By We'am Hamdan

21 December 2017 - 15:05

Olive oil in a glass bowl on a kitchen work surface
'In one of my classes, I put the present passive simple in context using a dictogloss text about the olive harvest.' Photo ©

stevepb licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal and adapted from the original

We'am Hamdan, who teaches English at the British Council in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, describes practical ways to build 'noticing' in your next grammar lesson.

What is 'noticing' grammar and what is its role in the English classroom?

When I was learning English, my teachers spent a lot of time in class focusing on the form of the target language, but with no context. As a consequence, my natural and varied use of English suffered.

Later, I experienced ‘natural’ English through movies, music and novels. These resources helped me to work out the meaning and form of grammar simultaneously. They gave me firmer ground for language processing and learning. I also began to see the usefulness of the structures my teachers had focused on.

In his 'noticing' hypothesis, Richard Schmidt says that paying close attention to both the form and meaning of language items will contribute to one's learning.

So, how can teachers help learners develop language proficiency using the noticing hypothesis?

Help learners notice gaps in their language knowledge

'Noticing the gap’ happens when learners focus on the gaps in their own linguistic knowledge. This may happen when students do a dictogloss – sometimes referred to as grammar dictation. The following is an example of how it works.

In one of my A2 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) adult classes, I put the present passive simple in context using a text about the olive harvest. After creating interest in the theme of the lesson, I read at a natural speed:

There are an estimated nine million olive trees in Palestine, which can produce tons of oil. Green ripe olives are picked in October by thousands of Palestinian farmers who work daily for over a month. More than half of the Palestinian population participate in the olive harvest. Once the harvest is completed, fresh olives are sent to the press. Olive oil is then extracted from the olives and packaged in yellow gallons. The product is not only sold in Palestine but also shipped around the world. (Text created by We'am Hamdan)

I checked learners’ general understanding of the text, then I re-read it. This time learners wrote down key words. In groups, they tried to reconstruct the text from memory, as close to the original as possible. Then they compared their version with another group, and worked together to agree on one version. Finally, I showed the original version on an interactive whiteboard.

During the activity, the learners used their linguistic knowledge and worked out the meaning and form of the emerging target language. This is how they ‘notice’ the gaps in their current version of English. The process can lead to a restructure in their mental picture of the language system.

How can learners focus on both meaning and form?

Many English language learners experience what Dave Willis refers to as ‘improvisation’ in his 2003 book Rules, Patterns and Words. This means that despite being able to infer rules and patterns about new language, learners communicate a message fluently but inaccurately.

Here is an inaccurate, but communicative example:

Man kill cat.

We know that a man is involved in killing a cat. The lack of grammar means this utterance could be any of these:

A man killed a cat.

A cat was killed by a man.

A man kills cats.

The man may have killed his cat.

Grammaticalisation is a term coined by Dianne Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson in their 2011 book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. It means that learners focus on meaning and form simultaneously. Learners can express themselves precisely when they can add grammar to an utterance such as tense markers (i.e., past, present and future), articles (i.e., the/a/an/-), aspect (i.e., progressive and perfect) prepositions (i.e., on, in, at, and so on), plurality, negation and question forms.

In one of my B1 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) young adults classes, I read this ‘de-grammaticised’ text aloud:

Jemima – Jeremy – young – rich- couple – live – work – London – Sunday evening – drive – home – Jaguar – see – car – resemble – Porsche – rush – home – discover – Porsche – not there – stolen – feel – terrible- call – police. (source:

I asked learners to tell a story using the words. Then, I displayed the words on the board and encouraged them to create a story by adding the necessary grammar. When they finished, I displayed the complete story for comparison.

Jemima and Jeremy were a young, rich couple who lived and worked in London. One Sunday evening, they were driving home in their Jaguar when they saw a car resembling their Porsche. They rushed home and discovered that there; it had been stolen! They felt terrible and called the police. (source:

Learners improved their understanding of the past narrative tenses by 'noticing' and working out the form and meaning of the language.

How do you move learners from passive to active learning?

In his 1997 book Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice, Michael Lewis advocates activities that allow learners to notice and observe. These, he says, encourage learners to move from passive learning to active learning, which in turn ensures quicker and a more carefully formulated understanding of grammatical rules.

Teachers can do this by using a cloze activity, which tests learners’ existing knowledge as they predict missing language structures.

In a lesson on phrasal verbs for a group of B2 (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) adults, I asked my learners to predict missing verbs in a text about Maya Angelou:

Maya Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri (USA), in 1928 and ________ in St Louis and in Stamp, Arkansas. She was ___________ first by her grandmother and then her mother. As a child, she suffered violence and racism and at one point even decided to stop speaking for five years. Because of her love for the arts, she won a scholarship to study dance and drama in San Francisco, but at fourteen she _________ and was the first African-American woman to become a cable car conductor. After going back and finishing high school, she gave birth to a son, then _________ a number of different jobs, mainly as a waitress and a cook, to support her family […] (Source: Eales, F. & Oakes, S. 2015 Speakout: Upper-Intermediate Students’ Book Pearson).

As learners compared their predictions with the original text, they realised that the majority avoided using phrasal verbs, preferring the more familiar single-word verbs. This motivated them to investigate the differences, as well as the meaning and use of the target language.

What happens if learners do not notice grammar?

Without the chance to 'notice' grammar, learners might make errors despite significant experience with the target language. Learners could also correctly infer rules and patterns about new language based on what they have learned, but avoid using these structures in real-life situations.

The transition from not knowing to knowing and using spontaneously is not instant. The transition may take moments, hours, or even days. Sometimes, it doesn't happen. However, it is the teacher’s job to train learners to discover how grammar works in real-world contexts.

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