No, grammar and vocabulary aren’t everything a language learner needs (but they are important)

May 9, 2023

Language-focused instruction has dominated language lessons for years. Many teachers, coursebooks, and students prioritise intentional and explicit grammar and vocabulary study over meaning-focused input and output. But here’s the problem: Successful language learning requires both approaches. Focusing on language features alone isn’t enough to learn a language. But neither is relying solely on meaning-focused activities. 

One of the biggest challenges you face as a teacher is balancing these different approaches to make well-rounded language lessons. But, don’t worry. We’re here to help. In this article, you’ll learn more about language-focused learning and how to achieve this balance.

This is the last article in a four-part series about Paul Nation’s Four Strands of effective language teaching. If you haven't already, go back and read the other parts. Part one is about comprehensible input. Part two is about meaningful output. And part three is about fluency development.

What is language-focused learning?

Language-focused learning is the deliberate study of language features and their form. For example, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The aim of language-focused learning is to learn language items. Teachers sometimes lead these lessons with little input from the students. 

You can think of language-focused learning as intentional study, while meaning-focused learning is closer to experimental practice. If you’ve ever heard an older relative talk about learning Latin at school, they were probably talking about language-focused learning—grammar translation, word lists, and reading for detail.

If you put aside the negative reputation of these kinds of language lessons for a moment, you’ll see that language-focused learning has benefits as long as it meets certain conditions (more on that later).

Language-focused learning is one of the Four Strands of effective language learning as defined by Paul Nation. The other three are comprehensible input, meaningful output, and fluency development. When you combine these Four Strands, you create a balanced language course.

Language-focused activities

First, let’s take a look at some common activities that fit into language-focused learning:

• Detailed reading

• Substitution drills

• Grammar translation

• Dialogue memorizing

• Word list memorizing

• Pronunciation practice

• Feedback on written work

• Looking up words in dictionaries

There’s a good chance you’ve had success with these in your language lessons. But it’s important to remember that these alone are not enough for language learning. Combine these activities with meaning-focused input and output for best results. 

5 principles of effective language-focused learning

Follow these principles to make language-focussed learning activities part of a balanced language course:

1. Ensure that learners’ focus on language features is deliberate and conscious

2. Encourage learners to process the features in a deep and thoughtful way

3. Give learners the chance to pay attention to language features they have studied previously at a later date

4. Make sure learners can understand the language features they are focusing on

5. Provide learners with the chance to use the language features they are focusing on in meaning-focused exercises

A balanced approach to language teaching

Language learning experts tend to talk in absolutes. One the one hand, there are those who believe that focus on form (aka language focused learning) is all students need. On the other hand, some argue that comprehensible input alone is enough to learn a language.

But it shouldn’t be so dogmatic. Meaning-focused learning has proven benefits. But so does language-focused learning—especially when it comes to vocabulary (see Nation). All good language courses should include some focus on features and form.

Problems come up when that kind of instruction dominates at the expense of meaning-focused learning. Language classrooms all over the world are still teacher-led. With drawn-out explanations of grammar and vocabulary, there’s no time in class for the other three strands.

Teachers stick to the tried and tested focus on form that has dominated language teaching for centuries for a couple of reasons.

First, schools and teachers prioritize focusing on form because it gives the impression of growth. For example, vocabulary progress is easy to see. If you remember 50 words one week and 60 the next, that’s tangible progress. 

Second, it’s more comfortable for teachers. When you make the switch to balanced language lessons, you don’t teach as much. You’re a planner, a guide, a facilitator. For many teachers, this means stepping out of their comfort zone. It’s easier to stand by the board and explain language features.

But only focusing on language features is not enough. Research shows that language-focused learning is most effective when combined with meaning-focused learning.

Let’s look at an example. Class A does regular extensive reading—a meaning-focused activity—but also does a word quiz every week. The teacher gives them 20 words to memorize. Learners take a quiz and get a score each Friday. Sometimes a learner sees one of the words from the lists in a book. 

This is what leads to acquisition—not only the memorization of words but also encountering them in meaning-focused activities.

To make language-focused instruction work, there needs to be balance in the course. Nation recommends each of the Four Strands has roughly equal time in the course. So 25% each. To be more precise, he recommends no more than 25% for language-focused learning and no less than 25% for each of the meaning-focused strands.

This is where many language courses fall short. Form-focused activities count for way more than 25%. Which leaves students with not enough practice to acquire language.

Getting the right balance isn’t easy. But if you’re ready to give your students the benefits of language-focused learning, ZenGengo can help. ZenGengo generates the perfect activities for language-focused learning. You can use multi choice assignments for detailed reading, speaking drill assignments for AI-powered pronunciation practice, text gap fill assignments to review and reinforce grammar, and vocab test assignments to assess word knowledge. ZenGengo can also help you make meaning-focused activities. So you can create balanced language lessons.


Can ZenGengo do both meaning-focused and language-focused activities?

Yes! ZenGengo is one of the only platforms that help learners with all four language skills. ZenGengo was built with Nation’s Four Strands in mind, so it’s the perfect platform for building balanced language lessons and activities.

How can ZenGengo help me plan my lessons?

ZenGengo can help you make language lessons in a flash. Either copy and paste a text into the Lesson Wizard, or select one of our Lesson Library resources and supplement it with your own materials. You can make activities that meet the needs of your class in minutes.