Vocabulary or Grammar

There is this debate in the world of ESL of whether vocabulary teaching should be the forefront of ESL education rather than grammar. According to the Illinois TESOL-BE convention in 2013, teaching vocabulary is in fact necessary and more effective to learning a new language. It is believed that form-based structure will follow later on in the acquisition process. Stephen Krashen is notorious for this kind of second language acquisition method -that is, students will eventually gain communicative competency while being immersed in the target language. As a former language student, learning vocabulary was necessary and much needed because I wanted to use the language as soon as possible. With this kind of determination to be able to communicate somewhat effectively could not come soon enough; I needed words not more grammar. However, as I linguistically developed in my new language and lived in areas where the language was commonly spoken, learning more grammar was actually a priority for me, thinking that I could simply look up words on my own since resources were easily accessible to me via internet.

I have been working at World Relief Chicago for about a year and the curriculum requires me to teach survival English (e.g., how to write a check, fill out personal information, communicate with doctors, etc.). My students are non-academic, low income, members of the local community, and the majority are Spanish speakers. Their main purpose is to learn English for better communication so that they could get a better job and help their children with schoolwork (in English). The first quarter I introduced vocabulary in different areas of society with accompanying phrases. For example, I would introduce health and useful phrases that they could use to speak with medical professionals (e.g., I have a  stomach flu). Students practiced writing the phrases, used flashcards of individualized medical words (e.g., ache), engaged in a short dialogue. Granted that some of the students knew more English than some, the problem that I kept noticing was: They were not able to respond correctly if they were to engage in a conversation with a native speaker of English. Yes, they learned words/phrases that corresponded to the questions and situation, but it was not enough for them to truly communicate effectively and sufficiently. As one student told me, “I need to speak.” This is when I decided to integrate some grammar teaching.

I am a strong supporter for grammar-based teaching in all context. I believe that students need to have a basic undertanding of grammar structure rather than solely focusing on vocabulary and phrases. After transitioning from survival English to grammar, my students were very happy because they wanted to learn how to communicate rather than what to communicate. From the basic foundation of grammar, I introduced my level 1 students pronouns and verbs. Did I completely change from one area to another? No, I did not. In keeping the curriculum in tacked, I integrated grammar rules while learning survival English so that they could express more beyond what they memorized as target phrases. I gave students a survey to see what they wanted to learn this quarter and they all said grammar. To further advocate for more grammar instruction in a survival English class, one must not assume that the students do not know how to write a check or how to go shopping using USD currency; they are fluent in this area already with a little more reinforcement at best. Switching from vocabulary to grammar does not mean that vocabulary instruction is ignored. Students do need to learn more vocabulary, but as they integrate themselves in society, they easily tend to learn vocabulary on their own (based on my experience).

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