The Power of Implicit Language Learning

The Power of Implicit Language Learning

“The ability to produce language relatively easily for communicative purposes draws heavily on implicit knowledge” (Loewen, 2015, p.25)

In a recent discussion on the role of implicit and explicit knowledge in language acquisition and use, both Chomsky and Krashen (2020) agree that the knowledge that enables us to convey our thoughts, feelings and needs through language is largely implicit.

Click here to watch the video discussion between Chomsky & Krashen.

Implicit knowledge is also known as tacit knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is not open to conscious inspection. We know that we have it, but we can’t explain it fully. Only a small part of our implicit knowledge can be brought to our conscious attention. The rest is inaccessible.

Competent speakers have acquired substantial implicit language knowledge that enables them to produce accurate, fluent and appropriate language for a wide range of purposes.

They can do this without being conscious of the language elements (e.g., sounds, words, sentences) that they use in their speech or writing.

They probably have some explicit knowledge of some common grammatical rules (e.g., subject-verb agreement) that they probably learned in school or from a grammar book. They may be able to explain these rules to other people.

But the ability to switch back and forth between the use of the past tense, the present tense and present perfect tense in their utterances rapidly, effortlessly and appropriately, for example, is not something that most speakers are able to explain.

This is because they draw on their implicit knowledge, not explicit knowledge of the language. They know how to use these tenses, but they can’t explain the rules that govern their use in speech or writing.

If it is indeed true that language knowledge is largely implicit, that explicit knowledge plays a small role in language learning, and that our ability to use language for communication largely depends on implicit knowledge, we may have to make major changes to the way we design, deliver and assess language learning.

This is because our current language teaching pedagogy prioritizes the learning of explicit knowledge, with very little attention given to the acquisition of implicit knowledge.

This explicit knowledge is then taught explicitly in a piecemeal fashion, i.e. one small bit of language rule at a time.


I describe below six characteristics of our current teaching approaches.

First, language knowledge can be broken down into smaller units, which can then be selected, and neatly organized and sequenced into a language syllabus.

Second, language learning is a linear process, i.e., it happens in a step-by-step and orderly manner.

Thus students need to learn how to produce a positive sentence before they learn how to form a negative sentence.

They need to learn simple sentences before they learn how to make compound or complex sentences.

Third, language rules need to be taught systematically and explicitly. For example, learners need to know the rules that govern the use of the past perfect tense before they learn how to use them in sentences.

Fourth, not surprisingly, the PPP approach is seen as a perfect vehicle to teach grammar rules explicitly. In the Presentation phase, the teacher explains the grammar rules that govern the use of the past perfect tense.

The next phase, Practice, provides students with mechanical drills and practice to help them acquire the form.

The last phase, Production, gives students practice in how to use the target grammar in some meaning-oriented practice (e.g., writing a short essay in which the use of the past perfect tense is needed).

Fifth, student learning is often assessed by their ability to demonstrate explicit knowledge of the language.

In many EFL classrooms, multiple choice tests that assess students’ explicit knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and texts continue to be used widely today. Students’ ability to use the target language for meaningful communication is rarely, if ever, assessed.

Finally, there is an over-emphasis on accuracy. Every single mistake is immediately corrected, regardless of whether the mistakes are minor language slips or serious language errors.


If language learning is a non-linear and implicit process, what then are some of the things that we need to do promote this type of learning? I offer some suggestions below.

1. The primacy of input-based learning (learning via reading and listening)

Years of SLA research show that the linguistic knowledge that enables us to speak and write fluently and effortlessly is complex and implicit.

Wong & VanPatten (2013) argue that this complex and implicit knowledge is “not dependent on learner practice of language, but rather is dependent on exposure to what is called input” (p.404).

For a more in-depth discussion on the role of input-based learning, click here.

Note here that ‘learner practice’ in the Wong & VanPatten quote above refers to students practicing their speaking and writing skills, i.e., output-based practice.

Of course students can use the new language for speaking/writing (in fact, they should be encouraged to do so), but they must NOT be forced to do it.

Forcing them to speak/write when they are not ready would only undermine their confidence and motivation.

What is input? What is the kind of input that promotes language learning?

One SLA theory that has examined the kind of input that facilitates acquisition is Krashen’ comprehensible input hypothesis.

The theory says that language learning happens when students are exposed to a large amount of highly comprehensible and compelling input.

This can be done by incorporating extensive reading and listening/viewing programmes into the language curriculum.

The next few suggestions below provide practical examples on how comprehensible input can be integrated into our language programme.

2. Teaching Reading

Reading is one of the main ways students get comprehensible language input.

So, in place of the usual ‘read-then-answer-the-comprehension-questions’ approach, we can make better use of class time by having students do more reading (silent reading, paired reading, buddy reading, etc).

Instead of reading a short piece of difficult passage, we can ask students to read easier reading passages on the same theme or topic.

After they finish reading the texts, they can do numerous fun post-reading activities (e.g., quizzing each other on the contents of the reading materials, role playing an interesting scene, reading aloud the story and have it recorded).

The key thing to remember here is that class time should be used to engage students in reading multiple texts.

3. Teaching listening

Listening is another great way for students to get large amounts of comprehensible input.

But instead of the usual intensive listening activities where students get to listen to the audio text once or twice, they should be doing repeated listening/viewing, i.e., listening to the same material multiple times.

