Grammar in ESL: Focus on Forms or Focus on Form?

As mentioned in a previous post, knowledge of grammar does not produce fluent speakers of a language. There are many ESL learners who do very well on grammar tests but have little ability to comprehend or speak English. On the other hand, many native speakers who speak English flawlessly have difficulty explaining the grammar rules of the language.

Researchers have distinguished between “focus on forms” and “focus on form” (Doughty 2003) in second language instruction. “Focus on forms” is the deliberate teaching of grammar in order to produce understanding of the grammar, in the hope that understanding alone will allow the language learner to use the form correctly. “Focus on form”, on the other hand, refers to bringing grammar to the attention of language learners as a part of communicative language practice. It is generally conceded that focusing on grammar for grammar’s sake does little to contribute to correctness during communication, while making ESL learners aware of structures as a part of communicative language practice can contribute to the development of greater accuracy during communication.

Research into the “focus on form” type of ESL grammar instruction suggests three possible ways that it can contribute to the development of communicative ability. First, direct ESL grammar instruction may help raise learners’ consciousness of a form which they have not noticed when they have read or heard it, so that learners may learn to recognize the feature and listen for it in the future (Sharwood Smith, 1981; Ellis, 2000). A second purpose for grammatical knowledge is that it may serve as a memory device, helping ESL learners remember how to produce a particular form until they can produce it automatically (compare to Blair, 1982). Third, ESL grammar instruction can be a means of “flooding” learners with examples of a form which occurs infrequently, giving them more intensive practice with a form that they might not encounter in everyday speech except once every week or so.

Just-In-Time Grammar in TALL

The TALL ESL learning system uses a “focus on form” methodology for grammar instruction. TALL presents grammar in a way that does not require ESL learners to develop a rich base of grammatical terminology, but rather helps learners remember the structure of particular utterances. Instead of presenting ESL learners with a discussion of rules, TALL prefers to show them animated examples in which the focus is on the relationship between form and meaning. “Just-in-time grammar” refers to the use of grammatical explanations and exercises presented as a part of a task-based approach to ESL learning where performing the task is paramount and the grammar presentation is a tool to facilitate communication and increase accuracy.

Adapted from “The TALL Language System: An Integrated, Research-Based Approach to ESL Instruction”, by Dr. C. Ray Graham, and Dr. Kent Parry, both of Brigham Young University. Used with permission.  To receive a free copy of the complete document, click here.

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