2 kinds of noticing tasks

1. Why is noticing even a buzzword, anyway?

Noticing in language learning is perhaps ELT’s most user-friendly buzzword. To have a vague understanding of what it is, you don’t need to delve into the works of Rod Ellis, Peter Skehan or even Richard Schmidt, whose 1990 study essentially put the term on the map. Perhaps a simple dictionary definition will do:

Taken from


The noticing hypothesis is conceptually intuitive, too. To put it in the simplest of terms: Students learn the language items they pay attention to, as opposed to the stuff they don’t consciously attend to. In other words, second language acquisition is driven by attention and awareness. This goes without saying, right? So why is noticing such a big deal?

As expected, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

To understand why noticing has become such a key concept in SLA (second language acquisition) research, you need to put it in historical perspective. A few years before the original Schmidt study was published, Stephen Krashen had argued that students pick up the language by simply reading / listening to it and understanding the message, preferably in a stress-free environment. In other words, Krashen essentially claimed that second language acquisition is driven by exposure and comprehension.

So, when noticing came along, it brought to the fore the inherent tension between:

implicit learning– – – – – – – – explicit learning
incidental learning– – – – – – intentional learning
peripheral learning– – – – – – focal learning

Not to mention other dichotomies such as analytic vs. synthetic syllabuses, focus on form vs. focus on forms, just to name a few. 

And it is precisely this tension that’s been at the core of much SLA research and debate since then. Please notice (!) the word peripheral. I will use it again later on.

2. Impact on mainstream ELT

For obvious reasons, the blue terms are at odds with most of what can be realistically done in the publishing industry. How do you write a mainstream coursebook without a pre-defined syllabus of discrete items? How do you mass-market a title that is truly – and I say truly – task-based?

Yet, since grammar made its massive comeback in the mid 1980s, we seem to have developed a slightly more sophisticated understanding of what the green words entail in terms of input processing, and it looks as if mainstream ELT has finally given input enhancement a well-deserved nod of approval. Today, most modern coursebooks provide texts that attempt to make new language forms more salient, as well as tasks that encourage students to actively notice them.

As you read sections 3 and 4, please notice the color scheme.

3. Overt input enhancement

Coursebooks usually try to make the new language “jump off the page” by “doctoring” texts with lots of examples of the target forms in context. They may also:

a. Highlight, change font size, use bold and italics:

Example 1

Example 1: Identities 1, page 96


b. Devise tasks that can’t be accomplished unless students attend to (i.e., actively notice) the target forms. In the example below, students need to pay close attention to the six modal forms in order to complete the task.

Identities Richmond Seligson Barros noticing

Example 2: Identities 1, page 22

This means that when students get to the grammar box on the next page, they will have had enough time to “make friends” with the new language and process it more organically, so to speak.

Most modern coursebooks do A well. Some do B well. But there’s a third kind of noticing that’s still relatively rare.

4. Indirect input enhancement

I’m talking about peripheral noticing, a term I think I might have coined (!) as I was writing this post. It is conceptually so counterintuitive it only yielded 250 google results. After all, when something gets noticed, it’s no longer at the periphery of consciousness. But let me go out on a limb here and argue that in SLA terms this is actually an interesting paradox.

Look at the blue and green terms in section 1 again. Well-established as the noticing hypothesis is, its most recent versions don’t completely rule out incidental learning. In other words, it seems reasonable to assume that with the right kind and the right amount of exposure, students will still pick up a fair amount of language they’re not consciously paying attention to. It could be something you said, an expression they heard on a video, or perhaps even an example of a structure from the coursebook itself. In other words, blue and green are perhaps best seen as two ends of a continuum rather than mutually exclusive categories.

But how does that translate into task design? Can we make new language forms more salient before the grammar analysis phase (i.e., the grammar box on the next page) without necessarily bringing them into the foreground?

Yes, I think so.

One way to do it is to add other elements (e.g.: vocabulary, pronunciation) to the text / task in order to increase cognitive and or affective engagement. The longer students spend on a text / task and the deeper they process the “surrounding language”, the more noticeable the target forms will probably be, even though they’re not the focal point of the activity. 

Take a look at example 3 below. At first glance, this is simply a run-of-the-mill vocabulary exercise. But if you look closely, you’ll see five examples of be / get used to. To match the highlighted words to their meanings, students will have to read the sentences again and again, discuss them with a partner, perhaps change some of their answers and finally say which ones they can personally relate to:

Luiz Otavio Barros Identities Richmond noticing

Example 3: Identities 1, page 110

In other words, students will have to process the sentences at a much deeper level than they would if we simply asked them to “read 1-5 and underline examples of be / get used to.” This sort of active, extended engagement with the text / task at hand will help students pick up the new forms more naturally, before they study the rules on the next page.

Here’s another example:

Identities Richmond Barros

Example 4: Identities 1, page 74

The gapped words are not examples of the new language forms (since, as, due to, so, in order to). They’re simply there to ensure that students read the text more than once, go back to the sentences they don’t understand, discuss their choices in pairs, etc. In the process of completing the task, students will have repeated encounters with the target forms, rather than only see them once, en passant. 

Long story short:

Grammar can be noticed when it is the focal point of an activity, and it seems fair to argue that it can also be perceived subliminally when students’ attention is directed elsewhere.

Principled task design doesn’t guarantee that either one will happen.

But it’s a good start.

Thanks for reading… and for not saying:



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Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

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