The Reading Matrix
Vol. 5, No. 1, April 2005
Alex Poole
Email: [email protected]
Focus on form instruction makes up an important part of the literature on second language
acquisition research. However, few works have both summarized and critically evaluated focus
on form instruction. This article seeks to fill this gap. More precisely, it reviews its main
principles, and points out the difficulties of implementing this relatively new pedagogical
innovation in all but a limited number of instructional settings. It concludes by proposing
conditions under which focus on form instruction could effectively function.
By glancing at the table of contents in major English language teaching journals, one will
quickly realize that focus on form instruction is a key theme in many empirical and descriptive
research articles. Clearly, this innovation, which was put forth by Long (1991) and Long and
Robinson (1998), has been a source of great enthusiasm for English language teachers and
researchers, so much so that many have praised it as if it were the miracle method they had
always been searching for. However, this enthusiasm needs to be curbed, since studies of focus
on form instruction present a mixed picture of its ability to promote L2 grammatical acquisition.
In addition, the empirical, curricular, practical, linguistic, and cultural realities of many English
language teaching settings make it unlikely that focus on form will become widely adopted.
In this critical analysis, my purpose is threefold: (1) to highlight the central aspects of
focus on form instruction; (2) to review some of the major research studies examining focus on
form instruction; (3) and to show the barriers of implementing focus on form instruction in many
English language teaching contexts. However, my point is not to actively discourage teachers
and curricula designers from incorporating focus on form instruction into their instructional
schema. Instead, my intention is to help teachers and curricula designers decipher whether or not
focus on form instruction is appropriate for their pedagogical realities, and furthermore, to help
teacher trainers put focus on form instruction into a critical perspective when presenting it future
teachers, so that they, in turn, might make informed curricular and classroom choices regarding
its use.
Review of Literature
Focus on Form Instruction: Foundations and Applications
In short, focus on form instruction is a type of instruction that, on the one hand, holds up
the importance of communicative language teaching principles such as authentic communication
and student-centeredness, and, on the other hand, maintains the value of the occasional and overt
study of problematic L2 grammatical forms, which is more reminiscent of noncommunicative
teaching (Long, 1991). Furthermore, Long and Robinson (1998) argue that the responsibility of
helping learners attend to and understand problematic L2 grammatical forms falls not only on
their teachers, but also on their peers. In other words, Long (1991) and Long and Robinson
(1998) claim that formal L2 instruction should give most of its attention to exposing students to
oral and written discourse that mirrors real-life, such as doing job interviews, writing letter to
friends, and engaging in classroom debates; nonetheless, when it is observed that learners are
experiencing difficulties in the comprehension and/or production of certain L2 grammatical
forms, teachers and their peers are obligated to assist them notice their erroneous use and/or
comprehension of these forms and supply them with the proper explanations and models of
them. Moreover, teachers can help their students and learners can help their peers notice the
forms that they currently lack, yet should know in order to further their overall L2 grammatical
Thus, Long and Robinson (1998) assert that teachers and curricula designers are not to
focus instruction on the teaching/learning of specific L2 grammatical items. Instead, they should
aim to help students learn how to use language in a way that emulates realistic communicative
scenarios. More to the point, teacher-student/student-student classroom interaction, via both oral
and written modes, should consume the majority of class time. Likewise, evaluation should
center on students’ abilities to actively engage in authentic communication, using the forms they
have learned during interaction.
