Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 319-329
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access 319
Approaching the Direct Object Pronouns: How Much
Grammatical Form Is Necessary in Instruction?*
Melanie L. D’Amico
Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, USA
Received July 24th, 2013; revised Au gust 25th, 2013; accepted September 5th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Melanie L. D’Amico. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The main goal of this investigation was to determine if there is a more effective approach among focus on
forms, focus on meaning, or focus on form for teaching the direct object pronouns to beginning students
of Spanish. It will be beneficial to discover which of these three widely-used approaches can best help
students to acquire correct pronoun use, and may aid instructors of Spanish in the teaching of these pro-
nouns. In order to compare these approaches, three sections of a beginning Spanish course received in-
struction in one of the three approaches. The participants of this study were 51 beginning level students
who had had 3 years of Spanish instruction at the high school level and were native speakers of English.
The study follows a pretest/posttest design. Results find positive results for form-focused instruction over
purely meaning-focused instruction for teaching the Spanish direct object pronouns with regards to sen-
tence completion tasks. A main implication of this study is that focus on meaning instruction is not suffi-
cient to help beginning learners improve their production of Spanish direct object pronouns. While results
show a more positive impact for focus on form instruction over the more traditional focus on forms ap-
proach, additional research comparing these two methods is suggested. It is also important to note that
beginning level learners show overall low levels of accuracy with direct object pronouns in Spanish.
Keywords: Second Language; Focus on Meaning; Focus on Form; Focus on Forms; Direct Object
Recent research on the effects of instruction in second lan-
guage acquisition (SLA) has included numerous studies on
attention to form in the language classroom. These studies have
demonstrated a need for second language (L2) learners to have
attention to form in order to develop more target-like L2
grammars. How to accomplish successful attention to form
within a classroom setting while providing the necessary
amount of attention and the right type of attention can be diffi-
cult to determine. Many formal language programs seek to
provide the most natural environment for learning a L2 and
accomplish this through meaning-focused instruction. A popu-
lar form of meaning-focused instruction is the communicative
approach, which believes in developing communicative com-
petence through meaning-based language use. The communica-
tive approach stems from the belief that language learners will
acquire their L2 grammar by using language as a tool to com-
plete communicative tasks as they would in a real-world setting.
The debate that arises with this type of instruction, centers on
learners’ ability to focus on form during meaningful interaction.
In order to accomplish this, learners need to simultaneously
focus on the meaning of the language and its linguistic form in
both the input they are receiving and in the output that they are
producing. Is it possible that learners can gain linguistic infor-
mation and incorporate it into their L2 grammar during this
interaction? Or do learners need more explicit direction to assist
them in attending to linguistic form while in the context of a
meaning-based task.
This study seeks to discover if L2 learners of Spanish will
benefit more from form-focused instruction or meaning-based
instruction when they encounter a new linguistic form. Addi-
tionally when considering the type of form-focused instruction,
this study hopes to determine if learners benefit more from a
focus on form within meaning-based tasks, or from a more
traditional focus on forms requiring more explicit practice of
the linguistic form. In order to carry out this comparison of
approaches, the specific linguistic forms used in this study are
the Spanish direct object clitic pronouns. The Spanish direct
object clitic pronouns have a strong connection between form
and meaning, making them a useful linguistic element to com-
pare in this study. Additionally, the direct object clitic pronouns
are known to be a problematic linguistic element for L2 learn-
ers to acquire. Therefore, if it can be determined that a more
effective teaching approach exists for teaching the direct object
clitic pronouns, it will be advantageous to both instructors and
Literature Review
Three Approaches to Language Instruction
Focus on Meaning (FoM)
As discussed by Long and Robinson (1998), in a meaning-
*Comparing Focus on Meaning, Focus on Form and Focus on Forms.
Open Access
based or communicative approach, learners acquire the L2 from
experience with comprehensible input and from using the L2 as
means of communication rather than viewing the L2 as an ob-
ject of study. Omaggio Hadley (2001) furthers this explanation
with three main principles for the communicative approach:
First, meaning is central and the contextualization of the gram-
matical elements is essential when presenting foreign language
grammar to learners. Second, language learning happens with
communication and negotiation of meaning, therefore learners
must communicate with the language from the beginning of
instruction. Third, the goal of this approach is communicative
competence focusing primarily on fluency and the ability to use
the language to express learners’ own ideas and thoughts.
Based on these explanations, a main emphasis of a communica-
tive approach is on providing a sufficient quantity of compre-
hensible input to allow learners to see what is possible in the L2.
In addition to this comprehensible input, a communicative ap-
proach offers the opportunity to practice speaking and writing
in the L2 as means of communication, not simply as pronuncia-
tion practice or grammar skill practice (Howatt, 1987).
Focus on Form (FoF)
A focus on form teaching approach, as outlined by Long and
Robinson (1998) “consists of an occasional shift of attention to
linguistic code features—by the teacher and/or one or more stu-
dents—triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or
production” (p. 23). In a focus on form approach, the instructor
can actively provide negative feedback during interaction (as a
participant or observer of the interaction) to help redirect stu-
dent attention to linguistic form. Long and Robinson suggest
use of focus on form during activities and through implicit
negative feedback. During an activity, learners work together to
solve a problem, where the focus is on meaning and resolving
the issue at hand. Although the learners are not asked to use a
specific form, the task encourages the use of a form and in-
creases the probability of the form being noticed and integrated
into speech and writing. As learners work, the instructor circu-
lates among them and interrupts in order to focus attention to
linguistic problems for the specific form being targeted. In
other words, if direct object pronouns are is the form being
targeted, the instructor will only address errors that occur with
direct object pronouns.
Another type of focus on form has been called “proactive” by
Doughty and Williams (1998) and is described as being more
feasible in a language classroom than the more reactive ap-
proach prescribed by Long (1991). With proactive lessons, not
only is there a higher opportunity for learners to use a particular
form, but in addition instructors can be more sensitive to possi-
ble learner errors of that form and can maintain their own focus
to correct only those errors which occur in the form at hand.
