This article provides a timeline of research on form-focused instruction (FFI). Over the past 40 years, research on the role of instruction has undergone many changes. Much of the early research concentrated on determining whether formal instruction makes any difference in the development of learner language. This question was motivated in part by a theoretical discussion in the field of cognitive psychology over the role of explicit versus implicit learning, on the one hand, and a debate in the field of second language acquisition (SLA) over the role of naturalistic exposure versus formal instruction, on the other. In the early 1980s, for example, based on the notion that the processes involved in second language (L2) learning are similar to those in first language (L1) learning, Krashen (e.g., Krashen Reference Krashen1981, Reference Krashen1982, Reference Krashen1985) made a distinction between learning and acquisition and claimed that an L2 should be acquired through natural exposure not learned through formal instruction. Thus, he claimed that FFI has little beneficial effect on language acquisition. This position, which has also been known as a ‘zero position’ on instruction, was also taken by a number of other researchers who argued that L1 and L2 learning follow similar processes and that what L2 learners need in order to acquire a second language is naturalistic exposure to meaning-focused communication rather than formal instruction (Dulay & Burt Reference Dulay and Burt1974; Felix Reference Felix1981; Prabhu Reference Prabhu1987; Schwartz Reference Schwartz1993; Zobl Reference Zobl1995).
Later research in SLA, however, led to a reassessment of the role of FFI. Many researchers began to make a strong case for L2 instruction, arguing that FFI can be potentially effective if it is provided appropriately. There were a number of reasons for this argument. First, the assumption that language can be learned without some degree of consciousness was found to be problematic (e.g., Sharwood Smith Reference Sharwood Smith1981; Schmidt & Frota Reference Schmidt, Frota and Day1986; Schmidt 1990 (see timeline); Sharwood Smith 1991(see timeline); Schmidt Reference Schmidt1993, Reference Schmidt and Schmidt1995). For example, Schmidt's Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt 1990, 2001) challenged non-interventionist perspectives, which claimed that the only way of acquiring a language is through naturalistic exposure. Instead, it considered that noticing or drawing learners’ attention to the target form is an essential condition for L2 learning. Second, studies began to produce evidence that pointed to the inadequacies of the teaching approaches whose primary focus is on meaning and communication with no focus on grammatical forms. For example, extensive research in French immersion programs or content-based classrooms (e.g., Harley & Swain Reference Harley, Swain, Davies, Criper and Howatt1984; Swain Reference Swain, Gass and Madden1985; Lapkin, Hart & Swain Reference Lapkin, Hart and Swain1991) demonstrated that learners in such programs may develop a high degree of comprehension skills or fluency. However, they do not achieve a high level of accuracy in certain grammatical and morphological features of the L2. Furthermore, evidence began to accumulate from a large number of studies and several important reviews (e.g., Long 1983 (see timeline); Ellis Reference Ellis1985; Lightbown & Spada 1990 (see timeline); Larsen-Freeman & Long Reference Larsen-Freeman and Long1991; Ellis Reference Ellis1994; Spada 1997 (see timeline); Norris & Ortega Reference Norris and Ortega2000; Ellis Reference Ellis2001; Norris & Ortega Reference Norris and Ortega2001) that demonstrated that FFI has positive effects on both L2 accuracy and ultimate level of acquisition. Given these developments, research shifted its focus from whether FFI has an effect to what type of FFI is most beneficial. Research also began to investigate more closely how FFI contributes to language acquisition and what factors or mechanisms may mediate its effectiveness.
With regard to types of instruction, a classification that has been very influential in the literature is the distinction that Long (1991) (see timeline) and Long & Robinson (1998) (see timeline) made between focus on form (FonF) and focus on forms (FonFs) instruction. Long (1991) defined FonFs as the traditional structural and synthetic approaches to language teaching, in which language is presented to learners in an isolated and de-contextualized manner. FonF was defined as instruction that involves drawing learners’ attention to linguistic forms that arise spontaneously in the context of meaning-focused communication. Long's distinction and in particular the notion of FonF has become the impetus for many recent studies that have attempted to explore the best way of drawing learners’ attention to form in the context of meaning-focused communication and its effects on language learning.
