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Integrating corrective feedback into communicative language teaching. (Language Teaching & Learning).


The history of second language teaching has witnessed changing perceptions of corrective feedback. Under the extreme view of communicative language teaching, which appears to be prevailing in some communicatively-oriented classrooms, learning can only come about through learner-learner interactive output practice. Form-focused instruction is deemed detrimental and corrective feedback is consequently accorded low status in classroom processes. In this paper, I examine the `equation' drawn between communicative language teaching and the exclusion of form-focused instruction and error correction. Through a review and discussion of two recent studies, I will show that it is both necessary and possible to integrate corrective feedback into communicative language teaching.


The history of second language teaching has witnessed changing perceptions of corrective feedback (Celce-Murcia, 1991). As a matter of fact, views on the role of corrective feedback can be highly diverse, even polarized. The Audiolingual Approach, for example, advocates minimal or no tolerance of learner errors and suggests that every effort be made to prevent them. On the other hand, the Natural Approach considers error correction unnecessary and counterproductive. The latter view is also shared notably by the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach that has come to dominate L2 classrooms since the early 1970s.

CLT stemmed from an effort to shift away from an exclusive focus on forms manifest in the previous structure-oriented approaches towards a focus on meaning and use. Its primary concern is development of fluency. Over the years, in their pursuit of CLT, second language teachers in general have not only transformed their way of teaching but more profoundly, altered their conceptualization of teaching/learning. Springing out of the movement is also an extreme conception that learning can only come about through learner-learner interactive output practice and that teachers' responsibility lies in providing interesting activities which will get students involved in using the target language. Form-focused instruction is deemed detrimental. Corrective feedback consequently is accorded low status in classroom processes (cf. Horner, 1988).

The implicit `equation' that is drawn between communicative language teaching and the exclusion of form-focused instruction and error correction can be, and has been, challenged. Researchers (e.g. Lightbown, 1991; Harley, 1993; Lightbown & Spada, 1990) note that as a result of an exclusive concern with meaning-based activities, teaching makes available to L2 learners input that lacks in quality. The extensive student-student interaction generates a lot of output, which then turns into input for the students themselves. This kind of input is not a sample of the authentic target language, but typically of other learners' interlanguage. The errors and inaccuracies students hear are likely to reinforce their own misanalysis of the target language, thus creating a vicious circle.

Second language acquisition research over the past three decades has equipped us with the understanding that in learning an L2, learners develop, through intake, a language system called interlanguage based on their experience with input, and this system enables them to produce linguistic output. See Fig. 1, issue's website <>. Input here refers to primary linguistic data, i.e., natural language data. In second language classes that solely feature meaning-based learner-learner interaction, the role of learner output supersedes the role of natural authentic input and pedagogical input (typically comprising of form-focused instruction and error correction). This heavy reliance on learner-generated output as classroom input appears to violate conditions that favor L2 acquisition and may deprive learners of the opportunity to develop their language system in the direction of the target.

The need to redress the imbalance is pressing and should be met, in my view, by making two important `additions' to the teaching format referred to above. First, more natural authentic data should be introduced to the classroom to improve L2 learners' exposure to the target language. Second, provision of pedagogical input including form-focused instruction and error correction should be integrated into classroom processes to facilitate L2 learners' knowledge construction and enhance knowledge use. The focus of this paper is on incorporating corrective feedback into communicative language teaching.

Integrating corrective feedback into communicative language teaching

Recent classroom SLA research (e.g., Spada, 1987; Lightbown & Spada, 1990; Lightbown, 1991; Kowal & Swain, 1997; Leeman, et al., 1995; Doughty & Varela, 1998; Long, Inagaki & Ortega, 1998) has suggested that it is not only possible to integrate a focus on form with a focus on meaning but that "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-focus activities and correction in context" (Lightbown & Spada, 1990:443; see also Long, 1991).

It is important to note that the `focus on form' in the communicative teaching context is to be distinguished from the metalinguistic focus manifested in the traditional structural approach to teaching. To characterize the difference, Long (1991) posits a distinction between focus on form and focus on forms, according to which the traditional structural approach has a focus on forms, whereas CLT, with its overriding concern with meaning, may have a focus on form, which is incidental in nature. Two questions arise: 1) Why is such a focus on form necessary in CLT? 2) How is it to be realized?

