Focus on form in the English learning classroom

In this paper I will try to explain the main ideas that stands behind the teaching method of focus on form and its effect on teaching a second language. The teaching of a second language includes many factors such as writing and reading skills, grammar knowledge of the language, the ability to communicate and the understanding of the new language’s semantic and pragmatic factors. All these different details which we have to pass on to our students are the mile stones of a language and only by knowing them the student will be considered speakers of that language. In the last few decades there has been a great change in the approach toward language teaching.


In the past teaching of a new language was done mostly in what we call today the focus on formS approach. This approach is characterized by teaching all the grammatical features of a language in a very direct and somewhat mathematical-like method. Students used to learn a new language by repeating the teacher’s knowledge of the language and by practicing the different grammatical factors they have been taught without understanding exactly how those factors are actually being used in that language. That means that a student who learned a second language could use his knowledge of that language in a very narrow and technical way. By focusing on the grammatical features of a language the ability of using it in a free and authentic way is being reduced.


“We can assume the the teachers or tutors used informal and direct approaches to convey the form and meaning of the language they were teaching and that they used aural-oral techniques with no language textbook per se, but rather a small stock of hand-copied written manuscripts of some sort, perhaps a few texts in the target language, or crude dictionaries that listed equivalent words in two or more languages side by side” (Celce-Muricia 2001).


The tools that a focus on formS learners acquire are mostly helpful for reading or writing tasks and all communicative aspects of that language are specifically targeted for class use and almost non for everyday use. A language is not just a set of grammatical rules that by knowing them a learner is considered a speaker of it. A language is a complex system of knowledge and for understanding it a learner must study within it and not outside of it. Teaching a language in the focus on formS approach is more like looking from the outside on the language while focus on form is the process of learning a language by being inside that complex system.


In the early 50′ of the 20th century new approaches had been rising. These approaches mainly claim that a language is a tool and its’ use is communicating with each other. Languages are at the same time both a mental tool and a social tool. It is a mental tool in the way that it lets you think and express those thoughts in the language and it is a social tool in the way that it lets you express those thoughts to others and understand others expressing their thoughts. Being a language speaker is having the ability to understand each other and expressing yourself and all grammatical restrictions are just obstacles on the way of creating that expression. A learner with only grammatical knowledge about a language would still find it hard to communicate in an everyday level without the other factors. He would find it hard because creating a well-formed sentence is just not enough to conduct a conversation. A learner must practice, along with his basic grammatical knowledge, different ways of expressing himself in the classroom.


“Chomsky (1957) had demonstrated that the current standard structural theories of language were incapable of accounting for the fundamental characteristic of language – the creativity and uniqueness of individual sentences. British applied linguists emphasized another fundamental dimension of language that was inadequately addressed in approaches to language teaching out that time – the functional and communicative potential of language. They saw the need to focus in language teaching on communicative proficiency rather than on mere mastery of structures.” (Richards & Rodgers 2001).


Focus on form is the counter method for Focus on formS. It is a teaching method that uses a context based tasks in order to teach a language. The basic idea of Focus on form is to create a frame of contexts that through them grammatical features are being taught. For example, a tense like the simple past or future can be taught through a story or an article that this tense is found widely in it. After discussing the new tense seen in the article specific grammar rules will be taught, but only after the students have come across a usage of that tense in a context.


“Long (1991, pp. 45-46) defines focus on form as follows: “focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication”. Based on the above definition, it could be argued that focus on form has some psycholinguistic plausible in that it encourages learners to pay conscious attention to certain forms in the input, which they are likely to ignore. Such attention, according to Schmidt (1990), is necessary for acquisition to take place. Therefore, focus on form can be taught of as a useful device which facilities the process of interlanguage development.” (Baleghizadeh 2010)

A later development of the focus on form in the communicative approach. This approach takes one of the important elements in focus on form, the element of communicative ability in a language, and makes it its central element. The ability to communicate in a new language is not only important for using it but also a natural way of learning it. Learning a language in a communicative approach gives the students a chance to express themselves in their own pace. In order to communicate in the classroom the students use their own vocabulary and grammar ability and through that a teacher is able to understand in what level of the language the students are and gives the teacher ideas on how to continue the lesson. By letting the students speak freely and communicate a teacher may understand which grammatical subjects should be repeated or taught and also which contexts might be interesting for the students to be learned through. The communicative approach makes the language classroom into a conversation class or a discussion class rather than a language class.


