SLA Part 5: Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

(Note: Following a few emails I’ve received, I should make it clear that unless referring to UG, I use the word “grammar” in the sense that linguists use it; viz., “knowledge of a language”.)

Schmidt, undeterred by McLaughlin’s warning to stay clear of attempts to define “consciousness” , attempts to do away with its “terminological vagueness” by examining three senses of the term:

  1. consciousness as awareness,
  2. consciousness as intention,
  3. consciousness as knowledge.

1 Consciousness as awareness

Schmidt distinguishes between three levels of awareness: Perception, Noticing and Understanding. The second level, Noticing, is the key to Schmidt’s eventual hypothesis. Noticing is focal awareness.

When reading, for example, we are normally aware of (notice) the content of what we are reading, rather than the syntactic peculiarities of the writer’s style, the style of type in which the text is set, music playing on a radio in the next room, or background noise outside a window.  However, we still perceive these competing stimuli and may pay attention to them if we choose (Schmidt, 1990: 132).

Noticing refers to a private experience, but it can be operationally defined as “availability for verbal report”, and these reports can be used to both verify and falsify claims concerning the role of noticing in cognition.

2 Consciousness as intention

This distinguishes between awareness and intention behaviour. “He did it consciously”, in this second sense, means “He did it intentionally.” Intentonal learning is not the same as noticing.

3 Cnsciousness as knowledge

Schmidt suggests that 6 different contrasts (C) need to be distinguished:

C1: Unconscious learning refers to unawareness of having learned something.

C2: Conscious learning refers to noticing and unconscious learning to picking up stretches of speech without noticing them.  Schmidt calls this the “subliminal”  learning question: is it possible to learn aspects of a second language that are not consciously noticed?

C3: Conscious learning refers to intention and effort.  This is the incidental learning question: if noticing is required, must learners consciously pay attention?

C4: Conscious learning is understanding principles of the language, and unconscious learning is the induction of such principles.  This is the implicit learning question: can second language learners acquire rules without any conscious understanding of them?

C5: Conscious learning is a deliberate plan involving study and other intentional learning strategies, unconscious learning is an unintended by-product of communicative interaction.

C6: Conscious learning allows the learner to say what they appear to “know”.

Addressing C2, Schmidt points to diasagreement on a definition of intake. While Krashen seems to equate intake with comprehensible input, Corder distinguishes between what is available for going in and what actually goes in, but neither Krashen nor Corder explains what part of input functions as intake for the learning of form.   Schmidt also notes the distinction Slobin (1985), and Chaudron (1985) make between preliminary intake (the processes used to convert input into stored data that can later be used to construct language), and final intake (the processes used to organise stored data into linguistic systems).

Schmidt proposes that all this confusion is resolved by defining intake as:

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).

The implication of this is that:

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

The only study mentioned by Schmidt in support of his hypothesis is by Schmidt and Frota (1986) which examined Schmidt’s own attempts to learn Portuguese, and found that his notes matched his output quite closely.  Schmidt himself admits that the study does not show that noticing is sufficient for learning, or that noticing is necessary for intake.  Nevertheless, Schmidt does not base himself on this study alone; there is, Schmidt claims evidence from a wider source:

… 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 (Schmidt, 1990: 141).

Addressing C3, the issue of incidental learning versus paying attention, Schmidt acknowledges that the claim that conscious attention is necessary for SLA runs counter to both Chomsky’s rejection of any role for conscious attention or choice in L1 learning, and the arguments made by Krashen, Pienemann and others for the existence of a natural order or a developmental sequence in SLA.  Schmidt says that Chomsky’s arguments do not necessarily apply to SLA, and that

natural orders and acquisition sequences do not pose a serious challenge to my claim of the importance of noticing in language learning, …they constrain but do not eliminate the possibility of a role for selective, voluntary attention (Schmidt, 1990: 142).

