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.


Is task-based language teaching just a variation on presentation-practice-production?

Many language teachers are interested in the question of what makes a task a task. Pre-service teachers are often under pressure to conform to some see as the hegemony of task-based language teaching (TBLT) which they feel is imposed on teachers by the Common European Reference framework (CER). They want to know whether their textbook which claim to follow CER principles offer genuinely task-based teaching activities. Or they wonder how the demands of “authentic” language use associated with TBLT can be squared with the seemingly artificial language used in the foreign language classroom where everyone shares a native language.

Teacher educators, too, struggle with strong versions of a task-based approach, as opposed to weaker, task-supported incarnations, which often seem to overlap with the production phase of the PPP approach, where structures are Presented and Practiced with the teacher before learners are encourage to Produce their own contributions. Does this seem a reasonable compromise, or does it mean abandoning the principles of TBLT?

In the slides above I summarise two articles, one by Jason Anderson in defence of PPP, and another by Rod Ellis, one of the main proponents of TBLT. Anderson argues that PPP has admirably stood the test of time and is suited to a wider range of teaching contexts than TBLT. Ellis, on the other hand, defends TBLT against a number of misconceptions about this approach, and to my mind invalidates many of Anderson’s points. My own view is that TBLT is quite different from PPP, and that there are good reasons, related to how languages are learned, to favour TBLT (see Jordan for instance).

Update 15/03/17: more from Jordan on Two versions of task-based language teaching, drawing in Long’s book on TBLT and SLA, and Breen’s process syllabus.

Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. Practice, 19.

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8(1), 1-27.

Jordan, G. Principles and practice. Critical EFL.

In support of a developmental sequence model of second language acquisition: Ellis, 2015

Researching Acquisition Sequences: Idealization and De‐idealization in SLA
Ellis, R. (2015)., Language Learning Early view

DSC04473This paper examines Long’s claim regarding developmental sequences in second language acquisition, or what R. Ellis terms “Long’s law:”

“learners of different ages, with and without instruction, in foreign and second language settings, follow similar developmental sequences for such items as English negation”

Ellis develops an epistemological framework drawing on idealisation theory in the philosophy of science (Leszek Nowak, Cliff Hooker, Michael Weisberg) which he then applies to four successive studies of L2 negation in the same dataset, from 1978 to 2011. While retaining an interest in variation both at the level of learner language and theory development, he concludes that research generally supports the developmental sequence model of second language acquisition.

What follows is my own summary of Ellis’ argument in this 2015 Language Learning article.  The references are his; I haven’t included dates in the text.

Early, cognitive models of SLA (Corder) based on developmental stages have been challenged by socio-cognitive theory (Watson-Gegeo, Lantolf), discourse/conversation analysis (Firth & Wagner), and dynamic systems theory (Larsen-Freeman, de Bot et al.).  Ellis argues that we should therefore “reevaluate the long-held claim that the acquisition of L2 grammatical features involves predictable and universal stages of development” (p. 2).

Research in interlanguage variation (Ellis, Tarone) shows that such stages are an idealisation. Order of acquisition studies (Dulay & Burt), work on sequences of acquisition (Dulay, Burt & Krashen), and developmental sequence research (Pieneman & colleagues) have variously measured the emergence and stabilisation of morphemes and syntactic forms in learner language.  Variation in the production of these forms has been related to factors such as context (Tarone, Ellis), form-function mapping (Schachter), and creative speech versus formulaic chunks (N. Ellis).  This research appears to call into question “the existence of clearly delineated stages of acquisition and also emphasize the differences in the L2 development of individual learners.” The alternative term  “trajectories of learning” is preferred to “sequences of acquisition.”

Epistemological framework

To judge these different types of research, R. Ellis asks

  1. What exactly is a theory?
  2. What is the process by which theories are developed?
  3. What constitutes robust empirical evidence?

He reviews the investigation of developmental sequences in L2 acquisition by researchers using “set-of-laws theory,” or “research-then-theory” (as opposed to “axiomatic-causal theory,” or “theory-then-research”).  Following Long, this work has focused on selecting a phenomenon such as negation, examining samples of learner language to identify systematic patterns, and then proposing generalisations about the acquisition of this interlanguage feature.  These generalisation are idealisations, being accurate, though simplified, theoretically tenable, intelligible, and empirically verifiable (Hooker).  An idealisation neglects secondary factors (Nowak) and intentionally distorts, for pragmatic reasons, or as a minimalist model  (Weisberg). For Hooker, idealisation can have a positive effect (“simplifying,” when based on correctible quantitative error) or a negative effect (“degenerate,” based on conceptual error).

Weisberg argues for multiple models to achieve greater generality, accuracy, precision and simplicity and Ellis concurs, since “theories (and the idealizations that constitute them) can only be judged in terms of the specific domain they address.”  He takes a relativist stance, following Schumann’s position that “all knowledge is subjective and reality is multiple.”  He further argues that theories can be de-idealised without abandonment.

L2 negation studies

Applied to the question of acquisitional sequences, Ellis reviews four approaches to Cancino et al.’s 1978 data from six naturalistic learners of English in their first year after arrival in the US, involving both spontaneous and elicited oral production from two young, two adolescent and two adult Spanish speakers collected over a 10-month period.

