Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Focus on Form in Live Chats

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Focus on Form in Live Chats

Article excerpt


For input to become intake, a learner is required to focus his/her attention on features of the target language. Long (1991) first coined the term focus on form (FonF) to describe this attentional process. Schmidt (1990) argued that noticing at the level of awareness is the prerequisite of any intake of input. In order to direct learners to notice and attend to target structures, Sharwood Smith (1993) suggested teachers to apply input enhancement techniques to lead learners to identify their linguistic errors through feedback provision. In the current study, we took advantage of the text-based live chats on Instant Messenger and the access to native speakers (NSs) of the target language in an attempt to create a high-level attention-drawing condition for a group of English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) learners.

Building upon Sharwood Smith's concept of input enhancement (1993) as a way to draw the learners' attention to specific linguistic forms, computer-mediated communication (CMC--mainly refers to text-based online interaction in this paper) has been endorsed due to its visual display (Smith, 2003a; Warschauer, 1997). Pertinent studies concluded that CMC allows learners to revisit and analyze incoming messages and craft outgoing messages, when engaged in an intensive interaction. The external input enhancement aims to induce internal awareness. Text-based online chat particularly involves written oral-like conversation and is slower (to various extents) than face-to-face (FTF) interaction, yet retains the authenticity of verbal discourse (Beauvois, 1992). When the two powerful input enhancers--NS' feedback and text chat--are combined into communicative tasks, a significant amount of incidental FonF shall be anticipated. Nonetheless, incidental FonF (its occurrence and outcome) is unpredictable and individualized, in contrast to planned FonF (Ellis, 2001). Hence, the assessment would be difficult through conventional testing techniques. The purpose of the study thus is to offer an empirical account on how incidental FonF can be examined and elicited through text-based live chats between language learners and NSs. Early studies on FonF were mostly theoretical or descriptive (e.g., Cross, 2002; Ellis, 2001; Ellis, Basturkmen & Loewen, 2001a; Gass, 1997; Schmidt, 1990, 2001). Not until recently did some researchers attempt to quantify the occurrence of FonF in FTF (e.g., Doughty & Williams, 1988; Long, Inagaki, & Ortega, 1998) and online contexts (Loewen, 2005; Shekary & Tahririan, 2006; Williams, 2001), among language learners or between a teacher and students. Nonetheless, how feedback provision from NS peers influences learners' FonF in CMC has not been studied extensively.

Incidental FonF and Subsequent L2 Development

Although communicative function is prioritized nowadays in Language Education, research shows that meaning-focused instruction may not lead to the development of high-level accuracy (Wesche, 1992). Learners who cannot simultaneously attend to both linguistic aspects may opt for meaning over form during communication (Van-Patten, 1990). Therefore, researchers (e.g., Doughty & Williams, 1998 and Ellis, 2001) have proposed incidental FonF to be a method to integrate meaning-focused and form-focused instruction. Learners alternate their attention between form and meaning.

Incidental FonF can also improve learners' interlanguage. Swain (1995) claimed that FonF pushes learners to deeper, grammatical processing that potentially has a "significant role in the development of syntax and morphology" (p.138). Given the acquisitional potential of FonF interactions, the question arises as to how a facilitative environment is created in which negotiation of meaning and interactional adjustments can occur; Ellis (2003), Long (1983a, 1983b), and Porter (1983) proposed task-based language learning. Since FonF is likely to occur in a task-based collaborative environment, the evidence and details of its occurrence in relation to subsequent L2 development deserve a comprehensive examination. …

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