Learners need to focus on form

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Cainntear
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby Cainntear » Sun Feb 02, 2020 12:01 pm

aokoye wrote:The primary audience of this article, and most articles like is people who are active in academia (in or outside of the ivory tower).

That still doesn't mean it's good terminology. Focus on form and focus on forms are not highly visually different, and even being familiar with the terms myself from a masters in TESOL and a second masters thesis on language acquisition, I still misread the article first time round and had to reread to clarify.

Maybe my biggest issue is that focus on form is too often presented divorced from its original context. Even the text quoted makes that mistake:
However, it is important that the teaching of formal aspects of the language is inte-grated within lessons with an overriding focus on communication (Long, 1991). In the SLA literature, this approach is often referred to as “focus on form” and it should not be confounded with the more traditional grammar teaching, referred to as “focus on forms”.

This is back-to-front.

Focus on form in its original context started with the assumption that you're teaching in a meaning-focused classroom, then you add form-focused activities to the classroom for better acquisition. That was fine in the USA in 1988, at the height of Krashen's influence.

But if you are not starting with an assumption of a meaning-focused classroom, focus on form doesn't encode the intended message of a predominantly meaning-focused classroom with relevant form-focus within it, so it's misleading. This isn't just a matter of whether you're familiar with the terms or not, because it is often abused by people who should understand it.

But it's part of a deeper problem that affects a lot of human intellectual activity -- reducing things to buzzwords rather than thinking about the principles. The two main principles behind focus-on-form haven't changed -- 1) language is nothing without meaning; 2) without conscious attention, form is not acquired -- but the typical teaching setting (or at least our conceptualisation of it) has changed. Buzzwords are fixed and do not always invite analysis, but principles are not laws and are supposed to inform decisions.

edit: trimming unused quotes accidentally left at the bottom of my post.
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby Elexi » Sun Feb 02, 2020 12:34 pm

The two main principles behind focus-on-form haven't changed -- 1) language is nothing without meaning; 2) without conscious attention, form is not acquired


Nice summary of FoF - now if only some of the snake oil salesmen on the internet selling 1970s Krashenite ideas with a sprinkling of poorly understood neuroscience would grasp those points, things might move on. In addition, some of the circular discussions here might be less tedious.
Last edited by Elexi on Sun Feb 02, 2020 4:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby ryanheise » Sun Feb 02, 2020 3:55 pm

Elexi wrote:
The two main principles behind focus-on-form haven't changed -- 1) language is nothing without meaning; 2) without conscious attention, form is not acquired


Nice summary of FoF - now if only some of the snake oil salesmen on the interent selling 1970s Krashenite ideas with a sprinkling of poorly understood neuroscience would grasp those points, things might move on.


A lot of the successful self learners online who discovered what works for them and share their techniques and experience with others may claim to be inspired by Krashen ideas, but actually use a mix of ideas in practice. For example, Steve Kaufmann, when promoting his product LingQ, talks about the Krashen inspiration in terms of having compelling, comprehensible input, but he also constantly emphasise the importance of the ability to notice, and unlike Krashen, thinks that the occasional grammar explanation can be helpful to the extent that it can help you to notice.

But to your point, I don't think simply understanding FonF will necessarily change things: Acknowledging that many language learners are strongly motivated to learn without a teacher, if you want to promote the underlying principles of FonF in the self learner context, then the case needs to be made that FonF is actually applicable in this context. But as mentioned earlier, this type of learner does not appear to be the focus of this research. FonF may equip teachers with techniques and approaches to use with students, but in the absence of teachers, the question is, what techniques would self learners be able to equip themselves with? So what are these self learner techniques, and what studies show the efficacy of those techniques in the self learner context? I'm sure self learners would be open ears to hearing the answer, because after all, they tend to be willing to experiment and try a mix of different techniques.

I think addressing those questions will be a more effective way to influence the minds of those who are motivated to learn without a teacher.
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby mentecuerpo » Sun Feb 02, 2020 7:07 pm

I am including a typical example of the difficulties I encounter when reading outside of my medical field in the linguist field.
My interest in prosody got me to this author. Warning, it is not a light bedtime reading for me.

http://www.phon.ox.ac.uk/jpierrehumbert ... rt_PhD.pdf

This is a sample text from the book The Phonology and Phoneticx of English Intonation, by Janet Breckenridge Pierrehumbert.

