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Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching

Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching

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The implicit/ explicit distinction is central to our understanding of the nature of L2 acquisition. This book begins with an account of how this distinction applies to L2 learning, knowledge and instruction. It then reports a series of studies describing the development of a battery of tests providing relatively discrete measurements of L2 explicit/ implicit knowledge. These tests were then utilized to examine a number of key issues in SLA - the learning difficulty of different grammatical structures, the role of L2 implicit/ explicit knowledge in language proficiency, the relationship between learning experiences and learners’ language knowledge profiles, the metalinguistic knowledge of teacher trainees and the effects of different types of form-focused instruction on L2 acquisition. The book concludes with a consideration of how the tests can be further developed and applied in the study of L2 acquisition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847691750
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 06/15/2009
Series: Second Language Acquisition Series , #42
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rod Ellis is Professor of Applied Language Studies in the University of Auckland and a visiting Professor at Shanghai International Studies University. His publications includes articles and books on second language acquisition, language teaching and teacher education. His most recent is The Study of Second Language Acquisition 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is also editor of the journal Language Teaching Research.

Shawn Loewen is an assistant professor in the Second Language Studies program at Michigan State University. He specializes in second language acquisition and L2 classroom interaction. His recent research has investigated the occurrence and effectiveness of incidental focus on form in a variety of L2 contexts.

Catherine Elder is Associate Professor in the School of Languages and Linguistics and Director of the Language Testing Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. She is coeditor (with Glenn Fulcher) of the journal Language Testing j. She is author with Alan Davies et. al. of the Dictionary of Language Testing and co-editor of Experimenting with Uncertainty (CUP: 2001) Handbook of Applied Linguistics (Blackwell, 2004).

Hayo Reinders ( is Editor of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching. He was previously Director of the English Language Self-Access Centre and Visiting Professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. His research interests are in the areas of computer-assisted language learning and learner autonomy.

Rosemary Erlam is lecturer in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland. She comes to Applied Linguistics from backgrounds in Speech-Language Therapy and French teaching. Her research interests include teacher education, form-focused instruction and issues pertinent to the New Zealand educational context.

Jenefer Philp is a lecturer at the University of Auckland. Her experimental and classroom based research centers on the role of interaction in second language development by adults and children She has recently co-edited a book titled Second language acquisition and the younger learner: Child’s play?, published by John Benjamins.

Read an Excerpt

Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching

By Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen, Catherine Elder, Rosemary Erlam, Jenefer Philp, Hayo Reinders

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2009 Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen, Catherine Elder, Rosemary Erlam, Jenefer Philp and Hayo Reinders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84769-176-7


Implicit and Explicit Learning, Knowledge and Instruction



The distinctions relating to implicit/explicit learning and knowledge originated in cognitive psychology, so it is appropriate to begin our examination of them with reference to this field of enquiry. Cognitive psychologists distinguish implicit and explicit learning in two principal ways:

(1) Implicit learning proceeds without making demands on central attentional resources. As N. Ellis (2008: 125) puts it, 'generalizations arise from conspiracies of memorized utterances collaborating in productive schematic linguistic productions'. Thus, the resulting knowledge is subsymbolic, reflecting statistical sensitivity to the structure of the learned material. In contrast, explicit learning typically involves memorizing a series of successive facts and thus makes heavy demands on working memory. As a result, it takes place consciously and results in knowledge that is symbolic in nature (i.e. it is represented in explicit form).

(2) In the case of implicit learning, learners remain unaware of the learning that has taken place, although it is evident in the behavioral responses they make. Thus, learners cannot verbalize what they have learned. In the case of explicit learning, learners are aware that they have learned something and can verbalize what they have learned.

The focus of research in cognitive psychology has been on whether implicit learning can take place, and, if it does, how it can best be explained. However, since Reber's (1976) seminal study of implicit learning, there has been an ongoing debate about the validity of his 'multiple learning systems' view of human cognition. Many researchers dispute the existence of multiple systems and argue in favor of a single system that is capable of achieving different learning outcomes.