In CLT, communicative activities alone have been found to be insufficient for second language acquisition (e.g. Harley, 1993; Swain & Lapkin, 1989; Leeman, et al. 1995). L2 learners trained in the meaning-only environment are reported to suffer a low level of accuracy. This environment generally has two noticeable inadequacies: deficient input and abundant learner output. In many a CLT situation, as mentioned earlier, the pedagogical mission is typically reduced to setting up student-student interactive activities which engage students mostly in generating output. While learners under such learning conditions do not get adequate exposure to natural authentic input, they are forced to concentrate on producing output using a linguistic system that is underdeveloped, with little external assistance from the instructor. It is beyond the scope of this paper to consider the consequences of lack of natural authentic input for learning, but it falls within its concern to go into some of the theoretical ramifications that an emphasis on learner-generated output has.

A natural focal point of any current theoretical discussion of learner output is Merrill Swain's Output Hypothesis (Swain, 1993; Swain, 1995). Swain proposes four functions of output in SLA. The first is that output in the sense of `practicing' enhances fluency. The second is that output promotes `noticing'. Swain (1995) argues that:
 In producing the target language (vocally or subvocally), learners may
 notice a gap between what they want to say and what they can say, leading
 them to recognize what they do not know, or know only partially .... This
 may trigger cognitive processes which might generate linguistic knowledge
 that is new for learners, or which consolidate their existing knowledge.
 (p. 126; emphasis original)

The third function that Swain suggested is that output itself is a process of hypothesis testing. The fourth is that metalinguistically it may provide a point of learner reflection that potentially leads learners "to control and internalize linguistic knowledge" (ibid.).

It is clear that Swain, while recognizing that output as a process of practice contributes to the development of fluency in SLA, associates its value also with the development of accuracy (see functions 2, 3 & 4). Output is mostly deemed a potential means to raise metalinguistic consciousness. What is more important to note in the latter connection is the implication that output does not necessarily, in and of itself, improve accuracy. Considering her remarks such as "under some circumstances, the activity of producing the target language may prompt second language learners to consciously recognize some of their linguistic problems; it may bring to their attention something they need to discover about their L2" and "sometimes this output invokes feedback which can lead learners to modify or `reprocess' their output" (Swain, 1995:126; emphasis added). In a nutshell, the role of output in promoting L2 knowledge development is not unconditional.

Swain has argued that output as a process forces learners to analyze language, over which learners are in control. Of interest to the present discussion, however, is the question of how much control a learner has over the process. It is true that in outputting, a learner would have to create meaning and linguistic form, but is it equally true that he is simultaneously metalinguistically aware of what he is producing? Research (e.g. VanPatten, 1990) reveals that L2 learners, in particular early-stage learners, find it difficult to attend to form while attending to meaning. Though findings like this come mainly from research on input processing, one would naturally assume that they hold true of output processing, where the cognitive load is even greater. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that when the focal attention is on meaning, voluntary attention to form is highly limited.

Of the three accuracy-promoting functions, the `noticing/triggering' function, for Swain, is inherent in the output process itself. My contention is, however, that while focusing on meaning, there is a limit to how much an L2 learner can introspect the sufficiency of his own linguistic resources. Also, even if the learner consciously recognizes at that point what he lacks, there is no guarantee, for various reasons, that he will subsequently be able to tune himself in for a solution in the future input, or even if he will, he may not be able to tell whether what he sees as a potential solution is actually the correct solution. Instead, external feedback, I shall argue, may significantly facilitate the fulfillment of the `noticing' function (see also Han, 1994; 1999; 2001).

It would seem necessary then that the Output Hypothesis be predicated on the condition that some form of pedagogical intervention is in place. In a communicatively-oriented classroom that heavily utilizes learner output as a source of input, it seems desirable to employ a pedagogical technique, which can be called `output enhancement', parallel to the `input enhancement' technique advocated by Sharwood Smith (1993) for instructed SLA. Output enhancement requires that form-focused instruction and corrective feedback be integrated with meaning-based activities such, to invoke Swain's words, to "stimulate learners to move from the semantic, open-ended, non-deterministic, strategic processing equivalent in comprehension to the complete grammatical processing needed for accurate production" (Swain, 1995:128).

In the last decade, empirical evidence began to accrue from SLA studies of communicatively-oriented classrooms that shows benefits from combining focus on meaning with focus on form. In the remaining part of this paper, we briefly examine two studies from an output enhancement point of view.

