9 – Noticing Theory

We acquire language as we consciously notice phonological, morphological, lexical and grammatical data in comprehensible input.

How do people actually learn words and grammar? What happens in our minds when we acquire language? These are difficult questions, but our unified theories give us helpful answers. We can fill our brains with language through extensive reading and listening, thus applying input and big data theories as we do lots of receptive retrieval, with spacing and interleaving. We can also do productive retrieval with spacing and interleaving as we do word and grammar study, thus filling our brains with accurate knowledge of language. Besides these receptive and productive approaches, what else can we do?

Some teachers promote the idea of “noticing.” Schmidt (2001) says that language learners tend to learn what they consciously notice in the input. That is, we need to find ways to actively notice phonological, morphological, lexical, and grammatical features in the language.

Let’s look at a phonological example. A young Japanese couple, Hiro and Mari, are eating lunch together. Then Hiro’s favorite Beatles’ song “Help!” comes on the radio. Just for fun, Hiro starts to sing along with the song. Mari decides to help him, so she turns up the sound real loud. Hiro sings along with the words. “When I was younger so much younger than before.”

The singer clearly sings the phrase “than before.” But Hiro notices a difference in his pronunciation. He didn’t sing “than before.” He sang “zan before.” He noticed that he wasn’t accurately pronouncing the “th” sound. From this day on, Hiro becomes aware of that problem, and he starts to fix it.

This is a simple example of noticing theory. Ellis (2015) says the idea of noticing is controversial. But experts seem to agree that noticing can help promote acquisition. Swain and Lapkin (1995) connect noticing, input, and output in their comprehensible output hypothesis. Noticing also plays a part in Long’s (1996) interaction hypothesis.

Noticing theory is easy enough to understand. But how do we apply it? We can tell students to pay attention to linguistic features in the input. This is good advice, but we cannot easily measure if learners are noticing or not. Like the example above with Hiro, we can do pronunciation activities and help learners notice problems with their pronunciation.

Benati (2016) discusses the practice of “textual enhancement” where we enhance a text to help learners notice target grammatical forms. We can enhance a text using bold-facing, italicizing, or underlining. For example, readers use texts where all instances of the present perfect or relative pronouns are underlined. This technique seems like a good idea, but Lee and Huang (2008) show in their meta-analytic review of textual enhancement that it has yet to produce significant results. ¬†One simple reason for this could be that “most of these studies measuring textual enhancement adopted only a single exposure to enhanced input” (Benati, 2016, p. 82). Of course, this brings us back to our previous points about the need for retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and big data.

In the end, noticing can work with input, output, retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and big data theories. We have seen how these theories fit with receptive or incidental acquisition. However, noticing requires conscious learning and specific awareness of features in the language. Learners need to consciously notice phonology, lexis, morphology, and grammar in the input and output. To promote noticing, teachers can use textual enhancement, but practically speaking, it’ll be hard to create enough textually enhanced materials. Ideally, teachers need to make practical activities that will train learners to become better at noticing. That is, we need to find more ways to make noticing practical. Until then, noticing remains a good ideal that remains a challenge to make practical.

Dr. Joseph Poulshock

Dr. Joseph Poulshock works as Professor of English Linguistics in the Faculty of International Communication at Senshu University.