Focus on form(s): principles and practice

The teaching of grammar is a frequent topic of debate among language teachers. Should we teach our learners the rules of grammar explicitly? If so, when and how do we do this? Or is it better to allow learners to pick up rules about the formal features of language in other ways, perhaps while they attempt to communicate, that is, focus on meaning? Sheen (2002) expresses this dilemma in these terms:

… on the one hand, there are those who advocate minimal to no interruption in communication, limiting attention to grammar by means of corrective feedback (Doughty and Varela 1998); on the other, there are those who advocate separate attention to grammar and subsequent integration of the knowledge provided in increasingly communicative activity (DeKeyser 1998)

Sheen (2002)

The traditional approach to language teaching has generally involved explicit grammar teaching, referred to by Long and colleagues as focus on formS, often in the form of teaching “the structure of the day” (Foster, 1999). Communicative approaches, in contrast, like task-based language teaching, put the emphasis on meaning. Here there are brief moments of focus on form_, where learners are encouraged to notice target language features, especially gaps between their own performance and L2 norms.


Romain Vignes Justin Peterson

Shintani (2013) provides a clear overview of the principles and pedagogical implications of each approach.

Focus on forms (FonFs)

FonFs corresponds to traditional grammar instruction where attention to form takes precedence over meaning:

“In focus on forms (FonFs; Long, 1991, 1996) language is broken down into discrete elements (e.g., words, grammar rules, notions, functions), which are then taught item by item in a linear, additive fashion. FonFs, therefore, constitutes a traditional approach to language teaching involving a linear syllabus, instructional materials, and corresponding procedures designed to present and practice a series of linguistic items. In this type of instruction, the learners’ primary attention is directed at linguistic form, but meaning is not excluded.”

Shintani 2013

FonFs can be equated with PPP.

In many current instructional materials, FonFs is realized in terms of present-practice-produce (PPP; Ur, 1996). DeKeyser (2007) argues that such an approach is ideally suited to older learners who have lost the ability for the kind of implicit learning that children are capable of.  However, PPP also figures strongly in instructional materials for children, including those who are complete beginners (Nakata, Frazier, Hoskins, & Graham, 2007). A key feature of PPP is that it seeks to elicit production of correct target forms right from the start as a means for learning them. PPP includes meaning-based activities as well as controlled production exercises, but when learners perform them they are likely to be aware that the purpose is not to communicate but to practice specific linguistic forms.

Shintani, 2013

Second language researchers and teacher educators disagree on the role of explicit grammar teaching in second language acquisition, with many researchers claiming that the intentional learning of explicit rules cannot transfer to the kind of subconscious language processing that we associate with the fluent, accurate, complex speech of L1 speakers and proficient L2 users (Long 2017). To develop this kind of proficiency in spontaneous production, incidental and implicit learning must take place. Long and colleagues suggest more subtle ways of promoting implicit learning by encouraging learners to notice or detect L2 features in the input they receive, that is, through focus on form_.

Focus on Form (FonF)

Shintani (2013) offers the following description of FonF:

In focus on form (FonF; Long, 1991; Long & Crookes, 1992) the primary focus is on meaning (i.e., on message processing) rather than on form. FonF involves an occasional shift of learners’ attention from meaning to a linguistic form and the meaning this conveys while the overriding focus remains on communicating. This shift can be triggered by perceived problems with either comprehension or production, and it can be initiated by either the teacher or students. A key feature of FonF instruction is that it emphasizes form-function mapping.”

Shintani, 2013: 39

In terms of pedagogical realisations, Shintani (2013) enumerates a number of options for instruction. These may by subtle or obvious (unintrusive or obtrusive), and can occur before or after communicative tasks (proactive versus reactive).

FonF can involve a variety of instructional activities. Doughty and Williams (1998) distinguish these in terms of the extent to which they are unobtrusive or obtrusive, “reflecting the degree to which the focus on form interrupts the flow of communication” (p. 258). Thus, input flood and task-essential language constitute relatively unobtrusive types of FonF, whereas consciousness raising and input processing are obtrusive. These types of FonF also differ in terms of whether they involve reactive or proactive attention to form. For example, FonF involving tasks will entail the use of reactive techniques that induce on-the-spot attention to form as the task is performed. In contrast, consciousness-raising activities are proactive, because they focus on features that learners are made explicitly aware of.

Shintani, 2013: 39

Long (2017) argues in favour of what he calls unintrusive input enhancement, citing examples of studies where salient features of the language presented to learners are emphasised by colour-coding affixes, or providing aural as well as visual input. The aim is to encourage the learners to detect these features, perhaps without even being aware they are doing so; in this way, their focus on meaning is not disrupted.

