Scholarly article on topic 'Implementation of Focus on Form: Teachers’ and Students’ Conceptions'

Implementation of Focus on Form: Teachers’ and Students’ Conceptions Academic research paper on "Educational sciences"

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{"Focus on Form (FoF)" / "communicative approach" / "teachers’ views" / "students’ views"}

Abstract of research paper on Educational sciences, author of scientific article — Sarimah Shamsudin, Hamid Reza Karim

Abstract Teachers and students play a significant role in the implementation of any approach to the teaching and learning of English. The Focus on Form (FoF) approach to teaching English in communicative classrooms has attracted the attention of many English language instructors. This papers aims to reflect upon the teachers’ and students’ conceptions of the FoF approach in four Iranian EFL classes. The teachers’ views were derived from interviews whereas the students’ views were drawn from a questionnaire. Consideration of these views would enable English language teachers, researchers and curricula planners to achieve a higher knowledge of the implementation of FoF in different contexts.

Academic research paper on topic "Implementation of Focus on Form: Teachers’ and Students’ Conceptions"

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Procedía - Social and Behavioral Sciences 70 (2013) 1265 - 1274

Akdeniz Language Studies Conference 2012

Implementation of focus on fom: Teachers' and students'


Sarimah Shamsudina*, Hamid Reza Karimbc

aLanguage Academy, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, UTMInternational Campus, Jalan Semarak, 54100, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia bFaculty of Education, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, UTM, Skudai, 81310, Johor, Malaysia c Ministry of Education, Farhangiyan University, Semnan Pardis, Iran


Teachers and students play a significant role in the implementation of any approach to the teaching and learning of English. The Focus on Form (FoF) approach to teaching English in communicative classrooms has attracted the attention of many English language instructors. This papers aims to reflect upon the teachers' and students' conceptions of the FoF approach in four Iranian EFL classes. The teachers' views were derived from interviews whereas the students' views were drawn from a questionnaire. Consideration of these views would enable English language teachers, researchers and curricula planners to achieve a higher knowledge of the implementation of FoF in different contexts.

© 2012 The Authors. Published b y Els evier Ltd. Selection and peer-review under responsibility of ALSC 2012

Keywords: Focus on Form (FoF); communtcattve approach; teachers' views; students' views

1. Introduction

Among several approaches to second and foreign language teaching, there has been focus of attention on different language aspects such as form, meaning and communication over the recent years. Each of these aspects has led to different methods and approaches. In any language teaching approach, there are some important factors among which teachers' and learners' perceptions and beliefs play an important role in the improvement of the approach (Brown, 2009; Schulz, 1996). Focus on Form (FoF) as an approach which has attracted many attentions has been implemented in different ESL as well as EFL

* Corresponding author. Tel.: +603-2615-4479; fax: +603-2615-4212. E-mail address:,

1877-0428 © 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and peer-review under responsibility of ALSC 2012 doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.01.186

contexts. Studying teachers' and learners' views on such approach can be beneficial for different researchers and instructors. This paper therefore intends to introduce the concept of FoF and then present teachers' and learners' conceptions of FoF through data gathered from interviews with the teachers and questionnaire distributed to the students who participated in this study.

1.1. Focus on Form approach

Language form, grammar or structure instruction has been an attractive and challenging issue among the scholars over the previous century. Some discussions include topics such as the way in presenting grammar to learners, the amount of time and attention that should be paid on it and the degree of explicitness of teaching grammar. According to Hinkel and Fotos (2002), the evolution in using grammar in teaching a language started from teaching traditional grammar instruction which later gave birth to audio-lingual, direct method, functional method and communicative approaches.

Regarding the issue of explicitness in teaching grammar, it should be noted that by the 1960s, cognitive approaches to instruction became popular. Although based on cognitive approaches, there was a shift to explicit instruction of grammar in the 1970s. This is followed by the implicit teaching of grammar through communicative approaches in which the goal was meaningful interactions. As there was no emphasis on explicit way of teaching grammar, it was expected that accuracy would be acquired naturally.

Studies on the advantages of both explicit and implicit approach have shown that extreme attention to one of them may hinder teaching a foreign or second language. While some studies (Long, 1991; Green & Hecht, 1992; Winitz, 1996) point to the disadvantages of traditional attention to language grammar, other surveys (Scott, 1990; Skehan, 1996; Norris & Ortega, 2001) argue on the problems of using solely communicative approaches.

Regarding those who support attention to formal instruction, according to Poole (2005), skilled language teachers maintained that there are advantages in careful application of repetition, error corrections and drills for teaching a language in the classroom. Similarly, Gass and Selinker (2008) suggested that meaningful input alone cannot lead to the learning of complex structures. This led to the growth of an approach called form-focused instruction or FoF through which there would be application of formal teaching in meaning-based and communicative context.

