Focus on Form in the Task-Based approach

How do you create an effective focus on form in the Task-Based approach?

In previous “Astuces et réflexions,” I wrote about how to set up an exciting and meaningful end task for your students, how to scaffold your 6 to 12 priming tasks from the easiest to the most cognitively challenging and how to use an effective cooperative strategy to deliver the main task.

Today, it’s about the Focus on Form. How can you make your students progress in their successful completion of the main task?

You may have an idea of the kind of language point your students will have difficulty with when they are working on their end product. For example, if the end product is to deliver the most engaging aerobics session, there may be a good chance that your students will have to grasp the imperative tense if you teach a European language and that may well be the point to work on as a focus form.

However, it would be appropriate not to hold too many presumptions before the students are working on their main task (end product). There are, to me, plenty of surprises when it comes down to picking a point of language. For instance, you may realise that their use of prepositions may be more urgent to work on instead of the imperative tense. As you don’t know until they are using the language in the main task, you are recommended not to anticipate.

The key point here is to focus on what they need to improve, not what you would like them to know.

Start the focus on form in a new period so that it gives you time at home to prepare the point of language for the following period.

So listen to or read your students’ pieces of work while they are working on their end product, take notes of their most salient errors and only then decide on a pattern of errors that hinders them from delivering a performance of a higher quality.

Note that I said “a” pattern of errors. You cannot afford to overload your students’ mind with too many patterns of errors. Pick just one they will most benefit from as a class. You can pick two or three foci if you really want to as long as they are not too cognitively demanding and time-consuming.

Note too that the focus on form is considered as a point of language. A point of language can be anything. Grammar will take a significant place in the focus on form but it’s not just about grammar or vocabulary. Bear in mind that pronunciation, intonation, body language, and communication strategies (the three Cs: clarification check, comprehension check, confirmation check) are very much a part of a successful interactive language performance.

In my way of setting up a focus on form, there are four parts. The last two are much shorter than the first two.

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1) The consciousness-raising stage

The first part is about raising an error that most students make through an inductive process. The teacher does not explicitly give away the solution to the right pattern but the students discover it by themselves.

To that end, the most important set up is to use graphic clues and colours while contrasting the correct and incorrect versions.

Make it so that the problem-solving to the correct pattern becomes an amazing guessing game to them. You want to see a buzz from them. The consciousness-raising stage can be a tricky stage but when it pays off after thorough planning on your part, you will hear it and get a lot of satisfaction from their eureka moment.

The best four strategies to me are:

A) Draw two columns: one column with their errors highlighted in one colour and the other column with the correct version highlighted in another colour.

Draw arrows to the word or words that implicitly explain why the correct version is what it is.

Or use numbers to indicate an order.

Or use a variety of colours to explain different things.

To guess what the correct pattern is, a one-word answer from the students can be good enough.

A “think-pair-share” before they report in class can be an effective tool.

If you are keeping former student’s work, that is the time to use it as a benchmark of what to achieve as far as the targeted pattern.

For instance, if the end product is about who had the most exciting holidays in the class and their use of the past tense in French with 2 parts and the accent on the second part is incorrect, the 2 columns could look like these:

Gram

The yellow ink would hint at the fact that in 4 cases out of 5, the second part has an -é- with an accent at the end and I would say it so they can hear it too and I would use the whole whiteboard to draw the accent for fun and to impress upon them the importance of the accent.

The blue ink would just point to the fact there are 2 parts in the past tense.

Sure, some students could ask why “est” is used in “on est allé à Wellington” in which case I would refer them to 2 posters on the classroom walls: avoir et être conjugated in the present tense. I would conjugate and mime «jouer/rencontrer/regarder» in the past tense (j’ai joué, tu as joué, il ou elle ou on a joué/j’ai rencontré, tu as rencontré, il ou elle ou on a rencontré) and then I would conjugate and mime «aller» (je suis allé, tu es allé, il ou elle ou on est allé). Then I would only say «aller» est une exception au passé. They don’t need to know more at that stage.

In the same way, if a student questions why it is “j’ai lu,” I read out the other verbs in the table and I say: “C’est une exception!” and raise my hands in the air in a “C’est la vie!” fashion.

As far as the arrows in purple, I wouldn’t even mention them unless a student asks. In the art of consciousness-raising activities making, it’s about letting students deduct things from what they already know. Some of them will realise that an apostrophe can occur when a short word ends in a vowel and the following word starts with a vowel too. They won’t voice this basic rule as well as I’ve just done it but they will just point at the board and that will suffice to show an understanding.

The important point here is that I want the students to guess that there are 2 parts in the past tense and there’s a good chance that the second part ends in -é-. That’s it! The rest can be picked up as an idiomatic expression at this stage of their learning.

B) Write down their errors and for each of them, give them a multiple choice/true or false/odd one out task knowing that one of the answers is the correct one. They have to justify their answer if possible. If they can’t justify, it’s ok. Provide more examples and a pattern of a metalinguistic consciousness will start taking shape in their minds.

