Encounters with Noticing Part 1

Note: This is an edited version of the original.

Dr. Conti claims that parallel texts, are good because they encourage ‘noticing’. Dr. Conti explains:

According to Schmidt’s (1990) ‘Noticing hypothesis’ the learning of a foreign language grammar structure cannot occur unless the learner ‘notices’ the gap between the way that structure is used in the target language and his/her own L1. In my classroom experience I have witnessed many a time that Eureka moment when a student said, almost thinking aloud, “Oh, I get it! ‘I went’ in French is actually ‘I am gone’. That would be an occurrence of ‘noticing’

Well, but would it?  Surely Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis makes no such claim; surely noticing the gap is more a trigger for noticing than noticing itself, and anyway, surely it’s not a question of noticing the gap between the L1 and the L2 but between features in input and output? Isn’t it?

Truscott (1998) suggests that we ignore the “noticing the gap” claim altogether:

Proponents of noticing also give much attention to noticing the gap – learners’ awareness of a  mismatch between the input and their current interlanguage (see especially Schmidt and Frota, 1986). It is important to avoid confusion between this idea, which necessarily involves awareness, and the more general notion of a comparison between input and interlanguage. Theories of unconscious acquisition naturally hypothesize an unconscious comparison process. Thus, arguments that learners must compare input to their interlanguage grammar (e.g., Ellis, 1994b) are not arguments for noticing.    

Since Schmidt says that the conscious comparison of input and interlanguage triggers noticing, Truscott surely contradicts Schmidt by claiming that ‘noticing the gap’ is nothing to do with ‘noticing’, doesn’t he?  On the other hand, isn’t Truscott right to challenge the claim that the only way L2 learners make progress in interlanguage development is through consciously attending to new features of the L2 that are present in the input?

It’s important to try to clarify what Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis says, and then to evaluate its claimsw because these days it’s being used  to support all manner of explicit teaching practices. Whether it’s presenting the present perfect in a grammar box, or  making the explicit teaching of lexical chunks the number one priority in teaching, or using a red pen to indicate errors in a composition, it’s all OK because the Noticing Hypothesis says that bringing things to learners’ attention is a good thing. Schmidt’s construct has been watered down so much that it now means no more that noticing in the everyday meaning of the word.

Schmidt (1990) says

subliminal language learning is impossible …… noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input into intake (Schmidt, 1990:  130).

This seems to say that input can’t get processed without being noticed. If it does, then all second language learning is conscious, a claim which is either trivially true (by adopting some very weak definition of ‘conscious’ or ‘learning’), or obviously false.

Schmidt says that the term ‘unconscious’ is used in three distinct senses:

  1. to describe learning without ‘intention’,
  2. to describe learning without metalinguistic ‘understanding’,
  3. to describe learning without attention and ‘awareness’.

He goes on to assert that although L2 learning without intention or metalinguistic understanding is clearly possible, there can be no learning without attention, accompanied by the subjective experience of being aware of – that is of ‘noticing’ – aspects of the surface structure of the input. Intake is

that part of the input which the learner notices … whether the learner notices a form in linguistic input because he or she was deliberately attending to form, or purely inadvertently.  If noticed, it becomes intake (Schmidt, 1990: 139).

So it seems that you can notice things purely inadvertently, without paying attention, but with focal awareness. What can this mean?

In the 1990 article, Schmidt says that in order to learn something new about the target language,

  • we notice = we pay attention = we are aware = we are focally aware
  • we deliberately attend to form
  • we can notice purely inadvertently – we perceive competing stimuli and may notice them if we choose
  • our focus of attention is on surface structures in the input
  • storage without conscious awareness is impossible

The primary evidence for the claim that noticing is a necessary condition for storage comes from studies in which the focus of attention is experimentally controlled. The basic finding, that memory requires attention and awareness, was established at the very beginning of research within the information processing model.

The 3 main sources I refer to are: Schmidt and Frota (1986), Schmidt, 1990, and Schmidt 2001.