  • Cancino et al’s original analysis discarded memorised chunks (e.g. I don’t know) and calculated frequency of types of negation over time to produce a universal developmental sequence.  Not all subjects had reached the end of the sequence by the end of the study, and one was considered to have stopped developing (fossilised; Alberto).
  • Schachter then reanalysed data from another of the six learners (Jorge) to relate different forms of negation to discourse function (e.g., rejection, affirmation).
  • In the third study, Berdan conducted a more sophisticated frequency analysis to show systematic use and development of negation in the learner originally considered to have fossilised.
  • Finally, Van Dijk et al took a dynamic systems approach and through statistical analysis highlighted the importance of interlearner variation which was related to age. This analysis also showed random variability in use of negation forms for one learner.

These results call into question Long’s claim that L2 learners follow similar developmental sequences.  They show it to be a simplifying idealisation which nonetheless holds up well in the four studies examined.  Ellis argues that these studies de-idealise the theory in helpful ways, particularly for those who seek to apply SLA research findings to instruction.  (In this respect, the dynamic systems analysis does not offer an improved model.)  Since the studies focused on untutored learners with the same L1/L2 pairing, the effects of instruction, and of other languages, must be verified.  In the meantime, however, R. Ellis suggests that his arguments drawn from the philosophy of science should militate against discarding Long’s developmental sequence “law.”

References (Ellis, 2015)

  • Berdan, R. (1996). Disentangling language acquisition from language variation. In R. Bayley & D. Preston (Eds.), Second language acquisition and linguistic variation (pp. 203244). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. CrossRef
  • Cancino, H., Rosansky, E., & Schumann, J. H. (1978). The acquisition of English negatives and interrogatives by native Spanish speakers. In E. Hatch (Ed.), Second language acquisition (pp. 207230). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 161170. CrossRef,
  • de Bot, K., Lowie, W., & Verspoor, M. (2007). A dynamic systems theory approach to second language acquisition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10, 721. CrossRef,
  • Dulay, H., & Burt, M. (1973). Should we teach children syntax? Language Learning, 23, 245258.
  • Dulay, H., Burt, M., & Krashen, S. (1982). Language two. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ellis, N. C. (2002). Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 143188. CrossRef
  • Ellis, R. (1984). Classroom second language development. Oxford, UK: Pergamon.
  • Ellis, R. (1985). Sources of variability in interlanguage. Applied Linguistics, 6, 118131. CrossRef,
  • Ellis, R. (1995). Appraising second language acquisition theory in relation to language pedagogy. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H. G. Widdowson (pp. 7389). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (2007). Second/Foreign language learning as a local accomplishment: Elaborations on a reconceptualized SLA. Modern Language Journal, 91, 757772.
  • Hooker, C. (1994). Idealization, naturalism, and rationality: Some lessons from minimal rationality. Synthese, 99, 181231.
  • Lantolf, J. P. (2011). The sociocultural approach to second language acquisition. In D. Atkinson (Ed.), Alternative approaches to second language acquisition (pp. 2447). London: Routledge.
  • Larsen-Freeman, D. (2011). A complexity theory approach to second language development/acquisition. In D. Atkinson (Ed.), Alternative approaches to second language acquisition (pp. 4872). London: Routledge.
  • Long, M. H. (1985). Input and second language acquisition theory. In S. Gass & C. Madden (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 377393). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
  • Long, M. H. (1990). The least a second language acquisition theory needs to explain. TESOL Quarterly, 24, 649666.
  • Meisel, J., Clahsen, H., & Pienemann, M. (1981). On determining developmental stages in natural second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 3, 109135. CrossRef
  • Nowak, L. (1992). The idealization approach to science: A new survey. Available at
  • Pienemann, M. (1984). Psychological constraints on the teachability of languages. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 6, 186214. CrossRef
  • Pienemann, M. (1998). Language processing and second language development: Processability theory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. CrossRef
  • Reynolds, P. (1971). A primer in theory construction. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merrill.
  • Schachter, J. (1986). In search of systematicity in interlanguage production. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 8, 119134. CrossRef
  • Schumann, J. H. (1993). Some problems with falsification: An illustration from SLA research. Applied Linguistics, 14, 295306.
  • Tarone, E. (1983). On the variability of interlanguage systems. Applied Linguistics, 4, 143163.
  • Tarone, E. (1988). Variation in interlanguage. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Van Dijk, M., Verspoor, M., & Lowie, W. (2011). Variability and DST. In M. Verspoor, K. de Bot, & Lowie, W. (Eds.), A dynamic approach to second language development (pp. 8598). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Watson-Gegeo, K. (2004). Mind, language, and epistemology: Toward a language socialization paradigm for SLA. Modern Language Journal, 88, 331350.
  • Weisberg, M. (2007). Three kinds of idealization. Journal of Philosophy, 104, 639659.

Epistemological issues in L2 research and teaching

gateSome quotes (English, français) on what we do when we conduct L2 research, who is involved, for what reasons, and how we go about it. Then how this relates to the second (foreign) language classroom – whether second language teaching is a separate or related endeavour, and how technologies and teacher engagement with research affect the picture.

See quotes