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Focus on meaning or focus on form?

In one view of second language learning it is claimed that we acquire by simply understanding messages. Just as a child picks up their first language by listening to and interacting with caregivers and other children, so a second language learner picks up language sub-consciously by interacting with the teacher and peers. In both cases the learner acquires the language by focusing on no more than meanings. Only in rare cases is any attention drawn to the form of the language, e.g. grammar, patterns, spelling. This type of learning has been characterised in a number of ways over the years, for example as informal, implicit or natural learning.

This view of second language acquisition has some appeal because adult learners still have that apparently innate and unique capacity which humans possess: the ability to acquire language. (Though some scholars challenge this assumption.) Why not assume that by creating similar conditions to first language acquisition we can foster effective second language acquisition?

An alternative perspective is that adult learners bring much more to the task of language learning than infants. Adults already know a first language, can usually read and write, have learned how to study other subjects and have a quite different level of maturity to young learners. In this view, it is claimed, learners can be taught rules or patterns in language which can be applied, practised and become internalised, "automatised", so that learners can become more proficient.

This second view involves not just a focus on meaning and communication, but also a focus on the form of the language, how the language works. Over the years it has been variously termed formal, explicit or conscious learning.

Most teachers would probably acknowledge that there are elements of truth in both outlooks and attempt to include a focus on both meaning and form in lessons.

One influential researcher into second language acquisition, Michael Long, has made a distinction between two approaches which he labels "focus on form" and "focus on forms" (with the "s"). The former involves making the prime focus meaning, but spending some time drawing attention to grammatical form and doing some targeted practice. The second involves designing the syllabus primarily on a sequence of grammatical structures to be mastered. (You can imagine that in reality it's not easy to make a clear distinction between these two concepts.)

If there is any consensus in the academic community, it is that focus on form makes more sense than focus on forms. Even so, most UK teachers still adopt the focus on forms approach which has been around for many years, including in the era of grammar-translation. You can see evidence of this in text book design (topics bolted on to a grammatical sequence, one tense, one structure at a time) and in exam specifications with their emphasis on lists of vocabulary and syntactic structures. Teachers say "I'm teaching the perfect tense today", "My class can't do adjective agreements" and so on. Most teachers design quite a lot of lessons around the explicit teaching and practice of points of grammar.

Why is there this apparent disconnect between most research and teachers' beliefs and practices? There are a number of possible reasons: much research is carried out in settings unlike those encountered by school teachers, teachers are highly influenced by the way they were taught themselves, language teachers may not be typical language learners (e.g. they may be unusually interested in how language works). It is also possible that the balance of research is actually wrong. The field is far from settled and the most recent findings from neuroscience are sometimes at odds with previous studies.

Is the tide turning? The recently published report on pedagogy published by the Teaching Schools Council, and based on much observation of classroom practice, while not dismissing the importance of meaningful input, supported a focus on forms approach too, criticising the "one topic at a time" approach which can compromise the teaching of vocabulary and grammar. Explicit teaching of grammar and phonics was strongly supported.

What is the practising language teacher supposed to make of all this? Well, as I have written before, an eclectic approach involving both focus on meaning and form may be wise, the balance depending on the class and the syllabus being followed. Some general principles always apply: you need to hold the interest of the students by supplying interesting activity and material, they need to hear many repetitions of comprehensible target language input, you need to generally proceed from easier to harder language, students need to have a feeling of success ("self efficacy") and you need to do some formal explanation and structured practice on morphological and syntactic structures.

This may all sound very obvious to you and that's fine. Another thing I like to say is that success will depend above all on the quality of your lesson delivery, whatever balance you choose between meaning and form. And that often comes down to generic teaching skills such as demonstrating affective and cognitive empathy (sensing how the class feels and what they need to be challenged), behaviour management, teaching well to the test, individual personality and beliefs.

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  1. Thank you Steve, interesting blog post! I personally believe in the focus on meaning, rather than on form/forms. If students ask for a grammar explanation, you of course explain the grammar to them but having as a lesson objective: " you are going to learn the past tense today" is likely to draw students away from wanting to learn French (or any other languages)! A language is a tool to communicate, so meaning is of utmost importance.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I'm also closer to that end of the spectrum. In general I agree that starting a lesson in the way you mentioned is not great. Even so, I can recall doing that sort of thing for a change, especially if a big new area of grammar is the focus. Some classes are stimulated by that.


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