Utility of formal instruction and focus on form in language teaching


Essential to most studies of SLA/FLL is the issue of the degree of explicitness necessary to draw learners’ attention to the targeted linguistic features. This can take the shape of either regular formal instruction, where a specific area of the TL constitutes an item in the syllabus, or of focus-on-form instruction—FonF—attempting to accentuate the formal features of the TL as they arise incidentally in a lesson whose overriding focus is on meaning and use, or communication (for a review of focus-on-form instruction see e.g. Doughty & Williams 1998; Ellis 2001, 2002). The latter thus involves occasional shifts of learners’ attentional resources to the linguistic code whenever a problem arises with comprehension or production (Long & Robinson 1998).

In both instances, it remains unquestionable that “[b]efore the learner can begin to be communicative … he needs to obtain at least some minimal competence in L2 and this can be provided most effectively through the presentation and practice of formal language items” (Ellis 1984a:141). Ellis (1985a:229) adds that “to deny that instruction can help learners to acquire a L2 is not only counter-intuitive, but contrary to the personal experience of countless teachers and students.” While classroom communication renders it possible for second (L2) and foreign (FL)[1] language learners to acquire basic grammatical competence, acquiring full systemic proficiency seems unfeasible. Research findings in both experimental (e.g. Doughty 1991) and immersion settings (e.g. Swain & Lapkin 1998) indicate that meaning-focused instruction alone may be insufficient for the learners to acquire the linguistic code of the TL, suggesting a positive correlation between explicit instructional conditions—or ‘input enhancement’ (Sharwood Smith 1991)—and L2 development: a range of studies (e.g. Gass 1982; Pienemann 1984; Zobl 1985; Eckman et al. 1988; Tomasello & Herron 1988, 1989; Alanen 1995; De Graaff 1997; Robinson 1997b; Harley 1998; Rosa & O’Neill 1999) have concluded that learners whose attention had been drawn to the formal properties of the TL outperformed those exposed to implicit learning conditions only[2]. The implicit instruction strategy of visual input enhancement (techniques purported to present the targeted language feature implicitly through increasing its perceptual salience by textual manipulation: bolding, capitalising, enlargement, underlying, etc.) has likewise been demonstrated to be insufficient to trigger restructuring of learners’ IL systems (Jourdenais 1998; White 1998; Izumi 2002). There are several reasons responsible for such a state of affairs.

The poverty of the stimulus: the insufficiency of natural exposure in the classroom

The quality and pattern of classroom communication are deficient. Classroom discourse is usually distorted and reduced when compared with naturally occurring discourse, to the effect that the resulting input is impoverished and not sufficiently robust nor varied, affording the learner limited opportunity for hypothesis formation and testing.[3] Firstly, no teacher—in fact, none of us—uses the entire receptively known linguistic repertoire, but rather goes for his/her most favourite structures and expressions. Secondly, certain morphosyntactic structures (such as past tense forms[4], embedding, relativisation, the passive voice, inversion, stylistic devices…) are heavily underrepresented; clause fragments, bare phrases and lexemes are used in lieu of full sentences; the sentences themselves are often interrupted… Typically frequent imperatives may bias the learners towards the plus-setting of the pro-drop parameter.[5] All this may have the consequence of prolonging some transitional developmental patterns (say, the use of intonation questions) and slowing down the emergence of other grammatical structures (e.g. past tense forms); low discourse frequency of copious constructions will fail to warrant a sufficient input-basis for target-like competence. A ‘natural’ learning environment created at school will fail to develop linguistic competence adequately for the mere reason that natural acquisition in the classroom requires constant robust input and is therefore uneconomical and time-consuming. Moreover, even given plenty of time the learners may be inefficient at inferring the relevant properties of the language system – successful detection of TL phenomena requires an adequate dosage of contact with the language (coupled with attention focus). Formal instruction expedites and assists acquisition; providing rules is a contrivance, a shortcut to learning (cf. voices that discovery-based teaching is ‘a charade of pseudo-enquiry’). Secondly, in such circumstances the learner’s attention to form will not be constant or sufficient (if present at all). Explicit instruction is thus necessary as a means to promoting awareness and control over the developing L2, before this awareness becomes automatic allowing the learner to shift the focus on communication. Furthermore, it appears that although greater length of exposure to the L2 is conductive to greater success, this may be restricted to the general communicative ability rather than grammatical or phonological accuracy – abundant quantities of comprehensible input accompanied by ample opportunities for meaningful exchange have proven insufficient for reaching higher levels of accuracy. It is also plausible that exposure may be significant only in the incipient stages of language acquisition. All in all, the communicative classroom fails to result in high levels of grammatical or sociolinguistic competence.[6]

Input vs. intake; the role of attention and noticing in language learning

Underlying the mainstream of current SLA research is the Ansatz that some level of attention to the formal aspects of language is necessary for acquisition to take place (Radwan 2005:70). It is self-evident and commonsensical that focusing on specific linguistic aspects helps the learner to acquire and internalise them. Numerous recent studies investigated the complex relationships between the role of cognitive processes (consciousness, attention, awareness, detection…) and the process of language learning, and there is nearly global consensus among researchers that some degree of attention to problematic (fragile, crucial/non-salient) aspects of the input seems be essential for understanding and learning to occur (cf. e.g. Brewer 1974; Lewis & Anderson 1985; Dawson & Schell 1987; Schmidt 1990, 1993a; Tomlin & Villa 1994; Robinson 1997b; DeKeyser 2001; Ellis 2001; Radwan 2006), although this consensus still conceals the fact that the exact role of awareness in the process of SLA has generally been debatable, speculative, and at times contentious (Radwan 2005:70).

Not all the available raw input data are processed or ‘let in’ by the learner; mere ‘exposure’ to new linguistic material—although necessary—is insufficient for acquisition to take place. First, it may not be understood; it must be made learnable, i.e. comprehensible (adequately simple in structure and vocabulary, contextualised, or elaborated)[7], before the new language forms and structures used to encode the meaning can be internalised. This was considered the driving force behind language acquisition in the early versions of the Interaction Hypothesis (Krashen 1985; Long 1983a, 1983b).

However, even then it may not become processed by the learner’s internal mechanisms when it is not attended to – noticing is constrained by working memory limitations regarding the amount of information that can be held and processed during on-line (real-time) computation of the input for comprehension (VanPatten 2004:7). First, conscious noticing of new language is a necessary preliminary stage—condicio sine qua non—for acquisition[8]:

It would seem fairly obvious that in order for our students to learn something new, they need to be first able to perceive and understand it… Raw, unmediated new input is often incomprehensible to learners; it does not function as ‘intake’, and therefore does not result in learning. (Ur 1996:11)

Only when the two conditions—understanding and noticing—are satisfied can acquisition begin to take place. Schmidt (1990) distinguishes perception, noticing, and understanding as the steps leading to language consciousness. In an elaborate analysis of the role of conscious processes in SLA, he maintains that noticing—the conscious process defined as the “allocation of attentional resources to a stimulus and [identification of] the level at which perceived events are subjectively experienced”—is a necessary (and sufficient) requirement for the conversion of input[9] into intake[10] (Schmidt 1990:129, 1993a). A focus on form thus acts as an intake (or acquisition)facilitator, helping the learner to perceive the feature under explanation (which would otherwise go unheeded) in subsequent meaning-focused input, which can then become intake and—partially or completely—retained and internalised, whereupon restructuring—or overhaul—of the IL system may come to pass. Even if formal instruction does not actually cause new linguistic features to become part of the learner’s IL, it aids SLA by provides the learner with “hooks, points of access” (Lightbown 1985a; termed the selective attention hypothesis by Ellis 1994:656f.), initiating the process of acquiring a new feature by helping him/her notice it in the input.[11] Prior grammar instruction grooms learners for detecting what might otherwise have gone unnoticed: “instruction may have a priming effect, increasing the likelihood of noticing features in input through the establishment of expectations” (Schmidt 1990:143).