Long (1991) originally characterized FonF mainly as a reaction to linguistic problems occurring incidentally during communicative activities. Other researchers, however, expanded the concept to include both incidental and preplanned FonF and noted that FonF can take place on a broader scale depending on how and when it is implemented (Spada 1997 (see timeline); Doughty & Williams 1998 (see timeline); Lightbown 1998 (see timeline); Nassaji 1999 (see timeline); Ellis Reference Ellis2001; Williams 2005 (see timeline); Nassaji & Fotos 2010 (see timeline)). Spada (1997) and Ellis (Reference Ellis2001), for example, used the term FFI to refer to any instructional strategies that attempt to draw learners’ attention to form. Such strategies can occur in a variety of forms, which can differ from one another in a number of important ways. For example, they can occur both implicitly and explicitly, reactively (such as through various forms of interactional and corrective feedback in response to learner errors) or proactively in a predetermined manner, deductively or inductively, integratively or separately and also through various forms of input, output, and consciousness raising tasks designed to draw learner attention to specific target features (Nassaji & Fotos 2010). The notion of form was also expanded to include not only grammatical or syntactic forms but also vocabulary, pronunciation, and pragmatics. Furthermore, the theoretical perspectives underlying instructional studies shifted from a purely cognitive to those that incorporated more social, cultural, and sociocultural perspectives.
To reflect the scope of FFI research and how it has grown and changed over the years, the aim of this article is to provide a timeline of studies that have addressed the issue of FFI in its various manifestations. To this end, the timeline begins with early studies that examined whether FFI plays a role in language acquisition and then moves on to later studies that examined the various forms of FFI in different contexts and with different learners as well as the different factors that affect their use and effectiveness. Due to the sheer number of theoretical and empirical studies that have addressed these issues, it is not possible, and also not intended, to provide a comprehensive account of all individual studies in this area. Thus, the timeline presents a chronology of a representative sample of key studies, with a focus on how they have evolved over time. The timeline has categorized the studies according to the following themes.
A. Theoretical and background issues
B. Definition of constructs
C. FFI versus no instruction
D. Types of instruction
1. Explicit versus implicit
2. Isolated versus integrated
3. Deductive versus inductive
4. Input enhancement
5. Processing instruction (PI)
6. Interactional or corrective feedback
7. Consciousness raising tasks
8. Incidental FonF
E. Factors affecting the use and/or effectiveness of instructional strategies
1. Learner characteristics/individual learner differences
2. Feedback characteristics
3. Types of task
4. Linguistic target
5. Linguistic/developmental level
F. Learners’ perception/noticing
G. Learners’ and/or teachers’ belief
H. Context of instruction/interaction
1. Second language
2. Foreign language
I. Context of research
J. Narrative reviews and/or meta-analysis of research
I would like to thank Graeme Porte, the editor of Language Teaching, and five reviewers of the journal for their useful comments on an earlier version of this research timeline.
Hossein Nassaji is Professor of Applied Linguistics in the Linguistics Department at the University of Victoria, Canada. His teaching and research interests include form-focused instruction, interactional feedback, and second language reading and vocabulary learning. His recent books are Interactional feedback dimension in instructed second language learning, 2015, Bloomsbury Publishing; Teaching grammar in second language classrooms: Integrating form-focused instruction in communicative context, 2010, Routledge (with Sandra Fotos); and Form-focused instruction and teacher education: Studies in honour of Rod Ellis, 2007, Oxford University Press (with Sandra Fotos). He is co-editor of Language Teaching Research and editor of the Grammar Teaching volume of The TESOL encyclopaedia of English language teaching to be published by Wiley. He is the winner of the Twenty-First Annual Kenneth W. Mildenberger Prize of the Modern Language Association of America and the recipient of the 2012 Faculty of Humanities Award for Research Excellence, University of Victoria.