Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--Series 11--ELT Professionals Around the World

Please read Post 68 and then come back here. Thank you.

Discussions—Series Eleven

Topic 48
In teaching English, which one should come first, Vocabulary or Grammar?

Vocabulary. I don't even bother with grammar until secondary school. Young students are good in figuring out intuitively how to speak. 

For older students, I let them choose their own vocabulary. When grammar comes along, we use their lexicon as building blocks for simple, compound, and complex sentences.
Joibel G. likes this

Neither. They will learn their vocabulary through listening (first) then speaking. In the natural order of learning a language, there is NO ORDER for learning grammar as a psuedo-language. Grammar is a natural outcome of using a language.
Mehmet Deniz D.Thomas F. and 5 others like this

I agree.. neither.. its useful to teach phrases relevant to their real life.. focus on direct needs .. things they are likely to want .. and things that are in their daily lives likely to repetitively remind them of something they learnt. Start with three four word phases then extend.. continue like that building the language in lexical chunks.. let them fill some of the gaps by guessing or using some form of inter-language.. this works for adults and youngsters alike although the needs will obviously be different..
Joibel G.Will Harper TEFL and 1 other like this

English Language Teacher at Cappadocia Vocational College
Top Contributor
If I had to choose, I would go with vocabulary but I think they should go hand in hand. How about teaching vocabulary in a grammatical context without telling the students. It goes like this, you watch a short video, extract the words then put them in sentences for the grammar that is required to teach.
Jenifer S.Joibel G. like this

English Language Teacher at Regina Public Schools
Grammar, all the WAY! The first thing any EAL instructor should try to set into place is the SYNTACTICAL reality if the L! background for each learner. SVO? VSO? Your verb goes where? The vocabulary falls naturally into place once learners (wherever their homeland) naturally recognize the borrowed words intra language group! Please knoe your TEN parts of speech and your TIME for verb usage; the rest all comes easily behinds...

Really depends on the situation

Young kids up to eight can't deal with grammar so I focus on 'phrasebook English' Sentences with no grammar focus. After that, at about 10 I like the kids to have a structure into which they can substitute blocks of (In my case colour coded) vocabulary 'textbook English' as I refer to it. by 12 I like sentence building. That's starting with a basic sentence and adding 'extra information' phrases to make more complicated sentences.

When the kids have a grounding then its more an exercise in experience gathering where more unusual forms are identified and practiced.

I do like to teach grammar and minimum vocabulary to begin with as it gives all students the same foundation in the language. The student is then given the responsibility of learning vocabulary to use. That way students of different levels don't get left behind but better students are not held back in a class that cannot keep up. As they can explore as much vocabulary as they are able.
Rabeya S.Tarveen Walia like this

This is what I feel about the choice.

Both lexis and syntax go hand in hand to express thoughts. Especially while teaching English for the first time to a child, content comprehension is what matters most,, in my opinion. Ask questions with the required the syntax (from the lesson itself) so children can look in comfort for single words, then a two-word phrase and so on. After such sufficient practice, children can be led to form their own sentences--single sentences with one subject and a verb, later adding 'and', 'but', 'or', then move on 'wh' word clauses and so on. In the mean time the focus should be on picking words that highlight comprehension of lesson content as responses.

But right through the focus should be on the lesson content--messages conveyed, not on how they are getting conveyed.

Much later, probably after five or six years of learning, they can be introduced to minimal knowledge of grammatical terms so they can discuss among themselves or with the teacher how sentences get constructed--with both lexis and structure. Then they can be led to how paragraphs get formed linked through thought and structure. Here more linking devices come into play. Also they can be encouraged to think of replacing words with words. And so on.

TOEFL, Business and ESL Instructor; Russian Translator
When I learned English, the method was to first listen, build vocabulary using visual icons, then begin verbalizing starting with labialization. Oh, by the way, I was a baby.

I learned how to converse with my wife by listening to how her Russian speaking parents do it. I imitated them.

The point hear that sentence structure (what seems to be meant by "grammar" in this thread) is only one aspect of communication.

English Teacher Trainer for more than 15 Years at Wide Range of Schools & Centers
The four skills of the language should go together hand in hand. One skill should lead to the next to complete the whole cycle for either the young student or the Adult to grasp the language and be able to communicate using it. Instead of introducing voc. first, it should be done in the form of a story, a picture or a video to help the students figure out what they should be talking about. Later on, after introducing the new words, you can move on to how to put them in correct sentences using the structure required. After that, you move on dealing with the speaking, writing, application, synthesis and finally creativity. It's a moving cycle !! It's not a matter of choice which one comes first!!

if faced with the choice, I'd go with vocabulary first.