Schmidt claims that ‘noticing’ can be operationally defined as “the availability for verbal report”, “subject to various conditions”.  He adds that these conditions are discussed at length in the verbal report literature,  but he does not discuss the issue of operationalisation further until 2001, and even there he fails to provide any reliable way of knowing if and when ‘noticing’ is being used.

In the 2001 article Schmidt says that ‘noticing’ is related to attention. Attention as a psychological construct refers to a variety of mechanisms or subsystems (including alertness, orientation, detection within selective attention, facilitation, and inhibition) which control information processing and behaviour when existing skills and routines are inadequate. Hence, learning is “largely, perhaps exclusively a side effect of attended processing”. (Schmidt, 2001: 25). But what does “attended processing” refer to? Is it ‘noticing’? Is attention the same as awareness?  Recall Truscott:

current research and theory on attention, awareness and learning are not clear enough to  support any strong claims about relations among the three. … they do not offer any basis for strong claims of the sort embodied in the Noticing Hypothesis (Truscott, (1998, p. 106).

Start again. ‘Noticing’ is part of the first stage of the process of converting input into implicit knowledge. Learners notice language features in the input, absorb them into their short-term memories, and compare them to features produced as output. Noticing takes place inside short-term memory, triggered by different influences, namely instruction, perceptual salience, frequency, skill level, task demands, and comparing.

So second language acquisition is a process that starts with input going through a necessary stage in short-term memory where “language features” are noticed. Surely not! All language features in the L2 shuffle through short-term memory and if unnoticed have to re-present themselves? No! As Gregg said in a comment on this blog:

Noticing is a perceptual act; you can’t perceive what is not in the senses, so far as I know. Connections, relations, categories, meanings, essences, rules, principles, laws, etc. are not in the senses.

Schmidt can’t expect us to accept that our knowledge of language is the result of noticing things in the input.

And how had the Noticing Hypothesis come to be accepted as an explanation of how input becomes intake, prior to processing and availability for integration into a learner’s developing interlanguage system? I found R. Ellis’ diagram, which is reproduced all over the place:

It appears to suggest that the 3 constructs of ‘noticing’, comparing and integrating are what turn input into output and explain IL development. Can it really be making such a claim? Where’s the noticing supposed to take place according to the figure? And what  is short/medium-term memory? Anyway, as Cross (2002) points out, Ellis (1994, 1997), Lewis (1993), Skehan (1998), Gass (1988), Batstone (1994), Lynch (2001), Sharwood-Smith (1981), Rutherford (1987) and McLaughlin (1987) all agree that noticing a feature in the input is an essential first step in language processing.

Long (2015) SLA and TBLT, says:

With Nick Ellis and others, what I claim is that explicit learning (not necessarily as a result of explicit instruction) involves a new form or form–meaning connection being held in short-term memory long enough for it to be processed, rehearsed, and an initial representation stored in long-term memory, thereafter altering the operation of the way additional exemplars of the item in the input are handled by the default implicit learning process. It is analogous to setting a radio dial to a new frequency. The listener has to pay close attention to the initial crackling reception. Once the radio is tuned to the new frequency, he or she can sit back, relax, and listen to the broadcast with minimal effort. Ellis identifies what he calls the general principle of explicit learning in SLA: “Changing the cues that learners focus on in their language processing changes what their implicit learning processes tune” (Ellis 2005, p. 327). The prognosis improves for both simple and complex grammatical features, including fragile features, and for acquisition in general, if adult learners’ attention is drawn to problems, so that they are noticed (Schmidt 1990 and elsewhere). This is the first of four or five main stages in the acquisition process (Chaudron 1985; Gass 1997), in which what is noticed is held and processed in short-term, or working, memory long enough for it to be compared with what is in storage in long-term memory, and, as a result, a sub-set of input becomes intake.

A couple of pages on:

Noticing in Schmidt’s sense, where the targets are the subject of focal attention, facilitates the acquisition of new items, especially non-salient ones, and as Schmidt maintains, and as demonstrated by 20 years of studies, from Schmidt and Frota (1986) to Mackey (2006), “more noticing leads to more learning” (Schmidt 1994, p. 18).

