VanPatten’s Processing Instruction


A recent thread on Twitter prompts me to discuss VanPatten’s “Processing Instruction”. The thread was quite lively and interesting, but I thought VanPatten’s model was being misrepresented, and also that the influence of Schmidt’s Noticing construct was being ignored. So here’s my view. I lean mostly on the book VanPatten edited in 2004: Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary.

I should begin by saying that I share many of VanPatten’s views on SLA and their teaching implications. In a short essay outlining his view of SLA (VanPatten, 2010), VanPatten claims there are two distinct aspects of acquisition. “One involves the acquisition of an abstract and implicit mental representation, …. the other is skill —the ability to use language fluently (measured by speed and accuracy) in both production and comprehension”. Without getting involved in a discussion about this, we may simply note that VanPatten (2010) argues

neither language as mental representation nor language as skill can be directly taught. Teachers and materials cannot directly intervene in the development of either.

I understand VanPatten to be saying that he sees little value in ELT courses that rely on the explicit teaching of any of the formal features of language – syntax, phonology, lexicon-morphology and the semantics that relate to structure – or on the explicit teaching of speaking, listening, reading or writing. The problem is that this view is not clearly implemented in his discussions of Processing Instruction.

Input Processing and Processing Instruction

There are two parts to VanPatten’s approach: Input Processing (IP) and Processing Instruction (PI).

The IP model describes how learners of additional languages (henceforth “learners”) process input and argues that learners’ attempts to understand spoken and written input are hampered by faulty processing.

This lays the foundation for PI, which consists of a number of pedagogic procedures aimed at dealing with the problem of faulty processing.

Regarding IP, VanPatten proposes various principles that constrain the way learners process input, especially in early and intermediate stages. Two key principles are now summarised.

1. The Primacy of Meaning Principle

Learners process input for meaning before they process it for form: they look for content words in the input before anything else. This “push to get meaning” combined with limited resources for processing input, means that “certain elements of form will not get processed for acquisitional purposes”. The principle is broken down into a number of sub-principles including the Lexical Preference Principle (“If grammatical forms express a meaning that can also be encoded lexically (i.e., that grammatical marker is redundant), then learners will not initially process those grammatical forms until they have lexical forms to which they can match them”), and the Sentence Location Principle (“Learners tend to process items in sentence initial position before those in final position and those in medial position”.)

2. The First-Noun Principle

 “Learners tend to process the first noun or pronoun they encounter in a sentence as the subject”. The principle predicts, for example, that learners will incorrectly process passives such as ‘John was fired by Mary’ (taking John to be the one having done the firing).

The result of such principles is that learners sometimes end up with “incorrect data” or with data in which “crucial elements are simply not processed”. VanPatten argues that “less than optimal input processing” is one of the major inhibitors of acquisition.

Processing Instruction

PI provides activities that “push learners away from less than optimal processing” and towards processing along a better path so as to enable intake for acquisition. The essence of PI is structured input, which helps input become intake. In its original formulation, and in many subsequent studies, PI is a four-step process:

Step 1: Identify the problem in the processing.

Step 2: Provide a metalinguistic explanation

Step 3: Lead learners through a number of Structured Input Processing activities

Step 4: Provide feedback.

Note that in many of his discussions of PI, VanPatten makes scant, if any, mention of Steps 2 and 4. In VanPatten (2018), for example, a  “typical IP treatment” is described, and it consists only of “referential activities” followed by “affective activities”, both parts of Step 3: structured input processing. If the problem involves the first-noun principle, learners are asked to listen to and read a mixture of sentences (in English, a mixture of actives and passives) and then asked to indicate who did what to whom (via picture selection, logical sentence follow-up, translation, and other means). This pushes learners to abandon the first-noun principle and find other cues that lead to correct interpretation. These referential activities are followed by affective activities, where learners indicate what is true for them, using information about themselves and the world they live in. “These activities reinforce the appropriate processing that has begun with the referential activities”. 

In the 2004 book, VanPatten gives the example of a teacher who concludes that learners need help with yes/no questions. Again, no mention is made of metalinguistic explanation, or feedback.  

The problem from a processing perspective is the processing of do. Because do is a dummy verb and basically meaningless, if learners cannot attach meaning or function to it during comprehension, it may be skipped or processed incorrectly, perhaps something like the Japanese particle ka for making yes/no questions. What PI might do, prior to class, is provide structured input activities that force learners to process do for tense and person, as in the following:

A. Listen to each sentence and then select the time frame that best goes with the sentence.

1. a. at this moment b. yesterday in class c. in the next class

2. a. right now b. last night at home c. next week

3. a. every summer b. last summer c. next year

4. a. every summer b. last summer c. next year

and so on

Script: 1. Did the teacher hear the student correctly? 2. Does the student understand

the material? 3. Do the teachers at your school take vacation? 4. Did the

teachers take vacation? and so on

B. Listen to each sentence and select the next most logical sentence to follow.

1. a. Yes, at least once a month. b. No, they never visited.

2. a. Yes. I went to China. b. No. I am at home.

and so on.

Script: 1. Does your family visit you? 2. Did you take a vacation? and so on.