I will bow to those with superior knowledge.

I do think however learning a language is not the same as learning a second language for an hour a week. This I think is a really important difference .

My limited experience with learning second languages in the classroom is that vocabulary biased teaching often means that students of different levels cannot maintain the same progress and indeed the mass of vocabulary can be too much. Students have to grapple with a new structure and a mass of new words and become disheartened by it all.

I am expected to do that in class to an extent. In a month block, if you are not careful, you can easily loose the half of the class who find it difficult or who are unwilling to do the homework.

When we adapt what we do to learning a structure and then slipping in the vocabulary afterwards the students are able to at least get the pattern down. Even with limited vocabulary they can say something and take the pattern into the next block so they can take part in the next element.

Don't forget I am talking about lower levels of learners and these first structures are really basic and only take a short time to introduce.

In addition, if we sometimes compare the structure in English with the structure in Japanese (Where I teach) they can relate between the two even though they are very different in form and that gives the students at least an idea of what we are doing.

I do four units of language instruction: Vocabulary, Pronunciation, Grammar, and Conversation. Each unit works on the previous ones.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

<students of different levels>

I will let students choose their own vocabulary. Once we have the class lexicon, I might give exercises to strengthen its knowledge. If some students get ahead of others, I might start on Pronunciation exercises with the class's vocabulary with them.

TOEFL, Business and ESL Instructor; Russian Translator
I am a big promoter of differentiated learning at lower levels. In my classes if a student is working hard, whatever the test scores, everyone gets a minimum of a C. We learn in different ways and at different rates. I have a 60 year old learner with a low confidence level who clings to a computer dictionary. This person learns SLOWLY. My job is to instill confidence that learning is possible in this case.

I will give exercises at different levels of difficulty in the same class. Who cares as long as the task is appropriate to the skill level.

For me, tests and quizzes are somewhat of a fiction to encourage learning. The process is what is important to me.

Choosing vocabulary is awesome. I use diagramming for that at least twice a week. Individualized learning actualizes learning in my view.

Building on previous lessons empowers the learner. That is great, too. Building on previous knowledge encourages confidence in the learner, thereby facilitating the learning process.
Tatjana J.Richard Tomlin and 1 other like this

I believe it is not the number of words you learn but their 'word power'.(How much do they let you do?)
The right vocabulary with simple logical grammar steps works wonders.

A rather rushed example should illustrate my point:
Take a simple S.V.C. sentence:- "I am happy."
We teach the verb 'to be'.
We give the students 10 feelings to begin with:
busy, happy, sad, hungry, thirsty, tired, sleepy, hot, cold, sick,.

Now off we go.
Exponential learning with power words.

Congratulations if we combine the combinations of these words, (8 pronouns + the verb 'to be' x 10 feelings) you will have learned 80 sentences.

At this point, a new emotion = another 8, an object word will add 12 and so on.
How about adding some linking verbs like ‘feel’ 'looks' 'seems' 'sounds' and multiplying that five fold that! (That’s 400 sentences folks!)
Next we learn how to use 'not' and double that to 800 sentences.
Now we learn how to turn the statement into a question. No new words but you are up to 1200 different sentences.
Use the past tense of the verb to be ( learn was and were) and you double it again to 2,400.
More power words? How about learning the colours. 10 colours possably.
Now you can describe the colour of things. and You've just got yourself another 1,600 descriptive sentences to use.

Do the same with a simple S.V.O sentence. I use "I eat an apple." and "I play tennis."
32 sentences with the pronouns.
again some simple vocab( some food or sports/games), then 'not' and a question form, while adding a bit more vocab.
Break down the subject and object into determiner adjective and noun, throw in some more blocks of vocab. (10 determiners or so including a/an, the, this/that these/those, a few/a little some many/ a lot and the possessives.)
Add a few more verbs and the first five verb tenses so that you can speak in the past present and future, then some extra information (Frequency, when where etc)...

And so it goes.
If you choose your words really carefully and use them in a logical progression with a bit of grammar and blocks of vocabulary the potential is amazing and the confidence the students get when they see the sentence count climb is great.
Colour code you word classes so the students know which goes where and practice... a lot.

