Volume No: 2
on Implicit and Explicit
Written by: Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness
Some of the most frequently asked questions on our phone lines and web site centre on uncertainty about what is implicit and what is explicit in reading and spelling. Questions such as, ''Some of the kids in my class can't recite the code.'' ''My child is reading well now but his spelling is not as good.'' And ''I have this one client who knows most of the ways to show 'ee', but he always forgets ie.'' This article will attempt to clear up the issue of what Phono-Graphix teaches explicitly and what it teaches implicitly.
The difference between implicit and explicit is more than just the first syllable. It could be the difference between spending twelve or one hundred hours teaching a child to read. It could be the difference between fluency and no fluency. This article starts out with what you've all heard before... The nature of the code, and the phonological skills used to read such a code and moves on to supporting research as to why those two things are what we teach explicitly, while we let the actual code become implicit information functioning under the surface.
Letters are pictures of sounds
The nature of the code these are pictures of sounds: b oa t
The nature of the child We believe that children can understand this perfectly well. Children have a remarkable ability to assess visual figures. At two days a baby can distinguish his mother's face from any other human face. Children assess and use visual figures in the world around them every day.
Sometimes a sound picture is one letter and sometimes two or more
The nature of the code the pictures can be made of one
b / t or more oa letters. So boat has three sounds, and three
sound pictures b oa t
The nature of the child
We believe children can manage this. They reuse figures in the
world around them every day.
There is variation in the code
The nature of the code most of the sounds can be shown with more than
b oa t
s l ow
m o s t
n o t e
The nature of the child We believe that children can easily learn that
are all a picture of the same sound.
There is overlap in the code
The nature of the code some of the pictures are used for more
than one sound: ow = sh ow f r ow n
of the child We believe children can manage this as they easily
manage that this can be a picture of a ball,
a circle, a moon, a dot, and more!
Exactly what is
learned explicitly as opposed to implicitly?
The analogy we've demonstrated 'squares and triangles being reused
to make houses' is not learned explicitly, but implicitly as children
operate on the world around them each day. Just as learning the label
or 'word' for house or flower is learned implicitly, so too can the
code be learned implicitly. Exactly what is learned
explicitly as opposed to implicitly is critical to the instructional
formula. So where Phonics has invented rules to try to explain why
letters represent the sounds they represent, Phono-Graphix employs
hands-on activities and games that offer an explicit understanding that
these figures are pictures of sounds to be assessed and used as tools,
just as we assess and use all the visual figures in our world every day.
We offer here three additional pieces of evidence to support this approach.
- Reber (1989), Berry (1984) and Berry and Dienes (1993) tested
the hypothesis that direct explicit instruction would improve memory for
logic based systems. They devised a synthetic phonetic code with rules
for combining symbols, and taught it to students under two controls.
One group received direct explicit instruction in the rules. The other
group was exposed to the code and told that it was a code with rules,
but they received no explicit instruction in the rules.
of these studies clearly indicate that students became proficient with
the code whether they received explicit instruction or not. In the Berry
(1984) study researchers found that explicit instruction improved the
subjects' knowledge about the rules. But the study also showed
that the students who received explicit instruction and acquired knowledge
about the rules, performed the same or not quite as well as the students who
received exposure only with no explicit instruction in rules.
The implication is that explicit instruction in rules impairs performance.
It would seem from this study that although it doesn't hurt much, it certainly
doesn't help at all unless your goal is knowledge about rules rather
- The premise of Phono-Graphix, that explicit
instruction is not necessary to successful use of a phonetic code, is
supported by an effect that's well known in the field of perceptual psychology.
In 1886 James Cattell discovered what has since become known as the word
superiority effect. It has since been replicated in dozens of published
studies (e.g., Chastain, 1981, 1986; Jordan & Bevan, 1994; Krueger, 1992;
Pollatsek & Rayner, 1989; Taylor & Taylor, 1983; Wheeler, 1970). These
researchers have found that when asked to perform a visual pattern recognition
task, specifically to locate a target letter in a string of real as opposed to
nonsense words, performance is higher with real words than with nonsense words.