For Long (1991) and Long and Robinson (1998), focus on form instruction is different
from modes of instruction that, in general, are aimed at teaching specific L2 grammatical forms,
rather than presenting language as an mechanism for communication. This type of instruction,
which Long and Robinson call focus on forms instruction, has been featured in the syllabi of
methods such as the Situational Language Teaching and the Audiolingual Method. In these
methods, instruction progresses as learners exhibit mastery of the sequentially- presented
grammatical structures, and thus are generally non-communicative in the sense that they do not
foster L2 development that enables learners to engage in real-life communication. In addition,
such methods focus on the prescribed L2 grammatical forms that the teacher can transmit to
his/her students; in this way, they are teacher-centered. Focus on form instruction, in contrast, is
learner-centered due to its aim of responding to learners’ perceived needs in a spontaneous
Long (1991) and Long and Robinson (1998) also argue that focus on form instruction is
different from the purely communicative instruction, or what they call focus on meaning
instruction. For them, focus on meaning instruction is paramount to spending little or no time on
the discrete parts of language; instead, the interest is on the use of language in real-life situations.
Such a mode of instruction is apparent in the Natural Approach (Terrell and Krashen, 1983),
which, in theory, prohibits direct grammar teaching. In contrast, Long (1991) and Long and
Robinson (1998) assert that the occasional focus on the discrete-forms of the L2 via correction,
negative feedback, direct explanations, recasts, etc., can help students become aware of,
understand, and ultimately acquire difficult forms.
In sum, both focus on forms and focus on meaning instruction are valuable, according to
Long (1991) and Long and Robinson (1998), and should complement rather than exclude each
other. Focus on form instruction, in their view, maintains a balance between the two by calling
on teachers and learners to attend to form when necessary, yet within a communicative
classroom environment. However, Long (1991) and Long and Robinson (1998) do not guarantee
that focus on form instruction will lead to a specific level of L2 grammatical development within
a certain time frame, presumably because of factors related to quality of instruction, intensity of
instruction, and the stages of morphosyntactic development through which L2 learners must pass
(Lightbown and Spada, 1999).
Focus on Form Instruction: Selected Studies
A look at recent research in the area of second language acquisition reveals that focus on
form instruction has been empirically evaluated using a variety of methodologies. Leeman,
Arteagoitia, Fridman, and Doughty (1995), for example, compared focus on form instruction and
focus on meaning instruction. The participants consisted of two groups of US college students in
advanced Spanish classes, one of which received focus on form instruction, the other of which
received focus on meaning instruction. Post-tests revealed that those students who received focus
on form instruction were more accurate in their production of Spanish verbs than were those who
received focus on meaning instruction. Doughty and Verela (1998) examined the differences in
the acquisition of English tense between junior high US ESL science students who received
corrective recasts and those who received teacher-led instruction, mostly in the form of lectures.
Regardless of the type of instruction they were exposed to, learners took pre-tests and post-tests.
Those students who received corrective recasts performed significantly better on post-tests than
did those who received teacher-led instruction. Jourdenais, Ota, Stauffer, Boyson, and Doughty
(1995) studied the concept of textual enhancement, which involves highlighting forms with the
idea that students will attend to them more frequently. In one second- semester college Spanish
class, they established two groups, one of which was exposed to Spanish verbs using enhanced
texts, and a control group, which did not receive enhanced texts. Think-aloud protocols revealed
that those in the experimental group attended to Spanish verb forms more frequently than the
control groups. Williams and Evans (1998) studied the precision with which intermediate-level
ESL learners used the passive voice and adjectival participles. Two groups were established, one
which received input flooding, and one which acted as a control group. The results demonstrated
that the experimental group showed more accurate use of the passive than did the control group,
yet no significant differences were seen between the groups in terms of their use of adjectival
participles. Van Patten and Oikkenon (1996) investigated the effects of processing instruction on
a group of secondary students studying Spanish at the intermediate level. Processing instruction
involves an explicit explanation of a certain grammatical rule, followed by contextualized
practice activities. Participants were divided into three groups, one which received explicit
explanations of rules, one which received contextualized practice activities, and one which
received both explicit explanations of rules and contextualized practice activities. They found
that those who only received explicit explanations retained the fewest grammatical rules; the
other two groups, on the other hand, achieved significantly higher scores on post-treatment tests.
Roberts (1995) analyzed the effectiveness of error correction in beginning-level students of
Japanese at the University of Hawaii. While his study was largely descriptive and contained
small numbers of participants, it showed that focusing on learners’ written grammatical errors
was more successful when errors were contextualized and understood by learners.