In light of the insufficiency of input comprehension to SLA (Pica 1992), later research found that certain forms of even implicit negative feedback, such as recasts—corrected repetition of the learner‘s ill-formed utterances—can lead to better development by highlighting specific forms in the input (e.g. Long, Inagaki & Ortega 1998; Mackey & Philip 1998; Mackey 1999; Iwashita 2003; Leeman 2003). While incipient SLA thinking (e.g. Krashen 1980, 1985) held comprehension to be a necessary condition for learners to gain access to TL forms, Pica suggests that “learners’ comprehension of meaning can be the result of their access to L2 form rather than its precursor” (1994:507f.; emph. added); i.e., learners are able to process the message and comprehend its meaning because hearing it repeated, segmented or reworded during negotiation[12], they are provided with opportunities to notice forms. Schmidt (1993a) goes on even as far as to say that understanding—involving restructuring of the IL system and the application of conceptually-driven processes such as hypothesis formation and testing—is unnecessary for the process of SLA to take place. From yet another standpoint, White (1987a:95) argues that “the driving force for grammar change is that input is incomprehensible, rather than comprehensible …” In other words, the learner may be forced to pay closer attention to the morphosyntactic and semantic properties of a message that s/he had failed to understand. This may well be true; after all, teeth grow when offspring try to bite on everything they encounter, not when they are fed pup, and in everyday life we get by and understand utterances even without necessarily obtaining all the linguistic information—as is the case in noisy settings or when our attention is divided, but where context disambiguates potential uncertainty—which of course does little to promote language development. Long (1996:451), quoting Braidi (1992) adds that necessary for acquisition are both comprehensibility and complexity.

On the other hand, researchers such as Tomlin and Villa (1994) critique the coarse-grained analysis of the role of attention in language learning, proposing a functionally-based one wherein three components of the concept are distinguished:
-          alertness,
-          orientation, and
-          detection – an unconscious process whereby exemplars become registered in memory, therefore becoming available for further processing.

An attempt at a reconciliation of the two positions can be found in Robinson (1997a), who concurs with Schmidt in repudiating any dissociation between learning and awareness, asserting that a given form in the input needs to be consciously noticed before it can be processed further, whilst allocating detection to a learning stage prior to noticing, the latter defined as “detection plus rehearsal in short-term memory, prior to encoding in long-term memory.” At the same time, Robinson (1997b) and Radwan (2005) disagree with Schmidt’s dismissal of the role of understanding in SLA, demonstration that a mere noticing of a form does not correlate with progress in language learning, where the strongest predictor of success is awareness at the level of understanding. This finds support in Alanen (1995), who showed that those learners who are able to verbalise the rules governing the use of targeted features perform significantly better, as well as in Leow (1997a) and Rosa and O’Neill (1999), who—despite espousing Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis—also found different levels of awareness leading to differences in processing (which was explained by postulating that higher levels of awareness might have induced the learners to employ the conceptually-driven heuristics of hypothesis formation and testing) and, more importantly, metalingual awareness contributing to increased recognition and accurate production of the forms. Rosa and O’Neill (1999) also demonstrated that learners receiving explicit instruction manifested higher levels of intake than learners under implicit conditions.

After noticing, language material needs to be gradually sorted and restructured[13]. Explicit formal instruction assumes the role of an advance organiser[14], segmenting a text in order to render the input more accessible for subsequent acquisition of the language. Only then can it be proceduralised (organized and stored it in a user-friendly mode as a large network of routines, which can be derived from memory in a short period of time to be employed in the cut-and-thrust of real interaction) and automatised. Batstone (1994:225ff.) depicts the principal stages in the learning process in the following schematic way:

Figure 1: Stages of proceduralisation (Batstone 1994:227)

Therefore, product teaching (cf. Section 4.2.7) should not be undervalued as it provides a clear framework within which grammar items can be made as salient and noticeable as possible. If students are repeatedly provided with carefully designed language material, they can continue to re-notice it and restructure their working hypotheses, eventually approaching TL competence. To this end, a product approach activates two learning mechanisms: memory, responsible for the accumulation of language structures and patterns, and the capacity for analysis, which allows the learner to segment language into its component constituents and then combine these creatively to produce novel utterances. Without a metalinguistic component, a language course will not facilitate linguistic awareness and reflection.

An interesting investigation of the degree of facilitative effects of various types of (explicit and implicit) attention-drawing instructional treatments on the acquisition of English dative alternation by 42 23-year-old ESL learners (Radwan 2005, 2006) revealed that those learners who received explicit form-focused instruction[16] in the form of metalinguistic explanation of the TL features (rule-oriented group; ROG) significantly outperformed those exposed to less explicit forms of instruction (textual-oriented input enhancement (TEG) and content-oriented input flooding) in their accuracy of responses to various delayed assessment tasks (grammaticality judgment, preference, and picture description), with modest gains displayed by the TEG group in an immediate follow-up text almost completely lost on the deferred post-test. Apart from being able to maintain their progress, the ROG group was also able to successfully generalise the use of the target features to novel contexts not addressed during the treatment sessions. To boot, the study demonstrated that higher levels of awareness (understanding as opposed to mere noticing) correlate positively with language development; awareness at the level of noticing only failed to result in any significant improvement in the participants’ performance, whereas awareness at the level of understanding as manifested in the subjects’ ability to verbalise the rules governing the target features had significant effects on their ability to judge and produce the target linguistic form. Similarly, integration of focus on form[17] in content-enriched[18] lessons of intermediate L2 French in Canada facilitated the acquisition of grammar and vocabulary by the learners (Grim 2006).


The omission of form-focused explanation and tasks and inordinate reliance on lexical clues in FLL may—and will—irrevocably result not only in the lack of progress in terms of overall language ability, but more importantly in what, after Selinker (1972), came to be called fossilisation[19]—or ‘bastardisation’—i.e. automatisation of incorrect forms at dangerously low levels:

Fossilizable linguistic phenomena are linguistic items, rules, and subsystems which speakers of a particular NL will tend to keep in their IL relative to a particular TL, no matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation or instruction he receives in the target language (op. cit.:215)

There are compelling arguments to support the view that without attention given to grammatical form learners are unlikely to progress beyond the level of ‘airport English’, where mastery of a handful of formulaic sequences will suffice to get by.[20] Erroneous fossilisation may be manifested by such symptoms of poor language quality as (after Wysocka 2006):
-          low proficiency,
-          low fluency,
-          systematic errors,
-          fossilised errors,
-          random vacillation between grammatical and ungrammatical structures,
-          long-lasting free variation[21],
-          backsliding,
-          variable learning outcomes.

The supposition that grammatical accuracy can be developed in the classroom after communication has been achieved has long been refuted by immersion research findings, for instance from the much-studied Canadian French immersion programs, referred to by Krashen (1984) as “communicative programs par excellence.” The linguistic competence of immersion students, although they learn to speak the language fluently, is characterised by ‘classroom pidgin’ as a repercussion of their trying to communicate freely beyond their limited linguistic competence – they thus become “dysfunctional bilinguals who can convey messages but do so very ungrammatically” (Hammerly 1992:215). Only young, prepubescent learners with good access to native-speaking peers and sufficiently robust and varied speaker input may—in the absence of formal instruction—learn an L2 with native-like proficiency, although it has also been demonstrated that their morphosyntactic accuracy does not meet the expectations (Harley & Swain 1984; Hammerly 1987; Harley 1989, 1993). For post-pubescent adolescents and adults failure to pay attention to the form of the TL ultimately and irrevocably leads to the emergence of an incomplete and flawed interlanguage; their linguistic development stops some way short of NS competence (although it is difficult to say whether learners ever do completely fossilise). Accordingly, adolescents and adults learning a FL without the provision of formal instruction, whose sole source of language data is exposure, may only ascend to intermediate level where their errors become impossible to eradicate, but should never be expected to achieve high proficiency. Attempts to develop linguistic skills by teaching meaning while the form “will take care of itself” are foredoomed; “[i]ndeed, some observers have concluded that French immersion is the best demonstration of the inadequacy of CLT” (Hammerly 1987; cf. also Lightbown & Spada 1990:431), with the consequence that “the improvement of immersion children’s oral and written grammar has been identified as a major priority by immersion educators” (Day & Shapson 1991:26f.) – selective form-focused instruction ameliorates the failings of immersion education (Rutherford & Sharwood Smith 1985; Harley 1989; Day & Shapson 1991; Long 1991; Sharwood Smith 1991, 1993; Lyster 1993; VanPatten & Cadierno 1993; Swain 1995; VanPatten & Sanz 1995; Doughty & Williams 1998; Ellis 2001).

