SLD overviews: Focus on Form

The term Focus on Form (FoF) was coined by Long in 1991 as a response to the non-interventionist focus on meaning, i.e. Natural Approach.  It claims that implicit learning is not sufficient for the acquisition of a second language (Larsen Freeman, p. 525 in Long, 2010). The same inefficiency happens with the related L2 comprehensible input that “is necessary, but not sufficient” (Long, 1998).

According to FoF, paying attention to contextualized linguistic features, such as grammatical structures, is necessary for students who face challenges understanding and producing meaning. Focus on Form finds the “happy balance” between both implicit teaching and Focus on Forms (FoFs), the latter being equivalent to work on isolated linguistic structures in a sequential or non sequential manner, i.e. Grammar-Translation.

The “form” in FoF does not rely on drilling exercises or syllabuses focused on grammar features but on learner communication needs.  As Long noticed (1998), confusing this term with the umbrella of Form-Focused Instruction (FFI) that may include FoF and FoFs, is not uncommon.

FoF takes place with activities and lessons based in meaning, and it is not planned in advance.  FoF claims to deal with the meaningful and formal elements of language as part of the same system, and in this order: “focus on form entails a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features” (Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3). In other words, FoF provides negative feedback through error correction o recasts after errors are made.

Even though Long (1998) emphasizes that FoF needs to be adapted to different tasks and local conditions, this example may help visualize such an ambiguous term:

“As an illustration of how it might occur [Focus on Form], let us imagine that while working in pairs (…), a number of learners are repeatedly heard to use a form considered insufficiently polite, e.g., ‘I want X seats’ for ‘I’d like X seats’, to ignore key words like ‘window’ and ‘aisle’, and ‘coach’ and ‘business’, or to employ singular ‘seat’ when plural ‘seats’ is required. One way focus on form might be achieved is through corrective feedback built into the materials themselves, e.g., through the output of task (iii) being rejected as input for task (iv) in a travel simulation, thereby alerting students to the existence and/or identity of error. Alternatively, the teacher might briefly interrupt the group work to draw students’ attention to the problems, perhaps by modeling one member of a pair of forms and asking the class if it is good or bad, perhaps by explaining the difference between the pairs of target forms, or perhaps simply by pointing to the words on the board.” (Long, 1998, p. 188).

The FoF addresses one of the common issues within the implementation of communicative approaches: underdevelopment of grammatical competence, on account of inadequate sanctioning.

The principle of FoF, although sometimes misunderstood, is particularly fashionable in SLA, supported and developed by a number of distinguished and emerging scholars, and being the source of many studies, some of them comparing its results to implicit instruction, also very popular among our colleagues. FoF has also been compared with FoFs (Norris & Ortega, 2000), surprisingly showing no differences in terms of their effectiveness [1]. Nevertheless, SLA experts tend to study and support FFI, instead of FoF, as it happens with the recent case of Spada (2011).

All things considered, advantages and disadvantages of the FoF by itself are difficult to elucidate. Among their benefits, we could include developing grammatical competence (mutually communicative competence) and finding the missing link between formal language and communicative tasks.  On the other hand, it could be argued that its vagueness lead to confuse forms with rules (Davis, 2009) and forms, taking into account that FoF is just a methodological principle. FoF is difficult to apply it in the classroom and textbooks since we do not count with a set of parameters: its own essence is adaptive. It depends on teachers’ performance which is a variable factor, to say the least.

›Davis, J. Rule and Meaning in the Teaching of Grammar. Language and Linguistics Compass (2009) 3: 199–221.
›Doughty, C. & and Williams, J. Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1998.
›Long, M. H. Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In de Bot, K., Ginsberg, R. B., & Kramsch, C. (eds.), Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1991. Quoted in: Long, M. H. Focus on form in Task-Based Language Teaching. University of Hawaii at Manoa, McGraw-Hill, 1998.
›Long, M. H. The Handbook of Language Teaching. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
›Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-
analysis. Language Learning (2000) 50: 417-528.
›Sheen, R. ‘Focus on form’ and ‘focus on forms’. ELT J (2002) 56 (3): 303-305.
›Spada, Nina. Beyond form-focused instruction: Reflections on past, present and future research in Language Teaching (2011) 44 (2): 225–236.

[1] Conclusions in the article are limited, as the authors claim.  Ron Sheen (2002) has considered that Ortega & Norris confuse Focus on Form with Focus on Forms in certain cases.

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