Long (1991, pp. 45^46) defines FoF as an approach that "overtly draws students' attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication'. According to this definition, FoF causes some kind of learners' attention to linguistic forms. The term 'form' mostly refers to grammar, but as Ellis, Basturkmen and Loewen (2001b) suggest, form in FoF refers to phonology, vocabulary, grammar, discourse, and even spelling. Furthermore, Ellis (2001, pp. 12) refers to FoF as "any planned or incidental instructional activity that is intended to induce language learners to pay attention to linguistic form" whereas Spada (1997, p. 73) defines FoF as "any pedagogical efforts to draw learners' attention to language either implicitly or explicitly".

Ellis (2001) suggests two types of FoF: planned and incidental. Planned FoF includes integration of linguistic items that have been selected before the class during meaning-based activities by input (flood/enhancement) or output (error correction in using of forms). On the other hand, incidental FoF is a set of unplanned time-outs of attention to linguistic forms during meaning-focused activities in the classroom.

In addition, Ellis, Basturkmen and Loewen (2001a, p. 294) describe a Focus on Form Episode (FFE) as the unit of analysis in incidental FoF studies in which each FFE includes instances "where the attention to linguistic form started and the point where it ended. The endpoint occurred when either the topic changed back to a focus on meaning or, sometimes, to a focus on a different linguistic form/' They further

distinguish two types of incidental FFEs: preemptive and reactive episodes. According to Ellis et al. (2001b), reactive FoF occurs when there is an erroneous production by a student that is reacted by the teacher or other students to correct the utterance. On the other hand, preemptive FoF is the teacher's or learners' attempt to pay attention to linguistic item(s) to stop the occurrence of an incorrect form.

As stated, reactive FoF is in relation to the problematic performance, while preemptive FoF aims at prediction and avoidance of such problems and errors during a meaning-focused instruction. Ellis et al. (2001a) discuss that preemptive FoF deals with a real or supposed gap in the students' knowledge. They distinguished between student-initiated and teacher-initiated preemptive types of FoF. In the first type, students ask questions about forms whereas in the second, the teacher preempts linguistic form(s) to prevent the occurrence of errors and misunderstandings.

The concept of learner uptake in FoF that is used in this study, is defined as "the student's attempt to incorporate that information into his or her own production" (Loewen, 2004, p. 155) or "a student's utterance that immediately follows the teacher's feedback and that constitutes a reaction in some way to the teacher's intention to draw attention to some aspect of the student's initial utterance" (Lyster & Ranta, 1997, p. 49).

1.2. Teachers' and students' conceptions

There have been different studies that paid attention to teachers' and students' beliefs and conceptions about teaching language forms and structures. In one study, Ebsworth and Schweers (1997) distributed questionnaires to 60 ESL teachers and interviewed eight of them. Most of the teachers felt that there should be very little time for teaching grammar. In their rationales, the teachers pointed to different factors such as students' desires and syllabus expectations. This study was done for a survey on a traditional approach, and it is necessary that by improving teaching methods, new studies should be done in this respect.

Schulz (1996, 2001) surveyed teachers' and students' conceptions on the corrective feedback and role of grammar. Schulz (1996) was paying attention to the comparison of the attitudes of 92 teachers and 824 language learners to grammar teaching and corrective feedback at an American university. The study made known significant differences between students' and teachers' conceptions about error correction and suggested that the students were normally more receptive to getting corrective feedback in both spoken and written language than the teachers.

Later, Schulz (2001) repeated the study with 122 teachers and 607 students. This time, the study compared teachers' and students' views on error correction and surveyed respondents' conceptions concerning language learning. According to the study, there were differences between teachers' and students' ideas. For instance, while most students agreed that learning grammar is important to improve proficiency in the target language, about half of the teachers took this belief. Schulz (2001) concluded that teachers should know their students' views about the role of formal instruction and error correction that may help and facilitate learning. Berry (1997) measured undergraduate students' knowledge of grammatical terminology in Hong Kong through a 50-item questionnaire by asking the students' teachers to specify whether they thought their students recognise the terminology applied in the questionnaire. The study revealed great differences of metalinguistic terms in students' knowledge. These differences might cause problems especially when it was necessary for the teacher to provide an explicit explanation in language teaching.

Considering teachers' beliefs about teaching grammar, Borg and Burns (2008) used questionnaires to 176 English language teachers from Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia to explore their views about teaching grammar to learners and integration of grammar into their approach. They realised that the

teachers strongly believe in grammar impact on learners' development without referring to any explicit way. The study was done in an ESL context.