(Doughty & Williams, 1998) As stated by both Lightbown
(1998) and Doughty and Williams, these activities do not need
to be unnatural or contrived to use a specific form. It is still
possible to create real-world situational communicative active-
ties and maintain a focus on form. Lightbown upholds that
“teachers are not ‘traitors’ to the cause of communicative lan-
guage teaching if they plan activities in which they know that
learners will almost inevitably need to use specific linguistic
features” (p. 195).
Focus on Forms (FoFS)
Many language researchers consider attention to grammatical
form to be an important part of second language acquisition.
Schmidt (1990) states that grammar reformation principally
transpires when learners concentrate on and notice elements in
the input. In order to achieve this noticing of information in the
L2, learners must have some focus on grammatical form,
though, how much attention is paid to form can be a critical
decision in developing an instructional approach. One such
approach that puts major emphasis on linguistic form is the
more traditional, focus on forms approach. Long (1991) em-
phasizes the plural forms in this approach because rather than
focusing on meaning or focusing on form within meaning, a
course that uses focus on forms instruction focuses on the
grammatical forms themselves. Stemming from the more tradi-
tional methods of teaching foreign language, a focus on forms
approach employs the use of formal grammar explanation and
grammar production activities. Two main elements of this
grammar production include the frequent drilling of a gram-
matical sequence and the intensity with which the drilling or
practicing of the grammatical sequence is done. Sheen (2005),
an advocate for focus on forms approaches, suggests that this
approach does not need to be entirely a forms-in-isolation type
of grammar teaching, but instead can be a skills-learning ap-
proach. Sheen defines focus on forms as having three phases:
first, instruction presents knowledge of the L2 grammar in a
variety of ways including explanation in the L1 and distin-
guishing differences between the L1 and the L2; second, learn-
ers complete written and oral exercises using the forms in both
non-communicative and communicative activities, and third,
learners are provided with opportunities for communicative use
of the grammar to promote automatic and accurate use. His
definition, while encompassing more recent ideas of mean-
ing-focused communicative activities in some parts of the in-
struction, is still, on the whole, a traditional approach that sees
the L2 as an object of study and places the majority of focus on
the grammar itself.
Comparing Approaches
In order to better understand which of these approaches may
be most beneficial to L2 learners, researchers have carried out
investigations comparing the learning outcomes for a variety of
grammatical structures and languages. Most research projects
have compared FoM to FoF as a result of the perceived need for
additional attention to form in the classroom. Earlier studies,
such as Harley and Swain (1984) and Swain (1985), found that
in a purely communicative learning environment, learners de-
veloped strong communication skills and fluid speech but
lacked in grammatical understanding and accuracy. It was from
studies such as those that the need for attention to form in the
language classroom was highlighted by researchers and in-
structors alike. This need has been supported by research in that
results of studies comparing FoM to FoF have been positive for
FoF over FoM (Lightbown & Spada, 1990; Doughty & Varela,
1998; Han, 2002; Lyster, 2004; Spada, Lightbown, & White,
2005; Grim, 2008; Pishghadam, Khodadady, & Rad, 2011).
Overall, L2 learners receiving FoF instruction significantly
improved in the structure being acquired and significantly im-
proved more than the FoM learners. These results have been
shown for both proactive FoF and incidental FoF (although in
most studies the FoF has been proactive).
In further looking at the extent of form-focused instruction, a
few researchers have compared FoF with FoFS. The first of
Open Access 321
these studies conducted by Sheen (2005) found that learners
receiving FoFS significantly outperformed the FoF learners.
However, in his article, Sheen does not clearly explain the FoF
instructional treatment that the learners received, making it
difficult to determine if the FoF group from his study can be
compared to FoF groups in other studies. Further, the FoFS
group used practice activities that were very similar to the test-
ing procedures making it unclear if their significant improve-
ment was a result of rehearsal of the activity or if it is a true
indication of improved understanding and accuracy of the target
forms. Other more recent research, Saeidi, Zaferanieh &
Shatery (2012) and Rahimpour, Salimi & Farrokhi (2012)1 have
found positive results for FoF over FoFS in that the learners
from their studies showed both significant improvements in the
target structures and improved significantly more than the FoFS
groups. Of particular interest to the current study, Saeidi et al.
also compared FoM to FoF and FoFS and finds that while the
FoF group improved significantly more than both FoM and
FoFS, the FoM group also significantly outperformed the FoFS
learners. Such a finding indicates that meaning-based learning
can have a greater impact on the acquisition of a given structure
over a more abstract, traditional a pp r oa c h.
Spanish Direct Object Clitic Pronouns
As discussed in several studies (for example Spada, Light-
bown & White, 2005), a grammatical element that has a strong
link between form and meaning can be understood and acquired
by learners through a focus on form approach. An example of a
grammatical element in Spanish with this strong relationship is
the object pronouns or clitics. The object clitics in Spanish are
proclitic for verb phrases with a single verb, creating a structure
that appears to be (S)OV to learners of Spanish2. In verb
phrases with two (or more) verbs (such as a conjugated verb
and an infinitive) the clitic may be proclitic or enclitic. In the
enclitic case, although there is now the appearance of (S)VO
ordering, it still does not follow standard (S)VO in that the
clitic no longer stands alone as a single word. In addition to the
morphosyntactic properties of clitics, there are also strict
agreement rules that must be followed. The Spanish clitics must
inflect for gender, number, and in some instances, case, with
respect to the antecedent. For these reasons, clitics have a high
level of difficulty for second language learners not only at the
beginning levels but also at advanced levels. Due to the strong
link between form and meaning and the difficulty shown by
beginning learners, direct object pronouns were chosen as the
grammatical form to be used in this study. The researcher also
believed that if this study can infer that there is a more effective
approach for teaching direct object pronouns that would be
beneficial in helping learners to overcome these problems.
