Encounters with Noticing Part 3

How do we help people learn an L2? A major finding of SLA research is that learners of an L2 cannot be taught what they’re not ready to learn, because they’re all at some particular point in the development of interlanguages which are impervious to instruction. This suggested to many that we should help learners along their trajectory by finding out what their needs in the L2 are and then engaging them in relevant communicative tasks. Some brief, carefully-measured attention, now and then, to relevant aspects of the grammar is seen as an important way to speed up the development.

Then, along comes Schmidt and suggests that consciously ‘noticing’ formal features of L2 input is a necessary condition for learning, and this is taken by proponents of synthetic syllabuses which deliver bits of grammar or an endless succession of lexical chunks to mean that lots of explicit grammar and/or vocabulary teaching will help learners to ‘notice’ and to ‘notice the gap’.

In Parts 1 and 2 I’ve voiced some reservations about Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis, and here I’ll try to round things off.

Where were we?

Recall that in his original 1990 paper, Schmidt claimed that “intake” was the sub-set of  input which is noticed, and that the parts of input that aren’t noticed are lost. Thus, Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis, in its 1990 version, claims that noticing is the necessary condition for learning an L2.

‘Noticing’ is said to be the first stage of the process of converting input into implicit knowledge. It takes place in short-term memory (where, according to the original claim, the noticed ‘feature’ is compared to features produced as output) and it is triggered by these factors: instruction, perceptual salience, frequency, skill level, task demands, and comparing.

Criticisms of Schmidt’s hypothesis:

1.  It fails to distinguish carefully enough between attention and awareness

In reply to Schmidt’s argument that attention research supports the claim that consciousness is necessary for learning, Truscott (1998) points out that such claims are “difficult to evaluate and interpret”. He cites a number of scholars and studies to support the view that the notion of attention is “very confused”, and that it’s “very difficult to say exactly what attention is and to determine when it is or is not allocated to a given task. Its relation to the notoriously confused notion of consciousness is no less problematic”. He concludes (1998, p. 107) “The essential point is that current  research and theory on attention, awareness and learning are not clear enough to  support any strong claims about relations among the three.”

2.  Empirical support for the Noticing Hypothesis is weak

  • Truscott (1998) points out that the reviews by Brewer (1974) and Dawson and Schell (1987), cited by Schmidt, 1990), dealt with simple conditioning experiments and that, therefore, inferences regarding learning an L2 were not legitimate. Brewer specifically notes that his conclusions do not apply to the acquisition of syntax, which probably occurs ‘in a relatively unconscious ,  automatic fashion’ (p . 29).
  • Truscott further points out that while most current research on unconscious learning is plagued by continuing controversy, “one can safely conclude that the  evidence does not show that awareness of the information to be acquired is necessary for learning” (p. 108).
  • Altman (1990) gathered data in a similar way to Schmidt (1986) in studying her learning of Hebrew over a five-year period. Altman found that while half her verbalisation of Hebrew verbs could be traced to diary entries of noticing, it was not possible to identify the source of the other half and they may have become intake subconsciously.
  • Alanen’s (1992) study of Finnish L2 learning found no significant statistical difference between an enhanced input condition group and the control group.
  • Robinson’s (1997) study found mixed results for noticing under implicit, incidental, rule-search and instructed conditions.

3. Studies of ‘noticing’ suffer from serious methodological problems   

  • The studies are not comparable due to variations in focus and in the conditions operationalized.
  • The level of noticing in the studies may have been affected by variables which casts doubt on the reliability of the findings.
  • Cross (20o2) notes that “only Schmidt and Frota’s (1986) and Altman’s (1990) research considers how noticing target structures positively relates to their production as verbal output (in a communicative sense), which seems to be the true test of whether noticing has an effect on second language acquisition. A dilemma associated with this is that, as Fotos (1993) states, there is a gap of indeterminate length between what is noticed and when it appears as output, which makes data collection, analysis and correlation problematic.”
  • Ahn (2014) points to a number of problems that have been identified in eye-tracking studies, especially those using heat map analyses. (See Ahn (2014) for the references that follow.)Heat maps are only “exploratory” (p. 239), and they cannot provide temporal information on eye movement, such as regression duration, “the duration of the fixations when the reader returns to the lookzone” (Simard & Foucambert, 2013, p. 213), which might tempt researchers to rush into a conclusion that favors their own predictions. Second, as Godfroid et al. (2013) accurately noted, the heat map analyses in Smith (2012) could not control the confounding effects of “word length, word frequency, and predictability, among other factors” (p. 490). This might have yielded considerable confounding effects as well. As we can infer from the analyses shown in Smith (2012), currently the utmost need in the field is for our own specific guidelines for using eye-tracking methodology to conduct research focusing on L2 phenomena (Spinner, Gass, & Behney, 2013). Because little guidance is available, the use of eye tracking is often at risk of misleading researchers into making unreliable interpretations of their results.
  • Think aloud protocols are also questioned, since perhaps thinking aloud itself can affect learners’ cognitive processes.


Schmidt re-formulated his Noticing Hypothesis in 2001. He begins by saying that to minimise confusion, he will use ‘noticing’ as a technical term equivalent to what Gass (1988) calls  “apperception”, what Tomlin and Villa (1994) call “detection within selective attention,” and what Robinson’s (1995) calls “detection plus rehearsal in short term memory.”  What is noticed are now “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”. Noticing does not refer to comparisons across instances or to reflecting on what has been noticed.

In the section “Can there be learning without attention?”, Schmidt admits there can, with the L1 as a source that helps learners of an L2 being an obvious example. Schmidt says that it’s “clear that successful second language learning goes beyond what is present in input”. Schmidt presents evidence which, he admits, “appears to falsify the claim that attention is necessary for any learning whatsoever”, and this prompts him to propose the weaker version of the Noticing Hypothesis, namely “the more noticing, the more learning”.