Basturkmen, Loewen and Ellis (2004) conducted a case study to examine three teachers' beliefs and their relation to their practices on FoF. Using the same communicative task, teachers showed variations in terms of the timing, error correction and techniques they applied. The researchers concluded that teachers referred to the theories when they were asked theoretically about their beliefs. On the contrary, when they were asked to explain about their real classroom experiences, they very likely tended to refer to their theories in practice.

In the EFL context, there have been no distinguished studies especially regarding FoF instruction. Some studies like what Ganjabi (2011) tried to focus on was an attempt to find out Iranian teachers' and students' preference for communicative activities and error corrections. In his study, it was found firstly that although the Iranian teachers put emphasis on communicative activities, their students disliked activities which are communicative in nature. Secondly, he found that the teachers did not believe in direct correction of their students' errors whereas the students expected to be corrected directly. Hence, there is a need to study teachers' and students' views on specific approaches like FoF. In the present study, without referring to any difference between the stated conceptions and the real practice, it tries to reflect teachers' and students' views about the implementation of FoF.

2. Methodology

2.1. Context of the study

Considering major differences between the contexts in which English is a second language and is used in media and those contexts in which English is just used in classes as a way of communication, it should be noted that Iran can be regarded as an EFL environment as English is mainly used in the English classrooms. In Iran, English is taught differently in language schools compared with government schools and universities. Since private language schools in Iran use mostly communicative approaches, the target classes for this study have been selected from this type of school. With regard to the level of English language proficiency of the learners, since the upper intermediate and advanced classes use English more frequently than elementary and pre-intermediate levels, the students in this study were from four upper intermediate classes of a private language school in Semnan city that is located about 200 kilometer east of Tehran.

2.2. Participants

The participants include four EFL teachers, three males and one female. Regarding their education, one is a PhD student, two have master's degree in TESL and one has a bachelor's degree in TESL with more than twenty years of teaching experience. The teachers were teaching in an English language school based on the communicative approach and for the study, they were asked to employ FoF in their teaching.

The students (n=63) are aged between 17 and 25 years old, a combination of senior high school and university students who were placed in upper intermediate classes. They participated in these classes to improve their knowledge and skills in English as it is very difficult or impossible for them to do it in their formal classes in schools and universities. As they came voluntarily, they have enough motivation especially for learning through the communicative approach.

2.3. Research instrument

This study uses interviews to find out the EFL teachers' conceptions of FoF and questionnaires to gather the students' responses to this approach. A 15-question list was used to conduct a semi-structured interview of the teachers selected for the study, after they have implemented two FoF sessions with their students. A questionnaire that included fifteen 4-item Likert scale questions was used to collect the students' conceptions of FoF. The interview questions and the questionnaire were piloted before they were used for the study.

The teachers' and students' responses were categorised and analysed according to items such as, FoF approach, FoF typology, uptake and unfocused episodes.

2.3.1. Interview

The semi-structured interview was intended to extract teachers' conceptions regarding the following items on the implementation of FoF approach:

• Demographic information - such as age, education and experience

• Methodology of teaching - the approach they dominantly practice and the aspect that is important to them, accuracy or fluency

• Formal instruction - the role and quality of structural instruction

• FoF typology - preemptive/reactive, teacher/student initiation, explicitness and directness

• Uptake - successful/unsuccessful

• Unfocused episodes - instances when teachers neglect explanation about any form or correcting students errors

On the validity of the interview, two points were considered according to Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2000). As the first criteria, interview measures were compared with another measure that is students' questionnaire. The second one is related to the point of highly structured questions of the interview that was regarded in the study.

The teachers' responses to the interview questions were audio-recorded, transcribed, marked and tagged for important and key phrases with regard to their views on FoF.

2.3.2. Questionnaire

The students' questionnaire was prepared both in Persian and English to get more accurate results from the students. They were asked the following items:

• FoF approach - its necessity, effectiveness, and context

• FoF typology - preemptive/reactive, teacher/student initiation, and acceptability

• Uptake - positive and negative evidence source

• Unfocused episodes - neglected errors

On the validity of the questionnaire, the results were checked with a few interview questions following the completion of the questionnaire session to check the accuracy and correctness of the answers. Two questions in which their negative answers confirm the overall views given in the other questions were set to avoid accidental or inexact answers.

The students' responses to the questionnaire were tabulated using frequency count and percentage.

3. Results

The results of the study are presented in two separate parts which include findings from the teachers' interview and the students' questionnaire.

