Preemptive Focus on Form: Teachers’ Practices across Proficiencies

August 2008. Volume 3 Issue 2

Title
Preemptive Focus on Form:
Teachers’ Practices across Proficiencies

Authors
Farahman Farrokhi, Ali Akbar Ansarin & Zhila Mohammadnia
Tabriz University, Iran

Bio-Data
Dr. Farahman Farrokhi received his PhD in English Language Teaching from Leeds University, England. Currently, he is an assistant professor at Tabriz University. His research interests include classroom discourse analysis, EFL teachers’ perceptions of different feedback types, and negative and positive evidence in EFL classroom context.

Dr. Ansarinreceived his PhD in English Language Teaching from Panjab University, India. Currently, he is an assistant professor at Tabriz University. His research interests include meta-cognition and universal grammar.

Zhila Mohammadnia is a PhD student in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at Tabriz University, Iran. She received her M.A. from Tabriz University and has been involved in teaching general English and ESP courses to Iranian EFL learners for more than 6 years. Her research interests include focus on form in EFL settings and media discourse. 

Abstract
Studies investigating the use of focus on form episodes (FFEs) have been shown to positively affect the development of English as a Foreign Language (EFL). However, little is known on the type and quantity of teacher-initiated preemptive FFEs across proficiencies. This paper presents a case study investigating how five experienced EFL teachers spontaneously initiated preemptive FFEs to raise attention to form in elementary and advanced levels. Moreover, the study also investigates the frequency and type of FFEs, i.e. vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation used by five teachers in ten intact communicatively-oriented EFL classes. To this end, seventy hours of communicatively-oriented interactions between five teachers and their learners in five elementary and five advanced EFL classes were observed and audio-recorded. Then, the frequency of preemptive and reactive FFEs were identified, coded, and categorized. The findings revealed that the proficiency of the learners did not affect the rate of teacher-initiated focus on form in the observed classes. However, this study found that the overall distribution of the linguistic focus of FFEs varied across proficiencies. Finally, the importance of taking teacher-initiated preemptive focus on form into account in EFL studies is highlighted.

Keywords: teacher-initiated & student-initiated focus on form episodes, preemptive & reactive focus on form episodes, proficiency level

1. Introduction

Recently, there has been a substantial number of research studies on focus on form, (Doughty, 2001; Doughty & Williams, 1998b; Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001a, 2001b; Long & Robinson, 1998; Lyster, 1998a, 1998b; Lyster & Ranta, 1997). The underlying common notion among these studies has been the emphasis on the dual need for meaning-focused and focus-on-form instruction in the second language (L2) classroom (Ellis, 2001; Hulstijn, 1995; Loschky & Bley-Vroman, 1993; Skehan, 1998). Ellis (2001) describes focus on form as “any planned or incidental instructional activity that is intended to induce language learners to pay attention to linguistic form” (Ellis, 2001, pp. 1–2). In other words, focus-on-form instruction encompasses “any pedagogical effort to draw learners’ attention to language either implicitly or explicitly” (Spada, 1997, p. 73).
Focus on form can broadly be realized in two major ways, namely reactively or preemptively. Moreover, preemptive focus on form can be generated by teachers or learners. In this concern, it has been suggested that teachers preferably limit themselves to providing reactive focus on form, where the need for their assistance is clear (Ellis et al. 2002). This viewpoint seems to undermine the value of experienced teachers’ judgment on recognizing if and when to preemptively draw attention to a particular form which may prove problematic for learners. Furthermore, Ellis et al. (ibid) claim that teacher preemption of form is the option most likely to disrupt the communicative flow as it tells the students that the teacher is mostly preoccupied with form rather than meaning. Also, the forms teachers preempt may not constitute actual gaps in the students’ L2 knowledge. The same argument could be made about student-initiated preemptive focus on form episodes. That is, one student’s gap is not necessarily another’s.
Questioning the teachers’ recognition of perceived gaps in students’ knowledge has been assumed rather than proven. Arguably, then, teacher-initiated preemptive focus on form is worthy of examination before such generalizations can be made. The present study complements previous research by examining how five experienced EFL teachers spontaneously initiated preemptive focus on form episodes to raise attention to form across two proficiencies, namely elementary and advanced levels. The research questions in this study are as follows:

How frequently do types of incidental focus on form episodes (FFEs) occur in meaning-oriented EFL classes across proficiencies?
To what extent does teacher-initiated preemptive focus on form differ in meaning-oriented EFL classes across proficiencies and teachers?

