Grammar or vocabulary by English with Stephen

Grammar or vocabulary?

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Hello and welcome to Episode 1 of Learning English with Stephen. My name is Stephen Greene and you can find a transcript of this podcast at

Time is precious. In our modern world, we don’t have enough time to do everything we want. We have work, school, family, and hundreds of other things, all demanding our time. It can be extremely difficult to find enough time to devote to learning English.

All of this means you have to use the time you have as efficiently and effectively as you can.

When I am talking to a new student, they often complain about their level of English grammar. They say they want to improve their grammar so they can use the language better.

In response, I often ask them a simple question: Would you prefer to improve your grammar or your vocabulary?

What would your answer be?

My answer is simple: Vocabulary is much more important than grammar.

My students are often surprised by this answer.

The traditional way of teaching a language has been to focus on the grammar. Classes look at the present simple, followed by the past simple and then the present continuous, and so on.

Most coursebooks are organised according to grammar, so you will do the present perfect in chapter 7, the first conditional in chapter 8.

Lots of teachers write grammar questions in their tests, or use grammatical words when explaining new language.

However, if you think about it, vocabulary is much more important than grammar.

Think about the type of mistake you might make and if somebody could understand you.

For example, if a student says “I play football yesterday,” there is a grammatical mistake. The speaker has not used the past of the verb ‘play’.

But do you understand her? Of course you do. The vocabulary tells you all of the important information. She may not be 100% correct, but she has succeeded in communicating her idea.

A different example. “I played garden yesterday.” In this example, the speaker is correct, grammatically. However, the vocabulary does not make any sense.

Another example.

I used to teach English in London. We had students coming from all over the world to study English with us. I remember one student who used to ask the most complicated questions about English. They were very challenging, often with no easy answer. They were  very interesting questions and often generated a lot of debate in the teachers’ room as we tried to find a good answer.

The problem was, though, that the student’s vocabulary was not very good. He spent time at home writing the questions and then read them to me from a piece of paper or just asked me to read them. I think he also got help from friends who had a better level of English.

This problem meant it was very difficult to talk about the answers, simply because he didn’t understand me.

This student knew almost everything about how the grammar worked. But he knew very little about how to express this knowledge in English. Also, he was not very interested in improving his vocabulary. Instead, he just wanted to ask more questions about grammar.

I tried to explain that his grammar was good enough and that he needed to spend his time looking at vocabulary, but I don’t think he believed me.

We will talk more about what types of vocabulary you can learn and how the brain remembers vocabulary, but for now, the most important thing to remember is that vocabulary is more important than grammar. If you have a limited timed available to study, focus on vocabulary before grammar.

I am not saying we should ignore the grammar of a language. We need to know the basics about the rules of the language. But we need to know much, much more about the words of a language.

What about you? Do you focus on the grammar of English or the vocabulary? What do you do to improve either your grammar or your vocabulary? Leave me a message and I’ll try to answer you. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram at Learning English with Stephen. And, as I mentioned earlier, I have my own blog so make sure you follow me for all the latest information at

Until next week, goodbye and happy studies.


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