Vol. 6. No. 3 A-2 December 2002
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'Noticing' in SLA: Is it a valid concept?

Jeremy Cross
British Council, Nagoya, Japan
< jeremy.cross@jpa.britishcouncil.or.jp>


This article focuses on the role of "noticing" and "noticing the gap" in second language acquisition. It is argued that this notion has gained wide support on the basis of intuition and assumption rather than on the findings of appropriate and exhaustive empirical research. The aim of this paper is twofold: a) to consider the theoretical constructs that underlie the role of noticing, and b) to assess the validity of the assumption that noticing enhances language acquisition. This paper concludes that 1) empirical research has yet to validate the role of noticing in language acquisition, 2) an alternative view offered by Truscott (1998), which suggests that noticing is merely tied to the acquisition of metalinguistic knowledge, is worthy of investigation, and 3) future research into the relationship between training learners to notice linguistic forms and the acquisition of metalinguistic knowledge may enhance our understanding of noticing in second language acquisition.


The significance of the role of conscious and unconscious processes and the notion of interface in second language (L2) development has been the focus of much debate in the general field of cognitive psychology. The differing theoretical views (see Krashen, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1994; Reber, 1989, 1993; Seliger, 1979; Bialystok, 1979; Stevick, 1980; Odlin, 1986; and McLaughlin, 1990) have prompted substantial experimental research. Both Long (1983, 1988) and Ellis (1990), through reviewing a number of such empirical studies, have concluded that, overall, conscious learning seems to contribute to successful L2 development [1]. This conclusion, according to Fotos (1993), implies that an interface between what is "learnt" and what is "acquired" does therefore exist. If it is accepted that an interface does indeed exist, what might be the nature of such an interface? One proposal is that put forward by Schmidt (1990, 1993, 1994, 1995; Schmidt & Frota, 1986), who offers a hypothesis related to conscious learning that focuses on what Skehan argues is "the crucial concept of noticing" (Skehan, 1998, p. 48). The purpose of this paper is to a) consider the theoretical constructs that underlie the role of noticing, and b) assess the validity of the assumption that noticing enhances language acquisition. [-1-]

The theoretical constructs that underlie the role of noticing

Consciousness raising and noticing

Prior to discussing noticing and its role as an interface in language acquisition, it is necessary to briefly consider the process which Fotos (1993) suggests precedes it--consciousness raising. The term "consciousness raising" refers to the drawing of learners' attention to the formal properties of language (Rutherford et al., 1985). Significantly, Ellis (1994, 1997) points out that consciousness raising is only directed at explicit knowledge, with no expectation that learners will use in communicative output a particular feature that has been brought to their attention through formal instruction. Following formal instruction as consciousness raising, learners may then notice a particular linguistic feature in subsequent input. However, a key difference between noticing and consciousness raising is that noticing has supposed implications for language processing and the actual acquisition of linguistic features.

Noticing and language acquisition

Schmidt (1990) identifies three aspects of consciousness involved in language learning: awareness, intention and knowledge. The first sense, consciousness as awareness, embraces noticing [2]. According to Schmidt (1995, p. 20), "the noticing hypothesis states that what learners notice in input is what becomes intake for learning." Schmidt also states that a) whether a learner deliberately attends to a linguistic form in the input or it is noticed purely unintentionally, if it is noticed it becomes intake; and b) that noticing is a necessary condition for L2 acquisition. To help clarify Schmidt's hypothesis and the place of noticing in L2 acquisition the following model, proposed by Ellis, is useful.

Figure 1: The process of learning implicit knowledge (p. 119)
Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press from SLA Research and Language Teaching by Rod Ellis
© Rod Ellis 1997. Unauthorised reproduction is strictly prohibited.

Ellis has based his model on current theories of L2 acquisition, where two main stages are seen to be involved in the process of input becoming implicit knowledge. The first stage, in which input becomes intake, involves learners noticing language features in the input, absorbing them into their short-term memories and comparing them to features produced as output. With regard to short-term memory, Kihlstrom (1984) suggests that 1) consciousness and short-term memory are essentially the same; 2) that for language items to be stored in long-term memory they must be processed in short-term memory; and 3) that items not processed into short-term memory or not further encoded into long-term memory from short-term memory will be lost. Schmidt therefore concludes, "if consciousness is indeed equivalent to the short term store, this amounts to a claim that storage without conscious awareness is impossible" (1990, p. 136).

The second stage is one in which intake is absorbed into the learner's interlanguage system and changes to this system only occur when language features become part of long-term memory. As the discussion and analysis of the second stage of Ellis's model is beyond the focus of this paper, only the operations that occur in the first stage will be further discussed.

