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There's nothing particularly new about the concept of noticing.  Teachers have long developed ways to draw their learners' attention to particular aspects of grammar and lexis on which they want them to focus.


Types of noticing

There are two:

  1. Noticing aspects of the language to which you are attending – noticing the language.
  2. Noticing the difference between what you hear or read and what you produce – noticing the gap.


Types of knowledge

There are two types of this, too:

  1. Explicit knowledge is shown when a learner can apply the rule and can also state the rule he/she is applying.
    For example a learner says:
        The window was broken by one of the girls
    and not only constructs a correct sentence but can explain how a passive is formed with the verb be, where the agent comes in the sentence and how it is introduced by the preposition by.
  2. Implicit knowledge is knowledge of the correct form without the ability (without conscious effort) to state what the rule is.
    For example, a learner may be able to produce something like:
        I'll come if you like
    without being able to explain why the first verb phrase is formed with will and the infinitive and the second is a simple present tense of a stative use of the verb like.

One purpose of raising learners' ability to notice language is to make the implicit explicit and the explicit automatic.
The reason for the first part of this is that the ability to articulate a rule allows a learner to be able to construct an almost infinite number of parallel utterances because, as the term rule implies, the structure is regular and predictable.
The reason for the second part is that once a rule has been acquired, it can be applied almost without conscious thought because it has been internalised.  That makes the learner more fluent, more able and more natural.

learning vs acquisition

Some theory:

Learning vs. Acquisition
Input + 1
Guided Discovery / Discovery learning

As the heading suggests, there are three theories underlying the encouragement of noticing in the classroom.


Theory #1: Acquisition vs. learning

A central tenet of Krashen's view is that there is a distinction between learning (a conscious process of rule gathering) and acquisition (an unconscious, natural process of learning which comes almost without effort).  For more, see the guide to Krashen and The Natural Approach, linked in the list of related guides at the end.
There are many, however, who do not agree and take the view that learning a language is a conscious process and noticing is part of that.


Theory #2: Input + 1

Another of Krashen's hypotheses concerns the nature of the input to which a learner is exposed.
The argument here is that, for optimum effect, the input a learner receives should be a) comprehensible and b) just above the level of the learner.  This is sometimes abbreviated to INPUT + 1 or just i + 1.  Many see this as an intuitively correct hypothesis for if the input is incomprehensible, no sense can be made of it and no learning can take place but if the input is below the learner's competence, he/she is not challenged to improve, given the opportunity to acquire new language or notice the gap between his / her own production and the heard / read models.


Theory #3: The Zone of Proximal Development

The ZPD is a construct developed by Vygotsky and concerns the optimum place in which learning happens.  It may be defined as a task or challenge which the learner can successfully complete with only a small input from a more knowledgeable other.
Below this zone, the learner is not challenged, learning little or nothing and becoming bored.
Above this zone, the learner is over-challenged, learning little or nothing and becoming anxious and frustrated.


Theory #4: Guided discovery / Discovery learning

Later theorists have tied the idea to scaffolding which is the process by which a teacher (or other more-knowledgeable other) may lead a learner to a new skill or new knowledge by filling in a small gap in the learner's ability.
For example, there is little point in presenting a very low-level learner with a complex third conditional form such as:
    If I hadn't invited her she would have been upset
and hoping that she or he will magically absorb the structural nature of the clauses by noticing how they are constructed.  That will not happen.  However, if we present a learner who can already form a correct sentence in this style with something like:
    If I hadn't invited her she MIGHT have been upset
then there is a good chance that the learner will not only notice how the modal auxiliary is used but also how it affects the overall meaning of the sentence.
This is because the learner is operating in the Zone of Proximal Development and the task is not too easy (so the learner will not benefit or get bored) and not too difficult (so the learner will be overwhelmed by the data and become anxious).
Guided discovery, incidentally, also applies in mainstream non-language-teaching methodology and refers to asking learners to do their own research to discover what it is they need to know.  The term ‘guided’ refers to the fact that the teacher’s responsibility is to direct learners to the most useful sources of information rather than making them find their own way.
Also slightly incidentally, we should distinguish between independent discovery learning in which the learners are left alone to complete a task and find the data they need until it is time for feedback and assisted discovery learning, which is what most people understand by the term guided discovery, where the teacher is involved throughout the process.

Noticing, then, is often a form of scaffolding of the learners' efforts to help them move forward, incrementally, from the known to the unknown.
There is a fuller guide to scaffolding and the ZPD linked in the list at the end.


Input vs. Intake

Underlying all the following is the distinction between input (the information the learner is exposed to) and intake (the information the learner actually assimilates).  The argument is that without conscious noticing of language, intake simply doesn't happen.  In other words, it is not possible to learn a language unconsciously.

Overall, Ellis sums up the arguments like this and suggests that:

the distinction between conscious 'learning' and subconscious' acquisition' is overly simplistic.  It is clear that 'acquisition', in the sense intended by Krashen, can involve some degree of consciousness (in noticing and noticing the gap).
Ellis 1994:363

He goes on to say that one possibility

is that explicit knowledge functions as a facilitator, helping learners to notice features in the input which they would otherwise miss and also to compare what they notice with what they produce.

