Explicit vs. Implicit Instruction for Second-Language Grammar

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

There are a number of strategies for second-language instruction. Two overarching methods include explicit and implicit instruction, each of which carry different pros and cons.

Grammar Instruction

Grammar is a category of language that mainly involves morphology, or word parts, and syntax, or sentence structure. For example, when looking at conjugation, that would be the morphological side of grammar. When looking at adjective placement in a sentence, that's syntax.

When you're teaching (or learning) a second language, grammar is an important aspect, and there are a few different ways you can go about including it in your instruction. For example, you might include grammar instruction as part of other units. Alternatively, it might have its own class or separate section, in order to increase the students' active focus on grammatical forms.

Explicit Instruction

When you're teaching a second language, there are two major instructional styles that you might use. One is explicit instruction, which is formal instruction that has students consciously focus on language aspects, such as grammatical forms. For example, you might have students look at the soy/eres/es/somos/son conjugations for Spanish. In explicit instruction, they would learn that these are the major conjugations for the present tense form of the verb ser. This might be done as part of a unit on description or a unit specifically on present tense.

Explicit instruction involves activities like worksheets, repetition (e.g. having students repeat the conjugation forms out loud), or fill-in-the-blank activities where students have to properly conjugate the verb. The idea is to have students consciously focus on and learn grammatical forms, as well as their purpose and position in a sentence.

Issues

Explicit instruction is an excellent tool for teaching grammatical forms, but it does have some downsides. For one, it doesn't involve any communicative practice. Students aren't really learning how to use the grammatical forms in a practical or conversational way, like they would use it outside of the classroom. This makes it more difficult for students to retain or recognize these language aspects in a more communicative setting, and their fluency suffers as a result.

Implicit Instruction

The other major instructional style in language is implicit instruction. Implicit instruction involves giving students communication-based activities, or having them watch movies or read books, in their target language. The idea is that, through these less formal mediums, they will subconsciously absorb grammatical forms simply by seeing/hearing them in use. Essentially, implicit instructions looks to mimic the way students initially learn their native languages through observation and practice.

Independent reading is one method of implicit instruction
Reading

One way to use implicit instruction in the classroom might be to pair students and have them talk, in their target language of course, about what they did yesterday. This would be a way to implicitly teach past tense grammatical forms. Having students use the language in a practical and communicative manner is a good way to increase fluency and retention. It involves more of a learning-by-doing approach than explicit instruction.

Issues

As with any instructional style, implicit instruction has its problems. One is that, without explicit instruction, it can be difficult to make sure students are adopting the correct forms. If they are practicing the wrong forms, implicit instruction isn't helpful anymore. In classroom paired conversations, the instructor can go around and help struggling students but, in independent reading or watching a movie, this is more difficult. Students might also get bogged down if they encounter too many unfamiliar forms and absorb nothing at all. This is most likely to happen, for example, in independent reading or while watching a movie.

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