3. What is the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs within and across proficiencies.

2. Literature Review
2.1. Planned vs. Incidental Focus on Form

Following Long’s (1991) original definition of focus on form in which he claimed that the attention to form arose incidentally, subsequent studies expanded the definition to include attention to form that was preplanned. Consequently, Ellis (2005) distinguished between planned and incidental focus on form. Planned focus on form involves targeting pre-selected linguistic items during a meaning-focused activity, either through input (e.g., input flood or input enhancement) or output (e.g., corrective feedback on errors in the use of pre-targeted forms). In contrast, the linguistic items addressed in incidental focus on form arise spontaneously in the course of meaning-focused activities. Although both types of focus on form might be beneficial for learners (Doughty & Williams, 1998b), their impact may vary. Planned focus on form has the advantage of providing intensive coverage of one specific linguistic item, whereas incidental focus on form provides extensive coverage, targeting many different linguistic items (Ellis et al., 2001a). Incidental focus on form can provide a brief time-out from focusing on meaning in order to assist learners in noticing linguistic items in the input that might otherwise go unnoticed in entirely meaning-focused lessons (Ellis et al., 2001a; Schmidt, 2001; Skehan, 1998). Although planned focus on form has been investigated in various contexts (e.g., Doughty & Williams 1998b; Long, Inagaki, & Ortega, 1998), incidental focus on form has been under-researched in the literature (Farrokhi & Gholami, 2007; Williams, 2001).
As mentioned above, a few studies have investigated the occurrence of incidental focus on form in various contexts. For example, in a study of negative feedback in French immersion classes in Canada, Lyster (1998a, 1998b) and Lyster & Ranta (1997) found that 62% of participant errors were followed by some kind of teacher feedback. Ellis et al. (2001a, 2001b), in their study of meaning-focused lessons in a private language school in New Zealand, found that incidental focus on form occurred at the rate of one episode every 1.6 minutes. Loewen (2003), in an investigation of L2 classes in another private language school in New Zealand, found a range of 0.24 to 1.24 FFEs per minute. Likewise, in an intermediate IELTS preparation class which took place in an EFL setting, Farrokhi & Gholami (2007) reported an average of one incidental focus on form episode per 1.9 minutes. These studies suggest that incidental focus on form does occur in meaning-focused L2 classroom interaction, although the rate might be variable.

2.2. Reactive vs. Preemptive Focus on Form

Much planned focus on form literature has investigated reactive focus on form, which occurs in response to learner errors. Reactive focus on form has also been known as error correction, corrective feedback, or negative evidence/feedback (Long 1996). Lyster and Ranta (1997) investigated different types of reactive focus on form that French immersion teachers provide when learners produce utterances that contain a linguistic error. They distinguished six types of feedback, namely explicit correction, recasts, clarification requests, metalinguisic feedback, elicitation, and repetition. In addition, a number of studies have explored the effect of corrective feedback on short term and long term second language development (Doughty & Williams, 1998a; Lyster, 2004; Radwan, 2005), the corrective feedback that leads to successful uptake as an immediate response to feedback (Farrokhi, 2003; Farrokhi & Gholami, 2007; Loewen, 2004a; Panova & Lyster, 2002; Sheen, 2004; Tsang, 2004), how learners perceive negative feedback (Mackey, Gass, & McDonough, 2000), and the relationship between input and interaction (Gass, 2003; Mackey et al., 2003; Mackey & Silver, 2005; Oliver, 1995, 2000).
Ellis et al. (2001b) also identified preemptive focus on form, which occurs when either the teacher or a learner initiates attention to form, generally by raising a question, “even though no actual problem in production has arisen” (p. 414). They argue that preemptive focus on form addresses an actual or perceived gap in the learners’ knowledge. In their study of two English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in New Zealand they found that preemptive focus on form constituted 52% of the focus on form that occurred in 12 hours of meaning-focused instruction. Furthermore, they distinguished between student-initiated focus on form in which students raised questions about linguistic items and teacher-initiated focus on form in which the teacher asked questions or provided unsolicited information about specific linguistic items. In comparison to reactive focus on form, preemptive focus on form has received much less attention in the literature.

2.3. Student vs. Teacher-initiated Preemptive Focus on Form

Regarding student-initiated preemptive focus on form, Williams (1999) found that learners did initiate focus on form but not very often. A similar finding is reported by Poole (2005a) in his study of forms learners attend to during focus-on-form instruction in an advanced ESL writing class with international students. The advantage of student-initiated focus on form is that it addresses gaps in the students’ linguistic knowledge which can be presumed to be significant to them and which they are therefore strongly motivated to try to fill. A disadvantage of student-initiated attention to form, however, is that it can detract from the communicative activity. This is one reason why teachers may decline to answer a student query. Ellis et al. (2002) believe that a more serious disadvantage is that what is a gap for one student may not be for others, who thus may gain little or nothing from listening to the teacher address another student’s query.
Teachers also interrupt the flow of a communication activity to raise a specific form to attention. In so doing, they are inclined to disrupt the meaning-centeredness of an activity, presumably because they calculate that this is justified on the grounds that the form in question will be problematic to the students in one way. Borg (1998) found that the experienced teacher he studied often preempted language problems. Similarly, Mackey et al. (2004) suggest that teachers’ use of incidental focus on form techniques is closely related with teachers’ experience and education. In their study, experienced ESL teachers utilized more incidental preemptive focus on form techniques than novice teachers.

Based on their orientation to a communicative task, teachers differ enormously in the extent to which they employ teacher-initiated focus on form. While some of them hardly interrupt, preferring to maintain the communicative flow of the task, others intervene frequently, supposedly since they feel the need to create explicit learning opportunities out of the ongoing communicative activities in class. One problem with this is that they cannot know for sure whether the gaps they assume to exist in the students’ knowledge are actual gaps. If learners already know the forms the teacher raises to attention, little is gained.