The Kowal & Swain study

Kowal and Swain (1997) experimented, in a French immersion classroom, with two tasks that were intended to assist learners in moving from semantic processing to syntactic processing. The study had the underlying belief that in meaning-based context, through externalizing metalinguistic knowledge followed up by negotiation of form among members of a group, L2 learners may develop their syntactic processing skills. The tasks the researchers attempted were dictogloss (Wajnryb, 1990), and a cloze task. It is worth noting that both targeted linguistic features that students had shown through their output that they had trouble with. The activities were set up such that students worked in groups, engaging in negotiation of form and in associating form with function. Analyses of the transcripts of the audio recordings, made while the group work was in progress, showed that the activities on the whole did promote students' syntactic processing. Working in groups forced students to pool their linguistic resources, and in their effort to co-obtain the best answer, they had to convince each other by articulating a justification for their choice of form. Kowal and Swain argued that this process characterized by peer feedback helped to refine and develop students' linguistic knowledge. Importantly, it was also admitted that both tasks would be incomplete if they were not complimented by teacher feedback, because, as the researchers noted, the students were "not always successful in their final choice" (Kowal & Swain, 1997:305; emphasis added). Output enhancement in this study is therefore realized through peer feedback and, importantly, teacher feedback.

The Doughty & Varela study

Doughty and Varela (1998) experimented with corrective recast (i.e., repetition and recast) in an ESL content-based classroom. Through a pretest-posttest-delayed posttest control group design, they were able to establish correlations between corrective recasts and the students' subsequent interlanguage development. The informants for the study were thirty-four intermediate ESL middle school students from two different science classes, with twenty-one of them forming the experimental group and thirteen the control group. The researchers targeted past tense reference in the informants' oral and written versions of science reports, which typically summarized the scientific problem, experimental procedures, hypothesis, results and conclusion. Focus on form is realized through corrective recasts provided to the experimental group, in addition to science content instruction, during three pedagogical lab sessions in four weeks between the pretest and posttest, while the control group received the science content instruction only. An example of the teacher's use of corrective recast is given below:

Corrective recast:

Jose: I think that the worm will go under the soil.

Teacher: I think that the worm will go under the soil?

Jose: (no response)

Teacher: I thought that the worm would go under the soil.

Jose: I thought that the worm would go under the soil.

(cited in Doughty & Varela, 1998:124)

Data collected included transcribed oral and written lab reports. A careful analysis of the data from the pretest and the immediate posttest shows that the experimental group manifested "significant and large gains" in terms of their past time use on both oral and written measures (p. 129). Moreover, a comparison of the results from the immediate posttest and the delayed-posttest administered two months later indicates that the experimental group were able to retain the linguistic gains exhibited on the first posttest.

During the study, Doughty and Varela made a number of important observations:

1. Focus on form should be brief and immediate and should be provided when more than one student is involved in speaking;

2. some students are not comfortable with receiving more than one or two instances of correction within one exchange;

3. teachers should be aware of their students' desire for comments on the meaning of the message as well as on the correctness of the language; and

4. it is possible to incorporate a focus on form with no risk to the content curriculum as long as the tasks are carefully created and incorporated into authentic content lessons already in place. (pp. 136-137)

Taken together, these insights shed light on several critical issues pertaining to output enhancement in a meaning-based context, such as feasibility, procedure, and timing of focus on form.


In a context where there is a heavy use of learner-learner interactive activities, it is necessary to enhance learner output with teacher corrective feedback. The studies discussed above show that it is possible as well as beneficial to combine focus on form with focus on meaning. While SLA researchers continue to search for strategies and techniques for achieving a maximum efficacy of such a combination, L2 teachers who are operating in meaning-based classrooms should actively embark on a trial-error approach, namely, "to take risks in their classrooms and to refine their pedagogy based on the outcome of these risks" (Kowal & Swain, 1997:286).


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[I] This is a teaching technique whereby the teacher dictates a short yet dense text to the students, who, after jotting down words and phrases, work in groups to reconstruct the text.

ZhaoHong Han, Teachers College, Columbia University

ZhaoHong Han is an assistant professor of linguistics and education. Her research interests are in the areas of L2 learnability and fossilization. Her papers have appeared in Language Teaching Research, Applied Linguistics and ITL Review of Applied Linguistics.
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Author:Han, ZhaoHong
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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