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Eurosla 11, Paderborn, September

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1 Eurosla 11, Paderborn, 26-29 September
Re-evaluating Theoretical and Methodological Aspects of Focus on Form Research Danijela Trenkic & Mike Sharwood Smith Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

2 Background: Focus on Form research
the principle aim to investigate whether focusing learners’ attention to formal aspects of language in communicative context can (in some cases) promote SLA. theoretical underpinnings the noticing hypothesis (Schmidt 1990): only what has been noticed will be learned goals of research: pedagogical theoretical

3 Typical design of FonF studies
Classroom studies typically, two or more classrooms of FL/SL learners at the same (or similar) proficiency level are pretested, and then exposed to a different instructional treatment over a period of time.

4 Their improvement on a post-test is then compared
Control Group no FonF treatments Post-test Pre-test Experimental Group receives some sort of FonF treatment

5 Typical findings and generalisations
Learners who receive FonF treatment perform better on the post-test FonF - an effective means of promoting noticing noticing = the key factor of SLA FonF should be included in language teaching

6 Problems with FonF research design, findings and generalisations
Theoretical problems: how do you define noticing? Schmidt (1990): noticing/understanding distinction the distinction is scalar, rather than categorical what is it that a learner has to notice? how do you measure noticing?

7 Methodological problems
A whole plethora of uncontrollable variables involved impossible to interpret the results confidently (you are not sure why something worked, and even more importantly, why something did not work) impossible to compare studies impossible to draw generalisations

8 Major variables in FonF studies
The choice of forms learners’ proficiency levels the size and nature of groups the length of treatment the number of post-tests the choice of testing materials the level of explicitness

9 The choice of forms Not all linguistic features are equally amenable to focus on form (cf. Williams and Evans 1998) the results obtained on one form are no guarantee that the same treatments would work equally well for another form

10 Learners’ proficiency levels
What work for learners at a certain level of proficiency may not work for learners at another level

11 The size and nature of groups
Groups not usually big enough for reliable statistical analysis and conclusions (+ the intergroup differences in proficiency, motivation, etc. can be considerable). ‘since the sample sizes were fairly small and the data were not normally distributed…’ (Doughty and Varela 1998:129) BUT ‘the effects of [FonF treatment] are clearly interpretable from our results…’ (ibid.) ‘This sample is too small to provide convincing quantitative evidence…’ (Williams and Evans 1998:151) BUT ‘[the results] point to the fact that focus on form is indeed useful and should be integrated into communicative curricula.’ (ibid.)

12 The length of treatment
A few days/several weeks/whole semesters ‘Effects for instruction of any kind may be, and probably almost are, gradual and cumulative rather than instantaneous and categorical…’ (Long and Robinson 1998:40) results are affected by the length of treatments

13 The number of post-tests
There is a reverse side to the gradual accumulation of the effect of instruction FonF groups often improve their performance on the immediate post-test, but on (sufficiently) delayed post-tests, this improvement decreases, or even disappears altogether. White (1991) - found positive effects for a FonF instruction on the 5 week post-test, but not on the post-test administered a year later. The last post-test rarely exceeds 5 weeks BUT ‘instruction that appropriately incorporates form-focused treatments into communication-oriented language teaching can have lasting positive effect on L2 acquisition’ (Muranoi 2000:661)

14 The choice of testing materials
Testing materials come in a variety of forms oral and written reports on science experiments (Doughty and Varela 1998), short constrained narratives based on several pictures (Williams and Evans 1998, Muranoi 2000), more or less constrained sentence-completion tasks (ibid.), different varieties of grammaticality judgement tasks (ibid.), description of a short film-scene (Muranoi 2000), etc. different testing materials yield somewhat different results  when comparing the results, no guarantee that like is being compared with like the central problem: what are the testing materials testing?

