F is for Focus on Form

13 03 2011

In his absurdist, mildly funny novel Nowhere Man (Picador, 2004), Aleksandar Hemon describes a scene where the protagonist, a Bosnian, has applied for a job as an English teacher (‘strictly out of despair’) in an ESL school in Chicago. He is given a tour of the school, and visits an advanced class where there is a discussion in progress about Siamese twins:

“I must say,” the man whom I recognised as Mihalka said, “that it is not perfectly pleasant when I watch them.”

“They are monsters,” said a woman in a dark, stern suit…

“They are humans,” Mihalka said, then lifted his index finger, enunciating an important statement.  “When I had been a little child, I had had a friend who had had a big head…. Every child had told him about his big head and had kicked him with a big stick on his head.  I had been very sad,” Mihalka said, nodding, as if to show the painful recoil of the big head.

“We are learning Past Perfect,” the teacher said to us, and smiled benevolently…

“I must know Past Perfect,” Mihalka said, and shrugged resignedly, as if Past Perfect were death and he were ready for it.

The scene nicely captures a number of the tensions that characterise interaction in the ESL/EFL classroom, not least the tension between, on the one hand, meaningful interaction (“Let’s talk about Siamese twins”) and, on the other, a focus on form (“Let’s use the past perfect”).

(Normally, of course, the focus on form is engineered by the teacher, not the learner. What’s interesting, in this case, is Mihalka’s dogged – if flawed – attempts to use ‘the structure of the day’. Is this because he is conscious that the teacher’s agenda is primarily form-focussed? Or is he the kind of learner who likes to try new forms out for size? Well, we’ll never know.)

Just to remind you, a focus on form “overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long 1991, quoted in Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3). Typically, this might take the form of overt correction, or of gentle nudging, e.g. by asking for clarification, or by re-casting (or reformulating) what the learner has said. This incidental approach contrasts with the more traditional and deliberate approach, where teaching is based on a syllabus of graded structures (or forms), and these are pre-taught in advance of activities designed to practise them – what Long called (somewhat confusingly) a focus on formS.

A focus on formS (plural) entails the pre-selection and pre-teaching of discrete items of language (it is thus proactive), whereas a focus on form is essentially reactive, entailing “a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features can expect to be effective” (Doughty and Williams, ibid. p. 3).   A focus on formS presumes a PPP methodology, where presentation of pre-selected and pre-graded items precedes production, and where it is assumed that fluency arises out of accuracy.  A focus on form, on the other hand, fits better with a task-based approach, where learning is driven solely by the need to communicate and where, as in first language acquisition, accuracy is late-acquired.

Focusing on the form of learner language that has emerged in classroom interaction is also a mainstay of the Dogme philosophy. As Luke Meddings and I point out (in Teaching Unplugged):

Focussing on learners’ lives means that the language that emerges in class will be relevant to them, but there is still work to be done if both you and they are to make the most of it. This is where a focus on form comes in (p. 60).

In our book, we offer some strategies as to how to exploit the language that emerges in classroom interaction so as to incorporate a focus on form, without sacrificing real communication. These include:

1.                  Retrieve what the learner has just said.  Otherwise it will just remain as linguistic “noise”. This might mean simple making an informal note during a speaking activity, or, at times, writing the learner’s utterance on the board.

2.                  Repeat it.  Repeat it yourself; have other learners repeat it – even drill it! Drilling something has the effect of making it stand out from all the other things that happen in a language lesson.

3.                  Recast it.  Reformulate the learners’ interlanguage productions into a more target-like form. This is not the same as correction. It is simply a way of indicating “I know what you’re trying to say; this is how I would say it”.

4.                  Report it.  Ask learners to report what they said and heard in group work. Apart from anything else, knowing that they may have to report on their group work encourages learners to pay attention to what is going on.

5.                  Recycle it. Encourage learners to use the emergent items in new contexts. This may be simply asking for an example of their own that contextualises a new item of vocabulary, or it may involve learners creating a dialogue that embeds several of the new expressions that have come up.

I’m now wondering: in the case of Mihalka, in the ‘Siamese Twin’ lesson quoted above, which of these – if any – might have been the most effective strategy?

References:

Doughty, C., & Williams, J. (eds.) 1998. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. 2009. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.