They can for example be asked to read with/without the transcript, with slower or faster speech rate, with attention paid to different aspects of the text (e.g., accents, sound blendings that cause comprehension difficulties, etc).

For a detailed discussion on the benefits of extensive listening., See Ivone & Renandya (2019)

Students can also do shadowing activities during the lesson, i.e., speaking along as they listen to the recording. Evidence suggests that shadowing improves students listening and speaking skills.

4. Teaching Speaking

In a speaking lesson, teachers often use information-gap and problem-solving tasks to get students to speak and interact with their peers using the target language.

Group activities are often used to give students more opportunities to share ideas orally with their peers. Teachers use a variety of cooperative learning techniques to engage students in group activities.

The main goal is to get students to use the target language orally as much as possible.

However, evidence seems to suggest that lower proficiency students often encounter numerous problems expressing themselves orally in English.

They often have very little to say about the topic, they may not have the language to express their thoughts and most if not all report having low confidence when asked to speak English in class.

So what can we do to pre-empt these problems and adequately prepare students for the speaking tasks?

This is where input-based practice can save the day, so to speak.

Students can be given time to read relevant reading materials related to the speaking topic.

For example, newspaper articles on how to solve growing poverty in urban areas can be selected for students to read before they discuss this topic.

Video materials of people discussing poverty can also be made available so that students have a clearer idea of how people present their arguments and offer solutions.

Care should be taken that the reading and video materials have to be comprehensible and well within students’ proficiency level.

Newpaper articles for example can be edited to ensure that the readability level matches students’ linguistic competence.

When the input-based practice is done properly, students can be expected to be linguistically and affectively prepared to engage in a more meaningful output-based speaking lesson.

5. Teaching Writing

Most teachers are already familiar with the genre-based approach to teaching writing, which typically involves teachers modelling the genre (e.g., an argumentative text), providing students with scaffolded practice, and finally giving students independent practice.

The modelling stage is typically very brief with the teacher showing a model text and perhaps discussing its key language features with the students.

For the more advanced students, this brief modelling phase may be sufficient as they are linguistically stronger and need little guidance.

But for lower proficiency students, a lot more modelling is needed. This stage is where more extensive input-based practice can be introduced.

Students can have not one, but several model texts, read them several times in order to understand the purpose for which they are written.

They can discuss these model texts with their peers, share their thoughts and insights about the contents as well as interesting language points.

During the modelling stage, students can also be encouraged to notice the language features (i.e., the words, phrases, sentences) and the way the argument is organized in the essay (how the writer starts the argument, what evidence is provided etc).


Extensive reading (ER) is probably one of the best ways to acquire language implicitly.

There is now ample evidence that demonstrates the positive and substantial impact of extensive exposure to language on learners’ language development.

Research shows clearly that students who read (and listen) in quantity have larger vocabularies and more sophisticated grammar, more advanced listening, speaking, reading and writing skills and more positive attitudes towards language learning.

There are different types of extensive reading programmes; two of the most popular are the stand-alone and integrated ER programme.

As the names suggest, a stand-alone programme is a programme with little or no connection to the curriculum. Students are encouraged to read as much as possible for pleasure with little or no accountability.

The integrated programme on the other hand is part of the curriculum. It can run as a separate course (e.g., Extensive Reading Course for Year 1 students) or in tandem with the other skill courses (e.g., students need to read 25 books as part of their Reading Course).

Which programme type to adopt depends very much on the needs and preferences of individual teachers and schools.

What is important to note is that students need to read a great deal in order to enjoy the full language learning benefits of an ER programme.


Some people have argued that classroom language learning is more amendable to explicit than implicit language teaching.

This however is only partially true. What happens is that we have become accustomed to using language pedagogy that promotes explicit teaching.

What we need to do is to critically examine our current teaching approaches with a view to keeping those that seem to work well and replace the rest with ones that promote implicit language learning in and out of the classroom.


Ivone, F.M., & Renandya, W.A. (2019). Extensive listening and viewing in ELT. TEFLIN Journal 30 (2), 237-256

Renandya, W. A. (2013). The role of input- and output-based practice in ELT. In A. Ahmed, M. Hanzala, F. Saleem & G. Cane (Eds.), ELT in a changing world: Innovative approaches to new challenges (pp. 41-52). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Renandya, W.A., & Jacobs, G.M. (2016). Extensive reading and listening in the language classrooms. In W.A. Renandya & H.P. Widodo (Eds.), English Language Teaching Today: Linking Theory and Practice (pp 97-110). Basel, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG.

Renandya, W.A., & Jacobs, G. M. (2017). Cooperative learning: Addressing implementation issues. IJELT, 12(2), 101-112.

Loewen, S. (2015). Introduction to instructed second language acquisition. New York: Routledge.

Wong, W., & VanPatten, B. (2003). The evidence is IN: Drills are OUT. Foreign Language Annals, 36(3), 403- 423.

3 Replies to “The Power of Implicit Language Learning”

  1. This is a lucid account of why and how teachers should/ can accommodate implicit language learning. I believe two things have to be negotiated radically at the very beginning – a. A new look into the present model of classroom based teaching and learning where, specifically, class duration plays a part if we have to successfully incorporate the techniques discussed; b. Assessment! which can ‘arguably’ be based on the pedagogic techniques proposed here for language skills to have the implicit learning outcomes.

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