15 The level of explicitness of FonF treatment
‘it has not been clear exactly what it means to draw a learner’s attention to form or how this is to be accomplished.’ (Williams and Evans 1998:139) Accomplished in many ways: from the most implicit ones (e.g. the flood of positive evidence), to the most explicit ones (e.g. stating a ‘rule’)

16 The level of explicitness
Original proposal: FonF should occur incidentally and be fairly implicit, so as not to distract learners from their communicative goal (cf. Long 1991). ‘a quintessential element of the theoretical construct of focus on form is its dual requirement that the focus must occur in conjunction with - but must not interrupt - communicative interaction.’ (Doughty and Varela 1998:114) more explicit procedures may cause stress and anxiety, and so preclude fluency. This is because they do not ‘add attention to form to a primarily communicative task… [but rather] depart from an already communicative goal in order to discuss a linguistic features’ (ibid.)

17 The levels of explicitness
The general trend emerging from FonF studies employing a whole range of FonF techniques seems to be that the more explicit the treatment, the more marked the gain on the post-test.

18 Some examples Williams and Evans (1998): considered English participial adjectives found that ESL learners who received a flood of positive evidence, plus explicit instruction, plus feedback, significantly outperformed the group which only received a flood of positive evidence, which in turn, outperformed but not significantly, the control group which did not undergo any FonF treatment. Muranoi (2000): considered English articles found that Japanese EFL learners show much better results in using E articles after receiving an implicit interaction enhancement treatment, but even better when the treatment is supported by explicit formal instruction.

19 Result: a split in the ‘theory’ of FonF research
Long and Doughty - still advocate exclusively implicit techniques Lightbown - argues for ‘a role for “grammatical instruction” that is separate from communicative activities, and is yet integrated in the lesson as a whole.’ (1998:194) DeKeyser - advocates explicit instruction at first, and believes that declarative knowledge acquired through explicit FonF instruction can eventually become fully automated (1998:47). Communicative interaction is vital for the process of proceduralising declarative knowledge.

20 Failing on the pedagogical aim
Due to a great number of uncontrollable variables in research, all teachers can be told is: yes, the results show that focusing your students’ attention to form may work, but you have to work out what will work for YOUR students. Not exactly helpful or revealing

21 Failing on the theoretical aim
Not much has been revealed about the process of SLA. Since it is not properly defined what noticing is or how it is to be measured  the hypothesis is not falsifiable

22 Failing on the theoretical aim
Further, findings from FonF research show that: the more explicit the instruction, the more marked the effect on a post-test; effects are not preserved in spontaneous production (cf. the choice of testing materials above), or on sufficiently delayed post-tests; overgeneralised uses of the treated form are a regular by-product of FonF research. These are characteristics of meta-linguistic learning/knowledge!

23 Implications of these findings
FonF treatments, irrespective of their level of explicitness, actually manipulate meta-linguistic knowledge, that is knowledge about language, rather than knowledge of language (cf. Truscott 1998). Similarly, meta-linguistic knowledge is what FonF research testing materials test. The only safe conclusion: noticing does promote learning, but of meta-linguistic type. It does not seem to promote learning OF language (and we believe there are good theoretical reasons why it doesn’t)

24 The future of FonF research?
More research of the same type? OR: defining a viable model of SLA with a clear set of testable predictions? We would advocate the second choice. The most theoretically grounded and methodologically worked-out line of research within the FonF framework so far, has been that of DeKeyser (1998), in Anderson’s ACT* framework. The idea is to see whether declarative knowledge, acquired through FonF instruction, can be proceduralised ‘by engaging in target behaviour […] while temporarily leaning on declarative crutches’ (1998:49)

25 The future of FonF classroom practice
We believe that there is a place for FonF instruction and feedback in language classroom, despite the fact that it produces meta-linguistic knowledge. Learners may have very limited exposure to the TL (especially FL learners): they may learn in huge groups, a few hours a week, and be taught by a non-native speaker of that language  there may not be enough input to develop knowledge of language. Learners have practical goals - e.g. to pass the exam, get a job, etc., and these goals can be achieved by developing meta-linguistic knowledge (it is actually more than likely that meta-linguistic knowledge is what is going to be tested by the testing materials). There is a possibility that it can ultimately influence ‘knowledge of language’ - a question to be theoretically and empirically addressed by future FonF research.

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