And then:  

Crucially, however, as claimed by Gass (1997), and as embodied in the tallying hypothesis (N.C. Ellis 2002a,b), once a new form or structure has been noticed and a first representation of it established in long-term memory, Gass’ lower-level automatic apperception, and Tomlin and Villa’s detection, can take over, with incidental and implicit learning as the default process.

Gass claims that apperception is “the process of understanding by which newly observed qualities of an object are related to past experiences”. It “serves as selective cueing for the very first step of converting input into intake”. It “relates to the potentiality of comprehension of input, but does not guarantee that it will result in intake”.

What does “apperception relates to the potentiality of comprehension of input” mean? Perhaps it relates to Long’s statement

whether detection without prior noticing is sufficient for adult learning of new L2 items is still unclear – perhaps one of the single most critically important issues, for both SLA theory and LT, awaiting resolution in the field.

Long goes on to say:

So the first representation in long-term memory primes the learner to unconsciously perceive subsequent instances in the input. The big question is of course whether noticing is necessary for any representation to be established in long-term memory: is consciously attending to and detecting a form or form-meaning connection in the input the necessary first stage in the process of acquiring some features and form–meaning connections?  Long calls this “perhaps one of the single most critically important issues, for both SLA theory, and language teaching, awaiting resolution in the field”. 

Rather than seeing ‘noticing’ as the necessary and sufficient condition of SLA, Long says that incidental and implicit learning are still the main ways adults learn an L2, and that while noticing might facilitate the acquisition of “new items”, it’s still an open question as to whether it’s a necessary condition for acquisition.


To be continued.


Cross, J. (2002) ‘Noticing’ in SLA: Is it a valid concept? Downloaded from  http://tesl-ej.org/ej23/a2.html

Ellis, R. (1997) SLA Research and Language Teaching. OUP

Krashen, S. (1994) The input hypothesis and its rivals. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of language, (pp. 45-77). London: Academic Press.

Long, M.H. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task Based Language Learning. Wiley.

Schmidt,R.W. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129–58.

Schmidt, R. (2001) Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp.3-32). Cambridge University Press.

Schmidt, R. and Frota, S.N.  (1986) Developing  basic  conversational  ability in  a  second language:  a  case  study of an adult learner of Portuguese . In Day , R.R., editor , Talking to learn: conversation in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury.

Truscott, J. (1998). Noticing in second language acquisition: A critical review. SLA Research 14, 103-135.


26 thoughts on “Encounters with Noticing Part 1

  1. Hi, Geoff,

    Your questions about Dick Schmidt’s ‘noticing’ construct are to the point(s), and very much reflect debates in the SLA literature over the years since he first proposed the Noticing Hypothesis in the late 1980s.

    As you know, Dick died last year. A plenary he delivered in 2010 was his last “official” position on the topic, although there were several comments in individual email exchanges after that. The paper can be downloaded from his UH SLS web-site, or by clicking on this link: http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/PDFs/SCHMIDT%20Attention,%20awareness,%20and%20individual%20differences.pdf

    Dick was a wonderful colleague and a brilliant scholar, greatly missed!


  2. Thanks for this, Mike. I agree with your comments on Dick. The first time I heard him speak, at a course he gave in ESADE, Barcelona, I was hugely impressed by him. Not just a brilliant scholar, either; he was great fun to be with.

  3. hi Geoff

    Truscott’s book on consciousness has some clear passages on why Shcmidt’s noticing is problematic – Notice what?; Awareness and input; Awareness and understanding; Attention and learning; Noticing the gap;

    Truscott goes onto to give his conceptualisation within the MOGUL framework – “We might define noticing then as the construction of a +follow-up+ perceptual representation consisting of a+ selected part+ of the original input representation.” (my emphasis)

    This follow-up representation is “co-indexed” with conceptual representations (i.e. representations of meaning which hence are +indirectly+ linked to the follow-up representations)

    Truscott notes that this his definition of noticing is similar to conscious apperception : )

    He says that though his definition may be clearer there remains a question of how to distinguish Schmidt’s noticing from awareness at the level of understanding?