I believe in this quick 'foundation' for all my new students, even those with experience, as the logical steps through the simple grammar often makes them aware of relationships between sentences that up until the were unaware of.
So to recap. Simple grammar, power words and as much speaking practice as possible.
That'll get you started.

Hoyt, I like your comment very much. This is what I referred to in my comment, it's not a matter of choice between voc and grammar, it's the process that we should care about. What we do in class is what matters, whether we are dealing with youngsters or adults. I appreciate and give you a big applause for your respect and patience with the very old student. So long as we want to learn there is hope. I strongly agree with you that "Building on previous lessons empowers the learner. Building on previous knowledge encourages confidence in the learner, thereby facilitating the learning process". We are the"facilitators", it's the process that encourages the students to get interested in learning not the choice.

I agree with Mohammed that the teaching of vocabulary should go hand in hand with grammar. And as most of you have pointed out, I would begin with vocabulary. I like Hoyt's gentle reminder of how we all learnt our first language as a baby - through the need to make meaning. As many of you have pointed out, the use of visuals can generate a great deal of relevant vocabulary which students can then use to communicate with. What they want to say and why, would dictate the form of communication they would use, whether spoken or written, and then the decision would be made on the genre that would be used, and the grammatical structures that would have to be part of the students repertoire.

MEB ingilizce öğretmeni
Vocabulary learning is as important as learning grammar. In my opinion, Both of them are necessary to write sucessfully

Diretor de Bilinguismo at UNO Internacional Brasil
Vocab comes first. Language Acquisition comes first, not Language Learning. So Grammar for Grammar's sake is nonsense, and helps very little in achieving a good level of fluency.

I quite agree Carlos.

Well I think I still disagree. Although I often disagree with hard and fast beliefs in many things. We need to be prepared to consider other options in any area of our own personal sphere. I think as in most things a balance allows for peoples differences. Some people may well like to work with pure vocabulary. I'm still not sure do what it with if you don't have a simple structure to in it use.
I believe as people seem to be different that there may be other ways. I although I have my pet belief I hope I am still in tune with my students who seem to be working with poor results. That is often a sign that what they are doing or what we are doing with them is not the way for them and I need to try something different.
I go into my classes at the beginning of each month with a plan but very rarely is each class the same blend of materials and methods because the make up of each class is also not identical.

When I learned French and German, it was natural to start with words and phrases and sentence structure, grammar in its structural form, although is still taught per se in many countries unfortunately,came later and always contextualized and linked with vocabulary. Language is too complex (both to teach and learn) to be divided into vocabulary and grammar. I think we were doing words and phrases in German for the whole three months before an actual grammar form was taught and as for French, the 'warming period' was even longer because we were younger, like 10 or 11.

Vocabulary, definitely! In order to communicate you need words. Words are the clue! How can you “organize a grammatically perfect structure” if you don´t manage enough words to do it?

For an extreme example.
We describe something.
For "I am happy." (SVC) you need three words.
For the personal pronouns you need another 7.
Add as many descriptive adjectives as you are able. (but you don't need any to progress.)
For the negative you need 1 'not'
To make the question you just shuffle what you have.
To make the past tense you need 2 'Was and were'
At any time you may add vocabulary of your choice but it is not essential.

Now repeat for "I eat an apple." (SVO) simple tense.
The simple form of do so you can make the negative form.
Again we shuffle to make a question.
Add extra vocab as you are able but it is not essential.

Now you can learn the possessive determiners (8), the other forms of determiners 8-10 should do and introduce countable and uncountable nouns and vocab of your choice minimum 2 or three of each.
Adjectives (enough to show adjective order and comparative/superlative) 8-10.
have and its forms and been to learn the 12 tense forms I use at this stage.

Another 20 words or so to teach the modals and Now we can start adding extra information (When where frequency etc)
Some conjunctions and the wh question words. and you are off building sentences and paragraphs.
Now see can see where you are and add as much more vocabulary as you like.
Structure is one thing, but if you want to speak properly no-one is suggesting you can do it without vocabulary.
On the other hand a student who learns the 100 words or so described hasn't fallen behind and can therefore do the same structurally as your best student with just a more limited vocabulary.
This is the point. Your students can progress along the road together. So many teachers ask how to teach classes of different abilities. Well there you have it. Logical progression, minimum vocabulary and additional vocabulary for differentiation.