A large amount of acquisition research of the clitics has dealt
with learners’ difficulty in understanding the overall meaning
of sentences that contain clitics due to the word order. To ex-
plain this difficulty, the idea of First Noun Strategy has been
discussed by many acquisition researchers such as VanPatten
(1984, 1996), VanPatten and Cadierno (1993), Lee (2003), and
Camps (2003). This strategy states that learners make the as-
sumption that the first noun in a given sentence is the subject of
that sentence, thus creating a SVO word order. Therefore when
learners’ encounter a sentence that contains a preverbal clitic
and a post verbal or dropped subject they often misinterpret the
clitic as the subject. An example of this misinterpretation comes
from VanPatten (1984):
Lo visita la muchacha./himACC visits the girlSUBJ
The girl visits him.—correct interpretation
He visits the girl.—incorrect interpretation
Empirical research (VanPatten, 1984; Lee, 1987; Houston,
1997) has confirmed this strategy in that L2 learners of Spanish
(particularly beginners) frequently assume the clitic pronoun to
be the subject rather than the object leading to a general mis-
understanding of the function of these pronouns.
In order to discourage the First Noun Strategy, VanPatten
(1983) developed a form-focused teaching approach called
Processing Instruction (PI), which attempts to change the way
in which learners identify and process grammatical elements in
the input they receive. In practice, PI generally follows a three
step procedure of correct processing strategies, incorrect proc-
essing strategies, and activities using structure input: First,
learners receive explicit explanation of the structure. Second,
learners learn about processing strategies to help them correctly
interpret input and processing strategies that cause misinterpret-
tation of input. Third, learners complete processing activities
with structured input that follows guidelines four, five, and six.
In PI learners do not complete production activities of the
grammar element being learned.
Research into the impact of PI on pronoun acquisition (Van-
Patten & Cadierno, 1993; VanPatten & Sanz, 1995; VanPatten
& Oikkenon, 1996; VanPatten & Fernández, 2004) found that
learners receiving PI significantly improved in both interpreta-
tion of sentences with direct object pronouns and in the produc-
tion of those pronouns. These learners showed significantly
better understanding of sentences with pronouns over learners
that did not receive PI. In regards to production, the PI learners
were able to correctly produce pronouns with an equivalent
level of accuracy as the other learners. While the current re-
search study does not use PI, it is important to recognize that
form-focused instruction with meaning-based activities is bene-
ficial in acquiring Spanish direct object pronou n s .
As stated previously, the main goals of this study are to
compare students’ accuracy in using direct object pronouns
after receiving one of three types of instruction in this area:
focus on form (FoF), focus on meaning (FoM), or focus on
forms (FoFS). The specific research questions that guided the
study are as follows:
1) For each approach, is there a significant level of improve-
ment in direct object pronoun production following instruct-
2) With regard to student improvement in direct object pro-
noun production, are there any significant differences seen
between the three teaching methods employed?
Three sections of a beginning-level Spanish course at a large
North American university participated in the study. The course
was a three credit hour undergraduate course designed for stu-
1Rahimpour et al. (2012) uses the terms intensive Focus on Form for FoF
and extensive Focus on Form for FoFS .
2A more in depth syntactic and morphological evaluation would show that
the deep structure is still SVO (Haspelmath, 2002) .
Open Access
dents who had an introduction to Spanish in high school (1 year)
but were still considered to be at the beginning level. A FoM
approach was normally used in this course by all instructors.
The principal investigator was the instructor for two of these
sections and a second instructor taught the third section. The
students that participated in this study were all native speakers
of English and were not considered to be bilingual. These stu-
dents did not have regular contact with Spanish outside of the
classroom3. In total 51 students attended all sessions and consti-
tute the final number of participants.
These three sections of the course were assigned at random
to three instructional approaches: a FoF group (n = 19), a FoM
group (n = 18), and a FoFS group (n = 14). Due to this random
assignment, the principal investigator was the instructor for the
FoF and FoM groups. The second instructor taught the FoFS
group. The FoM group was designed to be a comparison group
for the other two since they continued with their normal type of
instruction. All three groups followed the same study plan: a
pretest, an instructional day, and a posttest.
The pretest was administered prior to any instruction of the
direct object pronouns. The pretest was used to determine to
what extent the participants were already skilled in the use of
direct object pronouns4. It was decided that any student who
scored higher than 60% on either task on the pretest would be
eliminated from the study to ensure that the results obtained
here could be correlated to the instruction technique the stu-
dents received.
Following the pretest, all groups received instruction and
then completed in-class activities geared toward the type of
instruction. More information regarding specific teaching and
practice design will be discussed below. The class syllabus
allots only one day of instruction for direct object pronouns, as
such, it was determined that it would be unrealistic to incorpo-
rate additiona l treatment merely for the purposes of this study5.
Following the instruction day, the posttest was administered
during the next class meeting time.
Test Design
Two versions of a written test (Quiz A and Quiz B)6 were
created to be used as the pre- and posttests. Tests were admin-
istered so that students did not take the same version twice, to
eliminate a possibility of improvement due to test familiarity.
Each test consisted of two activities: a lower communicative
value activity and a higher communicative value activity. The
lower communicative value activity consisted of five fill-in-the-
blank sentences with the instructions to fill in the blanks appro-
priately to complete the sentence; students were not specifically
instructed to use direct object pronouns. This activity was di-
rectly based on the example tests used in Camps (1997). Four
of the five sentences required the student to conjugate a verb in
parenthesis and add a direct object pronoun as seen in Example
Example 1 with correct response provided:
Pilar necesita su libro y lo busca (buscar) por la casa.
Pilar needs her book and she looks for it (to look for)
throughout the house.
One of the five sentences was used as a distracter and did not
require a direct object. This activity was a mechanical activity
requiring students to conjugate the verb correctly and provide
the correct pronoun based on the antecedent in the beginning of
the sentence, and was therefore considered to have a lower
communicative value: there is only one possible answer and
there is no opportunity for self-expression on behalf of the stu-
The higher communicative value activity consisted of four
open-ended questions with instructions to answer the questions
by writing a complete sentence. All of the questions contained a
direct object, giving the students the option to use the direct
object pronouns; once again students were not specifically in-
structed to use direct object pronouns. An example of this type
of question is seen below.
