Focus on Form

Focus on form (also called form-focused instruction) comes from the idea that ‘traditional’ grammar instruction – the teaching of isolated grammar forms in a discrete, explicit fashion – is insufficient to promote acquisition (Long 1991, Long and Robinson 1998). On the other hand a purely communicative approach is also inadequate to produce high levels of target-like accuracy (Harley and Swain 1984, Swain 1985, 1998, Swain and Lapkin 1998).

There is a growing belief that learners in content-based programmes such as French immersion need more opportunities to focus on form and receive corrective feedback.

Lightbown and Spada page 170

In other words, attention needs to be drawn to language items, alongside corrective feedback, within content-based lessons.

Michael Long has argued that “comprehensible L2 input is necessary but not sufficient.” In his short paper, ‘Focus on form in task-based language teaching‘, he first points to the drawbacks of ‘Focus on Forms‘ and ‘Focus on Meaning‘, suggesting a middle ground which he (rather confusingly to me) calls ‘Focus on Form‘. It has led to further writing and research, including Doughty and Williams 1998 book ‘Focus on Form in Classroom Language Acquisition‘.

Current interest in focus on form is motivated, in part, by the findings of immersion and naturalistic acquisition studies that suggest that when classroom second language learning is entirely experiential and meaning-focused, some linguistic features do not ultimately develop to targetlike levels…This is despite years of meaningful input and opportunities for interaction.

Doughty and Williams, 1998

Focus on Forms

A traditional language syllabus which is designed around discrete language items which the learner is expected to master and then synthesize with other language items. BUT second language acquisition doesn’t work like this and it’s a one size fits all approach so doesn’t meet individual learner needs.

Focus on Meaning

An approach where the emphasis is on comprehensible input and communication, which assumes that much language learning is incidental and implicit. BUT while it might develop receptive skills, production skills will lag far behind because of an absence of explicit teaching of language items and corrective feedback.

Merrill Swain’s research into content-based French immersion lessons in Canada has found that even though students may attain age-appropriate levels in curriculum subjects, they do not reach a high level of proficiency in the French language. This is partly due to a lack of output, but also because of a lack of focus on the explicit teaching of language items.

There is increasing evidence that learners continue to have difficulty with basic structures of the language in programmes that offer little or no form-focused instruction.

In other words, language acquisition won’t take care of itself.

Focus on Form

Focus on Form involves an occasional shift of attention to language features – by students, perhaps in groups, as well as the teacher – as they arise in lessons in which the focus is on meaning or communication. This might happen when learners have comprehension or production problems. It is essentially a form of corrective feedback which can happen on a one-to-one basis or as a whole class discussion. It can’t be planned for and it arises out of interaction. The overall purpose is to encourage noticing of specific language features. Some people suggest planning for focus on form and for making it a larger part of a teaching sequence. But by responding to language problems, it means that a focus on form responds to learner needs rather than predetermining the form.

Long and Robinson argue that paying attention to language forms within a meaning-based lesson means that language forms are provided with ‘cognitive processing support’ by the meaning. In other words, meaning makes the form accuracy more relevant.

during an otherwise meaning focused classroom lesson, focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features – by the teacher and/or one or more students – triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production.

(Long and Robinson page 23)

Focus on form is closely bound by the idea of noticing or attention raising, because it draws attention to language forms. In other words, the intended outcome of Focus on Form is noticing.

What language items to teach in focus on form?

It has been argued that focus on form works better for some language items than it does for others.

Items that come up a lot in regular classroom input: for example, question formation may be a better candidate for focus on form than using adverbs, since using questions comes up more in the classroom than using adverbs.

Irregular verbs may be a good candidate for focus on form.

Items that don’t effect comprehension make good candidates for FFI because they can go unnoticed. For example, in ‘he go to London’, the meaning is clear; omission of the third person singular ‘s’ can therefore go unnoticed.

Items that cause problems for a large proportion of students in a class because of L1 influence also make good candidates for FFI.

[see also Doughty and Williams chapter 10]

[Research studies] provide support for the hypothesis that form-focused instruction and corrective feedback within communicative and content-based second and foreign language programmes can help learners improve their knowledge and use of particular grammatical features.

Lightbown and Spada p.175

Focus on Form activities

  • collaborative group work using the form in communicative activities; this might involve teacher intervention
  • dictogloss
  • written and oral activities
  • self evaluation activities
  • input enhancement: reading or listening material is designed to contain a large number of examples of a particular language type. These might also be highlighted on the page.
  • recasts


Lyster (1998), Negotiation of form, recasts and explicit correction in relation to error types and learner repair in immersion classrooms. Language Learning 48:183-218

Mackey and Philp (1998), Conversational interaction and second language development, recasts, response and red herrings. Modern Language Journal 82:338-356



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