It must be stressed that I am talking about teaching new students(many of them unmotivated) a second language for a short period of time each week. It is not the same as teaching a group of English students grammar.
You might not like my method but it is aimed at getting the best results from the materials available. It works with all levels of students that I have taught thus far. (except pre 10yr old)

Experienced English language teacher/ trainer/ coach,Cambridge BEC & YLE Oral examiner, CELTA, MA ( Eng)
Top Contributor
Wow Richard Tomlin...that is quite a detailed reply...and just what I taking on a few lower intermediate/ almost basic level learners, before I bring them up/they work on themselves with my help... to join the main class( intermediate level)...I will try this ...Tks.

If that was of help, the other thing I do is colour code, first the sentence types (Subject verb(inc prep) object/complement and Extra information (everything else) and the when breaking those down the word types. It helps the students to learn which word goes where.

DM (Admin & Training) at Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation
Top Contributor
Simply to answer the question of Mehment, I think, vocabulary should come first in teaching English. I teach my students Nouns-Noun Phrases-Verb-Verb Phrases according to context. I teach them pronunciation also even from the very beginning and gradually introduce grammar in the direct method: from examples to rules. I like my students learning English as a habit through a lot of practice so that they can use it naturally as far as practicable.
Nelson Bank likes this

English Teacher at Petrovsky College
I usually introduce the vocabulary in context first and then provide the grammar focus for the words given! E.g. when introducing vocabulary on travelling I later come to 'to be going to' structure and present continuous for future based on this VOC.
I always try to teach the combination of language aspects in connection
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Instructor at University: MUT
I think that grammar can only be acquired in a classroom situation while vocabulary can be acquired in so many different situations - the TV, songs, on the job, English speaking tourists, the Internet, etc. However, both grammar and vocabulary complement each other and should go in conjunction if the learner aspires to have acceptable proficiency.
Nonetheless, if the purpose is simple intrusive communication, one is able with a few words to express an idea. For example, a Mexican with poor English in a restaurant would place an order as such: "Me name Jose want eat. Me eat steak. Me no like blood in steak." Obviously, the man wants a well-done steak to eat. But no one would go about saying:"This is a subject and that is a predicate." I am not saying I would give preference to vocabulary. The integral components which should go together and with no preference of one over the other are: Comprehension, Lexicalization, Structure, Discourse, Fluency.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this

Some of my students told me they do not master the passive voice clauses in English, which is on the Finnish curriculum. I remember thinking if that was a vocabulary issue or a grammar issue for them. Imagine that you don't know what the words "cat" and "mouse" mean, and you are faced with clauses like "The cat ate the mouse." and The mouse was eaten." Of course, my students know those words but they have tougher vocabulary to memorize.

That is my point. I am arguing that kids learn should learn the simple structure with simple words. "The mouse was eaten by the cat" will do fine.
If you have looked at the parts of that sentence, the subject, the verb and the object you can now substitute other words you already know..
"The fish was eaten by the cat"
"The fish was eaten by John "
"The fish was cooked by John "
Once you have the structure, (positive sentence, negative sentence, question form and it's relation other verb tenses) THEN you can look at new vocabulary. (In this case V3 verbs)
We shouldn't hit them with masses of vocabulary at the same time. It is too much and in the end the whole mass gets misunderstood.
That is my issue with textbooks. They come at you with a new structure and a mass of vocabulary that you may or may not have seen before at the same time and the student gets overwhelmed.
KM Abdul Mumin likes this
<Discourse, Fluency>

Ziad, I'm wondering - can you tell me the difference between discourse and fluency? Thanks.

Grammar probably isn't necessary at all. Grammar is what teachers are taught to teach but studies show it is actually counter-productive to language learning. Grammar is a false god and doesn't help students especially in conversation. (If we are happy we smile and don't say anything.
What teachers didn't learn in teacher school is that grammar is linear (i.e. Adjectives describe nouns) but English is idiomatic or abstract and not given by grammar. For example there are very few nouns the adjective 'merry' describes or even places 'merry' can occur: Merry Christmas, merry widow, eat drink and be merry... maybe half a dozen appropriate uses for the word 'merry'. There is no 'merry wall' or 'merry chair' although these combinations are grammatically correct.
Without the guidelines of how English really works students may use a thesaurus and come up with distinctly non-English combinations like Merry New Year or Merry Birthday that are grammatically correct but not English. Because English is idiomatic and driven by expressions not grammar, students sound weird even when their grammar is perfect.
We have to be very careful not to mislead students about significance of grammar. Don't forget we picked up our first language with no grammar at all.
Mohammed B.mia khalifa and 1 other like this

I agree Richard. The structure must be taught to the students. Once students learn a particular structure as appropriate to their developmental stage, they can easily identify it in new readings they come across and they can see how new vocabulary can fit into it. I introduce new vocabulary according to themes and tend to ensure students are exposed to them over a week. To do this I have to create my own exercises and I cannot depend on texts.
Mohammed B.KM Abdul Mumin and 1 other like this

I'd like to look into these studies that say grammar is counter productive. My programmes run over a 10 week cycle and it's success is driven by the fact that students can apply what they have learnt in different contexts. This application comes from recognising the structure of the language they are using. My students who move on to the higher level later have come back to me to say they find it difficult to learn in certain classes where the teacher does not focus on the grammar.