Although both reactive and preemptive focus on form might be beneficial, learner topicalization of linguistic items in student-initiated focus on form might be particularly useful because learners are in a position to recognize and raise linguistic items that are problematic for them (Ellis et al. 2001; Slimani, 1989). For example, Slimani’s study found that learners reported a higher level of learning for linguistic items that they had initiated.

2.4. L2 Proficiency and Focus on Form

Another important aspect of this study deals with the relationship between focus on form and language proficiency of the learners. Hadley (2001) defines the term ‘proficiency’ as a learner’s general language ability in speaking, listening, reading and/or writing based on some kind of criteria. In other words, proficiency in an L2 requires that learners acquire a rich repertoire of formulaic expressions, which caters to fluency, and a rule-based competence consisting of knowledge of specific grammatical rules, which caters to complexity and accuracy (Skehan, 1998). Using learners’ TOEFL scores as a proficiency measure, Yule and Macdonald (1990) investigated interaction and negotiation of meaning within mixed proficiency dyads during a task that presented specific referential conflicts. In their study, higher and lower proficiency learners were paired together that required one dyad member to take on a more ‘dominant’ role of providing map directions to another member who had a slightly different map. They found that when the higher proficiency member had the more dominant ‘sender’ role, little negotiation occurred.

However, when the lower proficiency member was responsible for giving directions, these dyads were more likely to engage in negotiation of meaning, interactive turn-taking, and they were more likely to solve referential conflicts to successfully complete the task. Both proficiency and the role of the learner affected the task outcome as well as the interaction between dyad members.

How learners’ proficiency affects focus on form has also been considered in the literature on input processing and interaction. For example, Van Patten’s model of input processing (1990, 1996, 2003) states that in communicative exchanges, learners process language for meaning before anything else and that learners will be able to process certain grammatical forms only when processing the overall meaning of an utterance does not drain available processing resources. The implication is that it should be easier for more proficient learners to process grammatical forms better than less proficient ones given that learners with a higher proficiency do not have to struggle as much with processing meaning during communicative exchanges.
Similarly, the literature on ‘developmental readiness’ suggests that learners will be able to process and use particular grammatical forms only when they have acquired less complex structures (Lightbown, 1998; Mackey & Philp, 1998; Spada & Lightbown, 1993, 1999; Williams & Evans, 1998). This implies that proficient learners should be developmentally more advanced to notice and produce certain forms during communicative tasks. Less proficient learners, in their struggle to grasp meaning, may have a difficult time focusing on form at all. If they do, their focus seems to be primarily on those linguistic elements that carry the most meaning (i.e., content words or lexical items).

The research on input processing and interaction shows how proficiency can affect learners’ processing of form in the input and the emergence of forms and structures in communicative exchanges. Nevertheless, the way it influences those instances in which they explicitly talk about form (i.e., produce FFEs), and sometimes in the first language (L1) (e.g., Swain & Lapkin, 2000) is unclear. It is important to note that FFEs are not decontextualized utterances about language; rather, they always occur within the context of a communicative task in the L2. Furthermore, the episodes arise (whether in the L1 or the L2) when learners encounter problems stemming from their inability to interpret and express meaning in the L2. Leeser (2004, p. 60) states that “if it is true, then, that FFEs centre around ‘gaps’ or ‘holes’ in a learner’s interlanguage, it follows that a learner’s proficiency will influence the types of FFEs that arise while engaged in a communicative task.”

3. Method

To address the research questions outlined in the introduction, interactions between five teachers and EFL learners were audio-recorded, transcribed, categorized and compared in terms of the frequency and type of incidental FFEs in two different proficiencies, namely elementary and advanced. For the sake of practicality, the intermediate level was not considered.

3.1. Participants
3.1.1. Teachers
The researchers’ initial criteria for choosing teachers were based on their years of experience, professional degree, familiarity with theoretical and empirical developments in the field and willingness to participate. The final decision was based on consultations with the quality promotion department of the institute where this study was conducted. The institute officials were also consulted on their evaluation of the expertise and professional qualifications of the teachers. The teacher participants were all female, non-native speakers of English with an MA degree in TEFL. All five teachers (hereby referred to as teacher 1 to 5) had between 3 and 6 years of EFL teaching experience at different proficiency levels. A preliminary interview was held with the teachers separately to discover their beliefs about teaching, and thereby their adherence to the integration of incidental focus on form with communicatively-oriented language teaching was confirmed. No effort was made by the researcher to guide the teachers in their choice of lesson plan. They were merely informed that the objective of the research was to investigate classroom interactions. Over one semester, one elementary and one advanced class per teacher was selected and their teaching practices in these classes were observed, recorded and compared.

3.1.2. Learners

Ten intact EFL classes were observed. There were 120 participating female language learners, who were studying English for a variety of reasons, including preparation for academic study, professional development or immigration, and their ages varied from 18 to 25 years. The classes ranged in size from 10 to 14 students, so there were plenty of opportunities for interaction in all classes. The learners paid tuition and were generally highly motivated. The English proficiency of the learners, as measured by an in-house placement test, was either elementary or advanced.