For instance,

a) j’ai joué au cricket

b) j’ai joue au cricket

c) je joué au cricket

One student would always guess right and after adding more multiple choice statements and using colours and arrows on my part, a metalinguistic pattern would start to emerge in the students’ mind until they would all get in the end that there are 2 parts in the past tense and the second part often has an -é- in the end.

C) Highlight their errors and indicate what the generic reason for the error is eg: missing articles, word order, gender, verb endings, … They have to find the answer by themselves. You can do the same task, but this time around, only give them the type of error, as it is now up to them to find their errors in their utterances because you have not highlighted any.

For instance, I would write:

Temps présent: je joue

Temps passé : j’ai …?….

And then, I would ask them what the second part is et what the verb ending is. They may not understand the word “terminaison (ending)” at this stage and that’s ok. They would still understand the question mark. If they make a mistake in their answer, no problem. I give them the correct answer.

I would carry on with other verbs like regarder/rencontrer until they understand that there is an -é- with an accent at the end.

Then I would want them to understand that there are two parts in the past tense. So I would write:

Temps présent: je joue

Temps passé : j’…?… …?….

And then I would ask them how many parts there are. They will deduct that there are two from the previous exercise and should even be able to tell me what the first part is.

I would repeat the same process with regarder/rencontrer.

D) Translate what the students actually said or wrote. Then, ask them to analyse the clues in the colours and guess what the correct version should be. If they don’t get it at the first phrase, that’s ok. They will eventually get it as you introduce more phrases in the table.

For instance, I would write:

Version incorrecte au passé Traduction en anglais Version correcte en anglais Version correcte en français?
J’ai joue au cricket I have am playing au cricket I have playED au cricket

The more you practise those strategies, the faster you become at setting them up until it becomes second nature. I tend to prefer the first two strategies as they are more inductive in raising the students’ language consciousness.

2) The drilling stage

Once the students have implicitly guessed the point of language to improve, it is the drilling stage. You can organise competitive games based on:

  • cloze exercises
  • highlighting/underlining/circling/ticking the point of language in the text
  • disappearing information (where information gets gradually removed)
  • etc …

and the students rehearse the correct pattern to use.

The competitive games in the drilling stage are based on 3 types of settings:

a) The one that involves 2 teams and one member of each team to run to the front of the classroom to ring a bell, write on the board, …

b) The one that involves a few teams competing against each other sitting in a big circle and jumping on numbers inside the circle, catching a cone on a desk in the middle of the circle, …

c) The one that involves a few teams competing against each other but remaining at their desks. For example, the students number themselves off in their group and the first number/student to stand on his chair or slam his hand on the target language dictionary will be given the privilege to give an appropriate answer and earn a point for his team.

To sum up, students either run to the front or to the middle of a circle or perform an action at their desks.

Vary the settings so they do not get bored with the same one all the time.

The students are strongly encouraged to share the answers with their teammate for each question.

The team with the highest score wins.

Range the drilling tasks to solve from the easiest to the most difficult one. Build up their confidence.

3) The reflecting stage:

You ask the students to reflect on what they have understood in the focus on form so far and they write down their reflection. After an implicit stage, this is an explicit stage.

Initially, a few basic words in the target language may be acceptable to sum up a rule, but as their level of language improves, full sentences will be possible.

For instance, if one student writes: “Au temps passé, j’ai jouéééé, j’ai mangéééé, j’ai étudiéééé,… and the fact they have repeated the é means that they have grasped the fact that the last letter needs to be heard in French.

Points must be made as detailed as possible so the students are able to recall them at a later stage when needed.

The key thing is to let them work on their metalanguage as much as they can. Let them use their words, not yours.

They can compare their notes with a group mate and then with the whole group. Every time they learn something new from their group mates, they must add it to their notes. A report in class can follow and sometimes you may need to modify their views or stress a point they have missed out.

You may also want to prepare a summary of the point on a handout and their job is to highlight the key points and in the margin annotate key words. Then at the bottom of the handout, they write down the most important key word of all and explain why. That technique is particularly useful when they are beginning learners and they don’t have the language to write out a rule in the target language yet.

If you really feel that writing out a rule in the target language is in the too hard basket for your students, allow them to use their mother tongue initially but make sure you introduce them to more and more of the target language as time goes by.

4) The transferring stage:

Get the students to find out about two points:

  • Where else has that point of language been seen previously?
  • In what other contexts might it be seen later?

This stage will only take a few minutes. It is beneficial to reactivate what was learnt and students will have a feeling of “Oh, yeah, I get it now! That’s why! Now I understand!”

“When did you use this point of language before? An example?”

They go through the notes and text scripts they have kept since the beginning of the year and spot the focus on form and highlight it with a colour code and a word summarizing the point.

It is equally important to get them to predict in what other situations that point of language could be seen so that when that situation arises, they will have predicted it, thus reinforcing their prediction skills and self-esteem.

“When will you use this point of language next? An example?”

The students must see that a point of language is always a part of a whole and therefore every piece of the target language makes sense and can be predicted according to the context.

Recommendation:

  • Just like in the Priming stage, think through how you are going to carefully set up your Focus on Form especially at the Consciousness-raising stage

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