3.1. Teachers' interview

To analyse teachers' conceptions regarding FoF approach, interviews were transcribed and analysed according to the following categories; demography, methodology, formal instruction, FoF typology, uptake and unfocused episodes. In the following, the results of the interviews are presented under the listed categories.

3.1.1. Demography

Regarding the first interview question on the overall demographic information of the teachers, it was found that three of them have had experiences in teaching English in high schools where the dominant and common approach is not communicative but formal instruction. This point may affect the teachers' and students' tendency toward formal instruction. According to a recent study by Farrokhi, Rahimpour and Papi (2011), in Iranian EFL context, less-experienced teachers used more FFEs compared with experienced ones. This finding is in contrast with Mackey, Polio and McDonough (2004) who suggest that experienced teachers apply more incidental FFEs than novice teachers. However, it should be noted that they investigated the ESL classrooms whereas this study was done in an EFL context.

3.1.2. Methodology

Concerning the approach that teachers in this study used in their classes, most of them replied Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), and one referred to meaning-based approaches. According to Razmjoo and Riazi (2006) who in their research question asked: "Are there any significant differences among high schools and institutes in terms of utilismg the CLT principles?", the answer was that there is a significant and meaningful difference between the two settings in terms materialising the CLT features. As this study has been done in a private language school, the teachers' tendency was toward CLT.

Teachers in their answer to express their view on the dominant aspect of the teaching approach they focus, "accuracy" or "fluency", although they stressed on accuracy, most gave prominence to fluency. Teacher A of this study compares this to the skills required in mastering a musical instrument and maintains:

As a matter of fact we try our best to consider both simultaneously, but the accuracy is a process as far as I have observed in my classes which is a little farther to reach, that's why we encourage our students on fluency rather than accuracy. Like a person who wants to play the piano. I believe that the person should just play and try not to distract himself with finding notes on keys.

3.1.3. Formal instruction

As the teachers were asked to implement FoF in their classes during the sessions of this study, it might be concluded that they do not put emphasis on the teaching of language forms. However, in answering the question on the role of language forms, all the teachers regarded is as a necessary, crucial and important part of language teaching.

The teachers in this study prefer implicit teaching of language forms, though depending on the condition or the tasks in the classroom, they admitted that usage of explicit way is inevitable especially when the learners are adults and ask for metalinguistic clarifications. This can also be seen in the study of Burgess and Etherington (2002). They did their research on the implicit/explicit aspect in ESL context and mentioned that from the results, it may be concluded that explicit way of teaching of grammar is favoured by the students because of prospects and senses of security.

With regard to the implementation of FoF in the classroom, the teachers believed that it is helpful, beneficial, advantageous and effective. However, all of them have put the condition of wise use of formal instruction, as Teacher D of the study, maintains:

If implemented masterfully it can serve the purpose, especially for advanced learners.

3.1.4. FoF typology

On the preemptive type of FoF, most teachers expressed that they do not stop the class to explain about a form even without occurrence of an error. This means that at least teachers usually do not preempt a formal explanation during their classes. Although this is in contrast to what Ellis et al. (2001b) mentioned in their study, it is line with Farrokhi et al. (2011) who found that reactive FoF were more frequent than preemptive type. Teachers who stated they preempt the formal explanations confirmed that the most types of their attention have been on morphology. The teachers believe that the students sometimes preempt a request for clarification about a linguistic form. The point that the students do not preempt clarification requests and questions on the language forms may refer to their low level of ability of expressing their requests as they are in an EFL context. Ellis et al. (2001b) reported more preemptive FFEs than corrective

With regard to the reactive type of FoF, in two questions, the teachers stated that they react towards their students errors when it is necessary, problematic and misleading. It is in accordance with what they stated on the preference of fluency over accuracy. The communicative atmosphere may be interrupted if the teacher stops the students frequently in the class. The age and level of the class is important in this regard. As stated by the teachers, the adult learners do not like to be stopped and explained about a language form frequently.

3.1.5. Uptake

With reference to the question on uptake, the teachers assert that instances of uptake are not frequent. Although they mentioned that there are uptake episodes in their classes, they can be regarded as a combination of successful and unsuccessful uptake episodes whereby most of them admitted that they did not have a large number of successful uptakes. According to Ellis et al. (2001a, p. 299), while successful uptake is "defined as uptake in which a student correctly repaired a linguistic feature or clearly demonsttated understanding of an item" unsuccessful uptake is uptake in which there is "no attempt to repair or where an attempted repair failed (in Responding FFEs) or where it failed to clearly demonstrate understanding of the targeted feature'.