This controversy within cognitive psychology is very clearly evident in a collection of papers addressing the role of consciousness in learning (Jimenez, 2003). In the opening paper, Shanks (2003) critiqued the research that used a technique known as 'sequential reaction time' to stake out the claim for multiple, differentiated learning systems. In studies using this technique, the time it takes for people to respond to an array of predictable visual information is compared to the time it takes when this array is suddenly disturbed. The claim here is that a difference in response times demonstrates that some learning must have taken place implicitly prior to the disturbance, even though the participants involved were unable to verbalize what they had learned. Shanks (2003: 38) argued that 'previous research has failed to demonstrate convincingly that above-chance sequence knowledge can be accompanied by null awareness when the latter is indexed by objective measures such as recognition'. He concluded that there was no convincing evidence that implicit learning is functionally or neurally separate from explicit learning and that it was misguided to look for such dissociation. He advanced the alternative view that there is a single knowledge source that underlies performance and that apparent differences in performance are due to 'subtle differences between the retrieval processes recruited by the tests' (p. 36).

In contrast, other papers in the same collection argued strongly for distinguishing the two types of learning. Wallach and Lebiere (2003), for example, developed a strong argument for a dual learning system based on the central concepts of ACT-R cognitive architecture (Anderson & Lebiere, 1998). This proposes a hybrid learning system consisting of a permanent procedural memory and a permanent declarative memory. The former consists of condition-action rules called 'productions' that enable a certain action to be performed provided that specific conditions have been met. Such 'productions' operate automatically. Declarative knowledge consists of factual knowledge stored as chunks organized into schemas. It operates in a more controlled fashion and with awareness. Wallach and Lebiere claimed that these two 'architectural mechanisms' could account for implicit and explicit learning and, crucially, the interplay between the two systems. They went on to demonstrate how they can account for the findings of a number of previous studies of implicit/explicit learning. The ACT-R model has also proved influential in second language acquisition (SLA) studies (see, e.g. DeKeyser, 2007).

In the same collection, Hazeltine and Ivry (2003) mustered neuropsychological evidence to support the existence of distinct learning systems. They reviewed studies of the neural activity when people are engaged in sequence learning. They noted that although such activity has been observed in regions across the whole brain, differences in task conditions result in distinct sets of neural regions becoming activated. When the learning task is complex (i.e. involves dual-task conditions) and thus favors implicit learning mechanisms, the medial supplementary motor area, parietal regions and the basal ganglia are involved. In contrast, when the task is simpler (i.e. involving single-task conditions), the prefrontal and premotor cortex are activated.

The controversy evident in cognitive psychology is mirrored in SLA. The clearest example of this can be found in the critique levelled against Krashen's (1981) distinction between 'acquisition' (the subconscious internalization of grammatical rules that occurs as a result of comprehending input that is slightly beyond the learner's current knowledge) and 'learning' (the conscious formulation of explicit rules of grammar). This was initially subjected to fierce criticism on the grounds that the distinction was not falsifiable. McLaughlin (1978: 21), for example, argued that Krashen failed to provide adequate definitions of what he meant by 'subconscious' and 'conscious' and 'provided no way of independently determining whether a given process involves acquisition or learning'. However, McLaughlin's distaste for the use of 'conscious' as a descriptor of the mental activity involved in L2 learning does not reflect mainstream thinking in either cognitive psychology or SLA. Schmidt (1990, 1994, 2001) has shown that consciousness is a useful construct if it can be carefully deconstructed into its several meanings. He distinguished consciousness in terms of intentionality (incidental versus intentional learning), attention (i.e. attended versus unattended learning), awareness (implicit versus explicit learning) and control (automatic versus controlled processing). Schmidt's work has reinstated the value of 'consciousness' for understanding the nature of second language (L2) learning and has had enormous influence on SLA theories and research. It at once acknowledged that Krashen might be right in trying to distinguish implicit and explicit processes and at the same time highlighted the fact that Krashen's initial distinction was simplistic (e.g. he failed to distinguish consciousness as intentionality, attention, awareness and control).

