I often think of my classroom, in which I teach advanced English learners, as a laboratory. The analogy seems appropriate since both parties – students and I – are involved in some intense and sometimes experimental brain manipulations. Often by design, but also incidentally. Sometimes stemming from theoretical reflection, often just from common sense and intuition.
Like in a scientific lab, we are trying different theories and methods, collecting data, trying to draw conclusions, and struggling with interpretation and doubt. We repeat and modify our experiments, we are disappointed with unexpected results and delighted when theoretical assumptions are confirmed by learning outcomes. And sometimes we are just exhausted. In any case, what happens in students’ minds never fails to amaze me. Observing the growth of receptive and productive abilities is inspirational. Cataloging cases where I seem to have come short as an instructor can be frustrating and dispiriting. Matching students’ effort with my own in designing learning events, shaping their progress, preparing them for prospective challenges outside the classroom, and activating latent abilities is challenging. And, what remains for me one of the most fascinating aspects of this line of work is understanding the events in this laboratory.
Concepts generated by applied linguistics offer some explanation of the ESL lab reality, as well as some solutions to the challenges that second language teaching and learning is marred by. Noticing theory, which captured my attention during a TESL course, describes the complexities of second language acquisition through the lens of cognitive linguistics. The core conviction of this approach is based on a relatively simple observation that one cannot learn what is not noticed.
To put it in even more casual terms, one has trouble learning without paying attention. The standard description of “Noticing Hypothesis” involves a summary of the research of Richard Schmidt – the founder and proponent of the theory initiated in the late eighties. His most famous and frequently quoted observation is that noticing is a necessary and sufficient condition turning input into intake.
While Krashen favored “comprehensible input” as a base of fundamentally unconscious acquisition process, Schmidt emphasizes the necessity of focused attention to the content of learning experienced as “noticing”. There are a considerable number of publications that discuss its meaning, specifying it and marrying the term with better established terminology of cognitive linguistics, such as awareness, memory, attention or consciousness, which could fill a library.
What remains clear and extremely persuasive, however, is the conviction (anecdotally confirmed by multiple experiments I have conducted in my own classroom) that increasing focal attention can improve language learning. According to Robinson, “Schmidt assumed that focal attention and the contents of awareness are essentially isomorphic” (p. 250). Meaning that it would be enough to make a learning content “visible” for the attentive mind to make it part of the linguistic awareness, which subsequently would stimulate language production. This relationship between the ability to notice and being aware of what has been perceived turned out to be profoundly complicated and inspired further studies revealing subtleties of these processes worth separate deliberations. Some authors (e.g. Tomlin and Villa) argued for the necessity of attention but optional participation of awareness in L2 learning (Robinson, p. 250). Schmidt’s “noticing hypothesis” has been also connected to memory and recall further complicating the initial observation.
Even though our understanding of the L2 acquisition processes remains largely fragmented and speculative, everyday teaching obligations are not. Hence, although my interest in the “noticing theory” stems from curiosity as to how languages are learned, as a practitioner in the field, I am vitally interested in classroom applications of the insight presented by linguists. Thus, the following question: Can noticing be increased or facilitated by instruction? Check out Part 2 of my blog to find answers.
Glass, S. M., & Mackey, A. (Eds.). (2013). The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition. Routledge.
Robinson, P. (1996). Consciousness, rules, and instructed second language acquisition. Peter Lang Pub. Incorporated.
Schmidt, R. (1995). Consciousness and foreign language learning: A tutorial on the role of attention and awareness in learning. Attention and awareness in foreign language learning, 9, 1-63.
Post Written by: Dr. Kasia Kasztenna
Dr. Kasztenna is an active ESL/LINC instructor and PBLA Lead Teacher with the Durham District School Board. She is also an independent researcher and author of multiple publications in her original field of expertise – literary studies and discourse theory. Most recently she contributed a chapter to the book Being Poland…, published by UofT Press.