Presumably, there would be a series of four to five activities of this type, each with about 10 items. The purpose is to get students to begin processing do for its tense and person features, which would then allow its properties in the lexicon to be made available for participation in yes/no question formation. Class time would consist of interactional activities in which yes/no questions are used to get information related to some theme or topic. For example, the topic of the class might be “Can you live with your classmate? Are you compatible?” One activity might be something like this.

C. Step 1. Answer the following questions for yourself. Yes No

1. Do you usually clean up the dishes right away after eating?

2. Did you clean up the dishes right away after eating last night?

3. Do you usually make your bed in the morning?

4. Did you make your bed this morning?

5. Do you usually leave your clothes on the floor when you take them off?

6. Did you leave your clothes on the floor yesterday?

Step 2. Now, interview a classmate and ask him or her the questions from Step 1. Write down their responses next to yours.

Step 3. Using the information from Steps 1 and 2, rate yourself and your classmate on the scale of neatness below. Be prepared to share information with the class.

Very neat – 5  Kind of messy – 1.      Me 5 4 3 2          1    My classmate 5 4 3 2 1

Follow-up to in-class work might include online listening activities in which someone is interviewed about his or her neatness (video would be best) in which yes/no questions are used by the interviewer. After listening, the student might draw conclusions about the person interviewed, the nature of the questions asked (e.g., what other questions could you ask?), and so on.


Input Proccessing       

Let’s look first at VanPatten’s model of IP. In his introductory chapter to the 2004 book, VanPatten starts with definitions:  

Processing, as VanPatten uses it, refers to making a connection between form and meaning.

A learner notes a form and at the same time determines its meaning (or function). The connection to meaning may be partial or it may be complete (for example, given the complexity of verb endings in Spanish, a learner may “realize” that a form denotes pastness but has not grasped the aspectual meaning also encoded in the inflection).

Perception of a form. A “form” is

the acoustic signal registration that happens to all auditory stimuli. This occurs prior to assignment of meaning and in a number of cases something perceived may get deleted before assignment of meaning to a sentence (see, for example, the discussion in Wolvin & Coakley, 1985).


… any conscious registration of a form, but not necessarily with any meaning attached to it (Schmidt, 1990).”  Terrell (1991), for example, very clearly illustrates his ability to notice a form in the input but an inability to assign any meaning (or function to it).

VanPatten summarises:

Thus, processing implies that perception and noticing have occurred, but the latter two do not necessarily imply that a form has been processed (linked with meaning and/or function).

A few pages later, he says:

I take as a point of departure the following claims: that during interaction in the L2 (1) learners are focused primarily on the extraction of meaning from the input (e.g., Faerch & Kasper, 1986; Krashen, 1982), (2) that learners must somehow “notice” things in the input for acquisition to happen (Schmidt, 1990 and elsewhere), and that (3) noticing is constrained by working memory limitations regarding the amount of information they can hold and process during on line (or real time) computation of sentences during comprehension (e.g., Just & Carpenter, 1992).

This is all rather puzzling. When VanPatten says he takes Schmidt’s Noticing hypothesis as “a point of departure”, does he mean he accepts it? If not, what does he mean? And why does he make his own peculiar distinctions between perception, noticing and processing, especially since processing can be “partial” or “complete”? What motivates this description? The model consists of constraining principles, but no coherent explanation of them is given.

Input Processing

In her contribution to the (2004) book Processing Instruction, Susanne Carroll points out that the IP Model is not a model of input perception, parsing, or sentence interpretation, but rather a model of constraints on processing. The problem here is that defining constraints on processing pre-supposes that one knows what processing involves, and VanPatten doesn’t tell us. The IP model needs a theory of perception and parsing, without which it is difficult to interpret and evaluate.

Carroll goes on to say that if input processing involves connecting forms with meaning, then we need to know how forms come to be mentally represented, i.e., how forms emerge from stimuli that have been noticed. Otherwise, the Primacy of Meaning Principle is a tautology. Note that Carroll sees the Noticing Hypothesis as “critical” to Processing Instruction, since its aim is to help learners to notice how the occurrence of particular forms in the input mean certain things. Thus, “If the Noticing Hypothesis is inadequate in some respects, it will seriously limit the applicability of the Processing Instruction Theory”.

And, of course, Carroll has consistently argued that the Noticing Hypothesis is inadequate in many respects. Schmidt acknowledged that the claim in his original version of the Noticing Hypothesis (that there can be no acquisition without noticing) is simply wrong. First, it is, by definition, simply not possible to consciously “notice” parts of grammar from input because such abstract formal aspects of language aren’t part of input from the environment. You can’t notice things that aren’t there. This led Schmidt to revise his hythosesis to the much weaker claim that learners must pay attention to “surface elements”. As Doughty (2007, see below) says, while Schmidt fails to say what precisely these surface elements are, he states that “the objects of attention and noticing are elements of the surface structure of utterances in the input -instances of language—rather than any abstract rules or principles of which such instances may be exemplars (Schmidt, 2001, p. 5)”.

Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence to support the claim that many aspects of the speech signal are detected well below the threshold of awareness in the processing of language and good reason to suggest that much of our syntactic and semantic acquisition is similarly not consistent with the Noticing Hypothesis. Carroll concludes:

Attention and attentional control are usually discussed in the context of the regulation of our behavior. It is unclear to what extent input processing can be characterized in these terms. Input processing may be better characterized as something that happens to us rather than something we do.

In brief, VanPatten’s Input Processing model consists of principles which

1) use confusing terms;

2) imply that noticing is required, and

3) lack a theoretical explanation.

As it stands, I don’t think the model provides a satisfactory underpinning for the PI approach. Clarification and explanation are needed, if the intention is to demonstrate the implicit nature of L2 learning and to provide the justification for pedagogic structured processing activities which rely on implicit learning.

Processing Instruction

Turning now to PI, I suggest that here too there are signs of confusion. Despite VanPatten’s statement, quoted above, that “neither language as mental representation nor language as skill can be directly taught”, accounts of PI include

1 talk of metalinguistic explanation (involving noticing and/or explicit grammar teaching),

2 feedback (ditto), and

3  referential activities which sometimes involve noticing and affective activities which sometimes involve focus on forms.   

Much of this is dealt with by Cathy Doughty later on in the same book. In Chapter 13, Doughty argues that

PI often comprises more elements than are necessary for inducing the noticing of forms while processing meaning, and hence is either inefficient or, at times, may be counterproductive.

First, note that Doughty, like Carroll, interprets PI as designed to induce the noticing of forms. Next, Doughty is surely right about there being too many elements, and right to identify the explicit instruction component as an unnecessary element of PI.

The explicit instruction evident in PI should be recognized for what it is—metalinguistic explanation that is known to lead to declarative knowledge about language rather than deployable language ability. A number of studies in the PI paradigm have now shown that, as was to be expected, the metalinguistic explanation that precedes structured processing activities is not a necessary component of PI.

Commenting on the design of the three studies reported in the book which are intended to lend support to claims for PI, Doughty says:

On close examination of the structured processing activities employed in all three, it becomes evident that they often depart considerably from some SI activities used in earlier studies. …. The activities are much more like language manipulation and metalinguistic activities (e.g., fill in the blank, label the sentence) than are many of the referential and affective processing activities in earlier studies.

Doughty concludes that only the structured input activities that facilitate focus on form are likely to emerge as a psycholinguistically valid operationalization of PI, because “only they remain true to the original insight from input processing theory that when learners misanalyze the input, their input processing strategy must be altered”. In contrast, the metalinguistic components of PI implemented either in the phase prior to SI activities (the EI) or in the feedback are not necessary.

Doughty also argues that the PI studies reported in the book and elsewhere claim that IP receives support from the data, but they do so by relying on outcome measures which are not valid for testing whether the learners’ underlying interlanguage system has been changed in any way. Doughty is surely right to say that if PI claims to help learners to process input so that it becomes intake for acquisition, then the test of its effectiveness must include a valid measure of how input processing changes have led to L2 restructuring.


VanPatten’s work is, in my opinion, of great importance and value both to the study of SLA and to the practice of ELT. The Input Processing model needs some clarification and expansion, but it is well-motivated and in the last twenty years has provoked enormous interest, not just among scholars of SLA, but also among teachers and teacher educators. I personally welcome the challenge it represents to the increasingly well-established emergentist paradigm. The increasing number of published studies aimed at evaluating the efficacy of different structured processing activities make interesting and thought-provoking reading. Despite the limitations of their outcome measures, they represent a real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT, and that, for me, is the main thing. VanPatten is a force for change. He speaks directly to teachers and, while I wish he would make his message a bit clearer, it is, I think, clear to everybody that he would like to see radical reform in the way that additional languages are taught. 


VanPatten, B. (2004). Processing Instruction: Theory, Research and Commentary. Routledge.    

VanPatten, B. (2010). The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill. International Journal of English Studies10(1), 1–18.

VanPatten, B. (2018) Processing Instruction. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching.Wiley.



6 thoughts on “VanPatten’s Processing Instruction

  1. Damn, Maura, if it isn’t good to see your lovely icon on the “like” bar. Thank you, and I really, really hope we meet some sunny day.

  2. Dear Geoff, don’t know if a like from me can compare to Mura’s, but I really appreciate you writing this. Very clear and helpful. Thanks so much, Kamila

  3. Hi Kamila,

    Thanks very much to you! You prompted me to sit down and sort out my own view and I’m glad you found the post useful.

  4. hi Geoff

    i wonder if the clarity issues regarding VanPatten’s views you point to could be seen from the light of single vs multiple systems view of explicit and implicit knowledge (Kim & Godfroid 2023)?

    i.e. van Patten like most SLA researchers adopts a multiple systems view and a multiple systems views includes both interface and non-interface positions (hence may generate the clarity issues) whereas a single systems view says explicit knowledge pre-supposes implicit knowledge?

    The interface of explicit and implicit second-language knowledge: A longitudinal study, Kathy MinHye Kim and Aline Godfroid (2023)

  5. Hi Maura,

    One more article to read! Thanks for bringing this to my attention and I’ll answer your question when I’ve read it.

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