The importance of the implicit/explicit distinction for language learning (both first and second) was affirmed in the important collection of papers edited by Nick Ellis (1994). In his introduction, Ellis provided one of the clearest and most convincing statements of the distinction, which I provide in full:

Some things we just come able to do, like walking, recognizing happiness in others, knowing that th is more common than tg in written English, or making simple utterances in our native language. We have little insight into the nature of the processing involved – we learn to do them implicitly like swallows learn to fly. Other of our abilities depend on knowing how to do them, like multiplication, playing chess, speaking pig Latin, or using a computer programming language. We learn these abilities explicitly like aircraft designers learn aerodynamics. (Ellis, 1994: 1)

Ellis drew on research in both cognitive psychology and language learning to spell out what he saw as the issues facing researchers. What aspects of an L2 can be learned implicitly? What are the mechanisms of explicit learning available to the learner? How necessary is explicit knowledge for the acquisition of an L2? What is the relationship between explicit and implicit L2 knowledge? How best can instruction aid L2 acquisition? So, rather than dismissing the distinction between implicit and explicit learning/knowledge and taking the lead from Schmidt and Ellis, SLA researchers have focused on trying to identify the processes involved in the two types of learning, how they interact, and how they can be externally manipulated through instruction. Thus, while acknowledging that doubts still remain (especially in cognitive psychology) about the legitimacy of a dual learning system, I am going to assume that a distinction can be made between the implicit and explicit learning of an L2 and between implicit and explicit L2 knowledge.

Following Schmidt (1994: 20), I will further assume that implicit/explicit learning and implicit/explicit knowledge are 'related but distinct concepts that need to be separated'. Whereas the former refers to the processes involved in learning, the latter concerns the products of learning. It is possible, for example, that learners will reflect on knowledge that they have acquired implicitly (i.e. without metalinguistic awareness) and thus, subsequently develop an explicit representation of it. Also, it is possible that explicit learning directed at one linguistic feature may result in the incidental implicit learning of some other feature (an issue addressed in Chapter 11). In the case of SLA (less so perhaps in cognitive psychology), implicit and explicit learning have been examined by reference to the kinds of knowledge that result from conditions designed to favor one or other type of learning. That is, there have been relatively few studies that have tried to explore the actual processes involved, although the use of introspective techniques (see, e.g. the account of Leow's (1997) study below) offers a means of rectifying this gap. In general, studies have sought to infer the kind of learning that has taken place by examining the products of learning. For this reason, this book will focus on 'knowledge' rather than 'learning'.

Schmidt also argued that learning needs to be distinguished from instruction. It does not follow, for instance, that implicit instruction results in implicit learning or, conversely, that explicit instruction leads to explicit learning. Teachers might hope for such a correlation, but learners have minds of their own and may follow their own inclinations, irrespective of the nature of the instruction they receive (Allwright, 1984). This book is also concerned with the relationship between forms of instruction that can be described as 'implicit' or 'explicit' and the acquisition of implicit/explicit L2 knowledge.

In the sections that follow, I will examine how SLA researchers have tackled the three distinctions: (1) implicit/explicit learning, (2) implicit/explicit knowledge and (3) implicit/explicit instruction. This provides a basis for considering the interface position (i.e. the nature of the relationship between implicit and explicit knowledge). Finally, I will provide an overview of the contents of the rest of the book.

Implicit/Explicit L2 Learning

As defined above, implicit language learning takes place without either intentionality or awareness. However, there is controversy as to whether any learning is possible without some degree of awareness. This raises the important question of what is meant by 'awareness'. Schmidt (1994, 2001) distinguished two types of awareness: awareness as noticing (involving perception) and metalinguistic awareness (involving analysis). The former involves conscious attention to 'surface elements', whereas the latter involves awareness of the underlying abstract rule that governs particular linguistic phenomena. Schmidt argued that noticing typically involves at least some degree of awareness. Thus, from this perspective, there is no such thing as complete implicit learning and so a better definition of implicit language learning might be 'learning without any metalinguistic awareness'. That is, the processes responsible for the integration of material into the learner's interlanguage system and the restructuring this might entail take place autonomously and without conscious control. Other researchers (e.g. Williams, 2005), however, have argued that learning without awareness at the level of noticing is also possible. N. Ellis (2005: 306) has also claimed that 'the vast majority of our cognitive processing is unconscious'. Thus, there is no consensual definition of implicit learning although all theorists would accept that it excludes metalinguistic awareness.

Explicit language learning is necessarily a conscious process and is generally intentional as well. It is conscious learning 'where the individual makes and tests hypotheses in a search for structure' (N. Ellis, 1994: 1). As Hulstijn (2002: 206) put it, 'it is a conscious, deliberative process of concept formation and concept linking'.