    I guess the above could also drive anyone to drink, alcholic & non-alcholic : )
    (link to Truscott’s book http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?K=9781783092666)

  4. Geoff. I am greatly entertained by your Critic Elt blog but, on the assumption that Elt stands for English language teaching, don’t you think you might discover and share more valuable insights by employing your undoubted skills observing, reflecting on and writing about actual people successfully learning and using some English (appropriate for their purposes) as a foreign/second/other etc. language instead of playing this abstruse, rigidly-ruled academic linguistic theory and research game requiring hours and hours of free time and requiring the consumption of gallons of assorted liquids?

  5. Hi, Geoff;
    I’m so glad you’ve taken this subject up; I’ve always wanted to and never did. I’ve always had a problem trying to work out just what it is that the Noticing hypothesis claims. On the one hand, it should be uncontroversial that you have to receive input in order to act on it; you can’t be asleep, or in another part of town. On the other hand, you can’t notice what is not in the input; and rules, for instance, or functions, are not in the input. Dretske makes a distinction between noticing the toast burning and noticing that the toast is burning; your dog can do the former but not the latter. You can notice that the speaker said “I often eat eggs”; you can notice, in the second sense, that he didn’t say “I eat often eggs”, although I rather doubt that many L2 learners do. What you can’t do is notice the structure of an English verb phrase, which is what makes “I eat often eggs” impossible, and it is knowledge of the structure of an English verb phrase that the learner needs. Long, and Schmidt (to the best of my memory) talk about forms and ‘form-meaning relationships’, as if language acquisition were the acquisition of forms. Language acquisition is the acquisition of a grammar, which you can’t notice.

  6. Hi Connie,

    I confess that the tequila was a mere “literary device”; I haven’t had a drink since the last time I was at your home!

  7. Hi Mura,

    Thanks very much for this. I’ve got the Truscott book, and intend to refer to it in the next episode. The 2010 Schmidt article that Mike Long refers to gives some attention to the question of how to distinguish noticing from understanding.

  8. Hi Osnacantab, if I may 🙂

    Thanks very much for this. I’m glad you’re entertained. I hope you’ll grant that there is some connection between my playing this abstruse game and trying to decide the best way to help people learn an L2.

    It’s a tough job drinking all this liquid, but someone’s got to do it!

  9. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks very much for your comments. I hope to pursue these points in the next bit, and in particular to look at S. Carroll’s work on input, which I know you think highly of, and which Schmidt refers to in his 2010 article.

  10. Agree with all of the above, Geoff. During my PhD study, through concurrent and retrospective think-aloud protocols I identified many instances in which the students reported having ‘noticed’ how a structured ‘worked’ in the L2 through comparison with its equivalent L1 structure. Although this is not strictly the kind of Noticing Schmidt proposes, it does involve a cognitive comparison between the teacher’s input and the student’s L1 (which often their output is based on) and may trigger a restructuring of their initial hypothesis about how that structure works – it certainly did in a lot of cases with my PhD study informants. In this sense, I would argue that parallel texts may elicit such L1/L2 cognitive comparison, which can indeed in turn trigger Noticing.

  11. Hi Gianfranco,

    We can’t go on agreeing like this 🙂

    Thanks for your comments. I’m sure parallel texts can help in the way you suggest, and I suppose you’ll agree that the puzzle is to know when and how we should draw learners’ attention to which aspects of the L2. My doubts about the Noticing Hypothesis stem from my confusion about what Schmidt means by noticing, and whether the processing model where it plays such a crucial role is persuasive.

  12. Hi Geoff,

    At the risk of further muddying an already muddy pool, I’d say that salience would probably be a factor in how probable an item gets attention from a learner. It would obviously aid processability (pace Pienemann, 2003), because if you don’t attend to X due to directing too much attention to Y you won’t be processing it.

    What do you think?

  13. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for this. Yes, I think there’s wide agreement on the importance of salience and the lack of it for SLA. It’s an important part of Schmidt’s hypothesis, and of Long’s “cognitive-interactionist” theory of SLA, for example.

