Focus on Form in Second Language Vocabulary Learning

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The realization by applied linguists that second language learners cannot achieve high levels of grammatical competence from entirely meaning centered instruction has led them to propose that learners need to focus on form, i.e. to attend to linguistic elements during a communicative activity (Long 1991, De Keyser 1998, Norris and Ortega 2000, Ellis 2001). However, most advocates of Focus on Form (FonF), have also proscribed Focus on Forms (FonFs), the systematic teaching of isolated grammatical items and rules. So far, FonF research has been concerned with grammatical, not lexical, instruction. In this paper, which was originally presented as a plenary session at the 2004 EUROSLA conference, I examine the need for Focus on Form and the proscription of Focus on Forms from the vocabulary learning perspective.  First, I argue that, similarly to grammar, comprehensible input is insufficient for acquiring vocabulary, and consequently Focus on Form is an essential component of instruction. I base my argument on the fallacy of the assumptions which underlie the vocabulary-through-input hypothesis: the noticing assumption, the guessing ability assumption, the guessing-retention link assumption and the cumulative gain assumption. Second, I defend Focus on Forms and argue against the claim that attention to form must be motivated by and carried out within a communicative task environment. The defense is based on the nature of lexical competence, which is perceived as a combination of different aspects of vocabulary knowledge, vocabulary use, speed of lexical access and strategic competence. The two arguments above will be supported by empirical evidence from three types of vocabulary learning studies: (a) the `classic' task embedded FonF, (b) task related FonFs, and (c) `pure' FonFs studies, unrelated to any task.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-250
Number of pages28
JournalEUROSLA Yearbook
StatePublished - 2 Aug 2005


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