The role of ‘noticing’ in grammar teaching

When is noticing successful? What methods can we use to bring a certain grammatical structure to our students’ attention?

Here are 7 tips for effective grammar teaching in the EFL classroom

The importance of noticing in successful language learning has been highlighted by many linguists and SLA researchers (Skehan, Long, Harmer, Thornbury). There seems to be a general consensus among them that some form of attention to input is necessary for effective learning to take place. Noticing is considered to be successful when it leads to language acquisition, when our learners’ attention is shifted towards a TL structure, which is then acquired, internalized and eventually becomes part of their TL output.

    The key, therefore, is not just to make our students notice linguistic patterns in the TL. Something that has ‘grasped’ our attention could easily be forgotten after a while. Our goal as teachers is to create the appropriate circumstances in order to raise our learners’ consciousness, to help them successfully acquire this new knowledge and to begin to actively use it by turning input into intake and then into successful TL output. This blog post’s main purpose will be to draw our attention as teachers to the importance of this concept in foreign language learning and in particular to grammar teaching.

    Noticing mainly has to do with our learners being able to understand and grasp the meaning from the input they receive in terms of a newly introduced structure or grammar point. Successful learning will take place when they notice this ‘gap’ between the target language and their interlanguage and will actively try to incorporate the new structures in their TL output.

NOTICING GRAMMAR:

  1. Explicit teaching-highlighting the forms

    When it comes to introducing a new grammatical pattern in the target language, noticing can be achieved in many ways. Scrivener (1994:134) has described this as a continuum (A-D) in which we can either give explicitly formulated information to the learners or simply guide them towards discovery:

A. Explicitly giving out the rules that underlie the structure

B. Focusing on the form of the structure and showing to our learners how it is made up

C. Guiding the learners with hints – helping them to find out how the grammatical point is structured

D. Letting the learners discover the rules and structure formation by themselves

2. Noticing by discovery

    Moving from explicit grammar teaching to implicit learning can prove to be very beneficial for our learners. Teachers do not give out the rules, they make no attempt to highlight the TL forms, but simply guide their learners towards the discovery of certain patterns. This makes our ss more actively involved in the learning process and fosters language acquisition.

Listening/reading tasks

    ‘Noticing’ can be achieved through the use of a listening/reading task in which learners have to first answer some comprehension questions and then listen/read again in order to focus on a grammar point (verb forms for example). They can first learn to discover certain patterns for themselves and then we can guide them towards effective practice and production.

Using concept questions

    Concept questions can play a vital role in helping learners grasp the meaning that underlies a grammatical structure in the TL. They raise our learners’ consciousness as they help to clarify certain key points for them. Our learners become more aware of the grammar structures and the rules that underlie them.

Error correction

Directing our learners’ attention towards the errors they frequently make can also promote ‘noticing’ as long as we make sure that they have understood where the problem lies and they have successfully tried to find ways in order to fix this. Revisiting errors can be of great help here as it acts as a reminder that something needs to be fixed.

3. Input enrichment and task authenticity

        Our main aim is not for our students to merely notice a grammatical point. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to expose them to linguistic input but to also provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking.

    By loading the input we give to our learners with the target forms we want them to notice, we facilitate the learning process and give them the necessary clues they need in order to process and eventually absorb the new knowledge. Variety and authenticity in tasks is also important here as learners have the opportunity to reproduce the grammatical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

4. The importance of recycling and repetition

    In order for our learners to effectively notice and learn a specific language structure in the TL, we must create the necessary conditions for them to encounter the structure more than once and to be able to practice it and eventually adopt it in their written and spoken output. After all practice makes perfect.

Attention to overload

    Although the concept of noticing is crucial for effective learning to take place, we must always keep in mind that too much information could have the opposite effect. It is important to remember that we need to shift our learners’ attention to one grammatical point or structure at a time and to not overwhelm them with new linguistic information before they have absorbed and fully understood the structures and grammar points we have already introduced to them.

5. Blending the activities to satisfy our learners’ preferences and needs

    It is important to maintain a continuum from explicit teaching to implicit learning when it comes to grammar in order to cater for all of our learners’ needs based on their specific learning styles and preferences. Some learners prefer to be explicitly taught the rule that underlies a structure. Others learn through exposure to the context and by making the necessary connections and assumptions themselves. Some like bullet points, others prefer drilling. In order for effective learning to take place, we always need to keep these in mind and adopt a variety of teaching strategies by either explicitly teaching them the language structure or by guiding our learners to discover it themselves.

6. Communicative tasks and learner involvement

    Though noticing can be accomplished through the explicit teaching of language forms and structures, it is most effective when combined with our learners’ active involvement. Communicative tasks can play an important role to this. The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. Students become more conscious with regard to particular language features and this promotes language awareness and acquisition.

7. Motivation

    We should never forget the role that motivation plays in successful language learning. If our students do not feel the need or the enthusiasm to pick up new knowledge then language acquisition will be too hard to be achieved. Teachers need to find ways to transfer their love for languages in the classroom and to be raw models for their students. Diversity and authenticity in the tasks, using topics that are relevant, meaningful and interesting to our learners and giving them the opportunity to freely express themselves and participate in the lesson play a key role in boosting our learners’ motivation levels.

    To sum up, noticing will successfully take place once our learners are alert and ready to absorb the new linguistic information we expose them to. In order to achieve this, we need to improve their attention span and create the ideal learning conditions that will boost their intrinsic motivation and will make them eager to participate in the language lesson.

References:

Harmer, J. (2003). Do your students notice anything? Modern English Teacher, 12(4), 5-14.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Thornbury, S. (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote ‘noticing’. ELT Journal, 51(4), 326-335.

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