The Primacy of Implicit Knowledge: What every language teacher needs to know

The Primacy of Implicit Knowledge: What every language teacher needs to know

Draft Chapter. Comments and feedback welcome. 

ebook version can be viewed here. 


This chapter first discusses key features of language teaching approaches, which tend to give more emphasis on the explicit teaching of language knowledge. Language is often broken down into small units to be presented in a piecemeal fashion. While this way of teaching language is not without value and can help develop students’ explicit language knowledge, I argue that teachers should also help students acquire and extend students’ implicit linguistic knowledge. This is because research evidence shows that our ability to use language for communication draws heavily on our implicit linguistic knowledge, not so much on explicit language knowledge. Years of SLA research shows that implicit knowledge is mostly acquired via the provision of meaningful language input, not through explicit teaching of language or through deliberate output based practice. In the second part of the chapter, I offer practical ideas on how input based practice can be incorporated in the teaching of skills courses such as speaking, listening, reading and writing so that students can experience much greater and richer input in the classroom.


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. When we speak and interact with others in everyday settings without thinking too much about what words to use and what sentence structure to employ, we rely almost solely on our implicit knowledge of the language. Chomsky and Krashen are not alone in making this claim; numerous other mainstream SLA scholars have also said the same thing. Loewen (2015) for example writes: “The ability to produce language relatively easily for communicative purposes draws heavily on implicit knowledge (p. 25)”.

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 largely inaccessible. We can probably describe part of it, but detailed and comprehensive accounts of its nature and how we acquire it are inexplicable.

Explicit knowledge on the other hand is conscious knowledge that we can describe and explain in some detail. In many language learning contexts, for example, students are often taught explicit grammar rules using metalanguage (e.g., noun phrases, relative clauses, gerund). As a result of this type of teaching, they may be able to analyse a sentence in terms of its grammatical properties and perhaps also explain why the sentence is grammatical or ungrammatical; but they may not be able to actually use the same sentence for meaningful and authentic communication.

There is however a small group of our students who are quite fluent and skilled in communication. They are considered competent language speakers because they seem to 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. Again, 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 implicit knowledge is largely responsible for one’s ability to use language in real situations (e.g., to give directions in English or to organize a video meeting with business clients from overseas), a logical question to ask is whether and to what extent our curriculum, coursebooks, teaching methods and assessment procedures are designed to promote the development of this implicit knowledge.

If the answer to this question is in the negative, then important changes need to be made in the way we plan, organize and assess language learning so that they are more in line with the goal of improving students’ listening, speaking, reading and writing abilities.

This chapter first discusses key features of language teaching approaches, which tend to give more emphasis on explicit language knowledge. In many EFL or other L2 teaching contexts, language teaching often proceeds in a linear fashion where small pieces of language are presented in an orderly and systematic manner. I shall argue that this way of teaching, while convenient and efficient, may not be the best way to facilitate students’ language development. It may in fact hinder their developmental paths.

The next section, which forms the bulk of this chapter, presents practical suggestions on how teachers can promote the development of students’ implicit linguistic knowledge, i.e., the type of knowledge that can support their ability to use language for social and academic purposes.


I describe below key theoretical assumptions and beliefs that underpin many language teaching approaches that are still in use today, especially in places where English is taught and learned as a foreign language.


  1. There continues to be a widespread belief among language curriculum developers and textbook writers that language knowledge can be broken down into smaller units, which can then be selected, and neatly organized and sequenced into a language syllabus. The teachers’ job is simply to follow the contents of the textbook and present the language items one at a time in their lesson, using what is believed to be the most efficient instructional procedure, i.e., explicit and systematic exposition of the target language unit followed by a series of language-focused practice.
  1. 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. The assumption here is that there is some sort of order of acquisition, i.e., students won’t be able to use negative sentences unless they have learned how to form positive sentences; they won’t be able to produce compound/complex sentences unless they have learned how to produce simple sentences. This is not entirely wrong, but years of SLA research has told us that language learners seem to go through similar developmental stages despite the fact that they learn English under different learning contexts and learning conditions. Some of the evidence comes from earlier SLA research which shows that L2 students tend to make similar developmental language errors, despite their varied first language backgrounds and diverse language learning contexts (Ellis, 2005; Lightbown & Spada, 2013; Loewen (2015).
  1. 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. Thus, the familiar axiom rules before use continues to figure prominently language learning lessons. Not surprisingly, teachers spend hours explaining grammar rules and insisting that students memorize them so that they can later apply these rules when they want to use them in speech or writing. While learning some basic language rules can be useful, extensive learning of rules which are often followed by rigorous grammar-focused practice (e.g., grammar drills) may hinder rather than facilitate language learning (Wong & Van Patten, 2003; Renandya, 2013).
  1. Not surprisingly perhaps, the PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production) approach continues to be widely used in many places because it 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 target grammar points. The last phase, Production, provides students practice in how to use the target grammar in some meaning-oriented practice (e.g., writing a short paragraph in which the use of the past perfect tense is needed).
  1. Learning is often assessed by students’ 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. As a result,they perform well on the test but their ability to use the target language for communicative purposes remains limited. Many are unable to move beyond the basic survival level of English.
  1. There is an over-emphasis on accuracy, often at the expense of fluency. There is a tendency to overcorrect language issues; very single mistake is immediately corrected, regardless of whether the mistakes are minor language slips or serious language errors. This often leads to an unhealthy language learning environment. English lessons are often associated with negative feelings, e.g., fear, anxiety and low confidence. We know from research that students need to feel cognitively and emotionally safe in order to get the most from the lesson they are attending. Fear, anxiety and other similar feelings interfere and disrupt learning, making it difficult if not impossible for students to stay focused and engaged during the lesson (Antonetti & Garver, 2015).

