The role of noticing in foreign language learning and teaching

How can we encourage our learners to notice new language structures in the TL and discover their role and function?

Here are some key points on the role of deductive learning and consciousness raising tasks in promoting language acquisition.

According to Batstone (1994:54) noticing activities are those which “encourage a more introspective engagement with language, calling for quiet observation which is unhampered by the simultaneous need to manipulate language”. It has to do with a quiet reflection about the language in which a certain form comes to the learners’ attention. Noticing is an important concept because it is believed to play a role in enabling input to become intake, that is knowledge our students have grasped and absorbed.

Thornbury (1997) highlights two kinds of noticing

    Thornbury (1997:326) argues that language teachers should try to promote noticing by focusing their learners’ attention on the target language in the input and on the distance to be covered by the present state of their interlanguage, on the one hand, and the target language, on the other.

Bringing forms and structures to the learners’ attention

    Batstone (1994) draws our attention to the different forms of noticing that can take place in the language classroom. The one is closely related to explicit teaching and the other to learning by discovery. In the second one learners are given a more prominent and central role and are the ones who have to work on the clues they are given and on their previous relevant knowledge in order to notice the role and function of the newly introduced language structures and patterns.

When introducing new forms and structures it is important to maintain a continuum from explicit teaching to implicit learning 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.

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.

Input enrichment and task authenticity

        Our main aim is not for our students to merely notice a grammatical point or a lexical chunk. 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/lexical patterns in many different scenarios and for different communicative purposes.

Using concept questions

    Concept questions can play a vital role in helping learners grasp the meaning that underlies a grammatical structure/lexical pattern 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 structures, their function 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.

The role of learner 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:

Batstone, R. (1996). Noticing. ELT Journal, 50(3), 273.

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.

Published by Joanna Nifli

ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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