Happily Stomping All Over Noticing (a rant)

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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.

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15 thoughts on “Happily Stomping All Over Noticing (a rant)

  1. I agree with you completely Kevin and could have written this rant myself back in the days when I was still ranting about things. The only thing I'll add is that getting learners to "notice a gap" is what Baptist preachers, grandmothers of all sorts, and boy scout leaders have been doing since forever. Recently something my grandmother said to me came bubbling back up and 30 years later, I got it. When I mentioned this to my father he said "sometimes things like that take awhile to sink in but maybe it never would if you're grandmother hadn't made you aware of it and helped you see it." My point? You're right, it's nothing new. Also, getting people to notice things is a good thing, I've noticed. But please, no more academic papers about it. Now suddenly the whole "learner strategy" movement comes to mind and how some people made a whole career, got tenure, and went on the plenary circuit from stating the obvious. But, hey, isn't that what I do, too? Just state the obvious? Maybe. I'll close by sharing a line I heard Scott Thornbury say, which went something like this: "Just because we give something a name doesn't mean it wasn't there before. It's just that we've called it out and given people a way to talk about it." Yes. Yes. Yes

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  2. Hi Kevin. Good rant..I agree that the idea of noticing is really nothing new, and getting learners to notice things could be called 'teaching'. But, having said that, I don't think that it always comes naturally to teachers to do this, so it's worth having a term so we can, as Chuck/Scott point out , 'talk about it'.

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  3. Hi Chuck and thanks for the most memorable line in a comment in some time. Yes indeed, Baptist preachers, grandmothers, and Boy Scout leaders are excellent examples of "noticing enablers" (teachers). And I'm pretty sure that whether it's 30 years or 3 minutes, noticing often does lead to understanding. But I'm with you, writing papers on that very personal and wholly internal moment might be better spent on something else…like really long rants or replies to comments on why writing about noticing is not a great use of time. Memo to self: reexamine priorities.

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  4. Hi Rachel,Glad to have your level-headed wisdom. Yes, as a concept there is something useful about noticing, especially if it helps teachers better understand their own teaching and what is happening in class. But sometimes it seems like the term is used as shorthand for what actually happens in a class. As long as we put into words what actually happened or expect to happen around the 'noticing' (which is the only thing we as teachers can actually see and evaluate), I would probably have less issues with the term. Uh oh, only a few hours post-post and my ranty indignation is already losing some of its fire.

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  5. Chuck and Rachael already left some super insightful comments but I will see if I can add something here. I really enjoyed the post and as you know I like a good rant from time to time. As I read your post I was reminded of the whole dogme/good teaching debate…and I have a feeling that perhaps this is what Chuck was referring to with the Thornbury quote. So we might say that noticing is just good learning but I am not sure it is always so easy. Another thing that came to mind is that "noticing" might be a buzzword or hot in certain spheres of the ELT world it is largely unknown in others. I did a few teacher training lessons on it a few years ago and my sense was that it was a new idea. One thing I really like about noticing (as a word, concept or idea) is that the student is the main actor. I like this very much. In terms of "noticing the gap" I think this is predicated on students producing something…which I also generally think is a step in a good direction. My experience is that lots of times teachers tell students about for example a grammar point. They might even mention the form, usage, and meaning but it is the teacher that is doing everything. So, all of a sudden this idea of noticing comes along and it is an idea that helps teachers connect (even if vague) with student learning. Thanks for reading and even more thanks for writing this, mg

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  6. Mr. Griffin,Thank you for commenting on what is probably my first pure rant on this blog. At least, I think it is. And one of the things I now understand about writing a rant is that the natural point of view of a rant is a very close first person. I hadn't even begun to think about how the terms 'noticing' and 'noticing the gap' might be incredibly useful for teachers who were working in a context unlike mine. If a teacher teaches in a context where grammar is merely explained, or students just do grammar based exercises without any creative output, then introducing the term 'noticing' and explaining how it works would be extremely valuable. And that kind of use of the term 'noticing' seems really valid and groovy to me. Especially when it is grounded in concrete examples.Thanks for helping me escape from the close first person box that is rant-point-of-view.Kevin

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  7. I think, following on from Mike, when I hear about noticing it is usually within the context of guided discovery and not a traditional PPP style lesson. I guess that might be a reason why it has been branded about more.

