I’ve done a few posts on Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis, but here’s what I hope is a simple summary which untangles some of the strands in these previous discussions.
As usual, my main gripe is with those teacher educators who, as members of the establishment with a vested interest in coursebook-driven ELT, continue to fail in their duty to properly inform teachers about how people learn English as an L2.
Two types of knowledge are involved in SLA, and the main difference between them is conscious awareness. Explicit L2 knowledge is knowledge which learners are aware of and which they can retrieve consciously from memory. It’s knowledge about language. In contrast, implicit L2 knowledge is knowledge of how to use language and it’s unconscious – learners don’t know that they know it, and they usually can’t verbalize it. (Ignoring subtle differences, I take the terms Declarative and Procedural knowledge to mean the same as explicit and implicit knowledge of the L2.)
To use explicit knowledge, learners have to retrieve it from memory, which is a slow, effortful process unsuitable for quick and fluent language production. In contrast, learners access implicit knowledge unconsciously, a very quick process allowing for unplanned, fluent language production.
Today, there’s a consensus among SLA scholars that the main way people learn an L2 is unconsciously, when engaged in using the L2 for genuine communicative purposes. Implicit learning is seen as the “default” mechanism: it leads to implicit knowledge, which is automatically and quickly retrieved – the basic components of fluency – and more lasting because of the deeper entrenchment which comes from repeated activation. The findings from over 50 years of studies points to a pervasive implicit mode of learning, and to the limited role of explicit learning. Nobody challenges the important role that explicit knowledge can play in instructed SLA, but what most scholars firmly reject is the erroneous view adopted by most teachers that declarative knowledge is a necessary first step in learning an L2.
Adopting the view that declarative knowledge is a necessary first step in learning an L2 leads to the methodological principle that the first step in a course of English as an L2 is to describe/ demonstrate/ explain the L2, after which students should be given some opprtunities to practice it. This is turn requires chopping the L2 into “items” – like personal pronouns, the present tense, adjectives describing nouns, vowel sounds, and so on – and then dealing with them in a sequential order, in the way that coursebooks do.
Coursebook-driven ELT is demonstrably inefficacious: most of the hundreds of millions of people who do courses in English as an L2 fail to reach their objectives (see Jordan & Long (2022, for examples and sources). The reason for its inefficaciousness is simple: coursebook-driven ELT leads to teachers talking for most of classroom time about the L2, and affords students too few opportunities and too little time to learn by doing.
Teacher trainers and educators must accept a lot of the responsibility for the current deplorable state of ELT. With a few notable exceptions, they consistently fail in their duty to inform teachers about reliable findings of SLA research. Teacher trainees are told next to nothing about interlanguage development – about how what you teach is constrained by what students are ready to learn – and even less about the roles of implicit and explicit knowledge, because the teacher trainers have a personal, vested interest in established practices – they write coursebook series, they write “How to Teach” books, they design, run and assess SLTE courses, they work as examiners for high stakes proficiency exams, and they give the keynotes and plenaries at the yearly round of conferences.
To the issue, then.
One part of SLA research that does get talked about by teacher educators is Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis, which, the educators say, “proves” that consciously ‘noticing’ formal features of L2 input is a necessary condition for learning. This, in turn, “proves” that basing ELT on using coursebooks where prime place is given to the explicit teaching of grammar points, collocations, pronunciation features, etc., is justified not just by convenience but by support from SLA research.
The Noticing Hypothesis
Schmidt’s extremely influential hypothesis was first formulated in 1990. Attempting to resolve the confusion he describes in talk about conscious and unconscious learning and previous attempts to define input and intake, he defines input as the sensory language stimuli the learner gets from the environment and 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).
In brief, Schmidt’s claim is that “intake” is 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 the first stage of the process of converting input into both explicit and implicit knowledge. It takes place in short-term memory and it is triggered by the following 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 subsequent 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 (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.”
- 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.
In reply to the criticisms of his 1990 paper, Schmidt re-formulated his Noticing Hypothesis in 2001. He begins this paper 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 (1995) calls “detection plus rehearsal in short term memory.” Crucially, 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. This retreat recognizes the fact, pointed out most forcefully by Gregg (see below), that you can only notice what is in the environment, and abstract rules of grammar are evidently not in the environment, thus not part of the input.
Furthermore, 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”.
Apperception and Detection
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 surely 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 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, I suggest, ‘noticing’ isn’t at all equivalent to what Tomlin and Villa are talking about, viz.: detection WITHOUT awareness. According to Tomlin and Villa, the three components of attention are alertness, orientation, and detection, but only detection is essential for further processing, thus awareness plays no important role in L2 learning.
In the third, 2010, paper, Schmidt confirms the concessions which amount to saying that ‘noticing’ is not needed for all L2 learning and he also confirms that noticing does not refer to reflecting on what is noticed. In the 2010 paper we finally get a glimpse of an answer to Gregg’s crucial question about how we get from ‘noticing’ to the acquisition of linguistic competence, when Schmidt 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, but then proceed to claim that such stimuli allow formal aspects of the language to 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. Carroll (2001, p. 11) 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. Carroll’s assertion that it is possible to have speech-signal processing without attention-as-noticing or attention-as-awareness is 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.
- The Noticing Hypothesis even in its amended version does not clearly describe the construct of ‘noticing’.
- The empirical support claimed for the Noticing Hypothesis is not as strong as Schmidt (2010) claims.
- 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.
- “Noticing the gap” is not sanctioned by Schmidt’s amended Noticing Hypothesis.
- 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.
Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis is probably the most widely-cited reference (usually only its 1990 formulation) used by teacher educators who continue to promote coursebook-driven ELT. “Noticing” has been reduced from a vexed theoretical construct to a term used in its ordinary canonical dictionary definition and widened to include “noticing the gap” (even though Schmidt himself ruled this out).
It’s time we recognized the severe limitations of Schmidt’s hypothesis, and the damage that its misrepresentation causes. We must move on, digest the implications of SLA research findings, and adopt analytic syllabuses such as Dogme and strong forms of TBLT, where ELT is based on implicit learning, learning by doing. In such syllabuses, the important, but subsidiary role of explicit instruction, used reactively to provide feedback to students’ performance of meaning-focused tasks, needs further refinement.
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: 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
Gregg, K. 2003). The State of Emergentism in Second Language Acquisition. Second Language Research. 19. 95-128. See also Gregg’s comments on my blog posts on Schmidt and Carroll.
Jordan, G. & Long, M. (2022) English Language Teaching: Now and How it Could be. Cambridge Scholars.
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.