Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: Planned, Incidental, Improvised?

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

In this presentation, Danijela Trenkic and Michael Sharwood Smith (2001) raise some fundamental questions concerning ‘form-focused instruction’ (more precisely, they focus on learners’ attention to formal aspects of the target language in communicative SLA environments). Does it make sense to focus on form (FonF) in the classroom? Trenkic and Sharwoold Smith come to the conclusion that “there is a place for FonF instruction and feedback in [the; JK] language classroom” and “that there is a possibility that it can ultimately influence ‘knowledge of language’” – “a question to be theoretically and empirically addressed by future FonF research.” This is vague, but due to the paucity of FonF research carried out in actual secondary school foreign language classrooms, it is almost impossible to come up with further (research-based) recommendations, appropriate and suitable to the needs of all language learners. Here are, nevertheless, some additional thoughts on this subject:

As two thousand years (and perhaps more) of foreign language learning and teaching show, focusing on the form of the target language is indespensable. However, since (intercultural) communicative competence is the ultimate goal of instruction today,  ‘form-focused instruction’ needs to be placed in the wider context of developing accuracy, complexity, fluency and appropriateness as a whole.

At present, ‘message before accuracy’ seems to be the best guideline for orchestrating everyday classroom discourse and interaction in secondary schools, but – in the age of standards-based instruction and increased orientation toward measurable, skills-oriented outcome – balancing out form-focused and message-oriented communication has (arguably) become more difficult. How can learners be prepared best for the annual assessment and testing marathon (largely focused on skills, on accuracy and on discrete-point testing)? How is it possible to develop communicative complexity, fluency and situational appropriateness under these  circumstances?

Task-based instruction appears to be a promising strategy, but as research in this area shows, it is still unclear when and how a focus of form should come (before or after the task?). At any rate, mixing up form-focused and message-oriented discouse should be avoided as far as possible (see, for instance, Doff & Klippel 2007: 198-204). – ‘As far as possible’ means that learners should only be interrupted by the teacher if their utterances are unintelligable, inappropriate, etc. Otherwise, teachers run the risk of demotivating learners to use the target language productively and spontaneously.

Spontaneity (in general) should not be underestimated in this context. Since instruction always takes place in the here-and-now of the classroom situation, planning a focus on form is possible, and – whenever new grammatical structures are introduced – necessary and advisable, but in everyday classroom discourse and interaction, reacting flexibly to what learners say on the spur of the moment is equally important (i.e. treating errors spontaneously,  expanding learner utterances immediately, etc.). Future FonF research should therefore be directed at developing a more comprehensive pedagogical framework which takes into account the discrepancies of planned and unplanned (incidental), scripted and unscripted (improvised). process- and product-oriented  instruction and learning.


Doff, Sabine & Klippel, Friederike (2007). Englischdidaktik. Praxishandbuch für die Sekundarstufe I und II. Berlin: Cornelsen.


3 responses to “Focus on Form in the Foreign Language Classroom: Planned, Incidental, Improvised?

  1. “Future FonF research should therefore be directed at developing a more comprehensive pedagogical framework which takes into account the discrepancies of planned and unplanned (incidental), scripted and unscripted (improvised). process- and product-oriented instruction and learning.”

    Amen. FonF can be a great pedagogical arrow in one’s quiver. And language learning in general risks degeneration if form gives full sway to meaning. I lean to the message-oriented, or successful-communication as measure side, but I enjoyed your thoughts, and gentle wake-up call here.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment. Let me respond to this from the teacher education perspective. Student / novice teachers seem to find it extremely difficult to decide – on the spur of the moment – if and when a focus on form is appropriate, necessary, helpful, effective, etc. How do you personally go about it? Any suggestions?

  3. Pattipeg Harjo

    Evil teacher that I am, I explain grammar points to my students, then we proceed to practice meaning over the next week. I focus on their form during my “20 seconds of horror,” when I randomly pick three students to respond to my question of the day. Techniques vary depending on the student–usually I just repeat what they said, but correctly, and they self-correct, but if I’m getting the same error over and over from one student, I lead him/her through the process of deciding what they should really be saying (Socratic questioning); I also deal with individual problems when they’re doing writing exercises.

    Yes, at first the affective filter in many students can be pretty high (especially since I use “Mr. Microphone” to interview them), but as I pick on all students equally, and praise them often for having the guts to speak to me, by the end of first semester almost all students speak willing. Last month my learning disabled student (with very high anxiety disorder) talked to Mr. Microphone with absolutely no hesitation or anxiety. (I teach 14-18 year olds).

    BTW, just found your blog, and I love it!

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