It is also believed that successful use of communicative strategies by the learner may sabotage acquisition altogether:

A learner may become so skilful in making up for lack of linguistic knowledge by the use of various communication strategies that the need for hypothesis formation and testing is obviated (Ellis 1985a:187)

language use … does not lead to the development of an analytic knowledge system since meaning distracts attention from form (Skehan 1998:27)

‘pick it up as you go along’ learners reach a language plateau beyond which it is difficult to progress (Thornbury 1999:15)

Fossilisation (cessation of learning) can occur when the learner abandons testing out hypotheses and learning effort because s/he is content with his/her existing FL competence which already enables him/her to communicate sufficiently effectively (here, the learner’s affective domain rather than the cognitive one is culpable, as s/he exhausts his/her motivation for learning; Zybert 1999:120). Selinker (1972) argues that although the learner may still occasionally succeed in producing correct TL forms, it will only be when s/he is focused on form; when focused on meaning, especially when the topic is difficult, s/he will ‘backslide’ (Kellerman 1985) towards his/her true IL norm, using a rule belonging to an earlier stage of development (but which need not indicate regression; e.g. McLaughlin (1995) speculates that in certain instances a temporary omission of certain items that the learners had previously appeared to master may take place in order to allow for the development of other forms). Gozdawa-Gołębiowski (2003:ch. 3) similarly points out that even though the learner may be able to perform admirably on a wide range of everyday routine tasks, this in no way corresponds to the idea of knowing a language.

Research findings also indicate that comprehension alone is insufficient for IL development and that it does not lead to linguistic competence. The comprehension process utilises non-linguistic (contextual, situational) rather than linguistic knowledge, because this proves more effective during real-time processing (parsing) of information. Learners may reach the goal of understanding a message without reference to its syntactic and morphological features and eo ipso fail to develop their IL – according to VanPatten’s (2004:18) Preference of Non-redundancy Principle, learners are more prone to process non-redundant meaningful grammatical forms before processing the redundant ones. Communicative effectiveness, granted priority by e.g. Stephen Krashen and Michael Lewis, may be achieved with the use of communicative strategies relying on more easily accessed lexical units—the Primacy of Lexis Hypothesis (Gozdawa-Gołębiowski 2003:141): the load of lexical information suffices and suppresses the recognition of functional clues—which is a Pyrrhic victory impeding IL progress in the long run. The strategies allow the learners to be perceived as proficient communicators and worthwhile interlocutors in the TL, however, regrettably, their communicative effectiveness does not come hand in hand with progress in their grammatical competence but merely—and even there only to a limited extent—in discourse competence. Thus, the objectives of FLL proposed by Krashen and Lewis can be reached relatively easily. Natural communication does not require the use of sophisticated structures or even full sentences: interlocutors, aware of the context of the exchange and of mutually shared knowledge, need not take the trouble to say more than necessary. However, using comprehension and communication strategies is hazardous as the learner’s IL development may fossilise and resist change thereafter, even when a deliberate attempt is made to work on the mistakes. Students who are balanced in their analytic profile of skills or whose knowledge of grammar surpasses their fluency and vocabulary resources continue to advance and are less prone to fossilisation, whereas the progress of those learners whose vocabulary and fluency are initially a considerable cut above than their grammatical competence becomes impeded – after all, many fossilised learners display an impressive lexical repertoire. Higgs and Clifford (1982) conclude that the latter adapt strategies which exert impact on their language system in a way that defocuses and bypasses the structures of the underlying language system, with the dénouement that assuming successful communication as the pivotal aim of their utterances and disregarding TL grammar, students eventually become premature fossilisers. Lalande (1982:140) contends that “unless all errors are identified, the faulty linguistic structures, rather than the correct ones, may become ingrained in the students’ interlanguage system.” It thus seems that a proper balance of grammar and vocabulary in the early stages of learning is more beneficial in the long run. Krashen and Lewis, giving priority to communicative fluency, fail to entertain the potential pitfall of fossilisation and seem unaware of the fact that focusing on meaning may incline learners to a non-structural, lexicalised mode of language processing where attention to form is simply by-passed. The former, however, does acknowledge the contribution of grammar:

I recommend study of grammar for older students in both first and second languages, focusing on the use of a grammar handbook, to fill these gaps. It is part of language study, but is peripheral.[22]

Furthermore, even the prolonged absence of a given form or construction in a standard “acquisition-poor” classroom environment will not suffice to eradicate undesirable utterances. Grammar instruction prevents fossilisation, and studies of FL learners have demonstrated that successful learners focus on grammar. The provision of negative feedback (direct negative evidence, i.e. overt corrections – not to be confused with criticism or punishment) may postpone fossilisation by demonstrating to the learner that s/he is not fully competent yet. Explicit teaching of grammatical forms makes learners realise that they still have not mastered the whole TL system and helps them stay open to the development and restructuring of their interlanguage. They are made to remember about structures. “In this way, instruction pre-emptively reduces the likelihood of inflexibility and fossilisation in language development” (Skehan 1994:189). Noticing the gap between one’s current language output and the language encountered is a prerequisite for linguistic development; only then are learners more apt to strive to improve their performance and self-correct. There is weight of evidence that provision of overt negative feedback with a focus on form is useful in helping learners to destabilise an incorrect rule and getting them to restructure their IL system (e.g. Long & Crookes 1992).

Finally, input of good English is insufficient in the classroom because the learners also encounter the interlanguages of their friends, which will always comprise tainted and ill-formed constructions; that is why they need the provision of negative as well as positive evidence. Even though learners may realise that a certain structure is ungrammatical or unseemly—or in isolated cases notice the non-occurrence of some forms in the input—they cannot be expected to be able to do so on a regular basis.

The natural order hypothesis revisited

It has sometimes been posited that since L2-ers progress along the IL continuum passing through a more or less fixed standard order that is not amenable to pedagogic intervention (cf. Section 1.2.1), an explicit overt teaching of structures has a very limited role to play. This position can be disputed on a number of grounds.

1             The validity of different data types

First, the evidence for the reported universality of the general sequence of development came from morpheme order and longitudinal studies, which were of either pure naturalistic or mixed SLA, so it should not be used to refute the assumptions of traditional classroom language pedagogy.

Moreover, it is tenable that the ‘natural’ route is only a reflection of one particular type of language use, sc. spontaneous speech. Different tasks and data collection instruments elicit different kinds of performance. One cannot extrapolate the results of a study based on one specific data type:

SLA is not a monolithic process and we would be better advised not to talk of a ‘natural’ acquisition order, but of a regular pattern of development in the context of a particular type of language use (Ellis 1985a:290)

In styles tapped in non-spontaneous guided elicitation (i.e. techniques where the learner is asked to perform a certain task) the natural pattern of language is disturbed: performance becomes erratic, with increased transfer of L1 forms, avoidance of certain constructions, primitive, developmentally earlier IL forms[23], unique structures, and more advanced forms intermittently surfacing. The data observed spring from the experimental conditions ‘pushing’ the learners to utilise their existing L2 knowledge to the maximum. Thus, the claimed ‘natural’ order may only be an artefact of the elicitation instrument employed, measured by methods and in conditions that precluded any other result. A morpheme study in elicited speech carried out by Porter (1977) came up with an order that did not match the ‘natural’ sequence reported in IL studies of naturally occurring speech. Consequently, even if formal instruction could not aid spontaneous production (though, as we have argued above, it does), it may help learners perform in other types of language use, for instance in situations associated with planned discourse (i.e., “discourse that has been thought out and organized prior to its expression,” as opposed to unplanned “discourse that lacks forethought and organizational preparation;” Ochs 1979:55).