Perhaps the most interesting studies of focus on form instruction are those that have
sought to describe what happens in its student-generated variety, particularly those by Williams
(1999) and Poole (2003a). In the case of the former, eight students of various proficiency levels
studying in an intensive English institute in the United States were tape-recorded daily during
45-minute class period for eight weeks. During this time, they were involved in group activities.
Williams sought out to describe the types of forms that they attended to. Overall, the results
revealed that, among other things, students infrequently attended to grammar (20%) in favor of
vocabulary (80%). In the latter, Poole (2003a) replicated Williams’ (1999) study using 19 ESL
students in an advanced writing class in a large US university. Students were tape-recorded for
10 weeks for a total of nine hours, during which time they were engaged in a variety of
communicative group activities. As in Williams’ (1999) study, the majority of students attended
to vocabulary (89.8%) instead of grammar (10.2%). Although more research needs to be done on
student-generated focus on form instruction in order to find out more about how learners
themselves attend to form, the results from these studies suggest that learners are not able and/or
willing to attend to L2 grammatical forms, thus calling into question the efficacy of focus on
form instruction in fostering L2 grammatical development, at least in its student-generated
Criticisms of Focus on Form Instruction: Empirical, Curricular, Practical, Linguistic, and
While these studies and others provide insight into the efficacy of focus on form
instruction (See Byrnes, 2000 and Lee, 2000 for further summaries of focus on form-related
research), they all have taken place in settings that appear to be well-funded, adequately supplied
with teaching and learning materials, and generally free of classroom discipline problems.
Moreover, most studies of focus on form instruction have taken place in a few countries, notably
the United States, New Zealand, and Japan (Poole and Sheorey, 2002). In fact, not a single
empirical study can be found that took place in a setting in which classes were overcrowded, upto-date materials were generally not available, and teachers received less than adequate training
in language skills and pedagogy. Unfortunately, much public school ESL instruction in the
United States takes place under circumstances in which teachers are not adequately trained,
proper funds are not provided for appropriate pedagogical materials, and learners have a number
of educational needs, beyond language (Klinger and Vaughn, 2000; Mora, 2000). In fact,
according to Baker and Markham (2002), eight US states provide no special funding for ESL
students, in spite of growing numbers of students nationwide, and the continuing poor academic
performance of this group of school-aged children. Likewise, no study supporting focus on form
instruction appears to have taken place in a developing country, where the socioeconomic,
political, and pedagogical realities may differ significantly from those in more developed
countries. Thus, instructors and curricula designers in many settings have little information on
which to judge whether or not focus on form instruction would be appropriate in their programs.
However, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners and Limited English Proficiency (LEP)
students in the United States comprise a large portion of global English learners.
Even though focus on form instruction has yet to be investigated in many settings, it
appears to be currently undoable in many circumstances due to curricular constraints. In
particular, in many secondary and university language programs, teachers are obligated to teach
certain forms in a specific order by using government-mandated materials. Sheorey and Nayar
(2002), for instance, point out that such “top-down” (Richards and Rodgers, 2001) curricula
planning is frequently seen in India: “Teachers have little say in designing the curriculum,
choosing the materials and textbooks, or developing assessment techniques, all of which are
controlled by Boards of Studies composed of senior members of the English faculty” (p. 18). If
the textbooks and materials provided focus on the explicit learning of L2 grammatical forms and
marginalize authentic oral and written communication, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum,
make no allowance for occasional grammar study, teachers will be left without resources with
which they can both promote real-life interaction and, when the need arises, attend to learners’
forms, as focus on form instruction calls for. Even if teachers can find the means to occasionally
incorporate focus on form instruction, they may feel pressure not to do so for two reasons: (1)
They may be risking their own job security by not following the mandated curriculum.