3.2. Instructional Setting

The private language institute in which the study was carried out is located in Tabriz, Iran and adheres to a meaning-driven syllabus that stimulates students to talk about a variety of thought-provoking topics. In the institute, there was a set of placement tests prepared in-house and also interviews that learners were required to take before being placed in classes of various levels. The ten classes under observation met three times a week and every session lasted 90 minutes.

Based on a multi-skills syllabus, the course books covered in elementary and advanced levels were Interchange 1 and Passages 2 (Richards, Hull, & Proctor, 2004; Richards & Sandy, 1998) respectively. Interchange 1 takes learners from false-beginner to low-intermediate level, presenting and practicing basic language items with opportunities for personalization from the start. Passages is a sequel to Interchange and brings learners to an advanced level. These books include activities designed to develop fluency and accuracy in all four skills. Key features in the Interchange 1 and Passages 2 series include personalized speaking features, task-based listening activities, and grammar in communicative contexts. They contain 16 units, 4 of which were to be covered in 20 sessions.

3.3 Data Collection Procedures
The study involved observation of the teachers’ lessons. The classroom interactions were audio-recorded using an MP3 recorder which was placed on teacher’s table. The analysis of the classroom data involved identifying focus on form episodes in each teacher’s lessons and coding the linguistic characteristics of each episode. From each class, a range of 8 to 9 hours of communicatively-oriented classroom interactions was observed and recorded. This initial collection of data was reduced to an average of 7 hours per class due to the fact that all cases where learners and teachers were engaged in focus on forms interactions were excluded from further analysis. Based on the nature of the study, pair-work activities and checking workbook assignments were not taken into consideration as well. Moreover, unintelligible recordings were discarded from analysis.

3.4. Identification and Coding of FFEs

Following the observations, the FFEs were identified. Ellis et al. (2001a, p. 294) define a focus on form episode (FFE) as consisting of “the discourse from the point where the attention to linguistic form starts to the point where it ends, due to a change in topic back to message or sometimes another focus on form”. Therefore, an FFE starts either when a student produces a linguistic error that is addressed by the teacher (reactive FFEs) or when a student/teacher queried about or raised attention to a linguistic item while there was not any observable erroneous utterance (preemptive FFEs). As stated earlier, preemptive FFEs were further categorized into: student-initiated preemptive focus on form episodes (SIP FFEs) and teacher-initiated preemptive focus on form episodes (TIP FFEs).

After FFEs were identified, they were transcribed in detail and coded. In terms of proficiency, each FFE was first categorized as having occurred in elementary or advanced levels. The FFEs were then classified according to their type (reactive, student-initiated or teacher-initiated preemptive). After that, their linguistic focus (vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation) was identified. If the identity of the FFE category was ambiguous, it was eliminated from the data set, yet this happened with less than 3% of the FFEs. The categorization of the FFEs into various types of linguistic focus was based on these operational definitions:
Grammar: determiners, prepositions, pronouns, word order, tense, auxiliaries, subject-
verb agreement, plurals, negation, question formation
Vocabulary: the meaning of single words and idioms
Pronunciation: suprasegmental and segmental aspects of the phonological system

An example of each type of linguistic focus taken from the data in the present study is given below:
Extract 1: Reactive FFE dealing with pronunciation
S: On the aisle /aɪzlə/
T: On the AISLE /aɪl/
S: Ok

As the above extract illustrates, the teacher takes time out from focusing on meaning to respond to the learner’s erroneous pronunciation of the word “aisle” in the form of a reactive FFE.

Extract 2: Student-initiated preemptive FFE dealing with grammar
S: We mostly visit my grandmother at Fridays. Can we use ATfor days of the week?
T: No. You should use ON. ON Fridays, ON Monday….
S: ON Fridays

In extract 2, the student raises a question about the use of the correct preposition for the days of the week which reveals a gap in her linguistic competence. The teacher provides the correct preposition which is followed by the student’s verbal acknowledgement.

Extract 3: Teacher-initiated preemptive FFE dealing with vocabulary
T: Or when you go to the circus, they have a clown. You know what CLOWN
is? A CLOWN has a big red nose and big shoes like Charlie Chaplin.

In extract 3, the teacher predicts that the students are less likely to know the meaning of “clown” and preemptively draws attention to it. (See the appendix for further examples of preemptive and reactive FFEs dealing with vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation).

To determine inter-rater reliability of FFE identification, a second rater coded a sample of about 15% of the data (about three lessons totaling 280 minutes), with a resulting agreement of 89%. Once the data was categorized as described above, raw frequencies and percentages were calculated. Since the data consisted of frequency counts of categorical data, Pearson’s chi-square analysis was performed on the raw frequencies. An alpha level of p<.05 was set for all chi-squares.

