Focus-on-Form and L2 learning in Synchronous Computer-Mediated Communication: Language Proficiency and Dyadic Types

Focus-on-Form and L2 learning in Synchronous Computer-Mediated Communication: Language Proficiency and Dyadic Types

Wan-Tsai Kung (Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan) and Zohreh R. Eslami (Texas A&M University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5140-9.ch006


This chapter reports on a study of the effectiveness of interaction in synchronous computer-mediated communication (SCMC) context by comparing the nature of negotiations between learners of different proficiency levels in different dyadic types (NS/NNS and NNS/NNS). Dyads performed two tasks using textual SCMC interactions. Language-related episodes (LRE) were identified and used as a basis for individualized tailor-made tests to assess the learners' subsequent learning outcome. The results revealed that in the NS-NNS dyads, no significant difference in the frequency of LREs produced was found between the lower- and higher-proficiency learners whereas in the NNS-NNS dyads, the lower-proficiency learners produced significantly more LREs than their higher-proficiency interlocutors. Additionally, the learners of both proficiency groups interacting with NSs produced significantly more LREs than learners interacting with NNSs. However, no significant differences were found in the test performance of learners of different proficiency levels in either dyadic type.
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The interactionist theory of second language acquisition (SLA), which addresses incidental acquisition, highlights the importance of interaction in L2 learning (Lin, 2014). Important components in interaction process include input, apperception, semantic and syntactic processing, intake, incorporation into the learner’s linguistic system and output (Chapelle, 1998). CMC, in a text-based form, can easily be saved, archived, reevaluated and edited, all of which encourage reflection and interaction (Harasim, 1990; Warschauer, 1997).

For input to become intake, a learner is required to focus his/her attention on features of the target language (Chen & Eslami, 2013). Long (1991) first coined the term focus on form (FonF) to describe this attentional process. As argued by Schmidt (1990), noticing at the level of awareness is the prerequisite of any intake of input. FonF ‘overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication’ (Long, 1991, pp. 45–46). The importance of incidental focus on form is based on three principle claims about second language acquisition (SLA):

(a) learners acquire new linguistic forms as a product of attending to them in contexts where the primary concern is with message rather than code; (b) learners frequently experience difficulty in attending to and producing linguistic forms in communication because they possess a limited information-processing capacity; and (c) learners benefit from the opportunities that arise in communication to give focal attention to form (Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001a, p. 281-282).

As submitted by Ellis (2016), there is evidence that focus on form results in richer types of classroom interaction that benefit the incidental acquisition of non-targeted features compared to focus on forms. Focus on forms involves traditional language teaching consisting of the presentation and practice of items dawn from a structural syllabus. Doughty and Williams (1998) emphasized that focus on form and focus on forms ‘are not polar opposites’ and that the essential difference is that focus on form “entails a focus on formal elements of language, whereas focus on forms is limited to such a focus” (p. 4). As argued by Ellis (2016), focus on form entails various techniques designed to attract learners’ attention to form while they are using the L2 as a tool for communicating. In contrast, focus on forms entails various devices (such as ‘exercises’) designed to direct learners’ attention to specific forms that are to be studied and learned as objects.

Although the effectiveness of planned focus on form has been examined in various contexts (e.g., Doughty & Williams, 1998; Long, Inagaki, & Ortega, 1998), studies that have investigated the effects of incidental focus on form are limited (Loewen, 2005; Williams, 2001).

Previous literature has recognized the positive impact of incidental focus on form during learners’ interaction and negotiation of meaning on second language learning in face-to-face contexts (Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen, 2001b, 2002; Ellis, Loewen, & Erlam, 2006; Loewen, 2002; 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2005; Loewen & Philp, 2006; Murphy, 2002; Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Williams, 1999, 2001). A limited number of studies have also examined the occurrence and the effects of incidental focus on form on learners in online settings (Gurzynski-Weiss & Baralt, 2014; Lai & Zhao, 2006Loewen & Reissner, 2009; Rouhshad, 2014; Rouhshad, Wigglesworth, & Storch, 2016; Sahin, 2009; Shekary & Tahririan, 2006; Tam, Kan, & Ng, 2010).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Meaning-Focused Activities: The primary goal is to exchange information instead of learning or practicing linguistic forms.

Interlanguage: The type of language produced by nonnative speakers in second language learning.

Negotiation of Form: The purpose of the communication is to solve any confusion resulting from language forms.

Noticing: The following two incidents could demonstrate L2 learners’ noticing of the mismatch between their interlanguage and the target language: (1) when they ask linguistic or sociolinguistic questions, or (2) when their interlocutors provide them with corrective feedback and then they respond to it.

Synchronous Computer-Mediated Communication: Messages are typed and sent, and then received by the interlocutors instantaneously.

Negotiation of Meaning: The purpose of the communication is to reach mutual understanding of the participants to keep the communication going.

Pushed Output: With output, a learner is in control. In speaking or writing (output), learners can stretch their language learning.

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