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Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 2 (2010) 17401746

WCES-2010

The impact of explicit instruction on foreign language learners'


performance
Massoud Rahimpoura*, Asghar Salimib
a

University of Tbariz, Tabriz, Iran


University of Maragheh, Maragheh, Iran

Received October 14, 2009; revised December 23, 2009; accepted January 7, 2010

Abstract
This study is an attempt to investigate whether explicit instruction will lead to language learners' achievement in learning English
as a foreign language. It was hypothesized that there is significant difference between explicit formal instruction and ultimate
achievement in learning English as a foreign language.
Thirty female learners of English at an intermediate level were randomly selected as the participants of this study. Grammatical
judgment test was used for data collection. T-test was employed as the statistical means. The results of statistical analysis
supported our hypothesis that there was a significant difference between explicit formal instruction and foreign language learners'
performance.
2010 Elsevier Ltd. Open access under CC BY-NC-ND license.
Keywords: Explicit instruction; foreign language teaching; formal instruction; grammatical judgment test; language performance.

1. Introduction
From historical perspective, the late 60s and 70s saw the beginning of the empirical study of naturalistic second
language acquisition. Some studies (Dulay & Burt 1973; Upshur , 1968; Krashen 1985 , Krashen & Terrel , 1983 )
revealed that SLA could successfully occur when learners receiving little or no formal instruction at all. The
advocates of pure versions of communicative approach emphasized the independence of communication approach
from any kind of formal instruction. They did believe that through exposure and comprehensible input to one
specific language the learner would acquire the language without receiving any formal instruction. However, the
findings of a great many of researchers ( White , 1998) downplay the adequacy of pure version of communicative
approach in developing SLA to the target like level and demand for the inclusion of some sort of explicit formal
instruction ( focus on form ).
The paper tries to investigate the effects of form-focused instruction on second or foreign language learner in EFL.
Over the years a great deal of attention has been taken toward the relation between form and meaning. There is no
doubt that total attention toward structure teaching to the virtual exclusive of meaning is doomed to failure from the
* Massoud Rahimpour. Tel.: +0098-411-3815189
E-mail address: rahimpour@tabrizu.ac.ir

1877-0428 2010 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Open access under CC BY-NC-ND license.
doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.03.976

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very outset. However, attention to meaning to the virtual exclusion of form has also failed to bring about a
satisfactory connection between form and meaning. This paper is an attempt to prove the effectiveness of explicit
formal instruction in EFL setting.
2. Review of literature
2.1. What is form-focussed instruction?
In reviewing the relevant research on the role of form-focussed instruction in SLA one is immediately faced with
the problem of defining it. As it holds true about most fields of studies, this new trend in SLA studies-investigating
the role of attention to form-suffers from terminological confusion. One of the major cause of problems is the lack
of clarity and consistency in the definition of terms such as form focussed instruction and related ones (e.g. focus
on form, focus on forms, explicit / implicit instruction , corrective feedback ) which are regularly referred to in the
literature on instructed SLA.
For the purpose of this paper, form-focussed instruction will mean any pedagogical effort which is used to draw
the learner attention to language form either implicitly or explicitly. Long (1983 a) made a distinction between focus
on form syllabuses which are characterized by synthetic approaches to language teaching.
Focus on form ... overtly draws students attention to linguistic
elements, as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding
focus is on meaning or communication (Long,1983: 45-46).
Another definition which is somehow operational is given of focus on form by Long & Robinson (1998) as follows:
Focus on Form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic
code features by the teacher or one or more students triggered by perceived
problem with comprehension or production (Long & Robinson, 1998:23).
2.2. Instructed second language acquisition
The vast majority of publications since the early 1990s support the idea that some kind of explicit formal
instruction is useful for SL development ( Dekeyser , 1995 ; Ellis , 1993 ; Robinson , 1996 ; Doughty &
Williams,1998). Recent studies on classroom second language learning have also tended to indicate that focusing
student on form, mainly through instruction, is superior to implicit learning (White, 1998). Schmidt (1993) argues if
we want our students to achieve fluency in the SL , then according to cognitive theory, we must enable them to
engage in the practice of using that language , in the sense of communicating something in that language , while
they keep the relevant declarative knowledge in working memory. Current thinking about teaching communicative
approach argues that grammar has its place in ESL classroom.
Accuracy , fluency and overall communicative skills are probably best
developed through instruction that is primarily meaning based but in
which guidance is provided through timely form-focused activities
and correction in context ( Lightbown & Spada , 1990 : 443 )
Long also suggests that instruction is beneficial for learners , specially in the area of SLA process , rate of second
language acquisition , and level of ultimate attainment. Doughty (1991) claims that instruction is helpful and it
positively affects acquisition. Schmidt & Frota (1986) have found that instruction and opportunities to interact out
of class were both necessary and vital for SL development. Pienemann (1985:36) formulated a teachability
hypothesis based upon the psychological research in second language acquisition. He argued that instruction which
targets a learner's next developmental level would be more effective than the one which targets learners too far
beyond the learners' current level. Spada (1997) designed a study to find whether there was any interaction between
type of contact and type of instruction. She studied the effect of instruction and exposure on forty eight adult
learners registered in an intensive EST course in Canada. She concluded that context was less powerful predictor of
difference in learners L2 performance than instruction.