What learners are becoming aware of in this analysis is the possible affordances that the language input offers.  By affordances is meant the possible uses one sees in the phenomena one experiences and the input one perceives.  Just as we may see more than one affordance of a fist-sized rock (paper weight, weapon, hammer etc.) so we may see uses in the language we are exposed to.

For example, if a learner notices on one occasion that the adjective bored forms the comparative and superlative forms with more and most rather than adding -er or -est to the stem as most single-syllable adjectives do and then notes the same phenomenon with the adjective tired, he or she may latch on to an affordance and hypothesise, correctly, that all adjectives, regardless of length which are formed from the past participles of verbs will follow the same rule.  Then the noticing will have the effect of allowing the learner accurately to produce
    They were even more lost
rather than
    *They were even loster



It is not certain, of course, that any two learners will notice the same things.  What is noticed depends on the direction of attention and the salience of the information: its usefulness to the learner as an affordance.  For example, from a piece of language such as:

Peter, being in charge for the moment, decided that this was the most important job

a learner who is focused on syntax may extract the fact that a relative clause containing the verb be may be reduced by ellipting both the relative pronoun (who) and the verb (was) without affecting the meaning.  To do that, she has to reconstruct the sentence mentally as:
    Peter, who was in charge for the moment, decided ...
She may also notice, if primed to do so, that this is different from the way her language does things and the way she uses relative clauses in her own output.  She has noticed the gap.

Another learner, whose attention is on meaning, may note that the non-finite verb form (being) may be used to provide background information to the verb decide.

Yet another may notice that the verb be can, in fact be used in the progressive form and that contradicts information already given by a teacher that we do not use the verb in the continuous or progressive aspect.  Another gap has been noticed.

What is noticed depends on two things;

  1. The affordance (i.e., usefulness that the learner perceives in the information)
  2. The direction of attention (on forms, meaning, aspect and so on)

The first of these can be estimated from experience, the second can be exploited deliberately.

What is noticed will depend to a large extent on what philosophers of language (and other things) call the learner's Umwelt which means the set of affordances (potentialities) that is perceived.  In Dennet's terms, these are:

the things [the] agent should have in its ontology, the things that should be attended to, tracked, distinguished, studied.  The rest of the real patterns in the flux are just noise ...
(Dennett, 2017:128 [emphasis in the original])

The trick to using noticing, if there is one, is to filter out the noise and leave the potentially useful information in focus.


Another way

There is one theory of learning that neatly combines the ideas of subconscious and conscious learning with notions of implicit and explicit knowledge as well as showing the relationship between learning and acquisition.  It looks like this (from Bialystok 1978:71).  Look at the model and try to figure out what is going on.  When you have some answers, click on the diagram for an explanation.


Naturally, such a grand theory of language learning has not been without its critics and the model has undergone and will, no doubt, continue to undergo further changes.  However, the central ideas of implicit vs. explicit knowledge and the learner's ability to inference between them have not been seriously challenged.


Noticing in the classroom (and beyond it)

If you have come this far, you will have appreciated the need to encourage our learners to notice language they receive as input and also to notice the gaps between their output and the language they see and hear.
How do we do this?  Here are some ways.


The use of colour

In any text, it is possible to draw learners' attention to what they should be noticing as the focus of the teaching and learning cycle so, for example, in this text all the prepositions are highlighted in bold red font to draw the learners' attention to the forms you want them to notice.  It's a simple trick but one which in many people's experience brings rewards.
You will have noticed the prepositions in that text which are the targets of your noticing.  It is almost impossible to ignore them when they are highlighted in red but easy if they are not in red.
Any class of function words, conjunctions, pronouns etc., can be treated this way.


Being clear and explicit

Teaching a form in class is half the battle (or less) and needs to be backed up with explicit noticing of the form by the learners in other settings.  So, for example, if you are teaching obligation forms or the meaning of must it pays off to make sure your class bring into school examples that they have read or heard of the forms in use (e.g., Bicycles must not ..., No parking, No smoking, It is against the law to ..., Please do not ... etc.)
Equally, for example, when handling a difficult concept such as the so-called second conditional, it pays to make sure that learners listen out for it in your own speech or that of speakers of English whom they encounter and notice and record what they hear.


Working on receptive skills

Learners cannot notice what they don't hear or understand so it is important that we pay attention to receptive skills to provide them with the ability to hear, read and notice what more able or native speakers say and write.  That way, when they are in any kind of interaction, or reading a text of any kind they can be saying things to themselves such as
    Oh, I see, the stress is on the last syllable, I would have said that this way ...,
    That interesting, the word can be used to mean ...


Avoiding cognitive overload

There is some evidence that if learners have to focus on form and meaning simultaneously, then intake may be reduced rather than enhanced and if you go along with that theory, you need to separate them in your teaching to give learners the space to notice one or the other.
That does not mean that it is necessary to handle form before meaning or vice versa: the ordering you choose will depend on a number of factors, including



Once is never enough in terms of noticing.  If you really want input to result in intake, learners have to be flooded with noticing opportunities.  Adapting or constructing texts in which the target language occurs repeatedly is one way of doing that.  Authentic texts do not usually exhibit this so it is a reason to construct specific materials for noticing tasks.