Example 2 with possible correct response provi d e d :
¿Dónde haces la tarea normalmente? La hago en la
Where do you normally do your homework? I do it in the
This activity is considered more communicative than the
fill-in-the-blank portion of the test because it allows the student
more opportunity to express his/her own ideas. It is not, how-
ever, a truly communicative activity, such as free-writing com-
position would be, because the students are limited to only a
few possible responses and must still use the given antecedent.
Instructional Day
All instructional groups followed a similar plan on the day of
instruction. Class began with a general oral activity using vo-
cabulary from the current chapter as a warm-up to the class.
After completing this activity, the instructor led the group
through a PowerPoint presentation about direct object pronouns.
Next, the groups completed both oral and written activities
using direct object pronouns. Finally, each group received a
homework assignment to continue practice of direct object
pronouns. Additionally, in the FoF and FoM groups the need to
complete homework helped as a motivator to complete the
in-class assignment. Prior to the instructional day, all students
were expected to read over the grammar explanation of direct
object pronouns in the textbook.
FoFS Group Instructional Design
Pre-activity. The FoFS group began their class with a choral
repetition exercise from their activity book. This exercise fo-
cused on the vowel sounds in Spanish and used vocabulary
words from the chapter; it did not involve any direct object
pronouns. The instructor read each word aloud and the students
repeated the word af te r the i n st ructor.
PowerPoint presentation. The intention of this group’s
presentation was to offer a detailed and thorough grammatical
explanation of direct object pronouns. By explicitly explaining
all details of t he grammar and reviewing other aspects of Span-
ish grammar, such as grammatical gender, the instructor main-
3Any students not present on the day of instruction or who did not complete
all testing materials were elimina t ed from the p articipant pool.
4Since students had taken 1 year of high school Spanish there was a possi-
bility that they had prior exposure to direct object pronouns.
5There were other sections of the course that did not participate in the study
and providing additional instructional time was deemed to be unfair to other
6They were c alled q uizzes in stead o f tests so as n ot to co nfuse st udents wi th
respect to course grading.
Open Access 323
tained a FoFS approach to grammar teaching. In addition to
keeping with a FoFS approach, the pronouns were discussed in
an abstract manner, lacking context or meaning for the most
part. The presentation consisted of three slides, beginning with
the paradigm of direct object pronouns showing both the Span-
ish and English pronouns. The instructor overtly reviewed each
pronoun and its English counterpart. For the direct object pro-
nouns in the third person, the instructor reminded students of
the presence of grammatical gender on Spanish nouns and
pointed out the importance of gender and number and the need
for agreement between the noun antecedent and the pronoun.
The second slide explained that pronouns may substitute for
nouns and gave two examples of pronouns in a question with a
direct object and two possible answers to the question: one
repeating the noun and the other using the pronoun. The in-
structor explicitly explained the substitution of the noun with a
direct object pronoun. The instructor also reiterated the impor-
tance of gender and number agreement between the antecedent
and the pronoun. The third slide explained pronoun placement
in Spanish for verb phrases containing a single conjugated verb
and those that contain two verbs (such as the present progres-
sive). Again, the instructor explicitly explained the placement
of these pronouns. In addition to the placement, the instructor
also reviewed the standard accent rules for Spanish and the
need for a written accent mark in the gerund in the case of a
pronoun attaching to that gerund.
In-class activities. The in-class activities used for this group
were drill-style mechanical activities requiring the students to
produce the correct direct object pronoun. During all activities,
the instructor provided explicit corrective feedback for all
grammar errors observed. In the first two in-class activities
there was only one possible correct answer for each question.
The first activity was an oral instructor-to-student exercise from
the textbook. It consisted of matching direct object pronouns
with a subject pronoun or proper name. For example, 1. los
(them) matched to c. Pedro y Carolina (Pedro and Carolina).
The next activity was also from the textbook and consisted of
combining two sentences, both using the same direct object, to
one sentence with the direct object and its corresponding pro-
noun. Students completed this activity in small groups. While
students were working, the instructor circulated around the
room and responded to student questions. When the students
had finished, the instructor asked for the answers and then
wrote student responses on the board explicitly correcting any
errors as they arose. In the third in-class activity and the
homework assignment, the students had more opportunity to
express their own ideas beyond one correct answer; however,
they were still restricted to only one correct direct object pro-
noun. This activity consisted of four questions with the instruc-
tions to answer the questions using direct object pronouns. As
with the previous activity, the instructor circulated around the
room and responded to student questions while they were
working and corrected all errors as they were heard. Again as a
follow-up to the activity, the instructor asked for possible an-
swers and wrote student responses on the board, correcting their
Out-of-class activity. For homework, the students were as-
signed a written assignment similar to the last in-class activity
with questions containing a direct object. In these questions the
direct object was underlined and students were instructed to
answer using direct object pronouns.
FoM Group Instructional Design
Pre-activity. The activity consisted of three open-ended
personal questions about the food vocabulary from the current
chapter; they were not related to direct object pronouns. Stu-
dents took turns asking and answering the questions with a
partner. As a follow-up activity the instructor posed the ques-
tions to the class and took volunteer responses to demonstrate
possible answers.
PowerPoint presentation. Students were instructed to open
their textbooks to the direct object pronoun explanation during
their PowerPoint presentation. In doing so, the students had
access to the pronoun paradigm and the book’s English-written
explanation. The first slide consisted of three examples of ques-
tions containing a direct object and two possible answers: one
repeated the direct object and one used the direct object pro-
noun. With these examples, students were able to see the
grammar point in a conversational context and had the opportu-
nity to make the connection between the direct object and the
pronoun without having an explicit grammar explanation. The
second slide used a new set of examples of more complex ques-
tions and responses using the direct object pronouns. This sec-
ond set of examples provided more variety of verbal structures
and pronoun placement. As with the previous examples, an
explicit explanation of pronoun placement was not used; in-
stead the conversational context allowed the students to see this
placement as it would occur in natural speech. The third slide
consisted of a set of compound sentences describing a party.