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She also found that contact positively accounted for difference in learners' improvement on grammar where the
instruction was more form focused.
Ellis (1989) carried out a study to compare the classroom and naturalistic setting and he concluded that the
classroom learners appeared to be more successful than naturalistic learner in that they revealed a higher level of
communicative ability in a very short time.
Ruhi (2001) studied the effect of implicit and explicit focus on form reinforced by incidental recast on SL
development on 72 adult learners of English. The result of the study supported the hypothesis.
Doughty (1991) studied two groups of adult L2 learner and investigated whether learners who received visual
enhancement in their exposure to relative clauses without any metalinguistic rule statement improved as much as
learners, who in addition to the visual cues, received explicit metalinguistic rules.
Doughty found that both groups improved significantly more than a control group on post-test administered
immediately after the instruction. she interpreted her findings as evidence for Schmidt (1990) "Noticing Hypothesis"
and his claim that getting learners to attend to forms in the input is the best pre-requisite for language learning.
As Ruhi (2001: 60) argued formal instruction with in meaning -focused instruction, a distinction should be made
between ESL and EFL classroom setting, on the one hand, and simple and complex, on the other.
Implicit instruction in ESL setting might come up with promising results on simple rules while some amount of
indirect use and context-based presentation of grammar forms rather than overt and teacher-led instruction is a
matter of necessity in EFL classroom setting specially on complex rules.
Explicit formal instruction in EFL classroom setting incorporated within meaning-focused instruction would force
L2 learners to relinquish some of the cognitive effect placed on the learners to notice the forms in focus in order to
process them as intake. Thus,

ESL

EFL

Implicit Instruction

Explicit instruction.
Simple rules

complex rules

To sum up, there are a lot of theoretical and practical studies and enough evidence in SLA which have examined
that formal instruction does help the acquisition of linguistic competence and has a positive effect on L2 acquisition.
2.3. Awareness , consciousness and SL development
There are some researchers who firmly believe that language learning is essentially unconscious. Krashen &
Seliger (1976) has claimed that obviously it is at the unconscious level that language learning takes place.
Krashen (1982, 1986) has elaborated a theory that rests on a distinction between two independent processing,
genuine learning called , acquisition which is subconscious , and conscious learning which is of little use in
actual language production and comprehension. However , new trends in linguistics and language teaching and the
decline of behaviorism was associated with widespread recognition that consciousness is an important concept for
the explanation of psychological phenomena. The mainstream point of view in current cognitive psychology has
stressed the role and necessity of awareness in learning the language. Skehan in support of the relationship between
explicit instruction and a consciousness suggests:
Learners benefit from some type of explicit instruction prior to the activity
to help them activate their knowledge of TL structures and facilitate
awareness of the forms they will encounter. ( Skehan , 1996:46)
Skehan (1996) suggests that focus on form activates the learners previous knowledge and assists them to link
between declarative knowledge and communicative use of the form structure. According to this view, developing
prior familiarity with the nature of the structure they are to notice can decrease the diversion of attention resources
away from the processing the enhanced input during the activity itself. Furthermore, after awareness of grammatical
structures has been developed through formal instruction, many learners tend to notice the target structures in
subsequent communicative input which leads to more accuracy ( Fotos , 1993 ; Schmidt , 1990).
Focus on form activities are particularly useful for developing learners awareness of grammar structures which are
too complex to be understood through formal instruction alone Schmidt ( 1996) postulated that learners must

