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So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole concept of ‘noticing’ and how it relates to language acquisition and I’ve come to the (probably shortsighted) conclusion ‘so what!!!!’ that there is no there there. Noticing as a mechanism of language acquisition seems no more important to learning a language than it does to learning chemistry and if you have a few moments to follow my logic, I hope you will read to the end of this post.
Now first off, let me state that I am not against the idea of noticing in a language class. In fact, I run a whole bunch of activities which could be considered traditional language awareness raising activities. If you look at my last post and my ideas for how to teach a story with lots of ellipses in class, I think almost all of the activities are language awareness activities in one sense or another. Students read a short story, identify ellipses, identify the sentence components which make the ellipses possible, and finally rewrite the story with what will undoubtedly be awkward sentences in which all implicit information is explicitly stated. You might say, “Hey Kevin, all of these are ‘noticing’ activities!”
My problem with noticing is not that it happens, nor that it is a part of language education. It is merely that there is nothing special about this process as it relates to language learning. If you have a concept you want students to understand, students must notice that concept, see it in action, come to an understanding of it, and then use it themselves. Nothing very controversial here at all.
For example, if you want students to use personal pronouns, giving a student a piece of writing or a listening assignment in which there are lots of personal pronouns and having them deduce what the pronouns are referring back to seems like a great first step in helping students learn how to use personal pronouns themselves. Similarly, you could decide to just explicitly explain how personal pronouns work and have students do a similar activity. But spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about the actual act of how a student notices and what is happening within the black box of their mind seems like a strange use of time and an even stranger foundation on which to rest a theory of language acquisition.
Now you might say, “But once a student notices the language, they end up seeing it everywhere and those affordances are integral to the language acquisition process.” And I would say, so what? First off, affordances are nothing more than a chance to reinforce learning and I’m not big on the term ‘affordances’ either. Secondly, doesn’t this happen with all kinds of learning? I used to be a chemistry guy. I loved chemistry and was a chem. major at university up until I ‘noticed’ that I had a serious lack of spacial relations ability. No matter how hard I tried, I could not imagine how a molecule would look in 3-dimensions. So my chemistry career got squashed beneath the with of the only “D” I ever received at uni. But before my chemistry dreams ended, I clearly remember learning about a chemistry concept and then noticing it in the world around me. I remember drinking soda and thinking about how what I was drinking was actually carbon dioxide dissolved in water making a weak carbonic acid, and also trying to figure out how many moles of CO2 would be in a liter-bottle of soda. I did all this without my chemistry teacher being particularly worried about my noticing or affordances or anything of that sort. Now, do I think my chemistry teacher was totally uninterested in students trying to use their knowledge outside of class? No, I think she was pretty hep on the idea. Part of why we did experiments was so we could get hands on experience in how things work and that in turn made it easier for us to apply what we learned to our every day life. But that is how all learning works.
Then there is the other kind of ‘noticing’ which kind of drives me crazy, which is ‘noticing the gap.’ It’s another term which I think is just clearly stating the obvious. A student uses language that differs from the target language. There are all kinds of reasons for why they might not be able to accurately use the target language, including an internal syllabus which might make it impossible. But once again the process of noticing seems to be so obvious as to leave me wondering how this became a fundamental concept of language learning. Students use language, sometimes the language they use differs from how it should be used. Teachers point out the difference. Students take note and this is an important first step in learning how to use the correct or target form of the language. Once again, this just seems like learning to me and not anything to get all excited about. And I think there are more important things to do in an academic article than writing a paragraph about the theoretical importance of ‘noticing the gap.’ For example, a very clear description of what language the student used, what text they used to compare their language with or what feedback they received from the teacher or fellow learner, what chances they had to produce the target language again, and how their language changed. You can do all of this without ever resorting to the term ‘noticing the gap,” and would probably have a stronger, not weaker paper because of it.
So, by all means, let’s teach some wicked lessons in which students get to work with a ton of language, leave the classroom, and then in a moment of wonder, delight in the fact that the language they just learned is bubbling up all around them. That’s our job as teachers. And clearly describing the steps in the process so we and our fellow teachers can do it more effectively is an important part of building our ELT community. I think we can do that without confusing the outcome of learning (noticing) with the process (step by step description). Because lately, elevating the term ‘noticing’ to special status, is leaving me flat.
(As a rant, this article is clearly the first step in an internal process in which I have noticed a gap between my ideas of language teaching and theories which are currently popping up in a lot of articles I am reading. At a later date I might go back and revise, expand and cite, but for the moment, I just needed to rant.)
Update: well, that was quite an educational experience. When I wrote this blog post, I had just gone through a marathon journal reading session and was a little annoyed with how the term ‘noticing’ and ‘noting the gap’ had become a kind of short-hand for what teachers could or did actually do in the classroom. And that sense of annoyance started to bubble over when I got a few emails and read a few blogs which were short on details but long on jargon. With a little bit of nursing, the annoyance became a full on flood of rant-iness. But you know what, thanks to the comments I’ve received, I had a great chance to rethink my annoyance. Over the past few days I’ve seen how the terms are used by all kinds of teachers to explain not only how they teach, but how they conceptualize their own classrooms. So have I suddenly seen the light and become a terminology fan? Nope. But I’m maybe I’m more willing to read an article with a more open mind, regardless of if it’s jargon heavy or not. And for that, I’m feeling a whole lot of gratitude.