Focus-on-Form: Thematizing Linguistic Structures in Reading


Focus-on-Form: Thematizing Linguistic Structures in Reading

Mira Werner, Adrian Boheim, Dr. Hanna Sauerborn

Freiburg University of Education,

Freiburg 2018 

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MLM_Thematizing Linguistic Structures in Reading

What is it about?

Texts contain their own linguistic structure

You know that fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time…”, that there is an obstacle to overcome within the story, that the hero of the story overcomes said obstacle and that the story ends with the sentence “and they lived happily ever after”.Nobody would come up with the idea of writing a protocol in the structure of a fairy tale. Likewise, a factual text has a different structure, which in turn is pointed towards the content. A chronological sequence of a historical event is described differently in a factual text than the characteristics of a certain dog breed. All the mentioned texts therefore contain their own structure. If a reader recognizes this structure (even if only implicitly), this helps to understand the text.

Explicit thematization of linguistic structures in the classroom

The didactic discourse of recent years has shown that learners can be supported by an explicit thematization of linguistic structures in (subject) instruction (Rotter 2015). The students are thus provided with a framework which can help them to structure, develop and process knowledge. DaZ learners in particular, but also all other students, can benefit from this (Rotter 2015).

Focus-on-Form (Rotter 2015)

This finding was applied, for example, in the "Focus-on-Form" instruction variant (Rotter 2015). Although the main focus of this variant is on communication and gaining content-related skills, structural and formal aspects should also be addressed (Rotter 2015). Structural knowledge is always conveyed through a contextual and content-related connection (Rotter 2015). This has strong parallels to Gibbons (2009 and 2015), which emphasises how sustainable the link between language and subject learning is.

Thematizing the structure of a text

When a factual text is written, for example, not only the information contained in it is discussed in class. In addition, the structure of the factual text is also discussed. How is the information presented? Is it a piece of information that is presented in a successive manner or is it a comparison? Similarly, general information can be given in a text, which becomes more and more specific. The elaboration and explicit thematization of this structure can help the children to classify the given information correctly and to process it more deeply on a cognitive level. They can also understand the function of this text structure. A text in which general information is first given provides the reader with an overview. This overview helps to classify the subsequent information correctly. The internalisation of this aspect can help students not only to read but also to write their own factual text.

One representative of the Focus-on-Form approach, for example, is Pauline Gibbons, who transferred scaffolding to specialist teaching with second language learners (Gibbons 2009) (Read more about scaffolding:

Reading Strategies - Focus-on-Form transferred to reading

To extract information from texts is not an innate ability

In the following, the Focus-on-Form approach will be transferred to one of the most central cultural techniques: reading. Reading and text comprehension make it possible to extract information from texts, place it in its local and global context and evaluate it. However, reading is neither innate nor sufficiently pronounced in all children and adolescents. Especially in times of increasing globalisation and migration, schools face the task of teaching children with diverse cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds who have experienced and learned different language and writing systems. With regard to reading this diversity of linguistic, cultural and social backgrounds, and thus different learning conditions, should also be addressed to a greater extent in the classroom.

The thematization of structuring acts as an aid to text comprehension

In order to achieve this, advocates of the Focus-on-Form approach have stated that it can be helpful to address structuring features of texts (Gibbons 2009). The aim is to enable students to successively and independently grasp the content and formal structure of a text in order to then use this knowledge for text comprehension and text production.



Reading strategies that help to understand the content and structure of a text

To this end, it makes sense to provide students with various reading strategies that are geared to the reading process (Beese et al. 2017). Table 1 below therefore lists various reading strategies that can help students to understand the content and structure of a text before, during and after reading. On the one hand, these reading strategies help students to learn to solve comprehension difficulties independently (Garbe et al. 2010). On the other hand, they also help with the extraction and processing of relevant information (Garbe et al. 2010).