4. Results
4.1. Incidental FFE Types across Proficiencies

The first research question dealt with the frequency of types of incidental FFEs occurring in meaning-oriented EFL classes across proficiencies. A total of 1780 FFES were identified in the 70 hours of communicatively-oriented lessons, 796 and 984 FFEs in the elementary and advanced levels respectively. Overall, this means that an average of one instance of FFE took place every 2.3 minutes. In the elementary class, one instance of FFE took place every 2.63 minutes whereas in the advanced class, one instance of FFE took place every 2.13 minutes. Table 1 reveals the frequency and percentage of incidental FFEs occurring in total and between two proficiencies in particular.

Table 1. Incidental FFE Types across Proficiencies

      FFE Types
Proficiency

Reactive

SIP

TIP

Grand Total

Elementary

194 (24.4%)

72 (9%)

530 (66.6%)

796

Advanced

328 (33.3%)

102 (10.4%)

554 (56.3%)

984

Total FFEs

522 (29.4%)

174 (9.8%)

1084 (60.8%)

1780

In general, the findings indicate that 522 (29.4%) instances of reactive FFEs occurred while there were only 174 (9.8%) instances of SIP FFEs and 1084 (60.8%) instances of TIP FFEs. Thus, the most frequent FFE type across proficiencies was TIP FFEs which account for over 60% of the total FFEs.
With regard to the proportion of FFE types across two proficiencies, this study found fairly similar results. According to the findings in Table 1, reactive FFEs ranged between 24% and 33%, SIP FFEs varied from 9% to 10%, and TIP FFEs were found to be between 56% and 66% in elementary and advanced levels respectively. The findings represent a substantial discrepancy in the frequency of reactive, SIP and TIP FFEs. A chi square analysis revealed a statistically significant difference, = 20.47 (2 df, p<.05)

4.2. Teacher-initiated Preemptive FFEs across Teachers in Two Proficiencies

The second research question was concerned with the extent teacher-initiated preemptive focus on form differ in meaning-oriented EFL classes across two proficiencies and five teachers. The results on the frequency of teacher-initiated preemptive FFEs are presented in Table 2.

Table 2. Teacher-initiated Preemptive FFEs across Teachers in Two Proficiencies

     TIP FFEs
Teacher

TIP FFEs in Elementary

TIP FFEs in Advanced

Teacher 1

108 (48.6%)

114 (51.4%)

Teacher 2

122 (46.6%)

140 (53.4%)

Teacher 3

102 (44.7%)

126 (55.3%)

Teacher 4

82 (51.3%)

78 (48.7%)

Teacher 5

116 (54.7%)

96 (45.3%)

Generally, the findings show small variation among 5 teachers in their use of TIP FFEs across proficiencies. The major discrepancies were observed in classes taught by teachers 5, 2 and 4. Teacher 5 used the most preemptive FFEs in the elementary level while teacher 2 had the highest frequency of preemptive FFEs in the advanced level. Teacher 4 had the lowest frequency of preemptive FFEs in both elementary and advanced levels. Despite these variations, chi-square analysis did not show any significant difference between TIP FFEs across teachers in elementary and advanced levels, = 5.38 (4 df, p<.05).

4.3. Distribution of Linguistic Focus of FFEs at Elementary and Advanced levels

The final research question in this research dealt with the linguistic focus of FFEs within and across proficiencies. Tables 3 and 4 illustrate the linguistic focus within each proficiency whereas Tables 5, 6 and 7 illustrate the linguistic focus of FFEs on vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation across proficiencies separately.

4.3.1. Linguistic Focus of FFEs within Proficiencies

Table 3 presents the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs in the elementary level. The frequency of reactive and preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary were found to be 42 and 436 respectively. However, in terms of grammar and pronunciation, there is a negligible difference between reactive and preemptive FFEs.

Table 3. Linguistic Focus of Reactive and Preemptive FFEs in Elementary Level

Proficiency

Linguistic Focus

Reactive

Preemptive

Elementary

Vocabulary

42 (8.8%)

436 (91.2%)

Grammar

110 (51.4%)

104 (48.6%)

Pronunciation

42 (45.6%)

50 (54.4%)

The frequency of reactive FFEs addressing grammar (110) is more than twice that of both vocabulary (42) and pronunciation (42). Similarly, the frequency of preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary (436) is over four times as many as that of grammar (104) which in turn is more than twice that of pronunciation (50). The chi-square analysis on the relationship between the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs in elementary level revealed a significant difference, = 168.62 (2 df, p<.05).
Table 4 represents the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs in the advanced level. There were far more preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary than the reactive ones on vocabulary, 574 vs. 90. Conversely, the percentage of reactive FFEs dealing with grammar is 70.8% while only 29.2% of preemptive FFEs dealt with grammar.

Table 4. Linguistic Focus of Reactive and Preemptive FFEs in Advanced Level

Proficiency

Linguistic Focus

Reactive

Preemptive

Advanced

Vocabulary

90 (13.5%)

574 (86.5%)

Grammar

126 (70.8%)

52 (29.2%)

Pronunciation

112 (78.9%)

30 (21.1%)

Furthermore, the frequency of reactive FFEs dealing with pronunciation is more than three times that of preemptive FFEs dealing with pronunciation. As expected, the proportion of preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary (574) is more than eleven times that of grammar (52). As was the case in elementary level, the chi-square analysis on the relationship between the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs in the advanced level showed a significant difference, = 361.77 (2 df, p<.05)

4.3.2. Linguistic Focus of FFEs across Proficiencies
This study also investigated the linguistic focus of FFEs across proficiencies. Table 5 demonstrates the linguistic focus on vocabulary in reactive and preemptive FFEs across proficiencies.

