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International Journal of Educational Research and Information Science

2015; 2(2): 7-9

Published online June 20, 2015 (

An Overview of Attention According to Van Lier

Mehrdad Rezaee1, *, Majid Farahian2

Department of Foreign Languages, Central Tehran Branch, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran
Department of ELT, College of Literature and Humanities, Kermanshah Branch, Islamic Azad University, Kermanshah, Iran

Email address (M. Rezaee), (M. Farahian)

To cite this article

Mehrdad Rezaee, Majid Farahian. An Overview of Attention According to Van Lier. International Journal of Educational Research and
Information Science. Vol. 2, No. 2, 2015, pp. 7-9.

In this paper, the authors have used different definitions of attention from the viewpoint of different scholars each of whom
sees it from a certain perspective, emphasizing one aspect of it. Meanwhile, the application of attention in SLA is studied. In so
doing, the idea proposed by Krashen (incidental learning) is rejected which claimed that one can learn well even without
paying attention (the issue of language acquisition), but later on, it was mentioned that since we have different levels of
learning, it is not always necessary to have attention for learning; however, the type of learning without attention would not be
different from the time that the person learns by paying attention. So, attention determines deep or shallow learning.

Attention, SLA, Incidental Learning, Awareness, Noticing

1. Introduction
Second language learning and second language acquisition
which are now taken to be one and can be used
interchangeably were previously considered different and
their difference was due to the prevalent assumption that
there was a dichotomy of conscious and subconscious at
work in the internalization of language (see Krashen, 1981,
1982). In other words, it was believed that when there is
conscious attention to what is being internalized, learning
takes place, and when there is absence of this conscious
attention, there would be acquisition. So, in order to acquire
language, no conscious attention is required.
However, such an assumption which was based on the
presupposition that language learning could take place
without some degree of consciousness is not now
theoretically viable (Nassaji & Fotos, 2004). Based on Ellis
(2008) and Nassaji and Fotos (2004), the role of unconscious
learning has been exaggerated neglecting the fact that
conscious attention to form, or what has been called noticing
is a necessary condition for language learning.
Nevertheless, although the role of attention together with
awareness has been proven by scholars as mentioned above,
different scholars have considered them differently and each
one views them from a different perspective. Narrowing
down to just one of them, the focus of this paper is to talk

about Van Liers idea about attention, together with

awareness and noticing and their application in SLA and
besides, to give a brief overview of the existing similarities
and differences between the ideas presented by Van Lier and
other scholars. However, before that, it would be advisable to
have an overview of the definition of attention according to
different scholars.

2. Definitions of Attention
Richards and Schmidt (2002) believe that attention is the
ability of a person to focus on something while ignoring
others and has the following subsystems:
Alertness (an overall readiness to deal with incoming
Orientation (the direction of attentional resources to
certain types of stimuli),
Detection (cognitive registration of a particular
stimulus), and
Inhibition (deliberately ignoring some stimuli).
However, according to Wickens and McCarley (2008),
attention is necessary to keep information in working
memory and to move information to long-term memory in an
efficient manner, that is, to learn it. It is a vital component
and a necessary element underlying decision-making and is
integrally related to perceptual processing.
With the above definitions in mind, one can see what Van

Mehrdad Rezaee and Majid Farahian: An Overview of Attention According to Van Lier

Lier thinks about attention and its definition. According to

Van Lier, (1998, 2004), there are different kinds and levels of
attention, and besides, attention relates to awareness and
consciousness. In his idea, the levels of attention are, Being
unaware, being aware, attending, focusing, and being vigilant
(Van Lier, 2004, p. 98). As it can be seen, levels of attention
vary from relaxed to vigilant, depending on the particular
activity the learners are engaged in. However, it cannot be
said that one level is more conducive to learning than another,
all have their own place and usage. Meanwhile, Van Lier
(2004) postulates that the learning process is characterized by
a set of interwoven stages, namely awareness, perception and
attention, autonomy, development of cognitive processes
such as processing and understanding, authenticity, and
mastery of the language.

3. Application of Attention to SLA

Van Lier (1996, 2004) believes that what Krashen
considered to be internalized without any attempt and was
considered subconscious internalization of language is not
possible without paying attention to what is being
internalized. According to Van Lier (2004).
If we are not aware at all of something, we will clearly not
pick up information about it. However, if we are, our
cognitive processes will be activated while we are
incorporating the information into our activities. As we
continue to be active, and our activity interacts with the
environment, we select what we pay attention to, we direct
our focus to certain particulars or details, we may focus more
intensely, we may prepare for more action and so on (p. 99).
So, he rejects Krashens idea. In this respect, Van Lier
agrees with the weak version proposed by Schmitt (1990) in
which it is stated that people learn about the things they
attend to and do not learn much about the things they do not
attended to. Elsewhere, Van Lier (2001) argues that
awareness, attention and noticing particular features of
language adds to learning of that language. In the meantime,
Van Lier (1994) states that We must study language learning
from the perspective that conscious attention is essential for
language learning (p. 72).So, based on what was said, it can
be concluded that he believes in conscious attention and
considers it important in learning. As he states, Through
conscious participation in the learning process, the learner
allocates appropriate levels of attention and investment of
energy, and directs this attention and energy where it is most
beneficial for learning (Van Lier, 1994, p. 73).
However, in the above-mentioned statements, two specific
phrases were mentioned and they were learn much and
adds to learning. Based on these, one can conclude that
language learning has different levels. Sometimes it is
incidental and implicit and at other times it requires
concentrated attention (to use Van Liers 2004 terms).Both
conditions and all other gradations in between can yield to
learning in various circumstances. So, it might be possible
sometimes to learn language incidentally, but this learning
might not be equal to the one in which the learner has

concentrated on his learning and has tried to learn attentively.

Elsewhere, Van Lier (1996) talks about awareness and says,
Initially, awareness consists of becoming cognizant of
something. It involves consciousness of the why and how of
the learning process. Awareness varies in intensity according
to the attention an individual pays to an issue at any given
time (p. 9).
In the meantime, he further goes into details about
awareness and divides it into two types and says: First in
focal awareness, an object or event captures our attention,
and we focus on it. Second, in subsidiary, or peripheral
awareness, a person is generally aware of something that is
not the main focus of his or her attention. So, in this sense, he
agrees with level two of Schmitts (1994) categorization. In
fact, Van Liers (1996) categorization presented here equals
the two parts of level two of Schmitts four-level
categorization of consciousness. In other words, focal
awareness of Van Lier (1996) is equal to the first part of level
two in the consciousness categorization proposed by Schmitt
(1994, p. 11) which is defined as focal attention and
noticing and subsidiary, or peripheral awareness
proposed by Van Lier is equal to the second part of level two
in the consciousness categorization proposed by Schmitt
(1994, p. 11) which is defined as peripheral attention.
However, there is a little difference between the two
categorizations as Schmitt (1994) considers focal and
peripheral attention on two sides of a continuum but Van Lier
(1996) deems them in two different levels. Nevertheless, he
considers both of them very important for language

4. Conclusion
Based on the definitions given for attention and also the
features of awareness, one can conclude that they are
necessary components of learning. In other words, to
stabilize issues in mind for a longer time, one needs to pay
attention to them. So, on the basis of these claims, Krashens
theory for the grasp of language without conscious attention
is rejected. However, as there are different levels of learning,
it is sometimes possible to learn something incidentally
which may not need attention or awareness, though the
amount of this kind of learning might not be deep enough to
be dependable for further application of that piece of
information or knowledge.


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