All of these sentences used a direct object in the beginning of
the sentence and its corresponding direct object pronoun in the
second part of the sentence. As before, the students did not
receive an explicit grammar explanation of these sentences, but
were able to see how pronouns could be used in another type of
situation. Throughout the presentation, the focus was on under-
standing the meaning of the sentences and to maintain student
involvement, the instructor asked questions regarding that
meaning. Direct grammar points were only addressed if stu-
dents posed a direct grammar question to the instructor. For
example after seeing and hearing the sentence Yo cocino un
pastel y lo traigo a la fiesta a student asked “Does lo mean the
cake?” and the instructor responded that indeed lo referred to el
pastel or “the cake” in that sente n ce.
In-class activities. The activities chosen for the FoM group
were all activities that allowed students to focus on meaning
while using the direct object pronouns. During the activities,
the instructor did not offer corrective feedback unless in the
case of a serious communication breakdown. In such a case,
implicit feedback (recasts or questions) were used. The first
activity consisted of two parts: one that was instructor-to-stu-
dent and a second that was student-to-student. For this activity,
the instructor had a collection of plastic food items, all of which
was vocabulary from the current chapter. For the first part of
the activity, the students had to obtain food from the instructor.
The instructor would first announce the food item and then ask
who wanted it using the appropriate direct object pronoun. For
example, the Instructor said “Tengo un pollo. ¿Quién lo
quiere?” (“I have a chicken. Who wants it?”). Students were
allowed to answer as they wanted either with the name of the
food item or with a direct object pronoun. As long as the cor-
rect meaning was conveyed, the student received the food item.
There was some prompting by the instructor to encourage com-
plete sentences. Additionally, the instructor made sure that each
student had at least one food item by the end of the activity. For
Open Access
the second part of the activity, the students had to interact with
their classmates and try to obtain different food items with the
intention of creating the best possible meal for themselves. In
order to help the students understand this exchange, the ins-
tructor modeled conversations with a couple of students in front
of the class using direct object pronouns. After the students had
the general idea, they began their own food transactions, during
which, the instructor circulated throughout the class, respond-
ing to questions. As a follow-up to this activity, the instructor
asked students what they had collected and why they thought it
was a good meal. After this, the instructor requested the items
back using direct object pronouns. The next activity was a stu-
dent-to-student writing and speaking activity. The activity was
to plan a dinner party for the class with a partner. First, on their
own, the students made a brief list of items they would need for
the party. Then the students pretended to call their partner and
discussed plans for the party. In this way, the students needed
to talk about their ideas but could not just show their list to their
partner. As part of the directions for the activity, the instructor
modeled some possibilities for the party plans utilizing direct
object pronouns to once again demonstrate how direct object
pronouns can be used in everyday speech. In addition, during
the planning students were told to take notes for their home-
work. As with the previous activity, while students were work-
ing together, the instructor circulated and answered questions as
Out-of-class activity. For their written homework assign-
ment, the students had to write up their party plans in paragraph
form. While giving the instructions for the assignment, the
instructor also gave a few model sentences to guide the students.
The sentences contained both direct objects and the corre-
sponding direct object pronouns. However, in the directions the
students were not explicitly told to use direct object pronouns.
The motivation for assigning homework for the FoM group was
to motivate the students to actively participate in the final in-
class activity. The researcher believed that if the students knew
that they would need the information from that activity for a
homework assignment, they would try their very best during
that activity.
FoF Group Instructional Design
The focus on form instruction developed for this study was
developed primarily from the more proactive or planned focus
on form approach as presented in Doughty and Williams (1998),
Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen (2001), Grim (2008) or Qin
(2008). In this study’s version of focus on form, meaning-based
activities were chosen based on their opportunities to use the
direct object pronouns. During these meaning-based activities
corrective feedback was only given for errors made with the
direct object pronouns. Additionally, based on the ideas from
Processing Instruction (VanPatten, 1993) of preparing students
for possible difficulties with a grammar element, the researcher
chose to take the idea of proactive focus on form further and
offer the students a brief grammar explanation highlighting
difficult features of the direct object pronouns. It is important to
note that the version of focus on form used in this study is dif-
ferent from Long’s (1991) original definition.
Pre-activity. The FoF group began with the same oral activ-
ity as the FoM group, working with a partner to answer ques-
tions that encouraged use of the vocabulary from the current
chapter. Again, the instructor followed-up this activity by ask-
ing individual students for their possible responses.
PowerPoint presentation. Students were instructed to open
their textbooks to the given explanation of direct object pro-
nouns. Altogether, the goal of these slides for the FoF group
was to offer a brief introduction to the direct object pronouns in
a meaningful context. The presentation was also intended to
highlight the most important and difficult aspects from the
grammar reading in the textbook. Building on the idea of a
preemptive focus on form (Ellis et al., 2001), the presentation
was a way to quickly and efficiently discuss key elements of
direct object pronouns in anticipation of student questions and
problems. Because the presentation was offered from the in-
structor, it is impossible to know if these topics were actually
lacking in the students’ metalinguistic knowledge of direct
object pronouns. However, based on a reading of the textbook
grammar description, it can probably be safely assumed that the
students did not yet fully understand the use of direct object
pronouns and further clarification could only be beneficial to
them. As opposed to a very technical and abstract focus on
forms grammar explanation of these pronouns, this presentation
was meant to refresh the students’ memories and prepare them
to use direct object pronouns in the communicative in-class
The first slide for this presentation was the same as the first
slide for the focus on meaning group. It shows three sets of
examples consisting of a question with a direct object and one
response that repeats the direct object and a second that uses the
direct object pronoun. In addition, while showing this slide, the
instructor actively pointed out the connection between the an-
tecedent and the pronoun. The second slide in this presentation
shows the direct object pronoun paradigm with the English
translation. The instructor briefly reviewed the pronouns with
the students and pointed out the importance of agreement with
gender and number for the third person object pronouns. The
third slide contained both examples of direct object pronouns in
more complex sentences with a variety of verbal structures and
statements in English about pronoun placement. When review-
ing this slide, the instructor focused on pronoun placement only
and did not give an in-depth grammar explanation beyond the
two English statements from the slide.