Before reading Possible reading strategies
Grasp the topic Use of headings, bold terms and images from the text
Activate previous knowledge Pictures on the subject or headlines as a reason for conversation Steering towards difficult passages in the text and linguistic phenomena
Specify type of reading Decision whether searching, orienting, global or detailed reading is necessary
Recognize the text type Discussion of the structure of the text
Determine reading intentions and expectations Discussion of the pragmatic function of the text and its use in teaching

Defining your own expectations of the text

During reading
Ensure understanding Mark, underline or write out keywords

reading log

Reading together in reading tandems

Reading stops with interim updates

The teacher reads aloud, the SuS read quietly on their own

First a quick browsing through the text for a global impression, then detailed reading.

Structure text The teacher provides questions which the learners can orient themselves towards

The SuS find subheadings for each paragraph

Take a break at significant points when reading together and ask questions about the section you have read.

Clarify points that are unclear
  1. SuS ask themselves: Is this information necessary to understand the text?
  2. If yes: look up in the lexicon, research, analogy, monitoring, development of the meaning from the context or the function of the word in the sentence. (noun, verb, adjective)

After reading

Summarize important text pieces Summarize individual sections

Oral retelling

Presentation of what has been read on posters

Summarize the text in one sentence

Evaluate what you have read


Finding links to other teaching content

Critical reflection of what has been read

Change presentation Write a fictional story of factual texts

Role play, theatre, still picture

Presentation as image/scheme/table/diagram/time stream

Table 1: Possible reading strategies before, during and after reading
(similar to Werner 2017)(oriented towards Beese et al. 2017; Gibbons 2009; Wildemann und Fornol 2017; Garbe et al. 2010)


Practising and applying reading strategies to different texts

However, care should be taken to ensure that the reading strategies are applied to different contents or texts so that the use of the strategies can lead to a sustainable learning progress (Garbe et al. 2010). Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that although learners should build up a broad repertoire of reading strategies, they should not be overtaxed at the same time, but rather encouraged in their individual zone of proximal development (Rosebrock and Nix 2015). In order to follow this rule, the texts to be read should therefore be adapted to the students’ competence (Gibbons 2009). This does not mean, however, that the texts should be very easy to read - they may well present a challenge, but one that can be mastered.

Reading strategy “change of presentation”

A special focus here is to be placed on the reading and learning strategy of the change of presentation, which is listed at the end of Table 1. Susan Dymock suggests that the structure of texts be visualized by a corresponding presentation (Dymock 2005).

Visualization of the text structure as a metacognitive framework 

To visualize descriptive texts, for example, mind maps (for hierarchical processing of information), lists (for non-hierarchical processing), or a table can be used (Dymock 2005). For the presentation of processes, on the other hand, a visualization with the help of arrows is useful (Dymock 2005). This visualization of the text structure represents a metacognitive framework for processing the text structure and content and is therefore closely related to the scaffolding principle. The change of display from text to illustration can help to explicitly thematize the text structure and also the text type. This structural knowledge makes it easier for students to understand the text. They are offered a framework on which they can work out the text contents. In this way they can better deal with the text and process and absorb the contents.


Appearance of the Husky
striking blue eyes
black-white, medium-long fur


Figure 1: List for non-hierarchical visualization

using the text "The Husky" as an example (see:


Senses of a dog

  Comparison to humans Usefulness
Sense of hearing -can perceive higher tones

-can locate noises better

Perception of prey and enemies
Visual sense -sees colours, but no red tones

-sees less sharply

Detection of prey
Sense of smell - many times, better than humans
Sense of taste - less than in humans
Sense of touch -present

- can only perceive heat with the nose

Orientation aid


Figure 3: Table using the text "The dog" as an example


Learning beyond the text content

In addition to providing current support in developing text content, making learners aware of the text structure also helps them understand the text in the future. As the reading competence model by Rosebrock und Nix (2015) shows, the recognition of so-called superstructures is part of reading competence. By discussing types of text and their text patterns and also cognitively processing them - as they make a change in presentation - learners build knowledge about how certain types of text work. This can - as already mentioned - also be helpful when writing texts. 


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