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  8. Hi Chris,I agree with you on that point. When teachers are using 'noticing' it's usually in a guided learning situation. I don't call it noticing, but I will have students write the first paragraph of a fairy tale, have them check it against the original story, and then have them try and write the first paragraph of a different fairy tale to practice definite/indefinite articles. And I guess, as these types of deductive grammar lessons become more prevalent, the use of the term 'noticing' will increase. Or maybe as Mike seems to be saying, perhaps the concept of 'noticing' is part of what's helping to shift the types of lessons teachers are providing for their students in this direction. Thanks for the commentKevin

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  9. Gosh, I am late to this party. Everyone else has said everything ☺ Mike’s point about buzzwords is interesting, they are really double-edged, one the one hand getting people talking and hopefully thinking about something, and on the other polarising people and even putting some people off engaging with it, eg the flipped classroom or dogme. What I like about your post is that you are really reflecting on what the term means for you and your students. I think there are 2 places where it can stand out in particular for Ts who already teach in a way that is underpinned by the principle of sts noticing. One is, as Chris mentioned, in particular types of language lesson (guided discovery, TTT [test/task-teach-test/task]) which are perhaps a bit more explicitly organised around the ‘gap’ (still no guarantee that students will remember/care once they get out the door). The other is, when we jump on opportunities to help sts notice something that might otherwise pass by. Not something we are told to teach. Eg, we know they have seen some particular language in a particular context before, and when it comes along again, we can help them draw the connections between then and now (“hey that’s a X – remember we saw an X the other day? Where did we see that again?”). So they’ve had an initial exposure, and now you’ve primed them, and hopefully next time they see/hear it they will make their own connection. You could call this recycling too I suppose, but I think it’s more unpredictable, spread over time, and unique to the shared history of you and your sts.

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  10. Ah Sophia, late but as far as I'm concerned, just in time. You've really highlighted something I totally overlooked, the idea of noticing as a tool for catching a moment in the classroom that would otherwise pass unnoticed. If the concept of noticing helps even one teacher stop a class and say, "hey, let's look at this…" then I can totally see its value as a concept. I really have to say that my rant has really turned into a fantastic lesson on the value of terminology. Thank you Chuck, Rachel, Mike, Chris, and Sophia. The fact that you took the time to share your ideas and insights with me is humbling. In the best kind of way.

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  11. No-one said that noticing was the be all and end all of grammar teaching. There are as many different ways of teaching grammar as the number of teachers teaching it. Noticing is just a way of steering away from overt 'explanation' of grammar rules by encouraging a 'discovery' approach. As for noticing the gap, I think this is extremely valuable when learners' own errors are picked up and re-cycled by the teacher. Ultimately, we all learn language by noticing patterns of grammar. I do not think this can be compared to noticing things about the physical world around us.

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  12. Hello NLomax,Thanks for dropping in and taking the time to comment. Not sure why noticing the physical world around us and using those opportunities to notice and practice what we learn (as in calculating the number of moles in a glass of soda) is so very different from noticing that people slap an -ing on verbs when discussing hobbies in which they are currently and regularly engaged. But I do agree that such moments of recognition are incredibly important and even more so when the teachers is on top of things and can pick up learner errors and use them to help students recognize there's a difference between the language they are using and the language that they are shooting for. And I think your point, as well as some of the other teachers who have taken the time to leave a comment here is really important, that 'noting' as a concept is perhaps one way of helping teachers organize their lessons so they help students understand and use grammar without explicitly teaching it. Thanks again for your comment and helping turn a rant into a learning experience.Kevin

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  13. Hi Kevin,Thank you for starting the debate – it is a discussion that could go on forever. The concept of noticing has obviously been influential as it is now evident in most mainstream course books. Maybe you are right about the similarity between physical rules about the universe and patterns of grammar. Maybe the best approach is a CLIL style blend of both!

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