Learning as foraging

“In foraging for food, signals indicating reduced glucose levels cause an animal’s nervous system to generate an incentive motive ro acquire food. …..The desire to acquire certain knowledge or skill similarly constitutes an incentive motive that a learner must translate into activity in order to learn. In other words, a learner must do things in order to learn.” (Schumann, 2001, p. 21)


The illusion of learner-centered classes

Finishing a presentation for tomorrow, I ran into an interesting paper from 2006: A paradigm shift of Learner-Centered Teaching Style: Reality or Illusion? (Arizona Working Papers):

“The learner-centered approach is praised in research and practice to address individual learners’ needs. However, the findings of this study along with previous research studies indicate that instructors still use traditional, teacher-centered styles in university settings.” (Liu et al 2006:86)

I could agree. Even our communicative classes are still teacher-centered and yet, they can be productive. The paradigm is, nevertheless, shifting. As it should be.

The art of metaphor. Today: Nick Ellis

“Because both consciousness and linguistic knowledge are dificult to conceptualize and operationalize, much existing research has taken a pragmatic approach and, like the drunk who looked for his car keys under a lamppost a block away from where he dropped them, “because the light is better there,” used easy to administer grammaticality judgments, or metalinguistic judgments, or multiple choice or other limited response format measures of language proficiency. Such tests have questionable validity as measures of language proficiency and in their very nature they are more likely to tap explicit conscious learning than are measures involving free constructed responses (Norris and Ortega, 2000). This is a research area plagued with measurement problems (Hulstijn and Ellis, 2005).” (Nick Ellis 2008:10)

“Nevertheless, amnesiacs maintained implicit memories (those evidenced by the facilitation of the processing of a stimulus as a function of a recent encounter with an identical or related stimulus but where the person at no point has to consciously recall the prior event) and were able to learn new perceptual skills like mirror reading and new motor skills (Schacter, 1987; Squire and Kandel, 1999). They also showed normal classical conditioning, thus the famous anecdote of the amnesic patient who, having once been pricked by a pin hidden in the hand of her consultant, refused thereafter to shake him by his hand while at the same time denying ever having met him before.” (Nick Ellis 2008: 3)

SLD overviews: Focus on Form

The term Focus on Form (FoF) was coined by Long in 1991 as a response to the non-interventionist focus on meaning, i.e. Natural Approach.  It claims that implicit learning is not sufficient for the acquisition of a second language (Larsen Freeman, p. 525 in Long, 2010). The same inefficiency happens with the related L2 comprehensible input that “is necessary, but not sufficient” (Long, 1998).

According to FoF, paying attention to contextualized linguistic features, such as grammatical structures, is necessary for students who face challenges understanding and producing meaning. Focus on Form finds the “happy balance” between both implicit teaching and Focus on Forms (FoFs), the latter being equivalent to work on isolated linguistic structures in a sequential or non sequential manner, i.e. Grammar-Translation.

The “form” in FoF does not rely on drilling exercises or syllabuses focused on grammar features but on learner communication needs.  As Long noticed (1998), confusing this term with the umbrella of Form-Focused Instruction (FFI) that may include FoF and FoFs, is not uncommon.

FoF takes place with activities and lessons based in meaning, and it is not planned in advance.  FoF claims to deal with the meaningful and formal elements of language as part of the same system, and in this order: “focus on form entails a prerequisite engagement in meaning before attention to linguistic features” (Doughty and Williams 1998, p. 3). In other words, FoF provides negative feedback through error correction o recasts after errors are made.

Even though Long (1998) emphasizes that FoF needs to be adapted to different tasks and local conditions, this example may help visualize such an ambiguous term:

“As an illustration of how it might occur [Focus on Form], let us imagine that while working in pairs (…), a number of learners are repeatedly heard to use a form considered insufficiently polite, e.g., ‘I want X seats’ for ‘I’d like X seats’, to ignore key words like ‘window’ and ‘aisle’, and ‘coach’ and ‘business’, or to employ singular ‘seat’ when plural ‘seats’ is required. One way focus on form might be achieved is through corrective feedback built into the materials themselves, e.g., through the output of task (iii) being rejected as input for task (iv) in a travel simulation, thereby alerting students to the existence and/or identity of error. Alternatively, the teacher might briefly interrupt the group work to draw students’ attention to the problems, perhaps by modeling one member of a pair of forms and asking the class if it is good or bad, perhaps by explaining the difference between the pairs of target forms, or perhaps simply by pointing to the words on the board.” (Long, 1998, p. 188).

The FoF addresses one of the common issues within the implementation of communicative approaches: underdevelopment of grammatical competence, on account of inadequate sanctioning.

The principle of FoF, although sometimes misunderstood, is particularly fashionable in SLA, supported and developed by a number of distinguished and emerging scholars, and being the source of many studies, some of them comparing its results to implicit instruction, also very popular among our colleagues. FoF has also been compared with FoFs (Norris & Ortega, 2000), surprisingly showing no differences in terms of their effectiveness [1]. Nevertheless, SLA experts tend to study and support FFI, instead of FoF, as it happens with the recent case of Spada (2011).

All things considered, advantages and disadvantages of the FoF by itself are difficult to elucidate. Among their benefits, we could include developing grammatical competence (mutually communicative competence) and finding the missing link between formal language and communicative tasks.  On the other hand, it could be argued that its vagueness lead to confuse forms with rules (Davis, 2009) and forms, taking into account that FoF is just a methodological principle. FoF is difficult to apply it in the classroom and textbooks since we do not count with a set of parameters: its own essence is adaptive. It depends on teachers’ performance which is a variable factor, to say the least.

[1] Conclusions in the article are limited, as the authors claim.  Ron Sheen (2002) has considered that Ortega & Norris confuse Focus on Form with Focus on Forms in certain cases.

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