Schmidt accepts that “language learners are not free to notice whatever they want” (Schmidt, 1990: 144), but, having discussed a number of factors that might influence noticing, such as expectations, frequency, perceptual salience, skill level, and task demands, concludes that

those who notice most, learn most, and it may be that those who notice most are those who pay attention most.  (Schmidt, 1990: 144)

As for C4, the issue of implicit learning versus learning based on understanding, Schmidt judges the question of implicit second language learning to be the most difficult “because it cannot be separated from questions concerning the plausibility of linguistic theories” (Schmidt, 1990: 149). But Schmidt rejects the “null hypothesis” which claims that, as he puts it, “understanding is epiphenomenal to learning, or that most second language learning is implicit” (Schmidt, 1990: 149).


Schmidt’s hypothesis caused an immediate stir within the academic community and quickly became widely-accepted.  It caused Mike Long to re-write his Interaction hypothesis and has been used by many scholars as the basis for studies of SLA. More importantly for my thesis, “noticing” is being increasingly used by teacher trainers, often with scant understanding of it, to justify concentrating on explicit grammar teaching.

I have the following criticisms to make of Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis.

1. Empirical support for the Noticing Hypothesis is weak

In response to a series of criticisms of his original 1990 paper, Schmidt’s 2001 paper gives various sources of evidence of noticing, all of which have been subsequently challenged:

a) Schmidt says learner production is a source of evidence, but no clear method for identifying what has been noticed is given.

b) Likewise, learner reports in diaries. Schmidt cites Schmidt & Frota (1986), and Warden, Lapkin, Swain and Hart (1995), but, as Schmidt himself points out, diaries span months, while cognitive processing of L2 input takes place in seconds. Furthermore, as Schmidt admits, making diaries requires not just noticing but reflexive self-awareness.

c) Think-aloud protocols. Schmidt agrees with the objection made to such protocols that studies based on them cannot assume that the protocols include everything that is noticed.  Schmidt cites Leow (1997), Jourdeais, Ota, Stauffer, Boyson, and Doughty (1995) who used think-aloud protocols in focus-on-form instruction, and Schmidt concludes that such experiments cannot identify all the examples of target features that were noticed.

d) Learner reports in a CALL context (Chapelle, 98) and programs that track the interface between user and program – recording mouse clicks and eye movements (Crosby 1998). Again, Schmidt concedes that it is still not possible to identify with any certainty what has been noticed.

e) Schmidt claims that the noticing hypothesis could be falsified by demonstrating the existence of subliminal learning either by showing positive priming of unattended and unnoticed novel stimuli or by showing learning in dual task studies in which central processing capacity is exhausted by the primary task. The problem in this case is that in positive priming studies one can never really be sure that subjects did not allocate any attention to what they could not later report, and similarly, in dual task experiments one cannot be sure that no attention is devoted to the secondary task. Jacoby, Lindsay, & Toth (1996, cited in Schmidt, 2001: 28) argue that the way to demonstrate true non-attentional learning is to use the logic of opposition, to arrange experiments where unconscious processes oppose the aims of conscious processes.

f) Merikle and Cheesman distinguish between the objective and subjective thresholds of perception. The clearest evidence that something has exceeded the subjective threshold and been consciously perceived or noticed is a concurrent verbal report, since nothing can be verbally reported other than the current contents of awareness. Schmidt argues that this is the best test of noticing, and that after the fact recall is also good evidence that something was noticed, providing that prior knowledge and guessing can be controlled.  For example, if beginner level students of Spanish are presented with a series of Spanish utterances containing unfamiliar verb forms, are forced to recall immediately afterwards the forms that occurred in each utterance, and can do so, that is good evidence that they did notice them. On the other hand, it is not safe to assume that failure to do so means that they did not notice.  It seems that it is easier to confirm that a particular form has not been noticed than that it has: failure to achieve above-chance performance in a forced-choice recognition test is a much better indication that the subjective threshold has not been exceeded and that noticing did not take place.

g) 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).

h) 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.

i) Alanen’s (1992) study of Finnish L2 learning found no significant statistical difference between an enhanced input condition group and the control group.

j) Robinson’s (1997) study found mixed results for noticing under implicit, incidental, rule-search and instructed conditions.