Table 5. Linguistic Focus on Vocabulary in Reactive and Preemptive FFEs across Proficiencies

                   Vocabulary
Proficiency

Reactive

Preemptive

Elementary

42 (8.8%)

436 (91.2%)

Advanced

90 (13.6%)

574 (86.4%)

In the elementary level, the frequency of preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary is ten-fold that of reactive FFEs dealing with vocabulary. In the advanced level, the frequency of preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary is more than six times that of reactive FFEs dealing with vocabulary. In general, the percentage of reactive FFEs dealing with vocabulary in the advanced and elementary levels are 13.6% and 8.8% respectively. However, there is not a dramatic discrepancy between preemptive FFEs dealing with vocabulary in the advanced and elementary levels, 574 vs. 436. The inferential analysis on this categorical data found a significant difference, = 5.72 (1df, p<.05).
Table 6 depicts the linguistic focus on grammar in reactive and preemptive FFEs across proficiencies. Based on the findings, the frequency of preemptive FFEs dealing with grammar is not drastically different from that of reactive FFEs addressing grammar in the elementary level. However, in the advanced level, the frequency of reactive FFEs dealing with grammar is more than two times that of preemptive FFEs dealing with grammar.

Table 6. Linguistic Focus on Grammar in Reactive and Preemptive FFEs across Proficiencies

                   Grammar
Proficiency

Reactive

Preemptive

Elementary

110 (51.4%)

104 (48.6%)

Advanced

126 (70.8%)

52 (29.2%)

In general, no major difference was observed in the rate of reactive FFEs dealing with grammar in the elementary and advanced levels. In contrast, the frequency of preemptive FFEs dealing with grammar in the elementary level is twice as many as that of the advanced level. The chi-square analysis on the relationship between the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs in advanced level showed a significant difference, =14.44 (1df, p<.05).
Finally, Table 7 illustrates the linguistic focus on pronunciation in reactive and preemptive FFEs across proficiencies. In the elementary level, there is a slight variation in the rate of reactive and preemptive FFEs dealing with pronunciation. However, in the advanced level, the frequency of reactive FFEs dealing with pronunciation (112) is more than three times that of preemptive FFEs dealing with pronunciation (30).

Table 7. Linguistic Focus on Pronunciation in Reactive and Preemptive FFEs across Proficiencies

                  Pronunciation
Proficiency

Reactive

Preemptive

Elementary

42 (45.7%)

50 (54.3%)

Advanced

112 (78.8%)

30 (21.2%)

In general, the frequency of reactive FFEs dealing with pronunciation in the advanced level (112) is remarkably more than that of the elementary level (42). However, the frequency of preemptive FFEs dealing with pronunciation in the elementary level (50) is not markedly different from that of the advanced level (30). The chi-square analysis on the relationship between the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs in the advanced level showed a significant difference, = 25.92 (1df, p<.05)

5. Discussion

Since all the data for the present study come from naturally occurring classes, and no effort was made to manipulate the frequency or characteristics of incidental focus on form, the observations can be considered representative of what usually takes place in these classes. The findings of this study revealed that an average of one instance of FFE took place every 2.3 minutes. With regard to the overall frequency of FFEs in each proficiency, this study also found more FFEs in the advanced classes than in the elementary ones. Teachers felt the need and were more inclined to make a departure from meaning to highlight a linguistic form when they taught in the advanced level classes.
The overall rate of one instance of FFE every 2.3 minutes found in this study is lower than that of Ellis et al.’s (2001) study that found one FFE every 1.6 minutes or Lyster’s (1998a) study that found a rate of one FFE every 1.97 minutes. The relatively low incidence of focus on form in this EFL setting may imply that meaning received primary attention in these classes and the teachers or their learners opted less frequently to interrupt an ongoing communicatively-oriented activity. However, like other ESL/EFL contexts, EFL teachers in this context did try to integrate focus on form and meaning in their classes despite the variation in its extent.