  14. My position on this is that Schmidt’s model is not universal in its applicability, fitting certain learners and learning settings rather than others and it is not the necessary pre-requisite for acquisition. In my study I identified a sub-group of informants in both my experimental and comparison group, which I labelled as ‘high monitors’ who paid more attention to L2 input in general but more specifically to grammar and were more responsive than the average student to corrective feedback. These students’ learning biographies, unsurprisingly, had two things in common: (1) they had been taught other languages in the past through a structural syllabus rather than a weak communicative one (as the other informants had been); (2) they were highly metacognizant individuals. I am myself a ‘high monitor’ and noticing has been a highly useful learning strategy for me which has often been triggered ‘subsconsciously’ but has led to the application of consciously implemented interpretive strategies which have eventually allowed me to internalize the L2-item in hand.

  15. Hi again, Gianfranco,

    One of Schmidt’s most often-quoted claims is “The more you notice, the more you learn”. And I think he would recognise you as the kind of learner who has an aptitude for language learning, is highly motivated to learn, pays attention, has good metacognitive strategies, and thus notices more than most.

    The Noticing Hypothesis is either right or wrong, surely, and applicable to all language learners or none. I’m still trying to get clear what Schmidt’s construct of ‘noticing’ amounts to, and also whether SLA can be explained as a process of learning items. As to the second point, I’m very persuaded by Kevin Gregg’s comments here, and by Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory, which Kevin has urged me to take a closer look at.

  16. Hi Geoff,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post. When I read “…… and drunk it without, OMG, noticing!” I literally burst into laughter. 😀

    After your second shot of tequila (I think it was), it suddenly occurred to me that maybe as an L2 learner, I do notice language features *unconsciously*. Or it seems it’s my brain that does so without “me” being really aware of it. But this is probably what is meant by implicit learning, right? I like being confused.

    Anyway, a highly informative read. You definitely got me thinking.


  17. Hi Hana,

    Thanks for this and I’m glad you enjoyed the story. If I understand what Schmidt is saying, which I don’t think I completely do yet, you can’t ‘notice’ language features *unconsciously* as he uses the term, but I certainly know what you mean.

  18. Hi Kevin,
    “Language acquisition is the acquisition of a grammar, which you can’t notice” is this a conclusion or a premise? We cannot notice what is not in the input, but since everybody manages to speak grammatically (in L1), I guess the grammar sneaked into the mind “somehow”. And since input is all there is, where else could we look? When you write that we cannot notice a rule “… notice the structure of an English verb phrase” merely by paying attention to input, I wonder in what other way anybody could get to the grammar if it is not by way of input? Also, it is not clear to me why I would need to notice the grammar to speak or write grammatically? I think that is the plight of native speakers. They don’t know what they are doing.


  19. Hi, Thom;
    Very quickly–I’ve got a train to catch–
    1) It’s a premise; there are those, including at least one person whose opinion I value very highly, who would deny the existence of grammar.
    2) Input is not all there is; this is what the Poverty of the Stimulus argument is all about.
    3) ‘I wonder in what other way anybody could get to the grammar if it is not by way of input’. There’s no other way; as I said, that should be uncontroversial. The question is how input leads to the construction of a grammar, given that, to repeat, you can’t notice rules, principles, constructions, etc.

  20. Hi Thom,

    Noticing is perceptual. One of the problems of Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis that I’m fumbling with, and that Kevin comments on, is that the hypothesis gives the impression of a procession of “items” from the environment presenting themselves in short-term memory, there to pass or fail the ‘noticing’ test. This, note, is different from allowing any reflection on, or further processing of, the “items” – which is why ‘noticing the gap’ is different. So the questions of what happens to “stimuli” from the environment, how those stimuli get processed, and how they end up as a mental grammar (unless you deny such a thing as emergentists tend to) don’t get a very complete answer from Schmidt. Furthermore, it’s still not clear to me what Schmidt means by input, intake or noticing, or whether this is a good way to describe the start of the putative information processing that goes on in language learning.

  21. @gregg176 Hello again,
    Your answers:
    1) It’s a premise; there are those, including at least one person whose opinion I value very highly, who would deny the existence of grammar.

    >This is very interesting. It really stacks the deck in the discussion. We say something can’t be found in input the reality of which we assume. I would be very keen to know who the detractor is.

    2) Input is not all there is; this is what the Poverty of the Stimulus argument is all about.