Especially in competitive markets where there are few opportunities for employment, it is a lot to
ask teachers to sacrifice their livelihood in order to disobey mandated curricula norms in order to
use methods and techniques that may be beneficial to their students. McGuire (1996), for
instance, supports this notion with her analysis of EFL instruction in Central America where, she
says, many teachers feel bound by ‘strong’ (Howatt, 1984) versions of CLT, even though they
may feel it is appropriate to occasionally integrate noncommunicative techniques:
For example, more than one teacher described having “discovered” elements of
audiolingual or other “noncommunicative” methodologies that were helpful with
beginning and remedial classes, but because their institutions advertise
“communicative” approaches, these teachers feel that their jobs depend on being
perceived as purely communicative and that they must be very cautious—even
secretive—about straying from what they understand to be the official curriculum
(p. 607).
(2) The pre-packaged classroom textbooks and materials will most likely form the basis for
important evaluations, such as second/university entrance/exit exams, the development of which
teachers frequently have very little, if any, influence; however, they will most likely feel
obligated to spend the majority of their time helping students prepare for such exams, leaving
little energy for focus on form instruction. Often times, such tests focus on discrete grammatical
points and minimize real-life communicative abilities. In fact, Gorsuch (2000) found that
Japanese high school English teachers’ decisions regarding classroom content and delivery are
significantly influenced by university entry exams, which are, by and large, noncommunicative,
even though communicative materials are widely available. Furthermore, Wu (2001) shows that
in China, a country with large amounts of EFL learners, such large-scale noncommuncative
testing continues to be the norm, in spite of calls for change.
Another problem with focus on form instruction is practical; specifically, it involves class
size (Poole, 2003b). Focus on form instruction, in Long (1991) and Long and Robinson’s (1998)
conception, seems optimally suited to classrooms that are small enough to enable instructors to
verbally address their students’ problematic forms, presumably via classroom discussion, Q/A
sessions, and impromptu and planned public speaking events. As far as writing is concerned,
such a classroom would need to allow teachers to frequently evaluate students’ writing,
presumably in the form of essays, in-class writing tasks, and journals/diaries. Likewise, small
classes would be needed for students to have significant amounts of peer interaction both orally
and in written form. In many settings, however, classes are large, and individual attention and
student-student interaction is not possible. While crowded classes are sometimes caused by a
lack of qualified teachers (Al-Hazmi, 2003; Zafar, 2003), they are more than likely because of
the lack of funds available to hire more than a handful of teachers, as in the case of many
community-based adult ESL programs for immigrants in the United States. Judy Pierre,
coordinator of such a program at the Church Avenue Merchants Block Association in Brooklyn,
New York, explains that the facilities for instruction are available, yet the funds for hiring
teachers are not: “They’re kicking our doors down, they want to come in. We have the space, but
we can’t hire the teachers—we just don’t have the money” (Bernstein, 2004, para.7).
In addition to curricular problems, Long (1991) and Long and Robinson’s (1998)
conception of focus on form instruction obliges teachers to have native-like or near native-like
competence fluency; more specifically, in oral situations, they would need to be able to
spontaneously recognize students’ form-based errors and provide them with the correct ones.
Yet, many English language teachers lack a high level of L2 oral proficiency and do not have
opportunities for developing it. Butler (2004), for example, reports that elementary school EFL
teachers in Japan had low self-ratings of their own L2 proficiency, particularly in the area of oral
grammar. Yu (2001) reports that similar levels of low-proficiency are prevalent among Chinese
EFL teachers who feel that their only option is the grammar-translation method: “Quite a number
of teachers know only some basic English grammar and vocabulary. For them the grammartranslation method is the most acceptable because they can basically teach English in Chinese”
(p. 197). Teaching English through the native language is commonplace in many settings not
because of any objections against using English, but simply because of low L2 proficiency on the
part of teachers. Vavrus (2002) demonstrated this in a study of English teachers in Tanzania in
which teachers mostly used Swahili, even though the medium of instruction was officially
English: “In several classes at Njema and at other secondary schools I visited, Swahili, rather
than English, was the necessary medium of instruction because the students or the teacher—or
both—did not have the requisite proficiency in English” (p. 383).