An allied issue here is that once is not usually enough.  Learners may be led to notice something on Monday and have completely forgotten about it on Tuesday morning.  For input to become intake, and for an item to become embedded in long-term memory, data have to be processed in some way, by, for example, saying aloud what we have heard or writing what we have read – and doing it more than once.
Some have suggested that a minimum of nine separate exposures to an item may be required.


Demanding tasks

Tasks which demand the use and understanding of the target forms will be more effective than those in which the learner can use alternatives so task construction needs to bear that in mind.

If, for example, you want to focus on unreal conditional forms, make sure that the practice materials require the use of the forms as in If I were a ... etc. which is just about the only possible structure to talk about something you are not.
The issue here is avoidance.  Many learners will be tempted to avoid the use of certain language items for a number of reasons, including


Gap-fill tasks

Setting a listening task with a text containing gaps where the target form occurs forces learners to listen specifically for what you want them to notice.  This is not the same as a testing procedure; it is a real noticing activity.
Another noticing activity is to give learners a text in which there are differences between what is heard and what is read.  If the items you target are those which your learners currently avoid for some reason (see above), this can be an effective way of getting them to notice the gap between what they say and the target forms.



This is a question of focus.
Whichever type of teaching approach you favour, be aware that learners will only easily notice that which is made explicitly important.  Underlining, colour, highlighting etc. are all worthwhile techniques as is the use of voice tone, volume and so on.

This applies not only to teaching the formal systems of the language – it is centrally relevant to skills teaching.  Learners need not only to employ a skill, they need also to be able to say what skill they are using and why.
The simple technique of setting aside time at the end or after a phase of a lesson for the learners to reflect on and articulate what they have encountered so far is effective in making the target more salient and memorable.
Learners' ideas of what the targets of a teaching routine are may well differ from the teacher's idea unless you have some way of forcing attention where you want it to be.
That can be done by, for example,



One common but arguably underused stimulus to noticing is deliberately making something a problem.  That may seem contradictory but is, in fact, a rather simple procedures which requires learners to notice a language item or phenomenon that they have hitherto not been aware of.
For example, if asked to visualise (or sketch or identify) a picture of:
    Deer in a forest
    A deer in a forest
learners may at first be mistaken in thinking that the images will be very similar because they have not noticed up until now that words for animals are often not marked for plural in English.  The word deer is extreme in this case, having no marked plural form at all (which is not the same as saying it has no plural).  Words for other animals may have plural forms (fish is an example) but the form is only used when specific numbers or special types are being considered.

The first sentence should conjure up an image like this: deer
and the second, an image something more like this: deer

It is only when learners have, so to speak, been led down the garden path into making the error that they can notice the issue.
Another example might be to play the same trick with:
    A shop selling coffees
    A shop selling coffee
where the mass vs. count use of the noun can be explicitly noticed.

A further way of using the down-the-garden-path approach might be to alert learners to the usual way of forming plurals in English (adding -s or -es) and then, once they have managed to form the correct plurals of a range of nouns, such as:
    bag → bags
    leg → legs
    class → classes
    match → matches

to ask them to pluralise this set:

In being led down the path to error, the theory is that learners will have problematized the issue and be more aware of the subtleties of morphology in this respect.  Correction will, therefore, result in noticing.

At a more advanced level, for example, asking learners to complete the following with a second logical clausal complement can be instructive:
    She didn't need to do it ...
    She needn't have done it ...

because the first implies something like
    ... so she didn't bother
and the second implies
    ... but she went ahead anyway
As Ellis (op cit. p 640) reports:

First, Tomasello and Herron suggest that the 'garden path' technique encourages learners to carry out a 'cognitive comparison' between their own deviant utterances and the correct target-language utterances.  Second, they suggest this technique may increase motivation to learn by arousing curiosity regarding rules and their exceptions.

The first of these suggestions is another way of saying that the technique helps learners to notice the gap.

A great range of specific language phenomena can be brought to learners; attention in this way and it is particularly helpful in getting learners to notice irregularities or marginal cases of language use.

Related guides
Krashen and the Natural Approach for the guide to this set of hypotheses
how learning happens for a general and simple overview
second-language acquisition for a guide to some current theories
scaffolding and the ZPD this guide discusses how noticing can lead on to the shaping of learners' output by locating learning in the Zone of Proximal Development
Bloom's taxonomy this is a way of classifying and grading the cognitive demands of tasks and activities
input for an obviously related guide
inferencing for more on a related and important learning skill
unlocking learning this is a guide in the Delta section which considers four theories including noticing and their classroom implications for learning

If you would like to test yourself, there is a noticing exercise on all of this.  Click here to go to it.

Bialystok, E, 1978, A theoretical model of second language learning, Language Learning 28: 69-84
Ellis, R, 1994, The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Dennett, D, 2017, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, UK: Penguin Random House
Krashen, S, 1982, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning on-line version available at http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/sl_acquisition_and_learning.pdf.
Schmidt, R, 1990, The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11: 129-58.