Both students and teachers of English as a second language know very well how important vocabulary is. Neither the knowledge of grammar nor the pronunciation practice will help if students are not given the chance to learn and revise new lexis. Teaching grammar or vocabulary..... what should come first? Beyond any doubt lexis takes the lead when it comes to foreign language teaching. It is the words that make speakers and writers able to use English productively. Due to the knowledge of vocabulary we are able to communicate and produce new written or spoken texts. This does not mean that grammar becomes unnecessary, but it is common knowledge that no verbal message will ever be possible if students lack words which have always remained essential and irreplaceable in language input and output.
Therefore, whenever language acquisition is to take place, the teaching of vocabulary must not be neglected or, as some consider possible, left to take care of itself. Teachers should consciously select, group, effectively present and, what is more, practise and activate the new lexical items that appear in teaching materials.
1. Reasons for the emphasis on teaching vocabulary
There have always existed various approaches in methodology concerning the importance of lexis and its place in the process of foreign language teaching. For the array of reasons, vocabulary has been either neglected or emphasised for a change. Particularly, in the past years lexis was very much neglected in favour of grammar that was believed to be the only key to language learning. (French Allen V., 'Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary', Oxford University Press,1983, p.1) However recently, both learners and teachers have realised that in the best classes there should be a balance between teaching grammar and vocabulary. In lieu of emphasising one language sphere, students should learn language structures along with new lexis, as there is no conflict between developing a good command of grammar and acquiring the most necessary vocabulary.
Still, much more attention should be devoted to vocabulary teaching because it is a more complex and time-consuming procedure than that of teaching grammar. With vocabulary we need varied explanation methods and far more practice. It is not sufficient to explain an encountered word once. It needs to be 'established' which entails repetition for several times and appearance in various types of activities. That requires resourceful teaching techniques and well-prepared, useful and interesting activities. We must also remember that grammatical structures are only few as compared to the tremendous amount of words in English lexicon, which constantly absorbs new words in different registers, dialects and styles.
Finally, one more argument for the importance of vocabulary teaching is communication. What we need more is the knowledge of words rather than grammar when it comes to an independent text creation. Starting from simple elementary utterances through intermediate text creation ending with production of entire advanced texts, a foreign language student must know a myriad of words (depending on the level) if he or she wishes to convey any coherent information. Thus, communication is beyond doubt the target of language teaching, which makes it the main reason for vocabulary acquisition.
1.1. Grammatical correctness versus lexical competence
Vocabulary teaching has come in the limelight as soon as teachers realised that there is no communication possible when learners lack words. (French Allen V., 'Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary', Oxford University Press,1983, p.5) The act of communication is possible when we are capable of naming objects, events, actions, feelings, etc. and to do so we need words. The more lexical items we know, the more detailed and advanced sentences we can generate. If we think of any language output as of a simple message that we want to convey, we realise that words become indispensable. As to grammatical correctness, it is obviously required if we want to speak of advanced students and define their language competence as high. However, what counts for an average student is the matter of comprehension i.e. the ability to understand and be understood. Therefore, regardless of structural accuracy (tremendously vital for classroom work), learners knowing basic meanings of words will be able to produce sentences on their own and they will be comprehended despite grammatical mistakes. For instance, a student who says "I have had a car accident yesterday." commits a grievous tense mistake in English but he is easily understood because of the word 'yesterday' that undeniably carries the message. A student who says "I'm working here since 1983." makes another common tense mistake but it does not prevent him or her from being understood. This example shows that in order to generate a simple and understandable utterances we need vocabulary that becomes dominant over grammar. Especially, in real life when foreign language students find themselves in outside-the-classroom circumstances they need to produce sentences themselves and comprehend what is spoken or written to them. After all, it is various kinds of dictionaries not grammar books that non-native speakers carry with themselves.
2. "Knowing" a word and what it implies
For a second language student the question "what does this word mean?" is possible to arise whenever they contact the foreign language both inside and outside the classroom. The more words a student has mastered the greater the chance that they will not raise that question too frequently. Nevertheless, it is difficult to become so competent a user of second language lexis so as to shrink from this question at all, as there always remain a number of vocabulary items we do not know.
What "knowing" of a word is, then? What knowledge we expect our students to possess when we aim at vocabulary teaching in our language classes? Undoubtedly, it must be emphasised that to know the equivalent of a word in the mother tongue and to know the word's denotation ( concrete items called 'realia' to which the word refers) is not enough. This useful information sooner or later appears in our language education, but it is merely a part of what the knowledge of a word implies.
In the first place, we must realise that the exhaustive meaning of the word entails knowing not only its reference but also the word's multiple meanings. To be more precise, students must know that lexical items frequently have more than one meaning, which can alter much depending on such factors as e.g. context in which the word is used. There are more grammatical, conceptual and stylistic levels we must understand while learning and teaching vocabulary. Therefore 'knowing a word' implies the knowledge of such essential data as:
• the meaning(s) of the word, which is the command of the basic meaning and the numerous related or unrelated meanings of the same word,
• the contextual meaning which illustrates the word due to the context in which the item appears,
• sense relations: synonyms and antonyms, which show the meaning of a word in relation to other words,
• the collocations, namely the relationship between items which co-occur and are used together frequently,
• the use of metaphor and idiom, the figurative and idiomatic meaning(s) of a word,
• the style and register of a word, that is, knowing the limitations of the word use depending on a situation and a status of a person with whom we communicate (e.g. formal versus informal use of words),
• word formation which governs the shape of words and their grammatical value (e.g. implies the knowledge of suffixes and prefixes that are used with a particular word),
• the command of word grammar, namely, how the word can change according to its grammatical status (e.g. whether the noun is countable or uncountable, or whether the verb is transitive or intransitive, etc., which changes grammatical patterns the word fits into).
Practically speaking, one word form can have a range of meanings in various contexts, different grammatical forms and can compose into idioms and phrasal verbs that also may have independent meanings and registers, and we must know all these data so as to 'know' a word thoroughly. It is sufficient to open a professional monolingual dictionary to find a perfect example illustrating the word's functions enumerated above. The lexical item 'face', which can be taken as an example, basically refers to "front of your head" and as we read in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English it is "the front part of your head where your eyes, nose and mouth are: She had a beautiful face. / A big smile spread across his face. / I could see from the look on her face that something was wrong. (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 2003, p.558) However, beside the word's basic meaning the same dictionary provides us with twenty eight more different ways of usage of 'face' as a noun, eight meanings of 'face' as a verb where additionally 'face' is accompanied by prepositions e.g. 'down' (face down) or 'up to' (face up to) and composes into phrasal verbs. What we receive as a result is more than one basic meaning referring to a human face but a collection of over thirty six other meanings of the same word form depending on the context in which they are used.
Thus, being aware of multiple meanings that a word possesses, we should always provide our students with careful explanation of a vocabulary item in context and sufficient number of practical activities. This will let our students understand and activate the new item in more than one of its meanings and use a word in a variety of new contexts, as the learning of vocabulary must not be dry and theoretical but accompanied by numerous opportunities for classroom interaction in which learners become fluent with words.
1. French Allen V., Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary, Oxford University Press, 1983
2. Harmer J., The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman Group UK Ltd, 1998
3. Hatch E. and Brown Ch., Vocabulary, Semantics and Language Education, Cambridge University Press, 1995