Tag Archives: foreign language learning

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.


International ALA Conference 2010

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

The 10th International Conference of the Association for Language Awareness (ALA) will be held July 25-28 at the University of Kassel, Germany. Central theme: “Awareness Matters: Language, Culture, Literacy”.

The conference will focus on research related to language, culture and literacy with an emphasis on awareness. The discussions will center on first, second, third, fourth, etc. and foreign language acquisition, teacher training, research in language and culture as well as on the role of language awareness and cultural awareness in the workplace.

Plenary speakers: Michael Byram (University of Durham, UK), Patricia Edwards (Michigan State University, USA), Reinhard Hünerberg & Andrea Geile (University of Kassel, GER), Günter Nold (TU Dortmund, GER), Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt (Le Moyne College, USA).

Main areas:

– Language Awareness in Language Learning and Language Teaching in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts
– Language Awareness in Diverse Workplaces, such as Business, Marketing, Health, etc.
– Language Awareness and the Use of Media
– Cultural Awareness in Language Learning and Language Teaching in Diverse Settings
– Cultural Awareness in the Workplace, such as Business, Marketing, Health, etc.
– Cultural Awareness and the Use of Media
– Language Awareness and Literacy Development in Language Learning and Teaching
– Language Awareness and Professional Literacy Development

The call for papers is out now. For further details, click

The Role of the Textbook in the EFL Classroom (3)

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

What do we really know about how textbooks are actually used in secondary school EFL classrooms around the globe today? Research indicates that EFL textbooks are used in many different ways, depending on a wide spectrum of factors. The teacher seems to be the most important factor. In a number of scholarly publications, including some introductory books to teaching English as a foreign language, different preferences or styles of textbook use are identified and described in more or less detail (see, for instance, Haß 2006), ranging from complete textbook-reliance to more selective approaches, from the eclectic use of many different instructional resources to the employment of self-made materials, especially in project-oriented or project-based sequences of instruction. In this context, textbook-bound teaching (i.e. progressing through the book page by page over the course of the school year) is often set in opposition to more flexible approaches to textbook use. The latter is often seen as the most adequate, convincing and appropriate.

The empirical basis is weak, however. This is regrettable, not only because it leaves us with a vague picture of actual textbook use (around the world, in different educational contexts). More fundamentally, identifying different styles of textbook use does not really tell us anything about how to use EFL materials and media most effectively and efficiently.

I am very interested in hearing what you think about this personally, and, more specifically, in how you make use of EFL materials and media in everyday classroom practice. On this blog, I have already referred to the many images and metaphors used by scholars to describe how textbooks and related materials and media should or should not be used in the EFL classroom (see: the role of the textbook in the EFL classroom, parts one und two).

Here are some very interesting and thought-provoking learner images for EFL textbooks documented in McGrath (2006):

“A coursebook is a pair of glasses (which help me to see what the teacher is talking about).“

“A textbook is a beggar (no one likes to approach it).“

“A textbook is an angry barking dog that frightens me in a language I don‘t understand.“

You can also find a lot of teacher images and metaphors for textbooks in McGrath (2006) as well, for instance:

„A textbook is like oil in cooking – a useful base ingredient.“

„Textbooks are like ladies‘ handbags because we can take what we need from them and ladies tend to take handbags wherever they go.“

„A textbook is the stone from which a sculpture will be made (needing bits chopped off, added on and occasionally a little crushing.“

Food for thought…

Haß, F. (Hrsg.) (2006). Fachdidaktik Englisch. Tradition, Innovation, Praxis. Stuttgart: Klett.

McGrath, I. (2006). Teachers‘ and learners‘ images for coursebooks. ELT Journal, 60 (2), 171-180.

ELLiE: Early Language Learning in Europe

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

ELLiE is a transnational, longitudinal study of the introduction of second/foreign language learning in primary school classrooms in seven European countries. The study has been set up in response to the rapid expansion of provision for early languages learning that has recently occurred in Europe and many other parts of the world. It aims at clarifying what can realistically be achieved in European classrooms where relatively limited amounts of curriculum time are allocated to second/foreign language learning. Included in the study are schools from Croatia, England, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden. For an overview of current research findings, klick here.

“Visions of Languages in Education”

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

New publication: Doff, Sabine; Hüllen, Werner & Klippel, Friederike (Eds.) (2008). Visions of Languages in Education – Visionen der Bildung durch Sprachen. Berlin, München, Wien, Zürich, New York: Langenscheidt ELT. [MAFF = Münchener Arbeiten zur Fremdsprachen-Forschung; edited by Friederike Klippel, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany]

Public discussion of school education in Germany has been dominated by a move towards purely functional goals. The obligation to compare learning outcomes between schools, regions or even countries may, in many respects, be helpful, but it narrows the teaching in schools. This is particularly true for foreign language teaching. As a consequence, general goals of Bildung, self-formation and the acquisition of cultural knowledge are neglected or even by-passed intentionally.

Therefore, the authors of this volume thought it imperative to redefine the educational goals of teaching English, French, Spanish, Russian, and other languages in schools at the beginning of the 21st century and to ask:

  • Why do we teach foreign languages in schools to everybody and what are the aims of doing this?
  • What exactly is the contribution of language teaching to the formation of character and the acquisition of cultural knowledge?
  • In what way does language teaching support other areas of school education?
  • What are the past, present and future visions of foreign language teaching?


a) Visions for Europe / Visionen für Europa

Werner Hüllen: Karl Magers Vision einer Bürgerschule mit Unterricht in den neu-europäischen Sprachen

Herbert Christ: Didaktik der Mehrsprachigkeit: Die Vision eines Sprachen und Schulfächer übergreifenden Lernens

Daniel Coste: Plurilingual Education, Identity, Citizenship

Michael Byram: Education for International Citizenship: Language Teaching and Education for Citizenship – In Europe and beyond

b) Visions for Learners – Learners’ Visions / Lern(er)-Visionen

Katrin Gut-Sembill: Visionen – Ein Antrieb zum Fremdsprachenlernen

Jürgen Kurtz: Life Skills-based Education in Secondary School Foreign Language Classrooms – Cornerstone of a Challenging Vision

Barbara Schmenk: Visions of Autonomy as a Core Concept in Language Education

Helmut Sauer: Von der Lernerorientierung zur Lehrerorientierung: Die Lehrkraft als Schlüssel zu “Bildung durch Sprachen”

c) Visions and Context in Historical Perspective / Geschichtliche Fundamente

Frans Wilhelm: Goals in Dutch Foreign Language Teaching: A Historical Perspective, 1500-2000

Daniel Tröhler: Zwischen Ideologie und Institution: Die Etablierung der modernen Fremdsprachen im Gymnasium Preußens und Zürichs

Christiane Ostermeier: Französisch statt Latein: Der Reformplan Julius Ostendorfs (1823-1877)

Sabine Doff: Was von Visionen übrig bleibt: Frauen, die neusprachliche Reformbewegung und ihr Echo in den Lehrplänen des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts

d) Visions in and beyond the Curriculum / Curriculare Visionen

Stefan Kipf: Schule im Umbruch – Perspektiven für den altsprachlichen Unterricht

Erik Kwakernaak: Fremdsprachenunterricht in den Niederlanden: Ein Fach ohne Identität?

Henry Widdowson / Barbara Seidlhofer: Visions and Delusions: Language Proficiency and Educational Failure

Claire Kramsch / Michael Chad Wellmon: From Bildung durch Sprache to Language Ecology: The Uses of Symbolic Competence