For example on page 32, 1.3 Associaiton Rules, and I quote:


1.3 Association Rules
The association of the boundary tone with the text is
straightforward. The boundary tone is found at the end of the phrase,
regardless of the metrical structure of the phrase. In a theory in which
the structure of the text is described by a hierarchical structure of
domains rather than using boundary symbols, this means that the boundary
tone aligns with the right edge of the intonation phrase. In our data,
the phrase accent is found near the end of the word with the nuclear
stress even when this is not a metrically strong position. There is a
certain amount of variation in its placement, but it seems unlikely to
us that this variation is linguistically significant. Thus, the interest-
ing problem in text/tune association is where the pitch accents go. The
basic observation is that pitch accents are assigned to metrical feet on
the basis of the metrical structure for the entire phrase. The outcome
is that the designated terminal element of an arbitrary metrical foot may
but need not necessarily, carry a pitch accent. Since all outputs of the
grammar of allowable tonal sequences have at least one pitch accent, the
well-formed text-tune associations have a pitch accent on the nuclear
stress, or designated terminal element of the phrase.
These observations can be made more precise using the metrical
grid notation for stress developed in Liberman (1975) and Liberman and
Prince (1977). The metrical grid is a device for interpreting the
metrical tree, which was introduced above for describing word stress.
Here, we will be interested in the use of these representations to
describe phrasal stress subordination. An example illustrating the
metrical tree at the phrase level is given in 15):

SEE PDF FOR THE FIGURE ON THE TEXT, FIGURE 15

The region's weather was unusually dry.
The internal structure of the metrical feet is omitted. The form of the
tree is the same as the syntactic structure, except that "the" and "was"
are assumed to have been cliticized, or in other words incorporated into
a foot with a word stress. As above, _s and w are used to label the
stronger and weaker nodes of each pair by the Nuclear Stress Rule
(Chomsky and Halle, 1968; Liberman and Prince, 1977). The Nuclear Stress
Rule appears to be a default case at the phrase level. The labelling
at any level of the tree may be reversed to highlight particular infor-
mation in the phrase, and in some locutions s w labelling is actually
more common than the w s. labelling which would result from the Nuclear
Stress Rule. For example, a typical stress contour for, "We're looking
for an
apartment to rent," would be:

16) SEE FIGURE 16 ON TEXT

for an apartment to rent
We're looking
The stress contour which would result from assigning the nuclear stress
of the phrase to "rent," as the Nuclear Stress Rule would, comes off as
a correction or an implicit contrast. Similarly, the most normal rendi-
tion of most sentences involving "even" and "only" has the nuclear stress
on the constituent they modify:

17)SEE FIGURE 17 ON PDF, LINK ABOVE.
s w
w s w s
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby Cainntear » Sun Feb 02, 2020 8:19 pm

ryanheise wrote:But to your point, I don't think simply understanding FonF will necessarily change things: Acknowledging that many language learners are strongly motivated to learn without a teacher, if you want to promote the underlying principles of FonF in the self learner context, then the case needs to be made that FonF is actually applicable in this context. But as mentioned earlier, this type of learner does not appear to be the focus of this research. FonF may equip teachers with techniques and approaches to use with students, but in the absence of teachers, the question is, what techniques would self learners be able to equip themselves with?

Which is exactly why I think we need to go beyond the buzzwords. FonF is a very restricted technique which absolutely requires a teacher, because a learner is in no place to identify the appropriate time and place to insert specific instruction into their own input-heavy learning.

The point that the self-learner needs to take out of this is that input alone doesn't work, and this has been observed by people working in that area. Even if Long's FonF-embedded-in-otherwise-Krashenite-classes is the best way to run a language class (I don't personally believe it is, but I'm open to being proved wrong), it's impossible without a teacher.

I think that means that self-learners have to do more explicit work on learning form and structure. Even if you don't get it all at the time, having looked at something before means you're more likely to notice it and recognise it when you come across it.

For example, I half-learned the conditional in Gaelic in a one-week residential school. I didn't practice it and forgot it. Months later, I heard it, noticed it, recognised it. There were times I read something in various languages that confused me as I tried to understand it in the way I was used to using the form, but where two distinctly different meanings shared a form (and would have translated to 2 different things in English). I would then consciously supplement my understanding with reference to things I'd looked at and never fully internalised.

My old philosophy was "if you keep the grammar book in your head, you can teach yourself later."
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby lichtrausch » Sun Feb 02, 2020 10:00 pm

Cainntear wrote:because a learner is in no place to identify the appropriate time and place to insert specific instruction into their own input-heavy learning.

Attentive self-learners seem perfectly capable of identifying the appropriate time and place in many situations, if not all. When a form repeatedly shows up in contexts where something doesn't seem quite right (e.g. the utterance doesn't make sense to the learner or it's unclear precisely what nuance the form adds to the utterance), it's time to hit the grammar book index and/or google. Your point stands for inattentive learners though.
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby Cavesa » Sun Feb 02, 2020 10:57 pm

I don't think it's primarily the independent learners, who's been neglecting the form.

