Noticing theory in the context of cognitive linguistics seems to offer an interesting insight into the processes accompanying second language acquisition focusing on the problems of attention, awareness and memory. “Noticing” – despite disagreements in defining the term – seems to function as a gateway into these processes in Richard Schmidt’s (1995) deliberations. An ESL instructor “in the field,” might have burning questions such as these: How is noticing initiated? Is it totally subjective and personalized, or does it have some regularities that could be exploited in the classroom? If the latter is true, then what are the stimulants? How can one effectively manage the process of transforming “comprehensible input” into “noticed intake”?
Perusing research publications in the area of cognitive linguistics, including those of Schmidt and his disciples, my intention was to find a set of classroom strategies for initiating, cultivating and enhancing “noticing,” ideally as close as possible to a silver bullet. Limited luck, I must say. Revealing and very interesting studies are often restricted to a particular technique under particular circumstances yielding still very preliminary conclusions. Ideas offered by researchers dealing with noticing theory are fragmented and either fairly general or rather specific. Something that would resemble a “teaching algorithm” seems to be elusive. It is my impression that we are quite far from formulating a solid and comprehensive “manual” of concrete consciousness-raising strategies.
I did find some suggestions, although they are mostly quite well-established ones. An impromptu list of attention-raising strategies would include
- “input flooding”
- corrective feedback
- explicit teaching
- referential activities
- reflection on output
- discovery learning
- visual enhancement
- task-based activities requiring negotiation
- “interactionally modified input” (Ellis, 2015).
My own catalogue consists of a variety of very specific activities such as
- concept attainment
- close analytical reading
- information gap tasks
as well as more general reflective activities that increase intentionality of learning, and mimic Schmidt’s main source of inspiration – his own diary of learning Portuguese. Additionally, some students seem to benefit from thinking about their own speaking and writing production, as well as acting as editors or assessors of their peers’ efforts. Although noticing seems to be a subjective experience, frequency and saliency of an element that is supposed to be noticed might matter. Naturally, the relevance of learned content and interest in it always matter.
If it seems like a discrete nod towards more traditional views, it is probably to some extent true. Advanced students whose learning I try to facilitate are often fluent and effective communicators dealing with everyday tasks with ease. What they demand is removal of fossilizations that are to some degree the effect of meaning-focused instruction and – outside of classroom – absorption of language utilized in the community. “Premature stabilization” of not-yet-fully-developed forms creates an obstacle for advanced learners. They seem to be stuck in their communicatively effective interlanguage being scolded for mistakes that “should not” appear at their level of proficiency. This is where I see an enhanced application of “noticing.”
It is my experience that attention-raising activities cannot be applied forcefully as a dominant strategy of a long instructional period. If I had to use an analogy, I would apply a disturbing one described in the recent book by David Epstein, “Range.” The author points out that in cancer treatment radiation can destroy healthy tissue while attacking a tumor. By analogy, applying focus-intensifying techniques might destroy the communicative tissue of instruction. Like in the case of tumors, when doctors opt for smaller doses of radiation from different directions to attack it, I would suggest judicious use of artificially created “eureka” moments. Noticing must happen, but these moments should remain limited in scope and frequency.
As Schmidt contends, “Some questions that are important for foreign language pedagogy are not very interesting theoretically. Similarly, many teachers believe that theory and research in the field of foreign language learning or second language acquisition (SLA) are often irrelevant to their concerns (…). It seems to me that questions concerning the role of consciousness in learning, however difficult to answer, are important to all.” (p. 2). I cannot agree more.
Ellis, R. (2015). Understanding second language acquisition. (2nd ed.).
Oxford University Press.
Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. Penguin.
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.