In-class activities. Following this presentation, the FoF
group completed the same two activities using the direct object
pronouns as the FoM group, with a few changes to adjust them
to a focus on form approach. In this way, the students were
focused on completing a meaningful task and not focused on
only using a grammar element. The main difference between
the activities for the FoF group and the FoM group was the
corrective feedback given by the instructor. During both activi-
ties, implicit feedback in the form of recasts and questions was
offered when errors with direct object pronouns were observed.
In this way, the instructor was assisting the students to focus on
form while still maintaining a focus on meaning. Other gram-
matical errors were ignored by the instructor during the activi-
Another difference between the two groups occurred in the
first activity. In the instructions for the first in-class activity, the
focus on form group was explicitly told to use direct object
pronouns. The reason for this was to push the students to try the
new forms and begin to incorporate them into their own lan-
guage use. If they were allowed to use either the noun or the
corresponding pronoun, the researcher believed that there was a
strong possibility that the students would continue to use the
nouns because they felt comfortable with that structure and
Open Access 325
knew it to be correct. By completing an activity that first forced
them to use the pronouns, it was hoped that they would become
comfortable enough to use them again, when the opportunity
arose, without being told to do so. In the second in-class activi-
ity and the homework assignment, the students were not explic-
itly told to use direct object pronouns. The reason for this was
to allow the students to recognize the opportunity for direct
object pronouns. Again, to help the students do this, the in-
structor offered corrective feedback to bring the students’ atten-
tion back to the direct object pronouns within the context of the
activity. Within this activity many of these prompts were pre-
emptive to suggest to students to use direct object pronouns.
For example if a student was using the same direct object over
and over again instead of the direct object pronoun, the instruc-
tor asked if it was possible to avoid that repetitiveness in some
Out-of-class activity. For their written homework assign-
ment, just as the focus on meaning group, the students had to
write up their party plans in paragraph form. In the directions
the students were not explicitly told to use direct object pro-
nouns. Again, the purpose of the homework was to inspire the
students to participate fully in the final in-class activity.
Data Analysis
Test Scoring
All tests were scored in the same manner. A completely cor-
rect response that used the correct direct object pronoun and
correct placement of that pronoun received a score of two
points. A response that used a pronoun but still had at least one
pronoun error received a score of one point. These responses
might include the use of the incorrect direct object pronoun,
incorrect pronoun placement, or use of some other type of pro-
noun (indirect or reflexive). A response that did not use any
pronoun received a score of zero points. The total score possi-
ble on each test activity was eight points.
Statistical Analysis
The data for the two tests (sentence completion and questions)
were analyzed separately due to the difference in test style. The
first analysis that was run for each data set was a univariate
ANOVA of the pretest scores in order to determine that there
was no significant difference between the groups prior to in-
struction. The second analysis for each data set was a simple
means analysis using the raw scores to determine the mean
scores for each test and each group. Next a 3 3 ANOVA was
run to determine the effect of time, group, and a possible inter-
action between time and group. If a significant value was found
for group, post-hoc tests (Tukey and Scheffe) were run to better
understand the significance differences between the groups.
Additionally a t-test was run for each group to analyze the dif-
ferences between the tests for that group.
Results and Discussion
Sentence Completion Data
An ANOVA was first completed for the pretest for all three
instructional groups and did not yield a significant effect for
group, F = 1.532, df = 2, p = .227, confirming that at the time of
the pretest the three instructional groups were at the same level
of knowledge for the direct object pronouns. The mean scores
for the sentence completion data show that participants im-
proved overall from the pretest to posttest and can be seen in
Table 1. The total possible score for the sentence completion
was 8. Individually, the FoFS instruction group rose from a
pretest mean of .36 (lowest score 0, highest score 2) to a post-
test mean of 1.50 (lowest score 0, highest score 8). The FoF
instruction group rose from a pretest mean of .16 (lowest score
0, highest score 3) to a posttest mean of 2.63 (lowest score 0,
highest score 8). The FoM instruction group made no change
from pretest to posttest (for both the mean was .00, all scores
A repeated measures ANOVA was completed for all data
and yielded statistically significant effects for time, (p = .000),
group, (p = .049), and time and group, (p = .014). These results
can be seen in Table 2. A univariate ANOVA was completed
for the posttest to determine the differences between the in-
structional groups. The ANOVA yielded a significant effect for
group, F = 4.819, df = 2, p = .012. Additionally, post-hoc
Tukey HSD and Scheffe tests yielded a statistically significant
difference between the FoF group and the FoM group in favor
of the FoF group, p = .009 and p = .013, respectively.
To further see the details of the progress made by the indi-
vidual groups, each group was analyzed first with a repeated
measures ANOVA. After that, in order to determine the pro-
gression between tests, post hoc comparisons were done using
t-tests. Neither the FoFS group nor the FoM groups showed
statistically significant improvement overtime. However, it
should be noted that the FoFS group did show some improve-
ment in their test scores at the time of the posttest, albeit non-
significant, whereas the FoM group produced no improvement
at all. For the FoF group, the ANOVA yielded a significant
effect for time, F = 6.915, df = 2, p = .003. The t-test for this
group showed a significant improvement between the pretest
and posttest, p = .006.
These results indicate that the FoF group benefitted from
their instruction more than the learners in the FoM and FoFS
groups. Looking at the significant difference between the FoF
and FoM groups, the findings support the theory that L2 learn-
ers will benefit from more attention to form when completing
Table 1.
Mean scores on the sentence completion ta s k.
Pretest Posttest
Group n Mean SD Mean SD
Focus on Forms 14.3 6 .745 1.50 2.902
Focus on Meaning 18.00 .000 .00 .00
Focus on Form 19.1 6 .688 2.63 3.419
Table 2.