2             Accuracy order vs. acquisition order

Moreover, the morpheme studies reported a surface accuracy order, which was equated with acquisition order on the grounds that the accuracy with which learners use morphemes must correspond to the order wherein they are acquired. Again, there exists no sufficient theoretical base for such a supposition. As Ellis (1985a:69) explains, case studies have shown that a learner may begin to use a certain grammatical form lege artis “only to regress at a later stage, which makes a mockery of attempts to equate accuracy and acquisition.”[24] Evidence gleaned from longitudinal studies of the vertical development of individual learners ran counter to that of cross-sectional horizontal studies, conclusively demonstrating that ‘accuracy order’ is not the same as ‘acquisition order’ (one could also consider here Hawkins and Chan’s (1997) Failed Functional Features hypothesis).

3             Sequence vs. order, rate, and success of SLA

Furthermore, even if the route—the general sequence or specific order of acquisition—of linguistic development remained unaltered by instruction, as Rutherford and Sharwood-Smith (1985:275) state in their pedagogical grammar hypothesis, explicit explanation of the TL and enhanced input accelerate the rate of acquisition—the speed at which learning takes place—compared with that where attention to form is sporadic and minimal. “A number of studies have suggested that learners exposed to formal instruction about the syntactic properties of the L2 develop unconscious knowledge of these properties more quickly than learners exposed to samples of the L2 in naturalistic settings” (Hawkins 2001:21). Ellis (1993) likewise contends that implicit instruction is usually slow and laborious, requiring more time and input to become effective.[25] Formal instruction develops communicative competence and it may have a significant postponed effect (the so-called delayed-effect hypothesis, advocated by Patsy M. Lightbown and Herbert W. Seliger; cf. Ellis 1994:621, 1997). Countless cases of classroom learners testify that even if the L2 knowledge derived from formal instruction is not tout de suite available for use in spontaneous speech—a common enough experience of innumerable teachers—it may soon become serviceable:

Pointing out features of the grammatical system … may not lead directly and instantly to the acquisition of the item in question. But it may nevertheless trigger a train of mental processes that in time will result in accurate and appropriate production (Thornbury 1999:24)

Form-focused instruction “can improve acquisition with respect to the speed of acquisition, the frequency of rule application, and the different contexts in which the rule has to be applied” (Pienemann 1988:99).

Formal instruction also assists the development of implicit knowledge on which spontaneous language use depends, and has an effect on the success of development (i.e. the ultimate proficiency level achieved). Learners who receive formal instruction outperform those who do not in that they progress more rapidly and reach higher levels of ultimate achievement. Countless available studies comparing naturalistic, classroom and mixed L2 exposure revealed a positive effect of formal instruction on proficiency test scores (and oral tests as well; cf. e.g. von Elek & Oskarsson 1972), particularly with adult students. In addition, it has been discovered that grammar instruction not only helps increase the accuracy of TL usage, but also inhibits the use of ungrammatical albeit communicatively successful constructions. In an assessment of some of these studies Long (1983c:374) concludes that “there is considerable evidence to indicate that SL instruction does make a difference” and has an immediate positive effect. He argues that the effects of formal instruction are comprehensive and all-pervasive (i) holding irrespective of (a) the age of the learners and (b) their level of proficiency, and that neither (ii) the type of test (integrative or discrete-item) employed to evaluate their performance nor (iii) the type of environment (acquisition-rich or -poor) alters the above claim. Point (iii) is a contradiction of a hypothesis marshalled by Krashen to the effect that instruction will be of significant value only in acquisition-poor environments, where the learner may be unable to obtain sufficient comprehensible input via exposure. Long’s thorough synopsis of FL studies lends credence to the commonsensical assumption that where the tempo and success are concerned, instruction is facilitative.

Enhancing the processes of hypothesis formation and testing

One could at this point ask the question: Why should grammar instruction provide a shortcut to the acquisition, learning, production, and comprehension of linguistic forms and structures that the learners may even not have ever encountered before (as it unquestioningly does)? What is of interest to us now is not so much whether but how formal instruction facilitates the rate and success of SLA. The most comprehensive answer is that “drawing the learner’s attention to linguistic patterns and providing them with the underlying rules and principles can add to, conform or modify the rules which the learners discover by themselves through the natural process of hypothesis formation and testing” (Mohammed 1996:283). Focusing learners’ attention on syntactic patterns and supplying them with the underlying rules and principles can enhance the learning process as even in the classroom context learners usually attempt to discover rules from the language data by themselves irrespective of grammar instruction. Thus, L1A and FLL seem to be governed by similar underlying mechanisms, procedures and strategies. Given that in classroom learning situations learners’ exposure to the language is usually confined to a few hours per week, the hypothesis formation and verification process may be very slow, as the basic requirement for acquisition is the steady opportunity to interact with others via language. Since the learners’ predictions and preconceptions about the way language is organised are feedback-reliant, here is where the teaching of grammar comes in, enhancing learning by supplementing their natural heuristics and reacting to their output. Thus, it may be seen as a logical extension of the perception phase.

Hence the role of grammar instruction is to enrich, validate, or modify the tentative rules formulated by the learner. This is also why Ellis (1994:659) says: “[f]ormal instruction is best seen as facilitating natural language development rather than offering an alternative mode of learning.” Providing contrastive data from the L1 and negative evidence on how the TL does not function generally constrains the learner’s hypotheses pertaining to the workings of the system. Moreover, focusing attention on language helps in learning complex material, as generalisations which might have been missed become more accessible. To recapitulate, the teaching of grammar acts similarly to error correction in that it helps the learner modify his/her erroneous hypotheses, but also contributes by the addition of new rules and confirmation of the correct ones. It thus at once promotes the transition from the teacher-centred approach towards learner autonomy.

1             The ‘garden path condition’

I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.
—Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s (1920) The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Tomasello and Herron (1988, 1989) found that the ‘garden path condition’, a trap-setting procedure whereby learners are deliberately induced to make overgeneralisations or transfer errors only to be immediately corrected by the teacher, facilitates the acquisition of TL structures that are often involved in transfer errors. This technique luring learners into misapplying their developing rule system, thereupon providing negative feedback which in turn forces them to re-think their initial hypothesis, and thus anticipating instances where they might overgeneralise has been shown to be a more effective teaching strategy than structuring the presentation so that the learners are prevented from making the error. Moreover, “[a] guided discovery approach forestalls the learners’ natural tendency to stick with their first – usually quick-and-easy – hypothesis” (Thornbury 1999:40). This conclusion lends support to Tomasello and Herron’s belief that by drawing students’ attention to grammatical rules and providing them with immediate negative evidence by remedying errors, the teacher can beneficially help learners form accurate hypotheses about target structures. Timely activities and corrections within explicit instruction enable learners to develop greater accuracy in the subsequent use of certain grammatical forms and structures. Such a strategy may also be employed within the Language Interface Model, especially in a discovery-learning approach (where not just the teacher, but also peers may rectify false hypotheses).

Formal instruction compensates for lack of intuitions

Sine scientia ars nihil est.
[Without knowledge, skill is nothing]
—Jean Vignot, Parisian Gothic architect, on appraisal of the work on Milan cathedral in 1392

It is also my contention that explicit rule formulation helps learners develop and sharpen intuitions; it seems to me that nearly all natural language use in FL learners—barring distortions brought about by performance factors—constitutes a reflection of underlying (once overt) rules. More still, (in accordance with the Partial Access hypothesis) there are forms and structures that will never be acquired naturally after a certain age, e.g. communicatively redundant inflectional properties of grammar—such as the English 3rd person sg. pres. ·s ‘maverick form’ (Jackson 1981:202f.), a relic which invariably resists acquisition. Even drilling may not help if the learners cannot see the underlying principles; cf. English articles (here I contest the view presented by Dulay et al. (1982) that they can only be acquired via natural exposure to the language), or anaphora. Gozdawa-Gołębiowski (p.c., cf. also 2003:140) suggests that bridge constructions such as(62) will never be worked out by a Polish learner him-/herself:

(1)         Whoi do youj want ti to give youj a kiss?

because the rules of anaphora co-indexation in English and Polish have different parameter settings and parameters in late SLA cannot be switched[26] without the crutch of formal instruction. According to Chomsky’s Principles and Parameters (P&P) view of language, anyone starting to learn a FL already has a number of ‘switches’ set in accordance with the settings of his/her L1. Learning another language inevitably requires resetting some of them (perhaps only ostensibly, with the help of general cognitive mechanisms), for instance through direct negative evidence in cases of contrast between the L1 and the TL. The absence of applications of a rule in input data does not suffice for the learner to conclude that it is not operative in the language at all. S/He needs to be told so directly or s/he will never unlearn the rule from positive evidence alone, and certainly not when it becomes deeply entrenched and ingrained in his/her IL. The distribution of adverbs in English and Polish is another example of an interlingual contrast substantiating the case in point. A sentence such as (63) is perfectly grammatical in Polish, but unacceptable if translated into English word by word:

(2)         Ona dobrze umie fizykę.