Influences on noticing

Figure 1 shows that noticing has a mediating role between input and memory systems. However, while it is represented separately in Figure 1, Robinson (1995), in harmony with Schmidt's discussion of memory processing above, comments that it is inside short-term memory that noticing must in reality take place, since the "spotlight consciousness" (Skehan, 1998, p. 52) provided by short-term memory is triggered by different influences on noticing. Schmidt (1990) claims that the following factors influence noticing in the input:


Instruction provides structured, differentiated input that assists noticing by focusing attention on and enhancing awareness of language features (Skehan, 1998). Also, Schmidt (1990) proposes that instruction may play an important role in priming learners to notice features by establishing expectations about language. In contrast, Ellis (1997) points out that instruction serves to draw attention to items that do not conform to expectations and may therefore not be noticed.


A language feature may become frequent due to repeated instruction or by way of teacher talk. As such, when the item does appear more frequently in the input, the likelihood that an item will be noticed and integrated into the interlanguage system is increased (Schmidt, 1990). Also, as Skehan (1998) suggests, at times learners' attentional resources are stretched and a form may, on occasion, go unnoticed. Therefore, the more frequent an item, the greater number of opportunities for noticing exist. [-3-]

Perceptual salience

The more prominent a language form at input, the greater the chance it will be noticed (Skehan, 1998). It stands to reason, therefore, that the less salient a form, the less likely it is to be noticed and such forms include those morphemes that are bound, contracted, or unstressed (Slobin, 1985).

Skill Level

According to Schmidt (1990), skill level includes how well individuals are able to routinize previously met structures. This processing ability in turn determines how ready learners are to notice new forms in the input. Another relevant factor Schmidt identifies is an individual's ability to attend to both form and meaning in L2 processing. Noticing ability varies; some learners are better "input processors," as they have a larger working memory capacity or due to their superior speed of analytical processing within working memory (Skehan, 1998).

Task demands

Task demands refers to the way in which an instructional task causes learners to notice particular features that are necessary in order to carry out that task (Schmidt, 1990). To achieve this, Ellis (1997) suggests that language features may be made intentionally prominent or the task be designed to "force" learners to process the language. Also, Skehan (1998) points out that noticing may be more or less likely depending on whether the level of processing that the task demands is low, such as in the exchange of familiar information, or high, as in a task that requires imaginative and abstract decision-making.


Ellis (1997) points out that only by learners recognising that new language features are at variance with their current interlanguage version will those features become part of their developing interlanguage system. Similarly, Schmidt and Frota (1986) suggest that noticing alone is not enough for input to become intake. Rather, it requires learners to make a comparison between their observed input and typical output based on their existing interlanguage system, that is, they must consciously "notice the gap." In doing so, learners are able to reflect on what is noticed, endeavour to understand its significance, and experience insight (Schmidt, 1990).

The assumption that noticing enhances language acquisition

It is apparent that Schmidt's noticing hypothesis and its role in language acquisition has attracted some support as well as criticism. Ellis (1994, 1997), Lewis (1993) and Skehan (1998) in particular espouse the view that noticing accounts for the way in which input becomes intake prior to processing and availability for integration into a learner's developing interlanguage system. Moreover, Gass (1988) asserts that noticing is the first stage of language acquisition, Batstone refers to the importance of noticing by describing it as "the gateway to subsequent learning" (1994, p. 100), and Lynch (2001) states that noticing is an important component of successful language learning. Similarly, Sharwood-Smith (1981), Rutherford (1987) and McLaughlin (1987) advocate that noticing a feature in the input is an essential first step in language processing. However, Sharwood-Smith, Rutherford and McLaughlin differ from Schmidt in that they consider that noticing a feature in input may be a conscious or an unconscious process. They dispute Schmidt and Frota's (1986) assertion that "noticing the gap" is in fact a conscious process. Ellis (1997) also considers controversial the claim that "noticing the gap" is a conscious process and acknowledges the validity of Krashen's (1982) argument that there are far too many features of language for them all to be acquired consciously. In addition, perhaps the most well-considered and detailed criticism comes from Truscott who concludes that "the foundations of the hypothesis in cognitive psychology are weakš" and "the hypothesis is not based on any rational theory of languageš" (1998, p. 104). Instead, Truscott proposes a weaker view of noticing by suggesting it is only necessary for the acquisition of metalinguistic knowledge, that is the ability to manipulate words (affixation), complete gap-fills, manipulate sentences, and state grammar rules. Importantly, Truscott is meticulous with regard to presenting and supporting his argument regarding formal instruction, noticing and metalinguistic knowledge through a review of the results of a wide range of empirical studies in second language acquisition. [-4-]

Theoretically then, it appears that noticing is considered by some authors mentioned here to be an important initial process in interlanguage development while others are critical to varying degrees.