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efficiently notice and be aware of the features of input in order for intake and learning to be possible. As
summarized by Schmidt, It is recognized that attention is a necessary construct for understanding virtually every
aspect of SLA.
The notion of consciousness is also supported by information processing theory. On the basis of this theory, human
are limited capacity processors of information (McLaughlin , 1983 ). A composite representation of such a system is
represented as follows:

attention

Information

sensory
Registers
lost

rehearsal
long-term
memory

short .term
memory

store

retrieval

Forgotten
According to figure one, consciousness raising and conscious processing is considered to be as a necessary
condition for one step in language learning process, and is facilitative for other aspects of learning. McLaughlin et al
(1983) argue that children learn the rules of grammar as a byproduct of trying to communicate while it is a fact that
adults may fail to learn grammar through interaction. The above literature review thus generated the following
research question and research hypotheses:
3. Research
3.1 Research question: What is the effect of focus on form on L2 learner accuracy in EFL?
3.2 Research hypotheses:
3.2.1 H0: Focus on Form will not affect the accuracy of L2 learner in EFL context.
3.2.2 H1: Focus on Form strategy will affect the accuracy of L2 learner in EFL context.
3.3. Methodology
3.3.1. Design
Two groups of learners were randomly selected and matched into two groups of experimental and
control on the basis of their performance on five weekly examinations administered by Ghalamchi
Institute.
3.3.2 Forms in focus
One of the problematic areas of English structure for EFL learners, especially Iranians, is adjective
clause and relative pronouns. Since Iranian English language learners encounter lots of problems in
acquiring this structure, these verbs serve to be the forms focussed in this experimental study.
3.3.3 Participants
The participants of the present experimental study consist of 30 pre-university learners attending
Ghalamchi Institute in Miyandoab, Iran.
The participants were all female having the same proficiency level selected randomly out of 100
learners on the basis of their performance on five weekly examinations. They were divided into two

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groups of 15. By the toss of the coin, one group was selected as the experimental and the other as the
control one.
3.3.4 Material
The instructional material used with two groups was pre-university English text book taught to the
student all over Iran, written by Birjandi , Mir Hassani , Annani & Samimi (2004) published by
Ministry of Education in Iran.
Since this book is one of the available sources on the market and taught all over Iran, it was employed as
the instructional material and unit 3 of the book was taught for the participants. The testing material used
in the study consists of twenty test of multiple-choice item on the forms focused. These questions were
constructed through standardized entrance examinations.
3.3.5 Procedure
Two groups were randomly assigned into experimental and control group. The experimental group
received feedback in the form of recast (formal explicit instruction or negative feedback) on the part of
the teacher whereas control group didn't receive any treatment and they were instructed only through
communicative method without raising their consciousness and receiving any form-focussed instruction.
Learners took part in ten hours of instruction on adjective clauses in communicative situation through
the text containing the forms under focus.
4. Results and Discussion
A grammaticality judgement task was used as the means of collecting data from participants and a
multiple-choice test containing twenty items was administered to both groups and scored. Independent
T-test was used as the statistical means of analysis.
Table 1. means and SD of experimental and control group
Group
Experimental
Control