As was mentioned, Schmidt (2001) says that he is using ‘noticing’ as a technical term equivalent to Gass’ apperception. True to dictionary definitions of apperception, Gass defines apperception as “the process of understanding by which newly observed qualities of an object are initially related to past experiences”. The light goes on, the learner realises that something new needs to be learned. It’s “an internal cognitive act in which a linguistic form is related to some bit of existing knowledge (or gap in knowledge)”. It shines a spotlight on the identified form and prepares it for further analysis. To me, this clashes with Schmidt’s insistence that noticing does not refer to comparisons across instances or to reflecting on what has been noticed, and in any case, it is not at all clear to me how the subsequent stages of Gass’ model convert apperceptions into implicit knowledge of the L2 grammar.

Schmidt says that ‘noticing’ is also equivalent to what Tomlin and Villa (1994) call “detection within selective attention.” But it seems to me that ‘noticing’ isn’t at all equivalent to what Tomlin and Villa really wanted to talk about – detection that does not require awareness. According to Tomlin and Villa, the three components of attention are alertness, orientation, and detection, but only detection is essential for further processing and awareness plays no important role in L2 learning.

In the 2010 paper, Schmidt confirms the concessions which amount to saying that ‘noticing’ is not needed for all L2 learning, but that the more you notice the more you learn. He also confirms that noticing does not refer to reflecting on what is noticed.

You can’t notice grammar 

Finally, we get a glimpse of an answer to Gregg’s crucial question about how we get from ‘noticing’ to the acquisition of linguistic competence in Schmidt’s 2010 paper, where he deals with Suzanne Carroll’s objection to his hypothesis. Schmidt succinctly summarises Carroll’s view that attention to input plays little role in L2 learning because most of what constitutes linguistic knowledge is not in the input to begin with. She argues that Krashen, Schmidt and Gass all see “input” as observable sensory stimuli in the environment from which forms can be noticed,

whereas in reality the stuff of acquisition (phonemes, syllables, morphemes, nouns, verbs, cases, etc.) consists of mental constructs that exist in the mind and not in the environment at all. If not present in the external environment, there is no possibility of noticing them.

Schmidt’s answer is:

In general, ideas about attention, noticing, and understanding are more compatible with instance-based, construction-based and usage-based theories (Bley-Vroman, 2009; Bybee & Eddington, 2006; Goldberg, 1995) than with generative theories.

Which is not much better than no answer at all. Carroll effectively answers Gregg’s question by saying that all those who start with input, following Krashen, get things backwards. I offered this quote from Carroll (2001, p. 11) at the end of Part 2:

The view that input is comprehended speech is mistaken  and has arisen from an uncritical examination of the implications of Krashen’s (1985) claims to this effect. …… Comprehending speech is something which happens as a consequence of a successful parse of the speech signal. Before one can successfully parse the L2, one must learn it’s grammatical properties. Krashen got it backwards!” 

Learners do not attend to things in the input as such, they respond to speech-signals by attempting to parse the signals, and failures to do so trigger attention to parts of the signal.  Carroll’s Autonomous Induction Theory is too complicated for me to offer a brief summary of, but in my opinion, Carroll’s assertions that it is possible to have speech-signal processing without attention-as-noticing or attention-as-awareness are persuasive. She argues that learners may unconsciously and without awareness detect, encode and respond to linguistic sounds; that learners don’t always notice their own processing of segments and the internal organization of their own conceptual representations; that the processing of forms and meanings are often not noticed; and that attention is the result of processing not a prerequisite for processing.

In brief:

  1. The Noticing Hypothesis even in its amended version does not clearly describe the construct of ‘noticing’.
  2. The empirical support claimed for the Noticing Hypothesis is not as strong as Schmidt (2010) claims.
  3. A theory of SLA based on noticing a succession of forms faces the impassable obstacle that, as Schmidt seemed to finally admit, you can’t notice rules or principles of grammar.
  4. “Noticing the gap” is not sanctioned by Schmidt’s ammended Noticing Hypothesis.
  5. The way that so many writers and ELT trainers use “noticing” to justify all kinds of explicit grammar and vocabulary teaching demonstrates that Scmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis is widely misunderstood and misused.

There we are then. My attempt to understand Schmidt’s propositions remind me of Wittgenstein’s famous conclusion to his Tractatus

My Propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them — as steps — to climb beyond them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)


Ahn, J.I. (2014) Attention, Awareness, and Noticing in SLA: A Methodological ReviewMSU Working Papers in SLS, Vol. 5.

Carroll, S. (2001) Input and Evidence: The Raw Material of Second Language Acquisition. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

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

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.

Schmidt, R. (2010) Attention, awareness, and individual differences in language learning. In W. M. Chan, S. Chi, K. N. Cin, J. Istanto, M. Nagami, J.W. Sew, T. Suthiwan, & I. Walker, Proceedings of CLaSIC 2010, Singapore, December 2-4 (pp. 721-737). Singapore: National University of Singapore, Centre for Language Studies.

4 thoughts on “Encounters with Noticing Part 3

  1. Yo, Geoff:
    Wonderful job on a really difficult subject; thanks so much for taking it on. Susanne’s book has not been given anywhere near the attention it deserves; I read two versions of it in manuscript, and urged, as I recall, that it be cut down, but I suspect its very size has put people off. (I tend to avoid big books; they dig into my sternum as I read in bed. That may be a major reason I never read Rod Ellis’s opus; there may be others.) Anyway, mazel tov.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks very much for this. Quite agree about the need for a slimmer, more accessible version of Carroll’s great book. As for the Ellis opus, I read a few pages and turned on the telly.

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