The implication is that the process of constructing meaning, occurring
simultaneously with the process of visual scanning, actually aids the visual
scanning process. Based upon this, it would seem that explicit instruction
in the rules of the code may distract the learner and actually prove harmful to
learning the visual code for our spoken language. It seems that code would
better be taught in context the context of meaningful words which, as it happens,
is the very context for which it was intended.
- Our premise that explicit
instruction is not necessary or helpful to successful use of a phonetic code is
further supported by another research piece. Anne Treisman and others
(Treisman & Schmidt, 1982; Treisman & Souther, 1986) have isolated what
they call an illusory conjunction. These researchers asked subjects
to scan text composed of nonsense words such as dax and kay,
explaining that they would be asked questions about the text after having
studied it for a brief period. The researchers found that subjects reported
having seen words like day, which could be constructed with parts of
the nonsense words, such as dax and kay, appearing
in the text. The implication is that the construction of meaning is a
powerful overriding force in the processing of visual stimuli, and must be
a primary part of the instructional mix.
We've demonstrated thus far
what knowledge is needed to be able to understand the nature of the code.
To be able to use that code,
three skills are also needed (C. McGuinness, et al, 1996).
- Segmenting the ability to separate sounds in words, so
when you hear 'frog' you can say the isolated sounds
'f' 'r' 'o' 'g'.
- Blending the ability to blend sounds
into words, so when you hear the sounds 'f' 'r' 'o' 'g' you hear the word
- Phoneme Manipulation the ability to manipulate
sounds in and out of words, so when you read 'brown' with the sound 'oe',
and you realize it's not a word, you can drop the 'oe' and add the sound 'ow'.
br 'oe' n... ''not a word''... br'ow'n. Bingo!
These skills are are not an invention. They are a result of the brain trying to work out our writing system., just as rotating both legs in a clockwise motion simultaneously is the brain sorting out how to ride a bike. Such skills are best learned in context of the procedure for which they are needed. In the case of bike riding we teach the skill of pedaling on a bike. In the case of reading and spelling, we teach the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation using real code reading and spelling real words. This kind of 'learning by doing' is called latent learning. Latent learning is quite common for the learning of procedural skills. Procedural knowledge is implicit. We can be completely proficient at the skills and completely unable to talk about the intricacies of the process. So the child must learn (explicitly) the nature of the code, (implicitly) the skills needed to use the code, and (implicitly) the symbols of the code. Phono-Graphix maximizes instruction by teaching all of these simultaneously. This is instructionally sound for two reasons, again based on the nature of the code and of the child.
- The nature of the code The code doesn't exist in isolation from the process of segmenting, blending and manipulating phonemes.
Neither do these processes exist without the code. One without the other will always be two halves of a whole. So we teach these together in the context for which they exist reading and spelling words.
- The nature of the child Humans learn best when material and procedure are linked and embedded in context (Bandura, 1985; Flavell, 1977).
One final piece
Here's a look at the model:
One final piece of the instructional mix that Phono-Graphix has recognized
is the importance of error correction. This piece comes to us from the fields
of learning theory and motivation psychology.
or analytic Phonics seems bent on controlling every word that falls
before a child's eyes so that there is no chance of failure, Phono-Graphix
knows better! According to motivation psychology it's errors that get our
attention. Motivation psychologists call this an orienting response.
Without error, there's no disequilibrium, no limit, no reason to take
in new information, no reason to do what psychology calls 'orient'.
Hence no motivation. Motivation psychologists Miller and Dollard coined
the term learning dilemma to discribe this phenomenon. They explained
that old skills and information must be activated in order to solve problems.
When a problem cannot be solved with existing skills and information,
failure occurs resulting in anxiety. New skills and information are taken
into the learner's repetiore in order to solve the problem and relieve the anxiety.
The dilemma learning follows failure. In Phono-Graphix this process is
made easier for the student and teacher through lessons that externalize what
the child doesn't know, and a system of error corrections that offers just the
right amount of missing information to keep the child engaged in the problem
solving process. In this way each new error is an opportunity to learn.
About the Author:
Geoffrey and Carmen McGuinness are the co-founders of Read America, and co-developers of Phono-Graphix and Language Wise. Together the couple have authored two books, Reading Reflex, and How To Increase Your Child's Verbal Intelligence.