Repeated measures ANOVA for the sentence completion task.
df F p
Source of variation
Time 2 10.681 .000
Group 2 3.205 .049
Time Group 4 3.303 .014
Note: Significance was set at .05.
Open Access
meaningful activities which encourage the use of that form. As
was seen in prior research (Lightbown & Spada, 1990; Doughty
& Varela, 1998; Han, 2002; Lyster, 2004; Spada, Lightbown, &
White, 2005; Grim, 2008; Pishghadam, Khodadady, & Rad,
2011) the FoF group, which received the greater explanation
and attention to form, performed significantly better than the
communicative (FoM) group immediately following instruction.
As in these prior studies, the FoM group did not show any sig-
nificant improvement after instruction. From these results, it
appears that beginning-level Spanish learners have a need for
focus on form and a greater attention to grammar when learning
the direct object pronouns. In particular, helping students to
identify the need for the pronouns and strengthening the link
between those small words and the overall meaning of state-
ments can help them with pronoun production. Although errors
were made with some pronouns used, the FoF learners better
recognized the need to use pronouns in these sentences, where-
as the FoM group rarely saw such a need.
When considering the differences seen between the FoF and
the FoFS group, it can be seen that the attention to form plus
meaning appears to lead to greater improvement in pronoun use;
however, a significant difference between the groups was not
found. The FoFS group, like the FoF learners, was able to have
some improvement between the tests. While the improvement
seen for FoFS was not significant, the increase in correct pro-
noun use led to a non-significant difference between the FoF
and FoFS groups for the posttest. This finding indicates that
some type of form-focused instruction is preferable to purely
meaning-focused instruction for the direct object pronouns, but
it is not entirely clear if a focus on form approach can be more
effective than a more traditional focus on forms approach. This
result somewhat supports the findings of Saeidi et al. (2012)
and Rahimpour et al. (2012) in that it demonstrates a small
positive finding for FoF over FoFS. Nonetheless, those studies
were able to show that the FoF groups significantly outper-
formed the FoFS groups.
Returning to the hypothesis of Spada, Lightbown and White
(2005), focus on form instruction is most effective with gram-
matical structures that have a high link between form and
meaning. Knowing that the Spanish direct object pronouns have
this strong connection between form and meaning, the results
from this study correlate with this hypothesis. In focusing on
the meaning of the pronouns throughout the instructional ac-
tivities, it appears that the learners in the FoF group were better
able to establish a connection between the form and the mean-
ing, and consequently recognized the opportunity to use pro-
nouns on their posttest to have meaningful and grammatically
correct sentences more than the other two groups. Following
this conclusion, a t-test was run on the amount of pronouns
used on the posttest to determine if a group produced signifi-
cantly more pronouns than the others. It was found that the FoF
group significantly produced more pronouns than either the
FoFS or FoM group, p = .021. Although some of these pronoun
uses were incorrect (discussed below) the FoF learners ap-
peared to have recognized the need for direct object pronouns
more than the other two instructional groups.
It is important to point out that although improvement was
seen over time, the learners’ use of direct object pronouns was
still considerably nontarget-like. A considerable amount of
learners in all groups showed little or no improvement in their
abilities to produce direct object pronouns. This is similar to S’s
(2000) findings that learner results were well below those of
native speakers. It is therefore comprehensible that whichever
approach is chosen, there may be a need for more practice and
instruction of the direct object pronouns before learners are able
to demonstrate target-like production.
Question D at a
As with the sentence completion data, an ANOVA was first
completed for the pretest for the instructional groups and did
not yield a significant effect for group, F = .837, df = 2, p
= .439, confirming that at the time of the pretest the three
groups were at the same level of knowledge for the direct ob-
ject pronouns. The mean scores for the question data show that
participants improved slightly overall and can be seen in Table
3. As with the sentence completion data, the total score possible
was 8. Individually, the FoFS instruction group rose from a
pretest mean of .00 (all scores 0) to a posttest mean of 1.50
(lowest score 0, highest score 8). The FoF instruction group
rose from a pretest mean of .05 (lowest score 0, highest score 1)
to a posttest mean of .47 (lowest score 0, highest score 7). The
FoM instruction group made no change from pretest to posttest
(for both the mean was .00, all scores 0).
A repeated measures ANOVA was completed for all data but
no statistically significant effects were seen. These results can
be seen in Table 4. To further explore if there was any effect
for group in the posttest, a univariate ANOVA was completed
but did not yield a significant effect for group, F = 2.856, df = 2,
p = .067.
Again, to examine the details of the progress made by the in-
dividual groups, each group was analyzed first with a repeated
measures ANOVA. After that, in order to determine the pro-
gression between tests, post hocs comparisons were done using
t-tests. No group showed significant progress over time, indi-
cating that although a slight improvement was seen in the FoFS
and FoF groups, this change was only minor.
Unlike with the sentence completing data, the results do not
show an impact of instructional approach since no group made
significant improvement. However, when looking at the mean
Table 3.
Mean scores on the question task.
Pretest Posttest
Group n Mean SD Mean SD
Focus on Forms 14.00 .000 1.50 2.849
Focus on meaning 18.00 .000 .00 .00
Focus on Form 19.05 .229 .47 1.611
Table 4.
Repeated measures ANOVA for the question task.
df F p
Source of variation
Time 2 2.784 .072
Group 2 2.661 .080
Time Group 4 2.000 .101
Note: Significance was set at .05.
Open Access 327
scores, it is important to note that the FoM group once again
showed no improvement, while both the form-focused groups
did show small improvement. This small improvement does
indicate some support for the need for greater attention to form
resulting in greater production and accuracy with direct object
pronouns. Nonetheless, the lack of significant results indicates a
need for further research into this type of pronoun production.
