‘Narrow focus’, as I call it, is a technique I came up with whilst teaching a group of relatively weak and demotivated (mostly male) Year 10 IGCSE students of French as a foreign language. The first written piece they handed in to me being rife with grammar errors, and our examination board (CIE) awarding grades mainly based on structural accuracy, I was obviously quite worried and had to get ‘creative’.
As I have written in previous blogs, at this level of proficiency, learner writers find it hard to juggle all the demands that the writing process poses on their Working Memory. Errors mostly occur due to processing inefficiency, the inability, that is, to monitor the accuracy of one’s output, due to divided attention (e.g.from idea generation, organization and translation process). As I wrote in my previous blog, ‘Mapping out the L2 writing process’, less proficient L2 learner writers, when suffering from cognitive overload, tend to focus on meaning and neglect function words (e.g. conjunctions, prepositions and articles) and any other words that are not semantically salient (e.g. copulas and auxiliaries). This was definitely the case with this group of students, who made frequent errors with verb endings, omissions of auxiliaries (e.g. ‘je allé’, il mangé), omission of copulas (e.g. ‘il grand’), adjectival agreement, missing plural endings, wrong prepositions, word order, etc. Too many mistakes for them to deal with simultaneously.
Normally, with more linguistically mature students I would meet up and, in the context of one-to-one conferences I would talk them through their main errors and draft a personalised check-list containing six to eight mistakes to look out for in editing their next essays. But with this group of students it would have been asking too much. They had neither the maturity nor the motivation to cope with this approach.
I decided then, on setting the second written assignment of the year, to challenge them to get three and three only specific grammar structures right. I told them that I would not bother with the rest; that in my marking of the language level of the essay I would award points based solely on how accurate those three structures were deployed. Based on the nature of the essay which was about an outing they had gone on in the past and the places they had visited, I asked them to focus on the perfect tense, the imperfect and adjectival agreement.
In order to scaffold the process, the students were asked to code each instance of the three structures with different colours; they were also given a checklist – to be used in the editing phase – with reminders of the grammar rules governing those structures, which read something like this:
Perfect tense – you need two words, one is the verb AVOIR or ETRE and the other one is the PAST PARTICIPLE of the verb; it indicates a completed action like ‘I fell’, ‘I left’, ‘the phone rang’
Imperfect – description; continuous or repetitive action; telling the time; it indicates something “one used to do’.
Adjectival agreement – feminine ending if noun is feminine; add ‘– s’for plural.
It should be pointed out that during the first cycle I focused the students on the above three structures over a period of four weeks, recycling them later on in the year when I felt necessary. Each subsequent ‘narrow focus’ cycle lasted about three to four weeks.
The rationale behind this approach was to move those three structures from their subsidiary awareness – where they had been until then – into their focal awareness. Interestingly, as my narrow focus experiment went on, not only did the level of accuracy in the three target structures addressed in each cycle increase, but the accuracy of the other structures deployed in their essays gradually improved substantially, too.
In the interviews I carried out with them, the students reported that the process triggered greater focus on formal accuracy in general and that the fact that they were evaluated only on the content and on the execution of those three structures generated less anxiety. Half of the students reported that, although at each different narrow-focus cycle they did mainly focus on the three new target structures, the structures they had focused in the previous cycle were always somehow ‘at the back of their mind’ – as one student said. In other words for some of them the ‘narrow focus’ became gradually 3 new structures + 3 old ones and maybe at a later stage 3 new structures + six old ones, etc.
In the actual exam paper, they all did brilliantly considering their starting point, and although linguistic maturation may have played a major role in it, I am confident that the ‘narrow focus’ approach played a significant part, too. I invite any colleagues to try this strategy out, if not with a whole class, with less confident pre-intermediate to intermediate students who may need to be focused on accuracy and may be lacking self-efficacy as L2 writers. In my view, this is a less threatening and more effective approach than other traditional remedial methods.