Nice to see this issue addressed, the lack of focus on form is definitely a plague of many classes these days (things spread rather slowly. Many teachers, or even whole countries, are treating the chaotic method without explanations as if was a new and super up to date thing).

From what I observe away from the internet or in the more interesting parts of it, the independent learners actually demand the structure, the grammar, and so on. The majority of the independent learners are not morons, who think they'll get everything from the input (even though the subreddit can sometimes look as if it was true).

The classes are much more problematic. Many teachers are actively discouraging students from getting a grammar book, refusing to explain things and making people just observe and parrot stuff. These "teachers" are a huge problem. I know it is more comfortable for them to just chat and not explain, not to bother with detailed feedback, and so on. It is natural to be lazy, sure. But it might be nice to see their "natural learning" excuse deconstructed :-D It is good to see some more sense being brought into this again, but it will take time to spread into the classrooms everywhere.

I would love to see more research on the independent learners (the serious learners and learning, not a marketing research on the players of Duolingo), but we simply seem not to exist.

But yes, the focus on form vs. focus on forms terminology is really unfortunate (just like I will keep confusing the nephrotic and nephritic syndrome forever). I guess the main purpose of this distinction is a sort of a pathological looking obsession with hate towards the traditional grammar based method. I suppose that anybody admitting it was actually not bad wouldn't be listened to :-D
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby iguanamon » Mon Feb 03, 2020 12:05 am

These SLA studies are cited a lot on the forum by various members. I really struggle what to make of them. Thy are all geared to classroom learners in a classroom setting, thus providing little relevance to what we do here. A lot of them start with a bias and seem to be designed to confirm that bias.

It is doubtful that anyone here who has learned a second language to a high level would argue with the need to internalize grammar, both in speech and writing, and in listening and reading. Q: How do we do this? A: in a number of ways. Some of us do this thorough courses that teach grammar and have drills. Some of us do "grammar-light" courses. Some of us regularly consult dictionaries and grammars. Those learners who reach a high level tend to go beyond course work to consume lots of native content, speak and write with natives and visit TL countries. In this way, a learner cannot escape being exposed to proper form and wanting to incorporate it into their output. This tends to lead to working on getting the language right.

Perhaps the issue lies with researching of students in a classroom setting where instruction and what to focus on is determined by the instructor. I am not a linguist, an instructor, nor a SLA expert. I'm just a guy who has taught himself some languages.
Cavesa wrote:...I would love to see more research on the independent learners (the serious learners and learning, not a marketing research on the players of Duolingo), but we simply seem not to exist. ...

This is so true. The reason why these studies are not done may be that we independent learners are not deemed by researchers to be important enough in language-learning to be studied. We don't generate enough of a presence in language-learning. Maybe we are not "relevant" to the industry because we cut out the "middle man"- the teachers, the schools. Maybe it's because we are widely scattered and observing us would be too much of a challenge? Would the researchers need to have our levels tested? I really don't know.

Still, while not quite relevant to what we do, these studies point out to me the ever illusive quest in SLA for The Answer- the need to quantify a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, individual process (even in a group setting) in a world that prefers black and white to shades of gray. [sarcasm] If we could only find the one true way to learn a language... then all would make sense... all would be right in the world. [/sarcasm] I'm sure someone will get around to posting a new study that will happily show us all the one, true way.
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby mentecuerpo » Mon Feb 03, 2020 12:58 am

Even in a classroom setting, depending on the teacher and the textbook, you can still have a heavy grammar orientation, with the focus on forms. It is my impression of the Ciao Italian textbook. It is possible that a skilled teacher can make the best out of the textbook. I know the workbook and probably the textbook as well, is focused on the forms, not so much the form as described in this blog.
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Re: Learners need to focus on form

Postby Cainntear » Mon Feb 03, 2020 11:02 am

lichtrausch wrote:Attentive self-learners seem perfectly capable of identifying the appropriate time and place in many situations, if not all. When a form repeatedly shows up in contexts where something doesn't seem quite right (e.g. the utterance doesn't make sense to the learner or it's unclear precisely what nuance the form adds to the utterance), it's time to hit the grammar book index and/or google. Your point stands for inattentive learners though.

That would be fine if we could diagnose and identify attentive and inattentive learners, but we can't. The problem with not noticing things is that if you don't notice, you don't notice.
I would never recommend anything that relies on an unmeasurable skill, because then you're setting people up for failure based on luck.

