Lexical Grammar

Lexical Approach - for teachers; What Should You Focus On More – Grammar or Vocabulary? - for students; Personal Experience - Marina Stifienkova


If you ask your students to say what is the first thing they ask a friend when they meet, you are most likely to get “How are you?” as an answer. But what thought process stands behind this simple question? Do your students make a conscious choice of these words, or do they come to them naturally as a single unit? 

The answer is hidden in the question itself. Our language is composed of lexical units that we turn to in time of need. Your students do not choose between “What” and “how”, they do not really think why they say “are you” instead of “do you”, they instantly remember the whole question, this is how it is stored in their memory.

Traditionally, it has always been thought that the language consists, on the one hand, of words, and on the other of grammatical constructions. If we approach teaching with this in mind, we will focus on what is possible in the language, instead of what actually happens. If we get rid of this pervasive dichotomy, we will see, that language consists of patterns and chunks, and that lexis and grammar are intertwined.

Collocations, or chunks, crudely, are the property of language whereby two or more words seem to appear frequently in each other’s company (Hoey Michael “Priming. A New Theory of Words and Languages”). Тhе blurred bоundаrу between vocabulary and grammar refers to the tendency of certain words to оссur with certain grammatical structures апd vice versa. Тhis close link between grammar and vocabulary means that while there mау bе mапу possible ways of correctly combining grammar with words to make sentences, we tend to go for conventionalised combinations (Leo Sullivan “Lexical Grammar”).

So, how do we put this idea to practice?

Take the phrasal verb “look for”, for example. In speech it is almost exclusively used in Present Continuous - people say “I’m looking for my friend”, or you may hear “Are you looking for anything specific?” in a shop. “I work” is very frequently used in Present Simple, whereas “I’m studying” in Present Continuous. Noting these patterns and using them in class will help your students understand the difference faster and start using the expressions much sooner.

There are other verbs like these, and you can use them to point out the difference between Simple and Progressive by asking your students to make sentences:

  • livе / stay

  • rеnt / own (а flat)

  • look for /find (mу keys)

  • speak / talk

  • hеаr / listеn

  • sit / sit down

There are also such common structures as “If I were you”, “Have you ever”, and “You should have” which can be used without even drawing special attention to the grammar itself, only by introducing the variety of sentences you can make with them.

Although, when we produce language, our first port of call is оur mental store of pre-faЫicated сhцпks, this does not completely negate thе rоlе of generative grаmmаr. Knowledge of grammar rules is still important to finе-tunе chunks so that they fit new contexts.

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. 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 do 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 learned 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!

Read full article here.


Hello everyone!

I’m Marina, a teacher of English and Italian, graduated with honors from Moscow State Teacher Training University. I have wide experience in working with various age groups, with both international and Russian clients. Some of my students included top executives at major Russian corporations. I worked for a long time as a corporate teacher and interpreter in large multinational and Russian production companies, which offered me valuable insight into the work process.

I have become fluent in 3 languages: English, Italian and French, so I believe I know how it works, how to learn something by myself and teach others. I'm people-oriented, friendly, capable of putting students at ease while building their confidence. I motivate students for a positive learning experience and create cultural awareness, try to develop competence and progressive excellence in teaching students. Became adept at the communicative approach engaging students in comfortable conversations and dialogues to increase their level of spoken language.

As a teacher, I love working with chunks. “Chunks” are user-friendly ready-made utterances that can be learned as a single unit without the need to go deep into its elements. Once committed to memory, a chunk can be retrieved and used “as is” or with some modifications, therefore there is no need to generate phrases from individual words and grammatical rules. 

Not only collocations, social formulae, idioms but also grammatical elements of the English language can be learned in the same way, including the typical “problematic structures” such as “do/does”, third person -s, present perfect, prepositions, and reported speech. 

For example, a beginner might initially learn “What’s your name?” or “I don’tknow” or “Have you ever been to…?” or “I’d like to” as a fixed chunk and later discover the constituent grammatical parts. 

When children just start learning a foreign language, they deal with a lot of chunks without paying too much attention to grammar. They seem to come out naturally. However, as learners get older, they memorize less. Adults need to use their analytical thinking and tend to break up the language they meet into bits. As a result, they often get stuck in the details of confusing English grammar.

So, the main thing why I like teaching through chunks is because they not only promote fluency and idiomaticity in expression, boost reading and listening skills, but also facilitate language acquisition, including the acquisition of grammar.

Exposing students to a lot of natural and contextualized examples will offer a lexical way into the grammar of the language. 

For instance, students can use memorized chunks that are above their level. When they have enough of such examples and experiences, grammar gradually emerges in the form of generalizations from the accumulation of these experiences.

It goes without saying that teaching chunks is not a simple replacement for the grammar syllabus. I believe, it should be seen as additions or as a parallel syllabus that enable a wider variety of more natural conversations at low levels.

One of my favorite ways of teaching grammar lexically are: 

  • expanding examples horizontally, e.g., asking students to go on with the question and add one more idea of theirs: 

Have you ever been to London? I’m asking because…

Have you ever been to London? I’m going next week, I need your advice.

Have you ever been to London? You know so much about the city!

  • And vertically:

When there’s a reaction to the question, which helps to construct some meaningful dialogues.

Have you ever been to London?

  • No, but I’d love to

  • Yes, but I didn’t like it there

  • Yes, that was amazing

  • Playing games like Taboo or Alias 

Which helps to teach the structures like:

It’s made of 

We use it for + Ving

It can be +V3 

* Re-grammaring

e.g. re-grammar a dialogue we worked with:

What/you / do/tonight?

I/just/go home/relax. You?

I/ to my yoga class

How long/ you/ do that?

Not/ long. 5.

The teacher should always be on the ball and use every opportunity to draw students’ attention to grammar in such a way. It will help to slowly raise their awareness and build their understanding of the English grammar system. 

I believe, if we teach students to notice, record, and recycle chunks and patterns it will promote learners’ autonomy and help them to make the best use of the English they encounter in their everyday life and work. 

That’s all for now!
Stay amazing ♥