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Concourse 2


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 of these, too:

  1. Explicit knowledge is shown when a learner can apply the rule and can also state the rule he/she is applying.
  2. Implicit knowledge is knowledge of the correct form without the ability (without conscious effort) to state what the rule is.

One purpose of raising learners' ability to notice language is to make the implicit explicit and the explicit automatic.

learning vs acquisition

Learning vs. Acquisition


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.
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.


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 (1994:363) 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)."

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."


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.

Model of second language learning

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 that it 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.
Any class of structural 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 ... etc.

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 from before meaning or vice versa: the ordering you choose will depend on a number of factors, including

  • the complexity or otherwise of the form – the more complex the form, the more necessary it is to separate noticing its peculiarities from noticing its communicative effect.  This is especially the case when your learners' first languages are dramatically different in terms of form from English.
  • How obvious the meaning is – if the setting is explicit and no ambiguity is likely to arise, meaning can be handled easily before form.  However, with targets such as complex modality and subtle nuances of meaning, it is important that meaning is dealt with without your learners having to struggle with figuring out the form simultaneously.


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.

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

  • because they are intrinsically difficult – the form of the third conditional or perfect modal verbs such as He couldn't have been driving that fast etc. are examples of structures often avoided simply because they are structurally and phonologically difficult (/hi ˈkʊdnt əv bɪn ˈdraɪv.ɪŋ ˈðæt fɑːst/).
  • because the learner is unsure of the appropriateness of the item to perform a communicative function – making the settings and roles of participants clear is important or learners will be unsure of style and avoid the item altogether.
  • because you have risk-averse learners who see error of any kind as face threatening and will stick to what they know is right rather than risk making a public error.

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,

  • setting up buzz groups in which the learners try to identify what they have learned
  • getting everyone to stand at the end of a lesson and, in turn, to state one thing they have learned before they can leave (effective with, e.g., teenagers)
  • getting the learners to select and rank the most important things in the lesson from a mixed list of central and peripheral issues
  • compelling learners not only to use a specific sub skill to achieve a task but also to articulate the nature of the subskill they have employed


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:
and the second, an image something more like this:
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
input for an obviously related guide
inferencing for more on a related and important learning skill

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
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.