As with the sentence data, a t-test was run on the amount of
pronouns produced in the posttest, but no significant differ-
ences were found between groups. Upon further analysis of the
answers, it was found that learners were most likely to produce
grammatically correct sentences which repeated the antecedent
rather than using a direct object pronoun. It is possible that
learners recognized the opportunity to use direct object pro-
nouns, but chose to repeat the antecedent instead because it was
the better-known form of response. In some way, those may
have been the “easier” answers because they did not have to
worry about choice of pronoun or correct position within the
sentence. However, due to the overall low use of pronouns in
both test activities, it is likely that learners did not recognize the
opportunity to use pronouns.
Error Analysis
In the two tests combined, there was a total 816 answers. Of
this total, 89 answers used pronouns. However of these 89 uses,
there were 22 instances where participants provided a pronoun
but it was either used in an erroneous way and/or was an incur-
rect pronoun. All errors were coded by type with six types of
errors found:
position: errors with the correct direct object pronoun but
the wrong position, ex. Yo necesito mi libro y * busco lo7
indirect: errors where the student used an indirect object
pronoun in place of a direct object pronoun, ex. Yo necesito
mi libro y *le busco
reflexive: errors where the student used a reflexive pronoun
in place of a direct object pronoun, ex. Yo necesito mi libro
y *se busco
wrong direct object pronoun: errors with an incorrect direct
object pronoun, ex. Yo necesito mi libro y *la busco
wrong direct object pronoun and position: errors with both
an incorrect direct object pronoun and an incorrect position,
ex. Yo necesito mi libro y *busco la
indistinguishable: an error committed with the Spanish
pronouns me, te, or nos which can be used as direct object,
indirect object, or reflexive pronouns, ex. Yo busco mi libro
y *me busco
The frequency of these errors is given in Table 5. Of the er-
ror types, position was the most common error accounting for
45.45% of the errors. This indicates that participants were able
to produce the correct pronoun, but rather than follow Spanish
syntax rules which require the pronoun precede the conjugated
verb, they placed pronouns after the verb as in English. The
next most common errors were wrong direct object pronoun
and position accounting for 18.18% of the errors and wrong
direct object pronoun, 13.64% of errors. These errors indicate
that along with position, participants had trouble identifying the
correct gender and/or number for the antecedent. The analysis
of these errors also showed that it is possible that participants
were confusing the subject with the direct object since the pro-
Table 5.
Frequency of all direct object pronoun err or s.
Type of Erro r Frequency of Error
Position 45.45 (10)
Wrong direct object pronoun and position 18.18 (4)
Wrong direct object pronoun 13.64 (3)
Indirect 9.09 (2)
Indistinguishable 9.09 (2)
Reflexive 4.55 (1)
Total Errors 22
noun used often reflected the gender and/or number of the sub-
ject rather than the direct object. For example, in the sentence
María compra un libro y *la lee (Maria buys a book and reads
*her) participants were likely using María (feminine singular)
as the antecedent rather than un libro (masculine singular). Less
commonly, the participants produced only a few errors using
either an indirect, indistinguishable or reflexive pronoun. While
still in error, these answers showed that these learners recog-
nized a need for a pronoun and demonstrated knowledge of
correct pronoun placement. This is important to note because
out of the 816 answers in this study, pronouns were only used
11% of the time, indicating that, in general, these learners did
not see a need to use the direct object pronouns in their re-
When looking at where errors occurred, it was shown that the
majority of the errors happened during the sentence completion
task, which accounted for 72.73% of the errors (16 out of 22).
Consequently 27.27% of the errors (6 out of 22) occurred in the
question task. For both tasks, the error-type pattern was re-
peated with position being the most common error.
Returning to the first research question, for each approach, is
there a significant level of improvement in direct object pro-
noun production following instruction? The answer is no. There
is only a significant level of improvement seen for the sentence
completion task by the FoF learners who received both form-
focused instruction and completed meaning-based activities.
This finding suggests that direct object pronoun instruction
should include both a focus on the form itself with a brief ex-
planation of grammar and the use of activities which allow
students to communicate their own ideas and/or thoughts in the
target language while using the pronouns. When further con-
sidering the teaching practices used in this study, it is important
to also remember the type of corrective feedback that was pro-
vided during instruction. The FoF learners received implicit
feedback on pronouns only. Such corrections appear to have
had a positive impact on the learners, allowing them to better
concentrate on the pronouns and their use.
For the second research question, with regard to student im-
provement in direct object pronoun production, are there any
significant differences seen between the three teaching methods
employed? The answer is yes, there was a significant difference
seen between the FoF group and the FoM group, in favor of the
FoF group for the sentence completion task. This is a key result
7The correct response would be Yo necesito mi libro y lo busco (I need my
bookM and I look for itM).
Open Access
because it supports the finding that meaning-based instruction
on its own does not appear to be sufficient for learners to make
progress in using direct object pronouns (Lightbown & Spada,
1990; Doughty & Varela, 1998; Han, 2002; Lyster, 2004;
Spada, Lightbown, & White, 2005; Grim, 2008; Pishghadam,
Khodadady, & Rad, 2011). In comparing FoF to more tradi-
tional FoFS approach, a significant difference was not found. It
may be argued however, that FoF appears to be a better choice,
since those learners were able to make significant improvement
and the FoFS learners were not. The more prudent response
though is that additional research into the differences between
these two approaches for teaching direct object pronouns is
Finally, given that the posttest showed a low use of pronouns
for all learners, the results suggest that beginning learners are in
need of a longer period of instruction in order to show more
target-like use of the direct object pronouns. Although form-
focused instruction was shown to be effective in facilitating
learners with the production of direct object pronouns, the lev-
els of improvement that were reached were not comparable to
target-like use. Additional investigations of classroom instruc-
tion of Spanish direct object pronouns will be beneficial in the
overall understanding of how learners acquire the direct object
pronouns and what instructional approaches are most beneficial
for that acquisition.
I wish to thank Dr. Gillian Lord and Dr. Joaquim Camps for
their guidance and assistance with this project, Mr. David
Nolen for participating as an instructor, and the students who
elected to participate in this study. I also thank the anonymous
reviewers for their time and feedback.
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