Is there empirical evidence to support teaching approaches that favour step-by-step teaching methods of language in a linear and systematic fashion? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not straightforward. There have been numerous studies on the effect of systematic grammar teaching language learning, but the results are not easy to interpret. Some studies yielded positive effects, others neutral or even negative impact on student learning (Ellis, 2005).

One of the best known meta-analysis studies on the impact of grammar instruction on language learning was conducted by Norris and Ortega (2000). They carefully reviewed a total of 49 experiments that examined the effects of implicit and explicit grammar instruction. The majority of the experiments were of the latter type, i.e., explicit grammar teaching. The main findings are summarized below:

  • Overall, explicit teaching of grammar results in positive effects on language learning
  • Explicit grammar instruction produced a larger effect size compared to implicit grammar instruction.
  • The effects of explicit grammar teaching apply only to non-communicative tasks such as grammaticality judgment tasks, selected response tasks (e.g., multiple choice tests) and constrained constructed response tasks (e.g., fill in the blank test).
  • The effect of grammar instruction on communicative tasks (e.g., speaking or writing) is either minimal or negligible

It is worth highlighting here that while explicit teaching of grammar produced a larger effect size, its effect is largely limited to non-communicative measures. In other words, grammar instruction does not seem to have significant effect on students’ ability to use language for communicative purposes. Norris and Ortega’s (2000) meta-analysis study confirms the general agreement among contemporary SLA experts that instructed grammar instruction has a limited communicative value.


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.

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

As was mentioned earlier, the linguistic knowledge that enables us to speak and write fluently and effortlessly is both 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).

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. Speaking and writing practice does have a role in helping students develop their complex and implicit linguistic knowledge, but its role is relatively smaller compared to reading and listening practice. Richards (2002) for example writes that output-based practice facilitates faster access to the acquired system and can increase fluency of production. The acquired system itself (i.e., the complex and implicit linguistic knowledge) remains largely unchanged; we just become more ‘fluent’ in using what we have previously acquired.

From a pedagogical perspective, it is fairly common for teachers to encourage students to use the new language for speaking/writing. This is perfectly fine and may in fact increase students’ motivation in learning English. However, we need to remember than encouraging is not the same as forcing students to speak. Forcing them to speak/write when they are not ready (i.e., they have not developed sufficient implicit linguistic knowledge) would only undermine their confidence, resulting in students having a low self-esteem and a loss of interest in learning.

What is input? Input simply means the language that we hear and see from audio-visual sources or printed materials. But not all input is useful for language learning. Some input may just be noise students may not understand the message that it conveys.

The question then is: what is the kind of input that promotes language learning? One major SLA theory that has examined the kind of input that facilitates acquisition is Krashen’ comprehensible input hypothesis (Krashen, Lee and Lao, 2017). The theory says that language learning happens when students are exposed to a large amount of highly comprehensible and compelling input. Elley (2001) describes how frequent encounters with meaningful and interesting language facilitate language acquisition:

When the student repeatedly focuses on the meaning of a large number of interesting messages, he/she incidentally and gradually acquires the form in which they are couched. This is where the learning takes place, not in the conscious, step-by-step direct teaching and applications of rules. (p. 129)

One excellent way to provide students with abundant, comprehensible and interesting language input is through an extensive reading and listening/viewing programme. Evidence suggests that students enjoy numerous language learning benefits when they read or listen to the target language regularly over a one year period (Renandya & Jacobs, 2016; Renandya, Hidayati & Ivone, in press).

For research syntheses of the impact of extensive reading on students’ language development, see Jeon and Day (2016) and Nakanishi (2015). I will say a bit more about how extensive reading programmes can be implemented in our teaching in the later part of this chapter.

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

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.