(3)         *She well knows Physics.

Without the teacher’s intervention, word order constraints will not be easily deduced by the learner. In her discussion of Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, White (1987a) argues that in SLA comprehensible input, in and of itself—i.e., without the provision of negative evidence—will not preclude false overgeneralisations (even when the UG is still believed to be in operation).[27] The studies by Tomasello and Herron (1988, 1989), Carroll and Swain (1993), or Trahey and White (1993) likewise demonstrate the expediency of negative feedback in SLA, at least for certain learners and structures (Zhou 1992) and at certain times (Jordens 1996). The null subject (pro-drop) parameter is yet another case in point. The general rule concerning binary parameter setting is that it is advisable to start with the more constrained, generating language (here: English) and then move to the more inclusive one (Polish). While an English-speaking learner of Polish will soon extend the application of the L1 rule finding an abundance of relevant examples in the input, a Pole must be taught the new distribution explicitly, with the provision of direct negative evidence. Positive stimuli alone contain no counterevidence and may suffice to show the learner what is licensed, but not what is not. Besides, the use of an ill-formed structure such as (64) will not lead to communication breakdown, ergo the learner will remain wholly unaware of his/her error. The teacher’s intervention in such situations is indispensable. This also relates to one more vital point, viz that, especially in situations where learners have time to plan, explicit rules—provided they are ≈100% reliable—compensate for the lack of intuitions or indeterminate intuitions (even advanced learners will lack clear-cut intuitions or these will be unstable) and help overcome gaps in implicit knowledge developed through exposure. Thus, for instance, learners will not realise why sentence (65) is grammatically well-formed while (66) is not:

(4)         The swordsman should surely swiftly suffocate the sorcerer.

(5)         *The swordsman should swiftly surely suffocate the sorcerer.

until they are presented with the distinction between sentential adverbs (which modify the entire clause, presenting the speaker’s attitude to its probability) and VP adverbs (a.k.a. ‘manner adverbs’; which only modify the manner of the state/action)[28]. Focusing on form helps learners build a propositional representation of L2 knowledge. Another point is that students will be unable to learn the intricacies and complexities of the language system if these are not explained to them – a case in point could be the dative alternation in English. Additionally, as Seliger (1979) observes, pedagogical rules can serve as mnemonics for retrieving features of an internal rule which, although acquired, are still only ‘shallow’ and rarely used by the learner. A detailed analysis of syntactic structures enhances learners’ recognition and recall of these features when needed.

Last, but not least, I agree with W. Marton (1979/81:173, 176) that in the case of many syntactic structures, the difficulty may be more conceptual, connected with mastering an unfamiliar grammatical notion or principle (e.g. that of ±definiteness, grammatical gender, or number)[29], than formal (e.g. articles). Accordingly, the primary task of the instructor is to make this concept/rule as clear as possible to the learner, subsequently helping him/her grasp and internalise it, making it operative in language performance. Teachers thus act as very powerful mediators (cf. Sections 3.2 & 3.3), facilitating the assimilation and retention of sometimes very abstract concepts and principles, providing condensed and representable rules.

Learner preferences and expectations

In addition, both pedagogically and psychologically, many learners feel that they benefit from a focus on form, and being equipped with explicit rules gives them a greater sense of security, progress and accomplishment. Over 92% of secondary-school students (n=89) interviewed by the author in a comprehensive questionnaire firmly believe that it is unfeasible to become a fluent user of English, or any other FL for that matter, without a knowledge of grammar, which they perceive as the cornerstone of language learning[30]. While children may not feel perturbed at the thought of making a potential mistake, it is rare to find older learners who would be unafraid of producing ill-formed, incomprehensible sentences and not bothered by the fact that they may be misunderstood or not understood at all because of their poor command of the language (Kashkin (2006), for instance, posits the fear of making a mistake as the main cause for the unwillingness to speak in the FL in about 80% of the learners). Adolescent and adult learners usually exhibit greater sensitivity to the grammar of the language and produce their utterances carefully and cautiously, making every effort to avoid mistakes. Knowledge of grammar and the ability to make conscious choices make them feel secure and relieve the tension which arises when they are faced with the need to communicate in the FL. Being confident that they can explain and comment on the structure helps learners feel more comfortable about a grammar point. Introverted learners may additionally prefer focus on form to spontaneous communication because the former involves less risk-taking. Moreover, it is also important to remember about the students’ learning experience and expectations developed over the years of school education; after all, consuetudo est altera natura (Cicero, De finibus). Woods writes in this respect:

adolescents, whose maturity and learning experience have led them to construct an order in the organisation of learning, will be constantly searching for some logical development from one learning unit to the next. (1995:74)

The best way to provide such systematic progression is by regular formal instruction. Hatch (1974) distinguishes two types of learners: holistic (or ‘field-dependent’) data gatherers who aim at fluency and acquisition of lexical items, but do not take the trouble to iron out all the rules, and analytic (‘field-independent’) rule-formers who attend closely to the input in an attempt to identify TL forms and then use them accurately. Whereas the former may fare better in naturalistic SLA, in classroom learning and self-study it is the latter who will be more successful. Furthermore, older and more analytically minded students appreciate explicit rules and may find a focus on form motivating. Learning strategies are not exclusively conscious and behavioural (e.g. repetition with the purpose of memorisation), but they also and to a large extent can be subconscious and psycholingual (e.g. overgeneralisation or inferencing). The teacher cannot disregard either group. As Ellis (1985a:90) declares, “[i]t may be that for most learners the vernacular style is primary, but there will always be some who are more intent on developing a careful style.” This is a most tenable assumption; after all, many of us have the tendency to plan our L1 utterances, for instance before sitting a high-stakes examination or an interview with a potential future employer, or delivering a lecture in front of a large audience. Thus, even if we do not intend to devote much time to grammar in the classroom, learner anticipations and predilections need to be taken into consideration and the balance redressed.

Systematicity and digestibility

When I look too far ahead, the road seems awfully long;
I do better with at least one eye on the steering wheel.

(attribution unknown)

Grammar—mental grammar at least—consists of a finite set of rules. While research demonstrated that “an unsystematic approach to providing information leaves pupils precisely with unstructured information rather than knowledge” (Byram 1989:120), by organising language input into neat subcategories, discrete units that are then slotted into the (not necessarily structural) syllabus, teachers make language a digestible, tangible, orderly—and at the same time integrated—conceptual system (Thornbury 1999:16f.). In the words of Irish clergyman, philologist, and poet Richard Chevenix Trench, “grammar is the logic of speech, even as logic is the grammar of reason” (1851:Lecture I. Introductory Lecture). Highlighting the logical organisation of the learning material and its connections with the subject matter acquired previously enhances retention and recall (Ausubel 1968); explicit knowledge has also been shown to produce more flexible knowledge than implicit learning (Karmiloff-Smith 1986; Berry & Broadbent 1988; Stanley et al. 1989; Seger 1994). This is essential in language teaching, as students are much more heartened and likely to learn material which they perceive as systematic and regimented rather than a haphazard, piecemeal description, and when they can see their own progress after covering each section, as well as exercise control over and gain orientation in the functioning of the language. This also ties in with Vygotsky’s (1962) notion of theoretical concepts, which, “developed in instructional settings, are essential for creating taxonomic ways of thinking that avoid the ad hoc nature of everyday functional reasoning” (Lantolf & Negueruela 2004). This is far from negligible if language learning is to be regarded as an analytical, cognitive process, and not mere habit formation. Additionally, explicitly elucidated rules are not only systematic (in the sense of being meshed with other concepts in a methodical fashion), but can also be brought to the fore and explained (through conscious awareness), and are context-independent (although they can be recontextualised on demand).