The study of implicit and explicit learning in SLA draws heavily on cognitive psychology. The work of Reber (Reber, 1993; Reber et al., 1991) has been seminal in this respect. Reber and colleagues investigated the two types of learning by means of studies involving artificial languages, where groups of participants were either instructed to memorize a set of letter strings generated by the artificial language without the help of any feedback (the implicit learning condition) or to try to figure out the underlying rules of the same letter strings (the explicit learning condition). Following training, both groups completed a judgement test that required them to decide if the strings of letters followed the same rules as the strings they saw during training. They were not forewarned that they would be tested in this way. The main findings of such studies were: (1) there was clear evidence of implicit learning; (2) there was no difference between the test scores of the implicit and explicit learning groups in the case of simple rules, but implicit learning proved more efficient for complex rules; and (3) the test scores of the explicit group demonstrated much greater individual variation than those of the implicit group, reflecting the fact that whereas analytical skills played a role in the former they did not in the latter. However, as we have already seen, the claim that implicit and explicit learning are dissociated has become a matter of controversy among cognitive psychologists. Also, disagreement exists regarding the nature of the knowledge that arises out of implicit learning, with some arguing that it consists of knowledge of fragments or exemplars, and others arguing that it is rule-based.

Much of the psychological research on implicit learning in language acquisition has followed Reber in employing artificial grammars. Rebuschat (2008), in his review of these studies, suggests that 'the most important finding to emerge in recent years has been the observation that infants, children and adults can use statistical cues such as transitional probabilities to acquire different aspects of language, including the lexicon, phonology and syntax'. Rebuschat also identifies a number of problems with these studies – many of the studies did not include a measure of awareness, often learners were exposed to the artificial language under conditions that were far from incidental, and the grammars involved were of the phrase-structure rather than fine-state kind.

In the case of SLA 'the amount of L2 research narrowly focused on the implicit-explicit distinction is quite limited, not only in the number of studies, but also in duration and in scope of the learning target' (DeKeyser, 2003: 336). The key issue (as in cognitive psychology) is whether implicit learning of an L2 (i.e. learning without conscious awareness) is possible. A number of studies have addressed this, including several that have examined the effects of enhanced input on language learning. In a series of studies, Williams examined whether learners are able to induce grammatical rules from exposure to input when their attention is focused on meaning (Williams, 1999, 2005; Williams & Lovatt, 2003). The studies showed that learning does take place, that the inductive learning of form (i.e. segmentation) is dissociable from the learning of the functions realized by the forms (i.e. distribution), that learner' differences in phonological short-term memory influence the extent to which learners are successful in inductive learning, and that language background (i.e. whether learners have prior experience of learning languages) impacts even more strongly on learning. However, Williams' tests of learning (translation or grammaticality judgement tests) may have favored those learners who attempted to construct explicit rules during the training and thus cannot convincingly demonstrate that implicit learning took place. Indeed, Williams (1999: 38) noted that the learners in this study 'had high levels of awareness of the product of learning', although, as he pointed out, awareness of the product of learning does not necessarily imply that conscious analysis occurred while learning. What is needed to resolve this issue are studies that obtain information about the microprocesses involved in the training (learning) phase of such studies.


Excerpted from Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching by Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen, Catherine Elder, Rosemary Erlam, Jenefer Philp, Hayo Reinders. Copyright © 2009 Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen, Catherine Elder, Rosemary Erlam, Jenefer Philp and Hayo Reinders. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Introduction

Chapter 1 Implicit and explicit learning, knowledge and instruction

Part 2 The measurement of implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 2 Defining and measuring implicit and explicit knowledge of a second language

Chapter 3 Elicited oral imitation as a measure of implicit knowledge

Chapter 4 Grammaticality judgement tests and the measurement of implicit and explicit L2 knowledge

Chapter 5 Validating a metalinguistic test

Part 3 Applying the measures of implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 6 Investigating learning difficulty as implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 7 Implicit and explicit knowledge of an L2 and language proficiency

Chapter 8 Pathways to proficiency: Learning experiences and attainment in implicit and explicit knowledge of English as a second language

Chapter 9 Exploring the metalinguistic knowledge of teacher trainees

Part 4 Form-focused instruction and the acquisition of implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 10 The roles of output-based and input-based instruction in the acquisition of L2 implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 11 The incidental acquisition of 3rd persons as L2 implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 12 The effects of two types of input on the acquisition of L2 implicit and explicit knowledge

Chapter 13 Implicit and explicit corrective feedback and the acquisition of L2 Grammar

Part 5 Conclusion

Chapter 14 Retrospect and prospect

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