Another linguistic problem with focus on form instruction is the language spoken English
learners and their teachers. As Poole (2003b) has pointed out, in many settings, the students and
the teacher often share a common first (or second, or third) language and culture, and thus can
easily code-switch in order to overcome communicative difficulties or fill communicative gaps.
Adendorff (1998), for example, shows that in Zulu-speaking areas of South Africa, teachers and
students frequently speak Zulu during English instruction in order to overcome communication
barriers: “In concluding my analysis, it is clear that if this interpretation is correct, the Zulu code
switches facilitate the teacher’s accomplishment of his academic and social agendas by enabling
him, implicitly, to clarify information and to encourage, provoke, and involve his students” (p.
394). Indeed, Cleghorn and Rollnick (2002) demonstrate that code-switching is a common
phenomenon in Africa, in addition to many other parts of the world, such as India (Ramanathan,
1999; Sridhar, 2002). However, if problematic grammatical forms can be addressed using
another language, then focus on form instruction could be seen by teachers and learners as either
unnecessary or impractical. Long (1991) and Long and Robinson (1998) do not address how the
issue of code-switching should be approached.
A final problem with focus on form instruction is cultural. Focus on form is highly
individualistic in that errors are frequently, although not exclusively, addressed on an individual
basis. Hofstede (1986) suggests that individualistic societies tend to produce more individualistic
teaching approaches; however, collectivist societies, which tend to focus more on the general
good of all students, may find focus on form at odds with their cultural values. More to the
point, successful focus on form instruction would need to take place in a cultural atmosphere that
allows students to actively participate in daily activities. Thus, administrators, teachers, parents,
and students would need to feel some degree of comfort with letting students be active
participants—and sometimes leaders—in the content and manner in which they study. In many
cultures, however, such student-centeredness might be considered disrespectful and/or a breach
of tradition (Poole, 2003b). Li (1998) reports of this suspicion of student participation in Korea,
where many teachers feel that communicative approaches to teaching--which focus on form
instruction would be part of—threaten to overturn long-held Korean customs and values
regarding student-teacher roles. Similar concerns can be seen in China, where educational
practices have been formed by Confusion thought, which places a high premium on teachers’
knowledge: “teachers are viewed as knowledge holders. If teachers do not display their
knowledge in lectures, or if they play games with students or ask students to role-play in class,
then they are not doing their job!” (Hui, 1997, p. 38; Cited in Yu, 2001, pp. 196-197).
Even though further research will be needed to determine the effectiveness of focus on
form instruction within a variety of instructional circumstances, it seems most likely to meet its
instructional objectives in settings in which the following elements are present: principles of
CLT are accepted in activities and assessments; classes are sufficiently small enough for teachers
to be able to work individually with students and learners individually with their peers; and
teachers—and students, for that matter—are proficient enough in English in order to conduct
classes in English and not code-switch when communicative difficulties are encountered.
However, one cannot stress enough that future research does need to take place in more
diverse cultural and socioeconomic circumstances in order to determine whether or not focus on
form instruction is appropriate for different groups of learners. If research on focus on form
instruction—and in the field of second language acquisition, overall—does not take into
consideration the realities of classrooms, then it will bare little relevance to large number of
teachers and learners. In the interim, however, teachers, teacher trainers, and administrators
should continue to read the literature on focus on form instruction; yet, they should not decide on
its merits solely on the basis of what professional journals say, but rather should give equal
attention to their perceptions of their local instructional needs and realities.
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Alex Poole is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Kentucky University,
Bowling Green, KY, USA. His interests include focus on form instruction, metacognitive
reading strategies, and Spanish-English bilingualism. Mailing address: Western Kentucky
University, Department of English, 1 Big Red Way, Bowling Green, KY 42101