In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park in a driveway? … Why do privates eat in the general mess and generals eat in the private mess? … Why—in our crazy language—can your nose run and your feet smell? … when we take the time to step back and listen to the sounds that escape from the holes in people’s faces and to explore the paradoxes and vagaries of English, we find that hot dogs can be cold, … tomboys are girls and midwives can be men, … and most bathrooms don’t have any baths in them. In fact, a dog can go to the bathroom under a tree—no bath, no room; it’s still going to the bathroom. And doesn’t it seem a little bizarre that we go to the bathroom in order to go to the bathroom?

Richard Lederer (1994:6) Crazy English.

The place of grammar in the Common European Framework

Apart from the theory- and practice-based support for the teaching of grammar, form-focused instruction is also inherently present in the widely implemented Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CoE 2001; Komorowska 1996b:114). Admittedly until the level of C1 the CEF promotes an action-based (rather than knowledge-based) approach to language teaching, with a renewed focus on situational and functional language—what learners/users ‘can do’ with the language—and lays chief emphasis on communicative language skills and effectiveness and overall learning strategies. This is of course to be expected considering the fact that the Framework is an attempt at making reliable and valid comparisons between performance in different (European) languages, which would not be feasible in terms of grammatical structures. Yet, these communicative skills are closely integrated with, and conditioned by, “[d]eclarative knowledge: e.g. knowledge of what morpho-syntactical relations correspond to given declension patterns for a particular language …” (CoE 2001:12). Knowledge of grammar forms part of any act of communication or interaction with a text, spoken or written:

If you demonstrate that you ‘can listen to a short narrative and form hypotheses about what will happen next’ (B1), you are clearly using grammar and structure to achieve this objective. While an English teacher would infer that ‘narrating’ will involve understanding of past forms,[31] and possibly some reported speech, and that hypothesizing about ‘what will happen next’ involves future forms and modality, the descriptors do not prescribe what structures should be used. The CEF puts the emphasis on what you achieve with grammar, providing only a framework for curriculum decisions (Keddle 2004:46f.)

The Framework cannot replace reference grammars or provide a strict ordering (though scaling may involve selection and hence some ordering in global terms) but provides a framework for the decisions of practitioners to be made known. (CoE 2001:152)

Thus for instance,

When there is a descriptor such as ‘describe past activities’ (A2), ‘short narratives about everyday things’ (A2), or ‘narrating’ (B1), it makes my job as a syllabus designer aiming to link the CEF with a grammar strand much easier. I can plan to cover items such as the past simple, the past continuous and time markers (obviously this operation would be different for another European language), and am thus able to position these grammar items in the syllabus at A2 level, while delaying the goal of full scale ‘narration’ to B1. (Keddle 2004:49)

Once again, the CEF does not ignore the role of grammar in the language classroom; au contraire, grammatical areas are inherent in the Framework, with the authors asking prospective users to consider how language structures should best be taught:

Users of the Framework may wish to consider and where appropriate state:
·         on which theory of grammar they have based their work;
·         which grammatical elements, categories, classes, structures, processes and relations are learners, etc. equipped/required to handle. (CoE 2001:114)
·         the basis on which grammatical elements, categories, structures, processes and relations are selected and ordered;
·         how their meaning is conveyed to learners;
·         the role of contrastive grammar in language teaching and learning;
·         the relative importance attached to range, fluency and accuracy in relation to the grammatical construction of sentences;
·         the extent to which learners are to be made aware of the grammar of (a) the mother tongue (b) the target language (c) their contrastive relations. (p. 152)
·         how grammatical structure is a) analysed, ordered and presented to learners and (b) mastered by them.
·         how and according to what principles lexical, grammatical and pragmatic meaning in L2 is conveyed to/elicited from learners, e.g.:
o   by translation from/into L1
o   by L2 definition, explanation, etc.
o   by induction from context. (p. 153)

This recognition of the importance of grammatical competence is also pronounced in the very descriptor scales: despite the overall pronounced emphasis on ‘getting by’ in a language, progressively more and more priority is being given to accuracy as the learner moves up the tiers.

Still, with the lofty ambition of aiming at communicative language practice, the move away from ill-famed mechanical grammar work is in itself laudable and commendable, yet this does pose some problems. Particularly if applied in the context of state education, the CEF checklists and detailed descriptors fail to measure the traditional, “standard, accepted, grammar syllabus progression” found at school (Keddle 2004:43f.). Even today

[i]t is common for teachers to discuss the order of tense presentation and measure student progress by their mastery of grammar areas. They may speak about having ‘done’ the past simple or ‘doing’ the present perfect, and while other strands such as functions, skills, pronunciation, etc. are covered, the foundation of much of classroom work is grammatical. (op. cit.t.:44)

This is not to say that teachers should tightly hang on to yesteryear’s methods, only that a smoother passage would be welcome.

Learner autonomy

One of the major trends nowadays is the issue of learner autonomy: according to the directives set out by the Council of Europe, one of the tasks of the teacher is to make the learners independent and to prepare them for self-study. Grammar rules obviously come in here as a necessary component of a language programme thus designed since, together with grammar rules, the learners walk out with a tool that enables them to use the TL efficiently and independently.

The conventional centrality of grammar in FLT methodology

Despite the current reorientation towards communicative approaches in mainstream methodology, there still exists the tendency among linguists, teachers, and learners themselves to consider grammar teaching, including systematic error correction, if not as the core, then at least as an essential component of language teaching, and control of grammatical structures as the very basis of linguistic proficiency (cf. e.g. Komorowska 1993a; Crystal 1995). Teachers frequently evaluate their own work in light of the number of ‘tenses’ they have managed to cover during the course. Even “a communicative approach, properly conceived, does not involve the rejection of grammar. On the contrary, it involves a recognition of its central mediating role in the use and learning of a language,” admits Henry Widdowson (1988:154), the proponent of CLT, allowing grammar in as a “necessary communicative resource” (1990:47). The communicative approaches to-date do not repudiate grammar teaching, but recommend combining situational presentation with structural practice. They perceive grammar as indispensable for conveying the intended message and sustaining communication: “language learning is essentially learning how grammar functions in the achievement of meaning and it is a mistake to suppose otherwise” (op. cit.:97). It is nowadays openly stated that communication will not take place without the knowledge of language structure, and grammar is still the main component of communicative syllabi, even if disguised in functional labels. David Wilkins, one of the architects of the approach, preaches that acquiring the grammatical system of the TL is of paramount importance as inadequate knowledge of grammar severely constrains linguistic creativity and circumscribes the capacity for communication. The new Principled Communicative Approach emerging within the CLT framework recognises the validity of grammatical instruction, combining tasks with a systematic focus on form (Celce-Murcia et al. 1997:147f.).

Even in the Audiolingual Method, where language learning was seen as a mechanical process of habit formation, textbook contents, lessons and pattern drills were centred on selected points of grammar[32]—even though grammatical information was not explicitly presented in the form of rules (Dakowska 2005:44f.)—and the majority of teachers agreed that some grammar teaching is necessary in order to achieve a satisfactory level of operationality, to which end they devoted substantial portions of class time to grammar practice. According to the method, grammar was to serve as a means to achieve correct and near-native use of the TL in the shortest time possible.

