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What Is Focus on Form?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Focus on form refers to a method of teaching language typically used for second language acquisition that is meant to be a balance between more extreme approaches. One of the most common methods for teaching language can be referred to as focus on forms, in which an educator teaches parts of speech and words devoid of context. The other extreme from this is an environment in which there is only context and learners focus on meaning rather than on the rules of language. Focus on form is meant to be a middle path that allows language learners to read and learn at their own pace, stopping to shift focus onto rules as appropriate.

Established by Michael Long, a professor of Second Language Acquisition, the major inspiration behind the focus on form method is the weaknesses inherent in the other two popular methods. Focus on forms, noted by this final “s” and sometimes written this way is the term used to indicate a method for teaching language that deals mostly with rules. Students are presented with samples of language outside of any context. Through sentence diagramming and other methods, they learn the rules that govern the structure of a language, but have no real meaning to associate with what is learned.

This method is often seen as flawed since it lacks ownership by students. They are taught words and rules, but nothing pushes them to want to learn these things. Without context, the rules can be ultimately meaningless.

As a response, the focus on meaning method developed. This is a teaching style in which rules are largely ignored and language is taught through reading meaningful works. The assumption with this method is that students will pick up on and learn the rules as they read. There is a potential flaw in the focus on meaning method as well, however, in that it requires accidental learning. Students may not be told rules outright, and are simply expected to learn and understand them through exposure to their use.

The focus on form, without an “s” at the end, method was developed as a way to marry both of these other concepts. In using this teaching style, an educator gives students reading selections that provide them with examples of language in a useful and meaningful context. As questions and issues arise in their reading, the focus of a lesson is shifted away from what is being read, and onto the rules behind it.

For example, a student might be reading a selection in a focus on form lesson. While reading, the student demonstrates difficulty with understanding pronoun-noun number agreement. At this point, the teacher stops the reading and takes time to teach the rules that govern how plural nouns and pronouns are formed to ensure agreement. In this way, there is a focus on form through meaningful lessons that are based on context.

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