Form-focused and Message-oriented Communication in Secondary School EFL Classrooms


posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In the International Handbook of English Language Teaching (Cummins & Davison 2007), Nina Spada (2007: 283) states that “there is an emerging concensus in the classroom research literature that the inclusion of form-focused instruction is needed within exclusively and primarily meaning-based approaches to CLT if learners are to develop higher levels of knowledge and performance in the target language. This has been demonstrated in descriptive, experimental, and quasi-experimental studies with adult, adolescent, and child learners in different second/foreign language contexts.”

This raises a number of fundamental questions concerning the current status of EFL classroom interaction and, more specifically, the optimal mix of form-focused and message-oriented instruction in everyday secondary school EFL practice.

Up to now, there is very little empirical evidence that frontline educators in secondary schools, for instance in Germany, actually orchestrate classroom interaction in accordance with “exclusively and primarily meaning-based approaches to CLT”. On the contrary, the overall focus of instruction behind classroom doors is still very often on target language form or forms, i.e. on the weak, rather than on the strong version of the communicative approach (see Howatt 1984).

This is what the current DESI-study (German-English-Student-Assessment-International), a large-scale assessment study (n = 11,000) commissioned by the German federal board of education (including a classroom video-study), designed and implemented by an interdisciplinary consortium of applied linguists and educational researchers indicates (for a summary, see the official German DESI homepage and the corresponding Powerpoint-Presentation in English created by Günter Nold, University of Dortmund, Germany.

EFL classroom interaction in everyday practice in Germany is often far from being appropriate to stimulate and scaffold lively, meaningful and creative interaction (especially self-regulated peer-to-peer communication in English) and to systematically stretch learners’ participatory abilities in the target language, primarily because message-oriented classroom discourse is mapped onto the traditional interactional architecture of form-focused and predominantly accuracy-oriented language practice (i.e. IRF: teacher initiation, student response, teacher feedback, mainly focused on immediate error-correction).

The “procedural infrastucture of talk-in-interaction” (Schegloff 1992: 1299) which has emerged in classroom practice over many years is suggestive of a form-oriented communicative cocoon spun by teachers to protect learners from the natural complexity and unpredictability that is typical of many communicative encounters outside the classroom. In consequence, there is very little room for spontaneous, less regulated (or scripted) and less predictable communicative exchanges which are necessary to induce a communicative metamorphosis among learners – from peripheral and dependent to increasingly more central and autonomous participants. In my view, this needs to be considered more thorougly when proposing the inclusion of form-focused instruction in secondary school EFL classrooms.

Howatt, Anthony P. R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Ox­ford: Oxford Uni­versity Press.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1992). “Repair after next turn: The last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity in conversation.” American Journal of Sociology, 5, 1295-1345.

Spada, Nina (2007), “Communicative Language Teaching: Current Status and Future Prospects”, in: Cummins, Jim & Davison, Chris (Eds.). International Handbook of English Language Teaching. Part 1. New York: Springer: 271-288.

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