    >Ergo we infer the presence of something beyond input.

    3) ‘I wonder in what other way anybody could get to the grammar if it is not by way of input’. There’s no other way; as I said, that should be uncontroversial.

    Yes, I agree.

    “The question is how input leads to the construction of a grammar, given that, to repeat, you can’t notice rules, principles, constructions, etc.”

    >I need to think this through. Intutively this leads into a logical dead end for me (we obtain grammar from / through input, but we cannot observe it; maybe it is a matter of how we define “grammar” …and “noticing”)

    At first sight, and by analogy, I could infer the rules of the game by watching it. In fact, we often suggest “just start playing” over “study the rules” when engaging in gaming activities. The more complex a game, the less likely do we take the path of rule-learning. Language seems to be a complex game where we learn the rules by playing.

    Well anyway. Thank you for replying.


  22. An enjoyable and thought-provoking post, Geoff – thank you!

    One thing that puzzles me about all this is that there seems to be no regard for neurobiology – where and how does the brain fit in? Or does all this noticing, implicit learning, focal awareness, etc. happen in a disembodied ‘cognitive’ space?


  23. Hi Kyle,

    Thanks for this. There is quite a lot of discussion of how the brain processes information in Schmidt’s work, and of course extrapolation to the mind and to the key constructs of some kind of central information exchange, short, working and long term memory. I plan to look at that in Part 3.

  24. Oh dear. If a renowned academic such as yourself cannot make sense of the noticing hypothesis, what about poor teachers and teacher trainers?

    But seriously, like another commenter before me, I was entertained by this exploratory essay. I’m surprised though at your insistence that L2 acquisition is an entirely implicit and incidental process (and I think we should distinguish implicit learning from implicit knowledge), considering a slew of authors that you cite – Ellis, Lewis, Skehan, Gass and even Long (!) – who all subscribe to the view that noticing a feature in the input facilitates acquisition with some going as far as to claim that it is an essential first step. The view that it has a facilitative effect is what Schmidt himself postulated in the revised form of the Noticing hypothesis.

    To me, as a practitioner, noticing – as a classroom activity – has always been a useful tool for drawing learners’ attention to forms as they arise incidentally (I supposed it can be referred to as reactive focus on form). Seen that way, noticing – whether it converts input into intake or just makes certain features of the input more salient – seems to be perfectly compatible with the view that some focus on form is beneficial as espoused by most proponents of the weak(er) interface position, including Mr Long.

    Last but not least, I couldn’t help but notice (!) that your spurt of writing (and musing) was fuelled by a potion whose ingredients I, as an amateur mixologist, would like to get a firmer grasp on. What was it? 3 parts green tea, 3 parts espresso and how many parts of tequila?


  25. I have never said or implied that L2 acquisition is an entirely implicit and incidental process. Even Krashen doesn’t. Of course explicit learning and explicit instruction can help L2 learning; the question is: What sort of explicit teaching is most helpful and how does it fit in to other elements of teaching?

    The 2 posts on ‘noticing’ raise questions about the precise meaning of ‘noticing’ and the claims of the Noticing Hypothesis.

    The two most important issues involved, in my opinion, are

    1. the claim that linguistic competence in an L2 depends on noticing parts of auditory stimuli.As Gregg says “Language acquisition is the acquisition of a grammar, which you can’t notice”.

    2. the claims of many teacher trainers and “How to teach English as an L2” authors that the Noticing Hypotheses validates all manner of teaching practices.

    Your remarks are pertinent to the 2nd point. Your penultimate paragraph shows little appreciation for the “technical” sense in which Schmidt says he uses the construct ‘noticing’, and whatever the merits of “some” focus on form by teachers, it’s not automatically “sanctioned” by the Noticing Hypothesis.

    Schmidt says in his 1990 paper that what is noticed are “elements of the surface structure of utterances in the input, instances of language” and not “rules or principles of which such instances may be exemplars”. Furthermore, ‘noticing’ does not refer to comparisons across instances or to reflecting on what has been noticed. In the 2010 paper Schmidt repeats that noticing does not refer to reflecting on what is noticed.

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