At least, with vocabulary you can understand something

<a particular structure as appropriate>

I think brains are naturally interested in grammar - some more, some less. I use a simplified grammar for my classes, just parts of speech, simple, compound and complex sentences, and 9 or 12 verb tenses. I only start grammar after we've done vocabulary and pronunciation.
It may not be grammar per se, but the opportunity to do complex work.

I like teaching from familiar to unfamiliar, visible to invisible, simple to complex, concrete to abstract and explicit to implicit on the frequency basis. Sentences are explicit but grammar is implied in them. Repeating similar sentences help learners to acquire similar patterns of sentences.

At the elementary level, I teach familiar words in the learner's context using simple sentences repeatedly so that they can grasp grammar and produce similar sentences naturally. I need not explain them grammar in details.

In the later stages, structural approaches to grammar is essential, I think. The order I follow is nouns-noun phrases, verb-verb phrases. Of course, I explain the rules of grammar as a last resort.
Richard Tomlin likes this

Possibly I should stop calling what I teach grammar. It's barely deserves the name anyway It seems to create a misconception of what I am talking about. It is a few simple structures onto which to pin a few simple words.
There also seems to be this insistence to compare the way we pick up vocabulary in our native language with learning a second language at whatever age for an hour or so a week. They are not the same things and need different approaches. Students learning a second language do not have the range of vocabulary to choose from initially, and force feeding them a lot of new words while trying to get them to make coherent sentences is hard work for them and I think a reason that they a) fall behind and b) get dispirited. I think that I am arguing that vocabulary should almost be 'drip-fed' in the initial stages while the students master what to do with it. It is an exponential learning curve, the students can make rapid progress as time passes. I think we should just be patient initially.

is really a simple Vocabulary not much structure use without.
answer below...

Vocabulary is really not much use without a simple structure.
Teaching with no structure? Best of luck. We will agree to differ.

I agree Richard

If we learn how to teach grammar in teacher school and convince students they need it or they won't be fluent how can we change course now that we know it doesn't work? 95% of the texts at my adult ESL school were grammar texts and in the years I taught at this premiere school not one student graduated fluent in English. Enrollment was 2,000 students per year. Grammar is the wrong train. They can't get to their destination if we keep pumping them full of this garbage instead of finding out what does work and teaching properly. It wasn't in our education. We have to go way outside of what we know now in order to make a difference for our students.
Now that being an effective teacher takes more than we expected are we going to be the leader our students need or keep on shoveling grammar because that is all we know?

I wonder if we need to look at how grammar is integrated into a programme. I would say in a whole unit of study it forms about 20% of the unit. If my students were learning to write a narrative, I would begin with reading, look at vocabulary, start talking about the narrative, begin looking at a focused grammar item, begin some written work etc. I do not believe grammar can be taught in isolation. I certainly do not see any value in studying texts or working through textbook grammar exercises. None of us can remember or apply this knowledge in other scenarios. "Shovelling grammar" has no value. And I am sure most teachers of the language know enough about the art of teaching to address learning needs without only one instructional method.

Who said anything about 'shoveling grammar'?

As a child learns to speak only by listening to his/her parents and all others, including teachers the first thing that he or she needs is the essential vocabulary to be able to communicate with them and not the grammar which is needed much later for purpose of analysis of a language and to understand it correctly. A child tries to communicate with others with the help of the words acquired by associating them with appropriate actions or objects during his/her listening to various people. So in teaching of English the grammar teaching may be delayed till the child has acquired the ability to speak fluently, howsoever grammatically incorrect it is. As both listening and speaking essentially need a good vocabulary on the part of a speaker it must precede the teaching grammar and not the vice versa, failing which with all the command of Grammar the child will miserably fail to communicate, defeating the main purpose of teaching -learning of English as a second or foreign language J.K.GANGAL