Empirical research

While such theoretical assertions are useful for offering insights into L2 acquisition, it is only through empirical research that they are validated. However, it is evident that only a limited amount of empirical research has been carried out so far in relation to the role of noticing in L2 acquisition. The earliest data appears to be that of Schmidt and Frota (1986), in which Schmidt analysed his own acquisition of Portuguese during a five-month stay in Brazil. Schmidt kept a diary of what he had noticed through instruction and also recorded his interactions with native speakers. By comparing the two sources of data, Schmidt and Frota found a significant association between recorded noticings in the form of diary entries and Schmidt's use of linguistic forms. As such, Schmidt cites this as "strong evidence for a close connection between noticing and emergence in production" (1990, p. 141).

In contrast, Altman (1990) reached a different conclusion from data gathered and analysed in similar fashion of her acquisition 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. Another empirical study performed by Alanen (1992) focused on affixation in the learning of semi-artificial Finnish. Alanen hypothesised that of the groups studied, those who received explicit descriptions of the target language would learn best and those who received input enhancement in which the target forms were italicised to assist noticing would learn better than the control group. Overall, the results were varied, but in particular there was no significant statistical difference between the enhanced input condition group and the control group. Fotos (1993) investigated the amount of noticing produced after consciousness raising through teacher-fronted lessons and interactive, grammar problem-solving tasks aimed at adverb placement and relative clauses. The frequency of noticing of the target forms a few weeks after the two treatments was also compared with that of a control group. Fotos concluded from the results that both task performance and formal instruction were equally effective in promoting significant amounts of noticing and subjects went on to consequently notice those structures in later input while the level of noticing in the control group was minimal. Robinson (1997) used a grammaticality judgement test to assess four groups of learners exposed to sentences illustrating hard and easy second language rules and found mixed results for noticing under implicit, incidental, rule-search and instructed conditions. Lastly, Lynch (2001) recorded the role-play performance of pairs of learners, who then selected a short extract of their recording and transcribed it prior to improving the text through noticing and modifying any errors. Lynch found that, overall, learners were able to notice and amend 60% of their errors. [-5-]

Unfortunately, the studies presented here are of limited use for several reasons. First, the studies are not comparable due to variations in focus and in the conditions operationalized. Second, the level of noticing in such studies may have been affected by variables including attention being directed elsewhere, the level of language ability of research subjects, the complexity of information being processed, and the speed or audibility of presentation (Schmidt, 1993), which casts doubt on the reliability of the findings. Third, noticing is an internal process and cannot be observed directly, but requires a high degree of inference from observation of behaviour (Schmidt, 1993). Fourth, the controversial notion of "noticing the gap" only receives consideration in Schmidt and Frota (1986). Finally, 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. Clearly though, the empirical research with regard to noticing and L2 acquisition overviewed here does little to validate any of the theoretical views previously discussed.


It can be seen that there are various views regarding the role of conscious and unconscious processes in L2 acquisition. An important contribution to this debate has been Schmidt's "noticing hypothesis" and its claims about how input becomes intake, and this hypothesis has been advocated by a growing number of researchers (Truscott, 1998). However, the assertion that noticing is necessary for L2 acquisition and the notion of "noticing the gap" appear to be based on intuition and assumption that is not supported by appropriate and exhaustive empirical research. This in turn raises the question of whether teachers/teaching materials should indeed attempt to cater to noticing. Truscott's insightful weaker view of (conscious) noticing being tied to the acquisition of metalinguistic knowledge but not to the development of communicative competence offers what appears to be an acceptable alternative that still recognizes a role for teachers/teaching materials with regard to noticing. What is needed then is a shift in focus for empirical research in order to provide evidence that supports or falsifies Truscott's weaker version of the noticing hypothesis. One area of worthwhile research that has received minimal attention is the effect of learner training on learners' ability to notice linguistic forms and, if Truscott's adaptation of the noticing hypothesis is accepted, this may have strong implications for the rate of development of metalinguistic knowledge. This research may help to clarify what role noticing plays in second language learning, provide valuable information relating to the relationship between learner training and the acquisition of metalinguistic knowledge, and facilitate the understanding of how these processes contribute to learners' communicative competence.


[1] This conclusion refers to the influence formal instruction has on the rate/success of L2 development and not to the route of L2 development, where formal instruction seems to have negligible effect (Ellis, 1985).

[2] Schmidt (1990) points out that noticing also has other terminological definitions including "focal awareness" (Atkinson & Schiffrin, 1968), "episodic awareness" (Allport, 1979) and "apperceived input" (Gass, 1988).



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About the Author

Jeremy Cross is a teacher and teacher trainer at the British Council in Nagoya, Japan. He is currently studying towards an MA in Linguistics (TESOL) through the University of Surrey. His interests include investigating ways to integrate a variety of approaches to language teaching and learning into his classroom.


The author wishes to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and comments on the earlier drafts of this paper.

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

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