibly invent whole story as framework for learning key words.), linking to personal experience.
  2. Cognitive strategies: written repetition; verbal repetition; word lists; word flashcards; vocabulary notebooks, note-taking from books, lectures, etc.; making tape recordings; sticky note labels; and using word books, such as dictionaries or a thesaurus to activate passive vocabulary
  3. Metacognitive strategies: more conscious contact with the target language (e.g., reading extensively in English, watching films, listening to the radio, communicating with native speakers, getting a pen pal); testing yourself on vocabulary; working and practicing with peers/in groups; principle of expanding rehearsal time, repeatedly reviewing; setting aside specific time for vocabulary learning; setting priorities about which words are essential, not so important, not

important at all and to what extent (passive, active); and setting goals for learning vocabulary.

It is not necessary that learners need to use all of these strategies for learning words. They can choose the ones that they find more useful for themselves. However, it better on the part of teachers to raise awareness of these strategies so as to facilitate their learning. Along with these learning strategies, explicit teaching strategies might be very useful for promoting vocabulary power of learners. Schmitt (2008) has presented a number of principles for the explicit teaching of vocabulary. They include: building a large sight vocabulary; integrating new words with old; providing numerous encounters with a word; promoting  a deep level of processing; making new words “real” by connecting them to the student’s world in some way; encouraging independent learning strategies; diagnosing which of the most frequent words learners need to study; providing opportunities for elaborating word knowledge; providing  opportunities for developing fluency with known vocabulary; examining different types of dictionaries, and teaching students how to use them.  If we combine learning strategies with teaching principles, students will be able to increase their vocabulary in course of time which will, in turn, promote their success rate in learning English.

Along with large repertoire of words, knowledge of grammar is equally important for success in learning of any language. Grammar teaching has been a matter of debate for a long time especially for a foreign or second language teaching. One the one side of the continuum, there are people who claim that grammar teaching is not necessary because teaching does not help in the acquisition of the language whereas on the other side of the continuum there are others who claim that grammar teaching is necessary. Dekeyser and Sokalski (1996) mention that one of the most fundamental controversies in the field of second language acquisition (SLA) concerns whether SLA in adults more resembles the acquisition of other cognitive skills by adults or first language acquisition by children. Proponents of first view argue that adults have lost or have diminished access to the grammar generating capacities of the child and substitute for them (grammar generating capacities) by drawing on the problem solving skills used in other cognitive domain, with varying success. Those who favor the view that SLA in adults has much in common with child language acquisition insist that even adults  typically learn rules implicitly, and that the careful piecing together of sentences on the basis of rules, drawing on a general problem solving skills has no role to play in SLA process. Thornbury (1999, p.4) also argues in the similar line when he mentions “in fact no other issue has preoccupied theorists and practitioners  as the grammar debate, and the history of language teaching is essentially the history of the claims and counterclaims for and against the teaching grammar”. One of the main differences in language teaching methods lies in the attitude they have on the role of grammar. My own experience has shown that it is necessary to raise the grammatical awareness of the learners for it raises their confidence level and helps them to make informed decisions.

Having established the fact that grammar teaching is necessary, we should consider how grammar can be taught to maximize its benefits to learners. In this regard Larseen-Freeman (2001, p. 252) writes, “Grammatical structures not only have (morphosyntactic) forms, they are also used to express meaning (semantics) in context appropriate use (pragmatics)”. These all areas should be emphasized for enabling students “to use grammatical structures accurately, meaningfully and appropriately” (ibid, p. 255).  Teaching grammar becomes meaningful if it is taught as skill through the process of “grammaring” rather than grammar as knowledge of rules because only knowledge does not ensure its proper use. Learning grammar is not a cumulative process where students masters one structure and proceed to another rather they will be using different structures at the same time while using language.  For successful teaching of grammar teachers should be able to “identify relevant challenge for a particular group of learners” (Lareseen-Freeman 2001, p.256). However, in the context of Nepal much emphasis seems to have been given on the knowledge of grammar rather than on the use with the result that those who are good at grammar are not necessarily good at using language.

Noticing is prerequisite to learning and we can help students to take notice of grammar structure through recasting, reformulating or textual enhancement, input flood, consciousness raising tasks where students are asked to make generalization,  garden path strategy, input processing, or pushed output. If only form is focused the result might be inert knowledge problem (Whitehead 1929 as cited in Larseen-Freeman 2001, p. 258). Meaningful practice is helpful for the proceduralization of the declarative knowledge. Information gap activities are also useful for this purpose. Realia and pictures might be useful while dealing with semantic aspect of grammar (Celce-Murcia and Hills as cited in Larseen-Freeman 2001, p. 259). Regarding use, factors affecting grammar choices should be taken into consideration. According to Cowan (2009) such factors include sociolinguistic factors, information structuring principles, and language change and usage.

I agree with Larseen-Freman (2001) when she says the inductive and deductive approach is not an either or case rather a matter of choice depending on the context. Sometimes deductive approach might be more useful in situation when high coverage in short period of time is required, the learners are adult and structures do not allow for easy generalization. In other cases inductive approach might be useful for it provides the learners with thinking time for developing reasoning skills. The importance of this approach also lies on the fact that people are more convinced with the reasons they derive themselves. However, in our case deductive approach (explicit teaching of grammar rule) is much popular. In this case, I agree with Noonan who says, “Explicit knowledge can have some impact on implicit knowledge” and Ellis (2002, p19) who says, “Recent data suggests that students who have explicit grammar instruction as part of their study achieve a higher level of grammatical accuracy than those who do not”. The proper way, that is what I think, to raise the grammatical awareness is to integrate grammar with other aspects (vocabulary and language functions) or skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) because grammar does not exist in isolation even if we do teach it in isolation.

In conclusion, we can say that teaching means helping students learn. Students should, therefore, be made aware of different strategies of learning. Along with the learning strategies, while teaching vocabulary and grammar, all the aspects (form, meaning, and use) should equally be emphasized. Recurrent use of vocabulary as well as grammatical item should be focused since learning is not a matter of once and for all. If we teachers can help learners in increasing their repertoire of words and skills in noticing grammar, they certainly do feel comfortable in using language skills. Let’s try! Small things matter a lot!!


Cowan, R. (2009). The teacher’s grammar of English. Cambridge: CUP.

DeKeyser, R. and Sokalski, K. J. (1996). The differential role of comprehension and production practice. Language Learning, 52/4: 613–42.

Harmer, J. (2008). The practice of English language teaching. England: Pearson Longman.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001). Teaching grammar. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language. 3rd ed. (pp. 251-266) USA: Heinle & Heinle.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003). Challenging conceptions of grammar. In Teaching language: from grammar to grammaring. Canada: Thomson/Heinle.

Mercer, S. (2005). Vocabulary strategy work for advanced learners of English. English Teaching Forum, 43 (2), 24-35

Nation, P. (2005). Teaching vocabulary,  Asian EFL journal, 7(3).Retrieved from on 20 September 2014.

Noonan, F. J. (2004). Teaching ESL students to “notice” grammar. The Internet TESL Journal, 10 (7). Retrieved from on 1 September 2014.

Schmitt, N. (2008). Teaching Vocabulary. New Jersey: Pearson Education. Retrieved from on 22 September 2014.

Thornbury, S. (1999). How to teach grammar. London: Longman.

(*Madhu Neupane Bastola, lecturer at the Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Kathmandu is an Executive member of NELTA Central Committee. She has done her M.Ed in English Education and M.A. in English literature from T.U. There are few books and articles to her credit. Her research interests include second language acquisition, World Englishes, professional writing. )



One response

  1. Wonderfully written!


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