Finally, in the Shintani (2013) study cited, the author compared FoFs and FoF approaches to teaching vocabulary to young Japanese EFL learners, and found a specific advantage for FoF in one case, and no difference in another.

This study compared the effectiveness of FonFs and FonF by investigating both the process features of the instruction and the learning outcomes. Although both types of instruction were effective for the acquisition of nouns, the FonF instruction was found to be more effective for the acquisition of adjectives. Only the FonF learners developed the knowledge needed to use the adjectives in free production. The key differences between the process features of the FonF and FonFs instruction were proposed as an explanation for this difference in learning outcomes. That is, only the FonF instruction was characterised by contextualized input, the occurrence of negotiation of meaning, and student-initiated production.

The theoretical positions and empirical research presented here support a pedagogical recommendation to focus on form_ rather than formS. The arguments are, however, rather complex, and as Shintani (2013) shows, it is difficult to operationalise FonF and FonFs and measure their effects in real classrooms. More research supporting FonF, this time in the area of pronunciation instruction, is summarised in Saito (2012), recently reviewed for ELTresearchbites by Anthony Schmidt.


DeKeyser, R. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In Doughty and Williams (eds.). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition, 42-63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Doughty, C., & Varela, E. (1998). Communicative focus on form. Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition, 1, 114-138.

Foster, P. (1999). Task-based learning and pedagogy. ELT Journal, 53, 69–70,

Long, M. H. (2017). Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. ISLA 1(1)

Long, M. H. (1996). The role of linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 413–468). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Long, M. H. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.), Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39–52). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Long, M. H., & Crookes, G. (1992). Three approaches to task-based syllabus design. TESOL Quarterly, 26, 27–56. doi:10.2307/3587368

Nakata, R., Frazier, K., Hoskins, B., & Graham, C. (2007). Let’s go. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Saito, K. (2012). Effects of instruction on L2 pronunciation development: A synthesis of 15 quasi‐experimental intervention studies. TESOL Quarterly, 46(4), 842-854.

Sheen, R. (2002). Focus on form and focus on forms. ELT journal, 56(3), 303-305. PDF

Shintani, N. (2013). The Effect of Focus on Form and Focus on Forms Instruction on the Acquisition of Productive Knowledge of L2 Vocabulary by Young Beginning‐Level Learners. TESOL quarterly, 47(1), 36-62.

Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


“Extreme factory model of instruction”

Rogoff et al. (1996) quote this example of an “extreme factory model of instruction” from a chemistry teaching in a study by McRobbie and Tobin (1995).  So many constraints: “the program,” “the timeline,” “the certification processes.”  And a very clear articulation of the transmission model.

I’m reading about situated learning and communities of practice; this example shows how subversive these alternative models of teaching and learning can really be.

Factory model

Factory model

 “The way the lessons are run at the moment they are completely teacher directed … If I maintain control we will make progress through the work program, students will learn more, and learn more efficiently.  I’m setting out to get this information into the kids’ brains as efficiently as possible (although sometime the schedule has to be adapted to meet the learning needs of the students), and be a transmissive model of teaching I can guarantee that there will be a greater percentage of students with the desired quantity of knowledge at the end. We are trying to meet timelines, and we are intolerant of digression. The greatest part of my teaching is geared to keeping the students moving along and on task. Getting the work done according to strict timelines is very important to us because we have negotiated to cover a certain amount of chemical science in a set amount of time as set out in the accredited work program and we also have to meet the external requirements of the certification processes for student achievement.

I believe I have all the knowledge the students need for their course.  I see the learner as absorbing knowledge and I transfer some of that knowledge by having students take down notes …

In order to get understanding you’ve got to be able to remember the basic facts that you are investigating. If you can’t remember basic facts you can’t get to the next step of sorting out relationships between facts. Almost every student is capable of being taught how to memorise large bodies of information quickly and I believe I can teach them that … If students don’t understand they should memorise the important information regardless and allow understanding to occur later in its own good time.  I’m sure the brain will make the connections that are necessary if they have the basic knowledge memorised even if it may take a while.”

McRobbie & Tobin, 1995, pp. 7-8

McRobbie, C., & Tobin, K. (1995). Restraints to reform: The congruence of teacher and student actions in a chemistry classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(4), 373-385.

Rogoff, B., Matusov, E., & White, C. (1996). Models of teaching and learning: Participation in a community of learners. The handbook of education and human development, 388-414.