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

Reviewer: Darcy Sperlich
Book Title: Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching
Book Author: Rod Ellis Shawn Loewen Catherine Elder Rosemary Erlam
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 22.578

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AUTHORS: Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen, Catherine Elder, Rosemary Erlam, