Focus on form refers to instruction that focuses learners’ attention to linguistic structure within a meaningful context. In what ways do Swain (1985) and Van Patten (1990) provide empirical support for focus on form as opposed to an exclusive focus on meaning?
The debate of focus on form and focus on meaning has been a common issue in the SLA literature. The degree of attention that should be directed to linguistic features has a long history (Doughty & Williams, 1998). On the one hand, there are scholars that suggest that there should not be any interruption in communication so that grammar will be reduced to corrective feedback. On the other, there are those who ‘advocate separate attention to grammar and subsequent integration in the knowledge provided in increasingly communicative activity’ (Sheen, 2002, p 303). These two positions have been explained by Long (1988, 1991) focus on form and focus on formS. In this essay, I intend to discuss the dichotomy focus on form and focus on meaning by considering on two articles: Swain (1985) and VanPatten (1990).
The discussion started when research such as Swain (1985) showed that despite years of meaningful input some linguistic features were not acquired natively like. Therefore, naturalistic approaches to second language acquisition that focused entirely on meaning did not cause complete acquisition. Long (1991) differentiates between focus on form and focus on formS. The former refers to ‘drawing student’s attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication.’ (Gass & Selinker, 2002, p380). The later refers to the traditional way of teaching with different grammar points separated in lessons. The basic difference between both of them was that focus on form required the prerequisite of focus on meaning.
In this essay we are going to analyze two articles: Merrill Swain (1985) and VanPatten (1990) trying to find support for focus on form or focus on meaning. In her article from 1985, Swain studied children that learned French in an immersion school in Canada. She compared their proficiency with sixth grade native French speaking children. She discovered that immersion learners, after spending seven years in the school, could not equal native French speakers in different grammatical, discourse and sociolinguistics measures.
VanPatten (1990) studied L2 Spanish college students from three different levels (Level I: First semester, Level II: fourth semester and Level III: third-year conversation). Firstly, participants listened two passages and performed different tasks focusing on content and/ or form. Subjects were divided in three groups: the first one just focused on meaning, the second one focused on meaning noticing the noun inflacción, the third group focused on meaning and the definite article la and the fourth group looked at meaning and the verb morpheme –n. All groups had participants from all levels. Then, they were asked to do a recall task in English. Results showed that comprehension of content decreased when learners needed to focus also on meaningless forms. Therefore, learners had more difficulties on focusing both on focus and form, especially at early stages.
Considering Swain (1985)
We are going to consider Swain (1985) and how it supports focus on form or focus on meaning. Swain (1995) is important because it shows that input alone is not enough to cause second language acquisition. Even after seven years of receiving input, learners lacked second language development in certain areas: ‘Although comprehensible input (Krashen 1981b, 1982) may be essential to the acquisition of a second language, it is not enough to ensure that the outcome will be nativelike performance.’ (Gass & Selinker, 2000). Swain’s results confirm this because, as she says, despite seven years of comprehensible input in the target language, they do not perform nativelike in grammar. Although they perform as natives in other aspects such as comprehension tasks.
Two ideas can be extracted from this study: Firstly, we need to note that the students were exposed to comprehensible input but they did not have many options of practicing their output: ‘their comprehensible output is limited (…). The students are simply not given (…) adequate opportunities to use the target language in the classroom context. Secondly they are not ‘pushed’ in their output.’ The second point is going to be more interesting for our discussion and it is related to the quality of input the students were receiving. The key is that they are processing the input just for meaning and they are not focusing on the form, most of the times because they did not need to because the classes were for content not for language.
These findings lead Swain to believe that exclusive focus on meaning is not enough and that comprehensible output is also necessary to have complete acquisition. Only when learners are ‘pushed’ to produce output and interact, they can negotiate meaning and notice those linguistic features that they have missed in the input. In her article, she concluded:
‘Comprehensible output, it was argued, is a necessary mechanism of acquisition independent of the role of comprehensible input. Its role is, at minimum, to provide opportunities for contextualized, meaningful use, to test our hypothesis about the target language, and to move the learner from a purely semantic analysis of the language to a syntactic analysis of it. Comprehensible output is, unfortunately, generally missing in typical classroom settings, language classrooms and immersion classrooms being no exceptions.’ (Swain, 1985, p 252)
In this paper, Swain introduced the idea of comprehensible output as part of the learning process. Output had been traditionally saw as a way to practice what has been already learned and was not considered part of the learning process until Swain (1995). (Gass & Selinker, 2000)
Considering VanPatten (1990)
VanPatten (1990) challenges the debate of focus on form and meaning. His findings suggest that we may have a limited processing capacity and because of that, tasks that require focus on form and meaning may overload the learners so their intake decreases, especially with meaningless markers such as tense aspect markers. When learners are processing the input, conscious attention to form and meaning compete. Only when the input is easily comprehensible, learners are able to focus on form. Moreover, this simultaneous attention to focus on form and meaning is more difficult for early and intermediate learners.
It is important to note that there are different linguistic features that learners can focus on. In the tasks, group two looked at a lexical item (inflación) as opposed to group four that focused on a verb morpheme (-n). Results show that learners can focus on meaning and form easily if the latter are meaningful items. This led VanPatten to think that grammatical morphemes that have little meaning are more difficult to be noticed by learners as they process meaning. On the other hand, conscious attention to meaningful linguistic features does not affect comprehension.
All in all, VanPatten proved that attention to form while processing meaning decreases comprehension with meaningless linguistic features but not with content words. Simultaneous processing of content and form is difficult for learners; however, they can improve over time as can be seen on the results of Level III as opposed to Level I. On addition to that, input can only be processed for forms when learners understand it. The more understandable, the better they can focus on form. Therefore, learners will need to use other resources than comprehensible input to acquire meaningless grammatical features such as tense aspect marker.
Summary and Conclusions
To sum up, in this essay we have talked about the debate of whether input should focus on form or focus on meaning. First of all, we have established the differentiation of the two positions by following Long’s (1991) and then we have focused on Swain (1985) and VanPatten (1990).
In conclusion, we can say that Swain (1985) provides strong evidence against exclusive focus on meaning as we have seen that it does not cause complete acquisition. If learners’ attention is just focused on meaning, some linguistic features cannot be acquired. However, on the other hand, it does not affect comprehension.
As for VanPatten, his findings suggest that learners can focus on form and meaning of meaningful linguistic features. However, non-content words block comprehension. If learners have to pay conscious attention to them, they will lose meaning. This is connected to the ideas of conscious attention and awareness and the assumption that we have limited processing capacity.
All in all, these papers prove that comprehensible input is vital but not sufficient to cause complete acquisition. Swains’ findings led her to form the ‘comprehensible output hypothesis’: input is not sufficient and learners need to be ‘pushed’ in their output to be able to acquire certain grammatical features. Output is a necessary tool for acquisition to happen. VanPatten showed that learners cannot focus on meaningless grammatical features on their comprehensible input. Therefore, they will need to notice them in the output: when learners interact, test hypothesis and notice the gap, they can acquire those special grammatical features.
Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In S. M. Gass & Madden C. D. (Eds.), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 235-253). RbvNowley, MA: Newbury House.
VanPatten, B. (1990). Attending to form and content in the input. Studies in second language acquisition, (12), 287-301.
Gass, S. M., & Selinker, L. (2000). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sheen , R. (2002). Key concepts in ELT: ‘focus on form’ and ‘focus on forms’. ELT Journal, 56. Retrieved from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/50/3/273.full.pdf