3.1.6. Unfocused episodes

With regard to the unfocused instances of linguistic forms, all the teachers of this study admitted that sometimes they neglect some students' formal errors. In explaining their reason they say:

• Teacher A: I try to correct them if the mistake hinders communication.

• Teacher B: Sometimes, but not to stop their expression which is more important for me.

• Teacher C: Never, or at least I hope never! As a teacher I am here to pay attention, not to neglect.

• Teacher D: Yes, because I thought I had done enough, or I think they didn't have the capacity, or sometimes you don't have time, or I think it is useless.

As it is seen, two teachers give the priority to the communicative feature of the class, and while one states that he tries not to neglect students' errors, another teacher refers to some points such as enough focus at other times of the class, lack of students' capacity for some error focus, not having enough time and not being useful in focusing on some students' errors.

3.2. Students' questionnaire

The results of the students' questionnaire data are categorised into four sections, namely, FoF approach, FoF typology, uptake and unfocused episodes.

3.2.1. FoF approach

In four questions, students stated their views on the necessity, effectiveness and context of the FoF approach. Of the several studies that reflected the learners' view on the issue of teaching grammar especially in EFL context, a recent study has been done by Ismail (2010). By introducing a new model of grammar teaching to ESP students, he showed that students' motivation increases through new models of teaching grammar. It can be inferred that in communicative EFL context, there is enough potential in the learners to follow linguistic forms effectively.

In this study, more than 85 percent of the students agreed that the best way to teach language forms is through focusing on the message. Similarly, in question 9, which is a negative statement used to control the students' conscious reply to the questionnaire, more than 60 percent of students disagreed that to communicate in English, it is not necessary to know good grammar and forms.

In the classes engaged in the study, almost all the students (96 percent) agreed that language forms help a lot in learning a foreign language and about 75 percent of them agreed that teaching language forms and rules should be done when there is communication in the classroom. These results indicate that majority of the students prefer explicit teaching of grammar.

3.2.2. FoF typology

As stated before, there are two main types of FoF, preemptive and reactive. Under the issue of this typology, in both types, more than 80 percent of the students confirmed that their teachers focus on the linguistic forms preemptively and reactively. About 85 percent and 65 percent agreed with the acceptability of teacher-initiated preemptive and reactive FoF respectively. The difference can be referred to students' hesitation of being stopped in the classroom. The acceptability of student-initiated preemptive FoF has also been agreed to about 90 percent. About 85 percent of the students showed that there are instances of self-correction and self-repair that can be a kind of reactive FoF, while making errors in a communicative class.

3.2.3. Uptake

Regarding students' uptake, it can be inferred from the results that all the students admitted that they have had instances of uptake as a result of positive evidence that is provision of language data and input by the teacher and context of the classroom. However, about 85 percent agreed that they learn the language as a result of provision of negative evidences and here it is related to the issue of uptake.

In this study, preemptive and reactive FoF can be related to positive and negative evidence respectively and the outcome of such FoF leads to learners' uptake. The debate of effectiveness of negative and positive evidence has been an ongoing issue among researches. One such study in Iranian context has been done by Jabbari and Niroomizadeh (2008) who claimed that though necessary, positive evidence is not enough for learning a foreign language.

3.2.4. Unfocused episodes

As stated in teachers' belief, there are some instances of forms that are not focused. In response to two questions (one of which has been planned in negative question to avoid unconscious replies by the students) that are related to unfocused forms, about 85 percent of the students disagreed with the teachers' neglect of students' errors which is a type of reactive FoF.

4. Discussion and Conclusion

From the pedagogical point of view, both the teachers and the students approved the role, effectiveness, advantages and necessity of form-focused instruction. Although teachers stated that fluency is their preferred and dominant language feature of their classes compared to accuracy, in different parts of the interview such as the section related to the role, quality and views about the implementation of FoF, they admitted that formal focuses are effective. The result of this study on the effectiveness of formal instruction is in line with other researches such as Ellis (2002).

Though in the students' questionnaire, there is no question about the frequency of preemptive and reactive FoF, students approved the occurrence of such instances. In addition, the teachers stated that these types of focuses are not very high but they exist in the classes. With regard to uptake, the occurrence is confirmed by the teachers and the students in this study. Both the teachers and students stated that some parts of the students' overall uptake is successful.

On the point of unfocused episodes in the classrooms, though most students disagreed with such issue, teachers stated that sometimes they neglected focusing on some forms. This is probably because teachers as the managers of the class might not find it necessary to focus on all forms. However, the students of this study expressed that they do not want the teachers to neglect their error (as reactive FoF) in the classroom.

Hence, the results of this study may be used by those who are looking for the effects of form-focused instruction on teachers and learners especially in the EFL context.


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