The washback effect

Grammar teaching is common, familiar, and expected. In addition, there is also a very practical argument in favour of formal instruction. Namely, the FL is often perceived as simply one of the many subjects learners have to study and sit examinations in. Grammatical competence and accuracy are awarded a high premium in syllabi because they help guarantee success at the exam. The majority of FL learners are required to pass standardised high-stakes school, university, national, or international examinations (such as those developed at the Universities of Cambridge or Michigan) which will determine their enrolment at a university or advance their professional or vocational career. Most of these proficiency, achievement, placement and diagnostic tests administered on a large scale characteristically retain a major grammar component and favour learners who are able to focus on form. Grammar is tested not only explicitly, but sometimes also—or only—indirectly (as of 2005 grammar is no longer tested as a separate category in the TOEFL iBT, but incorporated as a subcomponent of the broader speaking proficiency and composition assessments). Even the advocates of such shifts fear that many language programs and teachers may decide to eliminate grammar from their syllabi if this is not tested explicitly (cf. e.g. Markley 2004). Learners’ proficiency is also typically measured by the degree of sophistication of the structures they are able to produce. It is therefore essential to cover this area of language, the teacher’s convictions notwithstanding. This in turn results in the washback (also referred to as ‘backwash’; cf. e.g. Bailey 1996:263f.) effect or curricular alignment (Hamp-Lyons 1997:296) – the influence of the tests on curricula and syllabi, bringing about their narrowing down to the subject matter, skills and task format known to appear in the examination; the “truism that only that which is assessed is taught seriously and systematically” (Byram & Morgan 1994:3 & 125; cf. Paradowski 2002 for some debate).

A stimulating mental activity

Language is not only the vehicle of thought, it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking.
—Sir Humphry Davy, esteemed British chemist and physicist, 1778-1829

Apart from fossilisation, explicit grammar instruction can counter another weakness observed in communicatively oriented teaching. In Tarvin and Al-Arishi’s (1991) belief, the emphasis upon conspicuous action and spontaneous response in CLT discourages reflection[33]. Learners, however, frequently both need and solicit systematic rule-analysing and conscious learning – especially the analytically-minded ones, who will appreciate a systemic approach.[34] We can also quote here the still valid arguments for the study of FL grammar raised by the otherwise exorcised Grammar-Translation Method that focusing on grammar provides a systematic mental activity stimulating the students’ cognitive processes—such as reasoning power or creativity—in memorising rules and contrasting them with those of the NL, which nurtures their intellectual development: “to come to know a foreign language is an extraordinary intellectual achievement for a brain not especially designed for post-pubescent language acquisition” (Strozer 1994:188). In the words of Marguerite Yourcenar (1959/63), “[g]rammar, with its mixture of logical rule and arbitrary usage, proposes to a young mind a foretaste of what will be offered to him later on by law and ethics, those sciences of human conduct, and by all the systems wherein man has codified his instinctive experience.” Learners who are made to contemplate the formal features of the TL are placed in an actual problem-solving situation. This raison d’être resurfaces in the CEF’s “conviction that knowing different languages is a powerful factor in intellectual development, encouraging open-mindedness and flexibility, contributing to the development of other skills” (Heyworth 2004:13). Of course, what is meant here is not so much a wealth of lexical armoury, but the variety of—and analogies and contrasts between—new grammatical constructions, as well as an awareness of inter-cultural competence reflected in diverse languages.

Transmission model of educationon

Finally (though maybe not so importantly, being a hardly progressive argument), Thornbury (1999:17) observes that grammar lends itself to the view of teaching and learning known as transmission: the role of education seen as the transfer of a body of knowledge, and that of the preceptor as a ‘fount of wisdom’. This view of education—still ubiquitous in Polish state schools and beyond—is typically associated with large classes of insubordinate and unmotivated teenagers, where the need for rules, method and discipline is particularly acute. Developing a lesson scenario within a formal syllabus will in such situations be much easier than within a communicative one.


Thus, it cannot be denied that form-focused instruction does affect language acquisition and language learning (cf. also Komorowska 1975, 1985 for a thorough discussion). Additional support comes from:
-          Pienemann’s (1998) Teachability Hypothesis[35], claiming that FonF is necessary at least with some aspects of the TL;
-          French immersion programs (e.g. Swain 1998);
-          further experimental research (e.g. Alanen 1995; Leow 1997a, b; Robinson 1997a, b; Rosa & O’Neill 1999).

Both the research and the favourable attitude to explicit formal instruction exhibited by the vast majority of both instructors and students (cf. also e.g. Burgess & Etherington 2002; Hyland 2003) reinforce the position of grammar as an indispensable component of the language-learning experience. Naturally, it needs to be considered to which moment the teaching of grammar brings notable communicative benefits, and where ‘Lingua Franca Core’ aims would offer more value-for-effort (cf. fn. 180). The obvious fact that the presence of metalinguistic knowledge in the learner need not necessarily result in its correct use can neither be ignored; this issue, however, goes beyond the scope and purpose of the current work.

source: Paradowski, Michał B. (2007) Exploring the L1/L2 Interface. A Study of Polish Advanced EFL Learners. Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, pp. 64–85.

