The vocabulary-grammar continuum: Five core principles


Image credit: Jacob Feisley

In physics, the space-time continuum refers to the idea that space and time are very different at the extremes, yet are still parts of a continuous whole. They are intrinsically interwoven, dependent on one another, and must be mixed together to accurately describe what we observe in the universe around us.

We see another continuum in language.   Traditionally, grammar and vocabulary have been taught as discreet elements, treated separately in the classroom.   We are reminded of our own foreign language courses, learning the names of all the members of the family one day, conjugating French –er verbs the next, and having to assemble them together yet another.

But new research suggests considering a new approach, where grammar and vocabulary are taught together as overlapping, interdependent components through the “grammar of the phrase.” We call this the vocabulary-grammar continuum.

The vocabulary-grammar continuum is based on five core principles:

1) Efficiency

Researchers such as Eli Hinkel and Norbert Schmidt propose that students can acquire and remember more vocabulary when words are presented with partners in collocations, fixed expressions, and chunks. For example, the brain can store face a challenge as one unit in long-term memory, making retrieval much quicker.

2) Accuracy

Learning chunks of language means accurate and often complex grammar is already embedded within the phrase. For example, collocations such as build a factory, offer job opportunities, and affect the economy embed rules for count and non-count nouns and articles. This scaffolds grammatical accuracy from the beginning, a departure from having students just identify errors.

3) Flexibility

Words want to be with other words.   Once students learn a group of collocations or chunks and absorb their grammatical patterns, they can mix and match them to make new, meaningful phrases.   Share memories, have food, and bring news may become share news, bring food, or have memories.   Students can try out new substitutions to fit the context they are speaking or writing about.

4) Demystification

Presenting words together with other words helps students grasp the meaning of less concrete words, or what we call shadow words. For example, expect is a shadow word—high-frequency, but very difficult to understand when it appears alone. Shadow words become more accessible when attached to content words within a phrase, such as in expect rain or expect to see a friend.

5) Contextualization

By nature, phrases portray a richer story than isolated words. Get to know other people, invite them to lunch, look for something in common tell of a first encounter.   Isolated, get, invite, and look leave us wondering. When paired with partner words, they come to life. Choosing a strong set of phrases helps students see how they can be used within a specific context.

The concept of the grammar-vocabulary continuum is central to our teaching and to the materials we write.   Like the space-time continuum, it depicts what we as language teachers observe in the “universe of language,” where grammar and vocabulary, while different, are always bound together.

-Alice and Colin

4 replies »

    • I like this approach too! As a young child I learned chunks of language that meant something, but the individual words had little value. Now, as an ESOL instructor, I find that collocations make using new lexical items much easier for my students.

      Liked by 1 person

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