However, given the limited class time, students can read the reading materials before they come to class. If the texts are easy and interesting, students will be motivated to read them. This way, class time can be set aside for teaching higher level comprehension strategies that can help students read a text with a more critical eye, the kind of reading that can them scrutinize text ideas from different perspectives, discern unsupported claims, detect inaccurate or misleading information and surface biased opinions.

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, followed by the usual comprehension questions, teachers could explore listening pedagogy that promote repeated listening/viewing, i.e., listening to the same materials 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).

After the lesson, students can also be encouraged to do further listening/viewing on a similar topic. If the listening topic is appealing and students have access to related listening/viewing materials on the internet, they are more likely to set aside time outside the classroom to do their independent listening/viewing practice, thus increasing their exposure to rich and meaningful meaningful language input.

Research by Dressman, Lee, & Sabaoui (2016) shows that online listening/viewing outside the classroom is popular with Moroccan youths learning English as an additional language. They found that “Many, and in particular those who are the most skilled in speaking and listening, estimate that they have learned 70% to 85% of their English by going online or watching satellite TV” (p. 71).

Some students may find listening and viewing rather unappealing; staying focused for 10 to 15 minutes without doing any physical activity can be a quite a drag. One technique that has been shown to keep students active and focused is shadowing. Shadowing simply means speaking along or reading along as students listen to the audio or video recording.

Research by Hamada (2016a; 2016b) suggests that shadowing brings numerous language learning benefits. Students who do shadowing regularly tend to have increased listening skills (i.e., their ability to perceive and segment streams of speech improves a great deal). Moreover, their pronunciation and overall speaking skills also improve as a result of constant exposure to language input and repeated shadowing practice.

One question that teachers often ask is whether there is a need to teach listening strategies (e.g., inferencing, predicting or self-questioning strategies) in a listening lesson. Will the teaching of strategies improve students’ listening proficiency?

Current thinking seems to suggest that spending a small amount of classroom time teaching some key listening strategies (e.g., checking and monitoring comprehension) might be useful, but it is probably not wise to spend substantial classroom time on teaching strategies. The bulk of the lesson should instead be used to engage students in doing more listening. This follows the principle that students learn to listen by listening, and not by thinking about it or doing activities that don’t contribute much to the development of their listening skills (Chang, Millet & Renandya, 2019; Renandya, 2012; Renandya & Farrell, 2011).

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 (Jacobs & Renandya, 2019) to engage students in group activities.

The main goal is to get students to use the target language orally as much as possible. However, repeated observations seem 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 (Goh & Burns, 2012; Sabnani & Renandya, 2019).

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 orally in groups. 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.

By viewing these videos several times, students may also come to notice the words and phrases that the speakers use, the way they organize their talk (e.g., how they begin, expand, illustrate and end their speech) and how they use their voice and body language to get their ideas across to the audience.

Care should be taken that the reading and video materials have to be comprehensible and well within students’ proficiency level. Newspaper articles, for example, are quite challenging in terms of their vocabulary load, and need to be edited to ensure that the readability level matches students’ linguistic competence. When the input-based practice in a speaking lesson is done properly, students can be expected to be linguistically and affectively prepared to engage in a more meaningful output-based speaking lesson.

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. As was mentioned earlier, there is now ample evidence that demonstrates the positive and substantial impact of extensive exposure to language on learners’ language development (Ng, Renandya & Chong, 2019). 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. Bamford & Day (2004, p.1), two of the key ER proponents, write:

Good things happen to students who read a great deal in the foreign language. Research studies show they become better and more confident readers, they write better, their listening and speaking abilities improve, and their vocabularies become richer. In addition, they develop positive attitudes toward and increased motivation to study the new language.

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 minimal 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. This echoes what Grabe and Stoller (2002) say about the important role of extensive reading in our language curriculum. In their words, “students learn to read by reading a lot, yet reading a lot is not the emphasis of most reading curricula’ (p. 90).

Despite the positive research evidence that has been documented in the professional literature, ER has not been fully embraced by language teachers or fully endorsed by policy makers or school administrators. Some of them seem to be aware of the language learning benefits of ER, but face practical problems such as lack of resources and/or limited budget to purchase graded readers.

Renandya, Hidayati & Ivone (forthcoming) identify top ten implementation issues that teachers have reported, which range from lack of books, lack of support from school leaders to lack of reading motivation among teachers and students themselves. They maintain that unless these concerns are adequately addressed, the implementation of ER would remain limited.


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 that takes place in a very structured and formal school settings. 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.

Although evidence seems to suggest that language learning outside the classroom provides students with much richer learning affordances that should be fully exploited, instructed language learning that happens in the classroom plays a key role too in students’ overall development, i.e., linguistic, affective, social and academic development. Our job is to make the best use of in class and out of class affordances to support student learning.


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