[1] With regard to the environmental factors and interaction types that occur in the process of language learning, a distinction is often drawn between L2 and FL. L2 denotes language which is used as a means of wider communication outside the classroom in an untutored (‘naturalistic’) environment (an immersion situation, e.g. that of immigrants), where input takes the form of exposure and L2 knowledge is developed through interacting in the TL. FL refers to a language learnt in a tutored (‘classroom’) setting—particularly through the means of formal instruction—which is not important for the learners outside the classroom. Yet L2 here and throughout will frequently, for convenience’ sake, be used as embracing both ‘second language’ and ‘foreign language’. (A third, ‘mixed’ type of acquisitional setting may also be distinguished, where the learners receive both instruction and natural exposure to the target language, but this is irrelevant for the topic of this thesis.)
[2] Although some of these studies failed to demonstrate long-term effects (cf. e.g. Harley 1989; White 1990, 1991; White et al. 1991; Carroll & Swain 1993; Schwartz 1993; Sheen 2003; Mackey et. al. 2004; Birdsong 2006), this need not mean a failure to alter the learners’ IL (Schwarz & Gubala-Ryzak 1992). Besides, even if linguistic knowledge learnt via explicit focus on form may not affect learners’ underlying linguistic competence, if it can affect metalinguistic knowledge which may successfully take over the role of UG, formal instruction has fulfilled its role.
[3] One of the arguments raised against the use of the L1 in the classroom is that—given limited contact time with the TL that students get in EFL settings—the learners ought to obtain as much exposure to and practice in the language as possible, and the language of instruction can serve here as additional input. Yet, this ‘housekeeping’ idiom of organisation and instruction—as well as much of the remaining teacher talk and classroom communication—is highly repetitive (not least because of every teacher’s idiolect), hence failing to contribute to enhanced linguistic proficiency after a while, and essentially otiose outside the school context (how often and where else will your learners need to know how to say “open your book at page …” or “get into pairs”?). As Cook (1999b) observes, “once one goes beyond greetings and pleasantries, the language of the classroom is … specialised language used for teaching where the vocabulary and the language functions are unlikely to be duplicated in the world outside,” thus not as useful as some would have it.
[4] In communicative classroom speech present temporal reference tends to predominate.
[5] Although cf. Tomasello (2002, 2006) for claims that (at least in pre-pubertal situations) the child must be aware of the functions performed by sentences, or else no acquisition will take place.
[6] At the same time, given the limited amount of time available in most FL courses, the teacher needs to make a selection and equip the learners with what s/he considers to be the most effective.
[7] This is also why, when they address non-native speakers, in order to facilitate understanding NSs use a simplified, reduced register called foreigner talk (Ferguson 1964, 1975; just as parents use caretaker speech or motherese when talking to their very young children), characterised by frequent repetitions and formal adjustments at all levels of language (including more distinct pronunciation, higher pitch, simpler vocabulary, and shorter mean utterance length).
[8] In the realm of phonology, research suggests that e.g. accurate perception of segmentals leads to more accurate production of these (Flege & Eefting 1987; Schneiderman et al. 1988; Ingram & Park 1997; Chan Pik Ha 2001), while training in speech perception leads to improvement in both perception and production of English sounds (de Bot 1983; Champagne-Muzar et al. 1993; Cenoz & Lecumberri 1999).
[9] The L2 data the learner is exposed to. It could also be defined as a “finite randomly ordered sequence of noisy form:meaning pairs” (Briscoe 2006).
[10] That portion of the input which the learner actually notices, takes into temporary memory, and—usually—subsequently assimilates into long-term memory and feeds into the IL system; the input that learners pay attention to and use to establish form:meaning connections.
[11] Moreover, being more perceptible, items seem to stick in memory.
[12] Negotiation of meaning refers to attempts to remedy communication breakdown and problems in understanding. It is characterised by interactional modifications, such as comprehension checks and requests for clarification (Ellis 1994:716).
[13] Restructuring can be defined as the cognitive process whereby learners generalise about the TL system on the basis of specific input data, with the result of qualitative changes taking place in their IL (cf. e.g. McLaughlin 1990).
[14] A psychological device (also known as anticipatory schemata) with the preparatory function of presenting a synthesis—providing some orientation in and enhancing the organisation—of relevant concepts and ideas in advance of the learning material itself, building a link between the material to be learnt in detail in subsequent lessons and the learner’s current knowledge (Dakowska 2005:60f.), thus helping to bridge the gap between what is and is not yet already known to the learner, in order to successfully teach/learn the task at hand. It is generally presented at a higher level of abstraction, generality, and inclusiveness than e.g. a preview of the learning material (W. Marton 1979/81:177).
[15] It is possible that content-bearing lexical items—in contrast with grammatical markers—are noticed more easily in the input and therefore do not require targeted instruction to the extent that grammar does. Supportive evidence is gleaned from the observation of the acquisition of past-tense forms, where atomistic, irregular verbs appear in the learners’ productive repertoire long before the regular, systematic ·ed suffixation (it is thus conceivable that they may initially be treated as devoid of the [+interpretable] T feature, which may at that stage of acquisition be inaccessible to the learner’s mental grammar). This would also account for the disregard of grammatical correction but acknowledgment of semantic rectification manifested in L1A. From a historical perspective, the relatively high frequency of Saxon irregular forms may also be due to their economy over the regularised Romance or Latinate equivalents. (Incidentally, it seems that children do not memorise irregular forms individually; rather, perceive patterns, which they can extend over to new forms, coming up with suppletive bring-brang, bite-bote, or wipe-wope; cf. e.g. Pinker 1998.)
[16] For the purpose of this dissertation, form-focused instruction will be taken to denote (after Spada 1997:73) any pedagogical endeavour whose aim is to draw the learner’s attention to language form (either implicitly or explicitly); thus encompassing both the direct teaching of structure, and reaction to the learner’s performance.
[17] Regular focus on forms is sometimes distinguished from incidental focus on form (FonF) that forms part of task-based teaching (Long 1991; Doughty & Williams 1998; Robinson 2001); the latter is usually undertaken by the teacher as intervention on demand, when difficulties emerge in the comprehension or production of the learners in a meaning-focused lesson, whereupon s/he guides their attention to the problematic feature of the linguistic code (although it may also take place proactively in anticipation of the problem; Doughty & Williams 1998). This conception was developed with an SLA environment in mind (Dakowska 2003:129).
[18] In content-enriched instruction each lesson of an early-level L2 course is dedicated to a specific topic or theme appropriate to the linguistic, cognitive, and affective needs of the learners, introducing motivating cultural and other real-world information in the TL, with grammar and vocabulary relating to it (Ballman 1997). As such, it differs from content-based instruction, which emerged in immersion and bilingual programs (in Canada and the US, respectively), where language served predominantly as a relay medium, mostly at higher levels of instruction (e.g. le français des affaires or literature courses), at the same time attempting to ameliorate its drawback of not helping learners develop linguistic accuracy (Grim 2006).
[19] Selinker used the term to refer to the automatisation of both incorrect and correct TL forms. Similarly, Vigil and Oller (1976) and Wysocka (2006) support the extended definition of fossilisation portrayed as both erroneous and non-erroneous, the latter of which is manifested in correct language behaviour, such as the appropriate use of prefabricated patterns, routine formulae and fixes expressions. However, following many current researchers, I choose to use the notion in reference to the former only.
[20] Selinker (op. cit.) observed that as many as 95% of FL learners fail to reach the end of the IL continuum, i.e. to converge on full NS competence. (On the other hand, the IL continuum—be it for L1 or FL—probably never has the further end…)
[21] Arising when a learner acquires a new form side by side with a previously acquired one and uses both interchangeably to realise the same meaning (Ellis 1985b).
[22] Retrieved from ESL MiniConference website at http://www.eslminiconf.net/mail2002q.html
[23] Corder (1981) suggests that the FL learner regresses, i.e. unconsciously retreats through the stages of development that characterised his/her early acquisition of the language.
[24] Ellis probably meant that such attempts were made on the premise that one can talk of the acquisition of a given form once the subject begins to use it (I am grateful to Prof. Romuald Gozdawa-Gołębiowski for bringing this issue to my attention). If that was indeed the underlying conjecture, speakers’ volatile performance was not the only factor invalidating it; another would be the fact that an item may not appear in production, although it has de facto been acquired – Hawkins and Chan’s (1997) Failed Functional Features hypothesis is just one pertinent example.
[25] As shown by Doughty and Varela (1998), implicit focus on form (intonational focus plus corrective feedback) incorporated into a content-based, communicative classroom and conducted over a relatively long period (six weeks) can result in ostensible improvement in terms of accuracy and the total number of attempts at the target feature (past time reference).
[26] Or, if we assume that—in the absence of UG—the learner operates linguistically non-specific cognitive mechanisms, reset by means of such a surrogate system (cf. Supplement K.1).
[27] For further arguments against Krashen’s (1981, 1985, 1989) Input Hypothesis see e.g. Gregg (1984), Sharwood Smith (1985), Færch & Kasper (1986a), Gass (1988), or Ellis (1990).
[28] I am grateful to Prof. Andrew Radford for clearing up the taxonomic conundrum. Cf. also Lado’s (1968) formula for the rules regulating the respective positions of the adjective in English and Spanish (although he expresses strong reservations about whether these rules would actually teach the point).
[29] Unfamiliar in the sense of being invisible in the surface structures of utterances, rather than the language in toto – after all, every Polish speaker will be able to distinguish the relative (in)definiteness of NPs in his/her speech, each speaker of English will be able to assign a gender to English NPs (e.g. when pronominalising; even though cross-linguistic correspondences need not be completely ‘logical’ here for everyone, e.g. feminine for ‘ship’ in English vs. masculine in Polish, or the proverbial “Gdyby nie der, die, das, byliby Niemcy z nas”), and Lado (1968) pointed out that he can perfectly understand the distinction in the Hopi plural between ten men (an aggregate) and ten days (a sequence).
[30] I contend here with Lewis’ (1997) claims about the irrelevance of retrospection, where he posits the weird hypothesis that we propagate the (counterfactual but subconsciously believed) thesis about the expediency of formal instruction in our learning of the L2.
[31] The relator may—of course—also choose praesens historicum for his/her tale.
[32] Cf. Valdman’s statement that “in the audiolingual approach emphasis is placed on accuracy and well-formedness, with the acceptance of the risk that, in early stages of instruction, at least, students will manipulate utterances relatively devoid of content.” (1971:171; emph. added)
[33] Obviously, in immersion SL settings the situation is completely different, especially with pre-pubescent learners who have unrestricted access to UG and where many of the hypothesis formation and testing processes will take place subconsciously.
[34] Moreover, there will always be learners who will want to learn a language for the sake of it; not just with a functional aim of communicating with others, gaining a reading knowledge in a discipline, or meeting a FL requirement, but “simply out of an interest in languages ranging from a passing curiosity to a technical linguistic fascination” (Brown 1987:136); just as a circle of aficionados have learnt Esperanto, or handfuls of enthusiasts enrol in classical studies, others may take up Dutch, even though in the Netherlands you can freely communicate in English, or even a language which they will never have a chance to use in natural interaction – what Byram (1997:38) refers to as ‘interpretative’ rather than ‘instrumental’ goal. This group of learners invariably appreciate the study of a language as a system.
[35] This “predicts that instruction can only promote acquisition if the interlanguage is close to the point when the structure to be taught is acquired in the natural setting” (Pienemann 1985:37).