5.1 Focus on Form: Teachers’ Preemptive Voice
The first research question focused on the frequency of types of incidental FFEs occurring in meaning-oriented EFL classes across two proficiencies. Overall, the results showed that in both elementary and advanced levels, TIP FFEs were overwhelmingly used. These findings are in sharp contrast with Basturkmen, Loewen, & Ellis’s (2004) which found TIP FFEs to be so low that they decided not to include them in their chi-square analysis. The low rate of TIP FFEs in ESL settings can be due to the fact that ESL teachers did not wish to preemptively draw attention to linguistic forms unless they felt obliged to. However, in EFL settings, it may be the case that teachers feel the need to focus on gaps before an error is made. It could be concluded that these teachers believed it was appropriate to preemptively focus on linguistic items to foster accuracy, even if no misunderstanding had occurred. Furthermore, it may be argued that learners are perhaps more willing to let their teacher intervene. Learners’ expectations from their teachers may have prompted the teachers to make abundant use of TIP FFEs as the researchers believe is the case in the Iranian EFL context. Employing TIP FFEs can be one way for an EFL teacher to manifest her/his status as a qualified teacher and win learner satisfaction.
This study found a very low incidence of the SIP FFEs in the observed data. A similar finding was observed in Farrokhi & Gholami (2007) who also reported a very low rate of SIP FFEs in comparison with TIP FFEs. The reason why SIP FFEs had the lowest frequency in both levels can perhaps be related to cultural background, classroom atmosphere and personality factors. For example, Loewen (2003) found that European background students had higher frequencies of SIP FFEs than did Asian learners. Another possible explanation could relate to student’s perceptions of their role in the classroom (Cotterall, 1995). Some learners avoid initiating many FFEs on the assumption that their teachers are more entitled to highlight linguistic forms. On the other hand, other learners tend to be more autonomous and take responsibility for their own learning and thus dare to make queries about FFEs preemptively.
It is interesting to note that the proportion of reactive FFEs was much higher than that of SIP FFEs which seems to reveal a negative correlation between the two. In other words, the more instances teachers reacted to learners’ errors, the less likely learners were to preemptively draw attention to their gaps. Perhaps it can be argued that SIP FFEs are more likely to occur in classes where learners are not constantly corrected and therefore implicitly are more encouraged to ask questions about problematic areas. For SIP FFEs, it is possible that cultural differences in the norms of classroom conduct in general and in the predisposition to ask questions in particular could affect the number of FFEs. For example, Cortazzi and Jin (1996) discuss Chinese students’ negative perceptions of asking questions in class. However, further investigation into other individual factors such as personality types may provide further insight into the unequal levels of classroom participation.

5.2. Does Learner Proficiency Matter for Teachers?

The second research question addressed the extent to which TIP FFEs differed in meaning-oriented EFL classes across two proficiencies and five teachers. Surprisingly, it was found that there was no major difference in the use of TIP FFEs between elementary and advanced levels. Unlike the first three teachers, the fourth and fifth ones had higher amounts of TIP FFEs in their elementary as opposed to their advanced levels. It is possible that the first three teachers felt that advanced learners were more developmentally ready to focus on TIP FFEs while the other two believed that the elementary learners could benefit more from TIP FFEs than the advanced ones. Overall, the fact that there was a roughly equal proportion of TIP FFEs in both proficiencies seems to suggest that when it comes to preemptive attention to a linguistic item, teachers don’t appear to differentiate between levels of proficiency.

5.3. What Linguistic Forms Receive more Attention from the Teacher?

The third research question was concerned with the linguistic focus of reactive and preemptive FFEs within and across proficiencies. Like Williams (1999), Loewen (2003), Basturkmen et al. (2004), and Poole (2005a), this study found vocabulary to be the predominant linguistic feature preemptively addressed in the observed classes. In other words, within each proficiency, vocabulary had the highest percentage.

Following vocabulary, grammar was the second most highlighted feature in preemptive FFEs. Harley (1994) noted that learners tend to be lexically oriented and often fail to notice syntactic features which are not essential for comprehending or making meaning. Instead, what learners notice is that they need words. It can be concluded that teachers consider focus-on-form instruction to be more beneficial for learning vocabulary. The fact that grammar was less frequently focused on in this study as well as in Williams (1999), Loewen (2003), Basturkmen et al. (2004), and Poole (2005a), implies that teachers are less willing to preemptively focus on grammar. This supports Sheen’s (2003) contention that focus on formsinstruction or the preplanned emphasis on certain forms within a communicative context, offers a better hope for addressing learner needs in terms of grammar in a contextualized fashion than does focus on form instruction. Not only may focus on form be practically difficult to use, but it also may result in situations where a disproportionate amount of focus is on vocabulary to the almost total exclusion of syntax. Since learners at all levels are more concerned with sorting out lexical meaning than grammatical form, the responsibility for calling attention to grammar and pronunciation appears to remain with the teacher, especially at the early stages of acquisition.

The linguistic focus of reactive FFEs in the elementary and advanced levels was largely on grammar. There are two possible explanations for the high proportion of linguistic focus of reactive FFEs on grammar in these levels. It is possible that most of the errors made by the learners were grammatical in nature, although this was not investigated. Alternatively, one can speculate that the teachers were more concerned with grammatical errors. The frequent focus on grammar coincides with Mackey et al.’s (2000) and Sheen’s (2006) findings that reactive FFEs on grammar occurred much more frequently than reactive FFEs directed at vocabulary and pronunciation.

Interestingly, the frequency of each linguistic focus (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation) increased with the advancement of the proficiency level in reactive FFEs. This finding supports those of Williams (1999, 2001) and Leeser (2004) who also found a similar trend that learners in higher proficiency levels produced more FFEs than those at lower levels. In support of the findings of this study, Williams (1999) found that lower proficiency learners did not focus on form frequently because they could not and only began to pay attention to form when they became more proficient. In other words, at higher levels of proficiency, learners are more able to notice formal features whereas at earlier stages of acquisition their attention was absorbed in processing meaning (Van Patten, 1990, 1996, 2003). At the higher levels of proficiency, the gap between their interlanguage and the target may have become sufficiently narrow that they are able to notice it. However, the same trend was not observed in the case of preemptive FFEs in which the rate of FFEs dealing with lexical items increased from elementary to advanced levels but the opposite occurred with regard to grammar and pronunciation. This may be due to the fact that learners in advanced proficiency levels have developed a basic command of English in terms of grammar and pronunciation but still need to enhance their vocabulary repertoire.