“With CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) began a movement away from traditional lesson formats where the focus was on mastery of different items of grammar and practice through controlled activities such as memorization of dialogs and drills, toward the use of pair work activities, role plays, group work activities and project work…” (Richards 2006)


As Richards was saying, the activities in the classroom have changed under the communicative approach. The old activities of drilling and memorizing texts were replaced by activities that required a dialog or a question-answer kind of lesson between the students themselves and the teacher. These activities demand the participation of all student and keeps them active during the lesson which makes them pay more attention to what happens in class. These active activities are called tasks and they are separated from the traditional non communicative exercises. Tasks are small missions the students receive in order to work together, they are asked to talk to each other and present information that they gathered together by communicating.


“As earlier with the communicative approach, however, teachers and others are often not at all certain as to what a task-based approach mean. For example, does it mean that everything they do in the classroom should be a task? If so, what exactly is a task? Can teaching and learning grammar be described as a task, and if not, should teachers feel guilty when they teach grammar?what is the difference, in any case, between a task-based approach and the communicative approach that they were told they should use not so many years ago?” (Littlewood 2004)

The task-based instruction method as a part of the communicative approach is creating a confusion in what should be done in class. In order to teach English in a focus on form method some focus on formS method lessons must take place. Students who begin to learn English are taught with a mixed focus on form and focus on formS method. Some basic rules of grammar are better explained in a direct manner and are understood more quickly this way. A teacher who wants to use the communicative approach must do so in a premeditated way and consider which important items of the language he should teach in an explicit method.


The whole focus on form method is based on the idea that a child’s acquisition of a language is done quicker than a grown-up is learning a new language. This assumption is based on the generative theory that argues that a child acquiring his first language is based only on his surroundings and does not learn the language explicitly at all. Acquisition of a language is done by observing the usage of a language and most of the grammatical understanding is being done in the child’s mind without any conscious attention given to the learned grammatical skills. That is why the focus on form method is trying to use a natural communicative task-based approach, so that the learning of the new language will be more similar to an acquisition state and less to a learned language taught in class state of mind. But all teachers must remember that these students are grown kids and are first language speakers already. They are not acquiring this new language, they are learning it through a method that imitates the process of acquisition. That means some grammatical items must be taught in the old traditional way of teaching, unfortunately. Therefore, Not all lessons can be task-based and in order for those tasks to be efficient for the students their basic knowledge about the language should be strong enough so that they could communicate more fluently.


The method of focus on form is a wonderful concept of teaching a new language but as any other theory it shouldn’t be absolute. A classroom needs a variety of ways of teaching and not only one way that is considered better than another. Since a language is a complex system of ideas and meanings it should be taught in different methods and just as we bring new ways of teaching into the classroom we should keep some of the old ways as well. The real method is keeping balance between the new and old approaches toward language teaching, keeping all the essential ways of teaching from the old approaches and learning which of the new approaches are relevant. We should never consider any method as absolutely true or false but to try and pick ourselves the right concept for a successful lesson that is appropriate for a specific class. Each class is different and different methods suites different students and only by carefully learning the students’ needs we will succeed in teaching. It seems that the focus on form method is using its context based learning techniques in order to create a more interesting environment for the students and through that get as much attention from them as possible. Making the lesson more interesting and fun is a very student-centered method and very revolutionary from the old teacher’s knowledge-centered method. Learning should be more student-centered, especially a new language, but it can’t be all about fun and playing tasks since some features of the language must be learned and practiced so that when getting to the fun parts students will be able to participate fluently and communicate correctly with each other. I believe that in the future all teaching methods will be more student-centered but will find the right balance between bringing all important features of the language to the students, making sure students comprehend the usage of those features and creating a fun communicative task-based environment for the students to learn in.



1. Marianne Celce-Muricia (2001), language teaching approches: an over view.

2. Sasan Baleghizadeh, Novitas Royal (research on youth and language), 2010, 4(1), focus on form an EFL communicative classroom, shahid beheshti university, G.C, Tehran, Iran

3. J.C Richards and T.S Rodgers, Approaches and methods in language teaching (second edition) 2001, New York: Cambridge university press (p.153-177)

4. J.C Richards, Communicative language teaching taday, 2006, Cambridge university press.

5. William Littlewood, 2004, The task-based approach: some questions and suggestions, ELT journal vol. 58/4 oxford university press.


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