Mean
14.4
12.6

Standard deviation
3.66
3.99

20
18
16
14
12
10
8
6
4
2
0
m ean of Ex.group

m ean of C.group

Figure 1. comparison of means obtained from control and experimental groups

The analysis of the data revealed Tcrit=1.70 at D <0.05 and df 28, which is greater than Tob= 1.29. This means
that the difference between scores of control and experimental group is systematic and it is not due to chance. H1 is

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automatically accepted. On the basis of the data analyzed, it is concluded that there is difference between explicit
formal instruction and L2 learner accuracy. As it was argued earlier, the findings of the present research prove that
formal instruction of the language would result in improvement in L2 learner accuracy and provide a favourable
condition for L2 acquisition.
The performance of control group clearly reveals that implicit instruction has no role in triggering SL development
in EFL context.
The finding of this study is also in line with the findings of great many of researchers (Pica, 1985; Ruhi, 2001.
Ellis, and et al 1989). The greater accuracy can also be interpreted in terms of Rahimpour's view (2001b) that greater
complexity of tasks in terms of cognitive demand (more consciousness) will facilitate greater attention to form and
planning of production which will consequently lead to greater accuracy and fluency.
5. Limitations of the study
There are many important sources of variation in L2 learners' performance including interlocutor, planning time
focus of attention on form or meaning, topic familiarity, purpose of task, task type, condition and type of focus to
name a few (Tarone, 1988; Ellis, 1999, Rahimpour, 2001a).
It is obvious that controlling all these factors is impossible for the researcher. It would have been more beneficial if
the study had taken into account type of focus as well.
The study also couldn't examine which type of focus would trigger SLA development quickly and the focus
employed during presentation was generally teacher-oriented instruction not a learner-oriented focus on form on L2
learner performance.
6. Pedagogical implications
The result of the study carries important implications for ESL syllabus designers, curriculum planners, language
teachers, developing appropriate materials and developers of tests.
The inability and inadequacy of communicative ESL teaching alone to promote high level of accuracy in learner is
now clear (William 1995), and task-based language instruction is particularly suitable for formal instruction. The
advantage of task performance in terms of providing opportunities for both target language production and
comprehension have been discussed by many researchers (Crooks, 1989).
Furthermore, such tasks release more traditionally oriented non-native speaker teacher from the requirement to
lead communicative activities in the TL. As second language teachers, we need to explore possibilities to innovate
language learning. We also need to be familiar with strategies and methodologies that can translate theory into
practice. Indeed, the literature on L2 pedagogy which has focussed either on theoretical discussions or on
communicative activities involving the negotiation of meaning, with few suggestions about integrative activities,
lacks an adequate discussion of such practical strategies. In view of this practical need in L2 pedagogy, and based on
current ideas, about the nature of second language learning a focus on form approach is advocated which proposes
the integration of focus on form with meaningful communicative activities in the classroom. The next advantage and
importance of the study is attributed to the fact that it lends additional support to the importance attributed to the
incorporation of focus on form into meaning-oriented instruction, especially in Iran (Doughty and Williams: 1998).
New perspectives advocated a principled, form-focused approach to L2 learning, arguing that a totally messagebased approach is inadequate for the development of an accurate knowledge of language (Salimi 2004, 2006).
It has also some implications for syllabus designers. Task and curriculum designers should investigate the possible
ways to design appropriate tasks, demonstrate the feasibility of creating activities that link form with communication
in classroom. This suggestions offer ELT teachers not only a chance to explore focus on form strategies in
communicative context, but also an impetus to think of other ways to facilitate an integration of attention to form
and communication in practice, and hence provide opportunities for both communicative fluency and grammatical
accuracy.
In sum, totally implicit approach depends on the availability of subsequent communicative input containing the
form and such opportunities are lacking in EFL situation. However, if instruction approaches are modified to permit
formal instruction before communicative activity and feedback afterwards, they offer considerable promises.

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