Techniques for form focus after reading

In my earlier articles Reading for informationForm focus and recycling, and Techniques for Priming and recycling, I set out a four stage cycle for teaching reading.

Dave Willis


  1. Priming
  2. Reading
  3. Form focus
  4. Recycling

We have looked at techniques for priming and for recycling the language in the text. In this article I'm going to suggest some more techniques for form focus and then summarise very briefly the reasons for the approach I have suggested.

Fill the gaps

In my second article I suggested you could take a few sentences from the text ''Are Sharks Dangerous to Humans?' focusing on quantifiers. I showed how you could gap these sentences and ask learners to fill the gaps. Instead of taking individual sentences you could take one or two paragraphs and gap them. This is a useful technique if, for example, you want to draw learners' attention to the way we combine sentences to make a text. Instead of taking individual sentences we could have gapped the last two sentences of the second paragraph together with the whole of the third paragraph:

*** great white is certainly a fearsome creature. ** *** reach 6 metres in length and up to 2000 kilograms in weight. ** has ** **** ** 3000 needle sharp teeth arranged in five rows, so it can sever a man's leg in a single bite.

*** *** *** sharks are **** the great white. *** pigmy shark, *** *******, is **** about 20 centimetres in length. ***** *** ****** 400 species of shark and **** than half of these are under a metre in length. *** biggest sharks ** *** are *** at all dangerous to humans. *** basking shark and *** whale shark grow to around 12 metres, *** they are quite harmless, feeding on plankton and small fish.

First ask learners to read these sentences in the text very carefully and then turn the text over so they can't see it. Then give them the gapped version and ask them to work in groups to see if they can fill the gaps. Show the gapped version on the board or on OHP and work with the class as a whole to see if they can complete the text. Finally read out the full version for them to check.

The opening and closing sentences in each paragraph are very important in creating a text that hangs together properly. Try giving learners a version of the text from which these sentences have been removed. See if they can work in groups to reconstruct the text, then read out the full version of the text to help them. Finally ask them to check their reconstruction against the full text. If one of these sentences is very long, like the final sentence of the shark text, you can cut only a part of it.

Running dictation and communal memory

Some of the techniques described for recycling, such as, running dictation and the communal memory task can be used for form focus. These work well as form focus because they require recall of the exact wording of the text.

Vanishing word

There is an exercise which I called progressive deletion and which Scott Thornbury calls vanishing words. For this activity you take a sentence which has some phrases and grammar in it which you think will be useful for your students. The sentence:

Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth there were sharks swimming in the sea.

would be a good one. The word even is a very important connector. It has the very useful phrase there were and this is followed by the -ing form swimming. This is a very frequent pattern as in: There was someone watching us or There were a few people waiting for the bus.

Write the full sentence on the board and ask one or two students to read it out. Then rub out a few words, replacing them with blanks to represent the letters:

- - - - before dinosaurs roamed - - - earth there - - - - sharks swimming in the - - - .

Ask one or two students to read out the full sentence, remembering what goes in the gaps. Then remove some more words and repeat the process:

- - - - - - - - - - dinosaurs roamed - - - earth - - - - - - - - - sharks swimming - - - - - - - - .

Finally see if learners can remember the full sentence:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The importance of pair/group work

All the activities I have set out in these four articles would work with the teacher leading the class and the learners working as individuals. But almost all of the activities would be better done in pairs or groups. In priming activities group or pair work will make sure that the language to be used in the text is covered in group discussions. In recycling activities learners will prompt each other and help one another to remember things. All of this involves language use. Different learners will offer different possibilities. This obliges all of them to think things through carefully. The same applies to form focus activities. And working in pairs or groups gives learners so many opportunities to use language.

There may be difficulties organising group work in your classes. Perhaps the desks are immovable. Perhaps learners are not used to this kind of work. But the benefits are such that it is certainly worth it. If you can't move learners into groups of 3 or 4 they can simply work with the person next to them. They can get lots of good practice by working in pairs.

Reasons why learning from texts is more effective

Throughout these articles I have stressed the importance of text. I have argued that it is important for learners to remember texts and to study the language of those texts in detail and try to recall it. Much of the grammar work suggested in course materials is based on isolated sentences. But language in use is not a series of isolated sentences; it is composed of texts. Sentences are shaped by the way they occur in text, so grammar should focus on sentences in texts or should enable learners to relate sentences to their original texts.

One final word. In these four articles I have been talking about written text. But all the techniques described here would work just as well with spoken texts so long as you have the transcript of the recording. You can use the four stage methodology to treat things like lectures and radio programmes - in fact anything you do under the label ‘listening comprehension'.

The approach recommended here is a task-based approach. Click here for more on task-based learning and teaching.

For more ideas on form focus activities see:

Scott Thornbury (2001) How to Teach Grammar. Longman.
Dave Willis (2003) Rules, Patterns and Words. CUP
Dave Willis and Jane Willis (2007) Doing Task-based Teaching. OUP (See Chapter 6)

Sample Text used in this article

Are sharks dangerous to humans?
Sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Even before dinosaurs roamed the earth there were sharks swimming in the sea. They live in oceans and seas all over the world. Some sharks live near the surface, some live deep in the water, and others on or near the ocean floor. They are even found in fresh water, sometimes swimming many miles up rivers like the Mississippi in the USA and the Amazon in Brazil.

We tend to think of sharks as big dangerous creatures. We sometimes read about shark attacks in the newspapers, and in 1975 the film Jaws terrified a whole generation of moviegoers with the story of a great white shark which attacked holidaymakers in a small seaside town in the USA. The great white is certainly a fearsome creature. It can reach 6 metres in length and up to 2000 kilograms in weight. It has as many as 3000 needle sharp teeth arranged in five rows, so it can sever a man's leg in a single bite.

But not all sharks are like the great white. The pigmy shark, for example, is only about 20 centimetres in length. There are almost 400 species of shark and more than half of these are under a metre in length. The biggest sharks of all are not at all dangerous to humans. The basking shark and the whale shark grow to around 12 metres, but they are quite harmless, feeding on plankton and small fish.

Only about 25 species are dangerous to people. Of these the bull shark is the one that is most likely to attack people. It swims in very shallow waters where people swim and is much more numerous than the great white, which is very rare. Less than one hundred people are attacked by sharks each year. Indeed you are far more likely to be killed by a dog or by bees than by a shark, and some scientists believe that sharks only attack people because they mistake them for seals and sea lions, the shark's favourite food.





Submitted by talitha on Sat, 05/16/2009 - 12:00


I find your article very interesting because, for the first time, I've discovered real help in the teaching process. Your activities don't talk in general terms but they are real examples of real activities.

For instance, in the "Fill the gaps" activity I've realized that teachers use to take some isolated sentences of the text and ask pupils to fill. And it's true that maybe we should have showed them first the chunk of text we are going to ask them to fill, with the aim of helping them to be prepared to delimit the search.

And I've found interesting too the "Vanishing words" activity. Here we warn pupils about the piece of text we are going to use, so they are ready to work with it. And also I like the idea of taking more and more words off progressively until they can remember the hole paragraph, and that the activity is not done in an individual way.

Thank you!

Submitted by Laura 1984 on Sat, 05/23/2009 - 16:32


I think your article is very interesting as well. It is better if we focus the attention of the child in a few paragraphs for filling in the gaps. I agree with the importance of work in pairs or group work because they can help each other and they can use and practice the language. This way of work provide children to understand better and faster.

On the other hand "Vanishing word" I think is a good way to have the knowledge and memory active. So, this provide to the children better results. This produces a structure in their minds if they have to remember step by step.

In my opinion these activities could be useful for the students.

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