Another explanation for the variation in the number of FFEs according to proficiency could be related to the relative difference in task demands for the higher and lower proficiency learners. Skehan (1998) summarizes research which suggests that task characteristics can influence the amount of negotiation of meaning. It could be the case that the lower proficiency learners were struggling with meaning (hence the focus on vocabulary) and could invest less attention on focus on form. For the more proficient learners, it could be that task demands were less, and therefore they were able to direct more of their attention to form. A closer examination of the activities could determine if task features influenced the frequency of the FFEs.

6. Implications for Further Research

In spite of the conclusions drawn here regarding the potential value of TIP FFEs, more research is needed before a generalization can be made about its efficacy on both theoretical and practical planes. Given the low amount of variations across proficiencies, it is important to consider what implications this may have for L2 research and teaching. First, the study has shown that a significant number of FFEs occur across proficiencies. Although the large amount of TIP FFEs was not completely unexpected, further investigation into the beliefs of teachers and learners regarding TIP FFEs is warranted. Moreover, it would be interesting to examine whether learners are able to integrate TIP FFEs into their interlanguage.

The finding that the occurrence of TIP FFEs did not significantly differ across proficiencies raises questions about whether the preemptive role of teachers in various levels should change. Currently, there is little guidance for teachers regarding the optimal number of TIP FFEs in a meaning-focused lesson in various proficiencies. Therefore, decisions about applying TIP FFEs across proficiencies may hinge on how comfortable and/or beneficial the teachers and students find the frequency of it to be. Further research investigating the effectiveness of various rates of TIP FFE occurrence may provide insight into its optimal amount across proficiencies.

The fact that lower proficiency classes had fewer instances of FFEs leads to the question of whether it is possible for elementary classes to focus on grammar and pronunciation given that they often struggle with lexical items during the task. In other words, are lower proficiency learners developmentally ready to benefit from linguistic focus on grammar and pronunciation? The findings of this study suggest that the proficiency of learners impacts not only how much they are able to focus on form but also how well they resolve language problems they encounter. It remains to be seen whether TIP FFEs can accelerate acquisition for these learners.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, this study demonstrates a high prevalence of TIP FFEs in all classes irrespective of the proficiency. Given the findings observed in this study, it is important for researchers and teachers alike to know how TIP FFEs can best be incorporated into the classroom to promote L2 learning. This study, then, challenges the claim made by some researches that SIP FFEs are more worthy of consideration than TIP FFEs. Future research should take into account how teachers/learners view TIP FFEs. It may be that teachers/learners consider them less face-threatening than SIP FFEs and therefore find them preferable. Teachers might be encouraged to initiate more in meaning-focused activities by raising their awareness of its potential benefits. Moreover, the findings of this study indicate that the linguistic focus of elementary and advanced classes was overwhelmingly on vocabulary which seems to imply that focus on form is not adequate in drawing learners’ attention to grammar and pronunciation as it is for vocabulary. Utilizing focus on forms or deliberately spending more time on grammar and pronunciation could prove fruitful.

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Appendix

Extract 1: TIP FFE dealing with grammar
T: The students come to class at 8 am. For exact hours we use AT. AT 2 o’clock.

In extract 1, the teacher predicts a gap in the learners’ knowledge concerning the correct preposition for exact hours and discusses it briefly.

Extract 2: TIP FFE dealing with pronunciation
T: Some people feel ill when they see a CORPSE. Be careful not to mistake this
word with CORPS which refers to a branch of the army.

In the above example, the teacher preemptively highlights the differences in pronunciation between two similarly sounding words, “corpse” and “corps”.

Extract 3: SIP FFE dealing with vocabulary
S: PORT is…?
T:PORTmeans near the sea. Do you know a synonym for PORT?
S: Bay?
T: No, HARBOUR.

In extract 3, the student preemptively asks the meaning of “port” from the teacher.

Extract 4: SIP FFE dealing with pronunciation
S: I can’t say E-QWUIP-MENT
T: You can try and say it slowly by saying each syllable separately. E/QUIP/MENT
S: E/QUIP/MENT

In extract 4, the student draws attention to her inability to correctly pronounce the word “equipment”and the teacher guides her.

Extract 5: Reactive FFE dealing with vocabulary
S: They killed themselves
T: They COMMITTED SUICIDE
S: Ok

In extract 5, the teacher uses a more appropriate term for “kill themselves”.

Extract 6: Reactive FFE dealing with grammar
S: We don’t know how many money he has
T: How MUCH money he has
S: Yeah

In extract 6, the student thinks that “money” is countable and is corrected by the teacher.

 

 

 

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Category: 2008