A Communicative Focus on Form? The Genitive of Negation

Lynne deBenedette, Brown University

Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing to the present both SLA research and language pedagogy have examined what has come to be called Focus on Form. It is now an issue crystallized around a term--"Focus on Form" (FonF) as opposed to "focus on formS"--(Long 1991), and involves agreement that said focus on form takes place in a classroom environment where communication of meaning (rather than, for example, discussion about the language) is paramount (Long, 1991, Doughty & Williams, 1998). As a capitalized glossary entry Focus on Form may be a relative newcomer to the professional jargon, but threads of the current discussion are decades old, as all approaches de-emphasizing pedagogical attention to language structure or refocusing its role in the learning process have taken up what has essentially been the issue of FonF, particularly since the articulation of the Natural Approach early 1980s. Furthermore, although considerable evidence has been amassed indicating that certain kinds of FonF in a communicative language curriculum seem to further or speed acquisition (Ellis, 1990, Lightbown & Spada, 1990, Long, 1998, Doughty, 1998.), the precise nature of FonF required for this to occur is much discussed and somewhat in dispute. This includes issues such as the virtue of more implicit versus more explicit types of instruction, the appropriateness of different forms for FonF (easy-rule, hard-rule), and developmental and curricular timing when FonF is best given (Lightbown, 1998). Possible answers to these many questions involve consideration of the kind of input provided, including ways to enhance it to attract or direct student attention to language structure (Sharwood Smith, 1993, VanPatten 1996, Doughty 1998), as well as the role of output (Swain, 1985, 1998) and teacher talk and feedback (i.e., positive vs. negative evidence).

For Russian the nature of debate over the place of grammar instruction in a communicative classroom is conditioned somewhat by its history of methodology and materials development. Instructors of any morphologically complex Group III language like Russian can benefit from considering the issue of FonF, bearing in mind that to some extent we come at the question from the "opposite direction" of those who see in FonF a way of mitigating or solving problems with purely meaning-focused approaches like NA; over the last 15 years our movement has been from a more synthetic (structural) syllabus toward Communicative Language Teaching, and our discussions have as a result tended to involve something more on the order of a "communicative way of teaching grammar." It is difficult, in fact, to imagine a world of Russian-language teaching in which there is no explicit instruction on form, or even none of what some think of as "communicative drills" or other activities in which attention to form is expected in some more implicit way.

This paper will examine some possible classroom contexts for student interaction with a focus on form in 1st year Russian, in which the chosen form is the genitive of absence (with net). It will present and analyze several possible scenarios in which 1st year students might encounter input featuring the form and be encouraged to attend to it without explicit grammar instruction. Included will be different kinds of input enhancement, plus an account of what output expectations would be under each condition, with the overall goal of demonstrating some of the pedagogical implications for Russian language teaching of research of the past decade on Focus on Form.