Cavesa wrote:But it might be nice to see their "natural learning" excuse deconstructed :-D

It has been, many times. The problem is a generational one. People are trained once, and most are never exposed to anything other than the fads their trainers bought into. Most teachers are trained by trainer teachers who were also only trained once. That can mean that it takes decades for any given fashion to die.

I guess the main purpose of this distinction is a sort of a pathological looking obsession with hate towards the traditional grammar based method. I suppose that anybody admitting it was actually not bad wouldn't be listened to :-D

Indeed. I was brought up in a culture that valued a balanced diet containing some of all food groups. I know live in a world where people variously claim that meat kills you, that dairy kills you, that cereal kills you, that raw food kills you, that cooking kills you... etc

Unfortunately, language learning (and education in general) seems to similarly be averse to a balanced diet...!
...I would love to see more research on the independent learners (the serious learners and learning, not a marketing research on the players of Duolingo), but we simply seem not to exist. ...


iguanamon wrote:These SLA studies are cited a lot on the forum by various members. I really struggle what to make of them. Thy are all geared to classroom learners in a classroom setting, thus providing little relevance to what we do here.


There's two reasons for that: 1) most researchers are teachers so have access to classes and 2) the classroom setting is a controlled environment and repeatable -- if you teach 20 people at once, they've all received the same treatment (more or less; the ones at the back might not have heard as well as the ones at the front, and things like that) whereas if you send them home to study alone, you've got no guarantee they've all engaged with the material the same way, reducing the reliability and usefulness of your results.

Both my masters theses were built around self-study materials, and in the first, and equivalence was something I had to address explicitly -- my supervisor was pushing me to make the test conditions equal in time as that's standard practice in SLA research, but I successfully argued that time was out of my control, so I made my conditions equal in number of activities instead, but I had to write that up as a justification, and I had to note it as a possible reason for the results.

[Executive summary: I was examining the effects of learning by reception (read a word, phrase or sentence then click the matching image) vs production (typing a word, phrase of sentence to match a provided stimulus image) vs mixed (50-50) on ability to read and type beginner's level Scottish Gaelic. The best performing group were those who only typed, and the worst were those who only read and clicked, and that's on all tests, receptive and productive. As typing's slow, the productive group probably spent longer using the materials than the others, so it's possible that if time had been equivalent, the effectiveness of the typing may have been beaten out by the increased exposure in the mixed treatment.]

A lot of them start with a bias and seem to be designed to confirm that bias.

Sadly very true. If you've got the time to read them and access to them, it's usually pretty clear which ones are valid and which aren't. But that's a very big "if"...
It is doubtful that anyone here who has learned a second language to a high level would argue with the need to internalize grammar, both in speech and writing, and in listening and reading. Q: How do we do this? A: in a number of ways. Some of us do this thorough courses that teach grammar and have drills. Some of us do "grammar-light" courses. Some of us regularly consult dictionaries and grammars. Those learners who reach a high level tend to go beyond course work to consume lots of native content, speak and write with natives and visit TL countries. In this way, a learner cannot escape being exposed to proper form and wanting to incorporate it into their output. This tends to lead to working on getting the language right.

But vanishingly few do zero-grammar courses, and we know statistically that very few students (in classroom settings) achieve decent mastery through zero-grammar courses.

The only people I've met personally who learned a language with no grammar are people who went backpacking in South America, and speak Tarzan Spanish -- "yo voy ayer" etc -- and pretty much all of the people proposing zero-grammar immersion themselves have learned or continue to study grammar. (For example, in the first category, there's a Gaelic teacher who proposes Gaelic immersion and no English or grammar explanations who first learned the language using textbooks while a student in London; in the second category my old nemesis-who-shall-not-be-named who spends weeks on conscious grammar and vocabulary study of any new language, then tells his blog readers that they don't need to do any grammar study.)

This is so true. The reason why these studies are not done may be that we independent learners are not deemed by researchers to be important enough in language-learning to be studied.

No, it's just that we're difficult to evaluate objectively.
We don't generate enough of a presence in language-learning.

A.K.A. statistical outliers. There are surveys of successful learners from time to time, and these are influential in directing future research. If there's an observed pattern in successful learners, research does shift to trying to encourage all learners to do the same thing.
But this doesn't always work. Consider: "successful learners consume native media". Fair statement, right? How do you implement that? Well, they tried introducing more native media into the classroom. Result? Less achievement, because they were replacing study time with something that only worked as a supplementary activity for the successful learners. Less successful learners didn't have the base level to engage with the content, so it was a waste of time.

How do you get school kids to engage with native media outside of class? You don't. Unless you're an English teacher. If you are an opt-in language school and you're dealing with adults, you can attempt it, but it's a hard sell. Either way, pragmatics interfere with the perfect solution.
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