Furthermore, studies of ‘noticing’ have been criticised for serious methodological problems:

i) The studies are not comparable due to variations in focus and in the conditions operationalized.

ii) The level of noticing in the studies may have been affected by variables which casts doubt on the reliability of the findings.

iii) Cross (2002) 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.”

iv) 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.


2 The construct of “noticing” is not clearly defined. Thus, it’s not clear what exactly it refers to, and, as has already been suggested above, there’s no way of assertaining when it is, and when it isn’t being used by L2 learners.

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.

But what is it? It’s “focused attention”, and, Schmidt argues, attention research supports the claim that consciousness in the form of attention 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.”

In an attempt to clarify matters and answer his critics, Schmidt re-formulated his Noticing Hypothesis in 2001. A number of concessions are made, resulting in a much weaker version of the hypothesis. To minimise confusion, Schmidt says  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.” So now, 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”. Noticing does not refer to comparisons across instances or to reflecting on what has been noticed.

In a further concession, 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”.

There are a number of problems with this reformulation.

Gass: Apperception

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. This seems to clash 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, Gass provides no clear explanation of how the subsequent stages of her model convert apperceptions into implicit knowledge of the L2 grammar.

Tomlin and Villa: Detection

Schmidt says that ‘noticing’ is also equivalent to what Tomlin and Villa (1994) call “detection within selective attention.” But is it? Surely Tomlin and Villa’s main concern is 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.

Carroll: input doesn’t contain mental constructs; therefore they can’t be noticed

As Gregg commented when I discussed Scmidt’s hypthesis in my earlier blog “You can’t notice grammar!” Schmidt’s 2010 paper attempts to deal with Suzanne Carroll’s objection by first succinctly summarising 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 (Carroll, 2001, p.47).

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.

It seems that Schmidt, in an attempt to save his hypothesis, is prepared, to ditch what Carroll refers to as “100 years of linguistic research, which  demonstrates that linguistic cognition is structure dependent”, and to adopt the connectionist view that linguistic knowledge is encoded as activated neural nets, and that it is linked to acoustic events by no more than association.

I think it’s worth quoting a bit more from Carroll’s impressive 2001 book. Commenting on all those who start with input, she says:

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.  Thus, it is possible to have speech-signal processing without attention-as-noticing or attention-as-awareness. Learners may unconsciously and without awareness detect, encode and respond to linguistic sounds; learners don’t always notice their own processing of segments and the internal organization of their own conceptual representations; the processing of forms and meanings are often not noticed; and attention is thus the result of processing not a prerequisite for processing.


In brief:

1. In his 2010 paper, Schmidt confirms the concessions made in 2001, 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.

2. The Noticing Hypothesis even in its weaker version doesn’t clearly describe the construct of ‘noticing’.

3. The empirical support claimed for the Noticing Hypothesis is not as strong as Schmidt (2010) claims.

4. 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.

5. “Noticing the gap” is not sanctioned by Schmidt’s ammended Noticing Hypothesis.

6. 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.



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

Carroll, S. (2001) Input and Evidence. Amsterdam; Benjamins.

Corder, P. (1967) The significance of learners’ errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 5, 161-169

Cross, J. (2002) ‘Noticing’ in SLA: Is it a valid concept? Downloaded from

Ellis, N. (1998) Emergentism, Connectionism and Language Learning. Language Learning 48:4,  pp. 631–664.

O’Grady, W. (2005) How Children learn language. CUP.

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.

Truscott, J. (1998)  Noticing in second language acquisition: a critical review. Second Language Research, 2.


3 thoughts on “SLA Part 5: Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis

  1. Pingback: The Enigma of the Interface | What do you think you're doing?

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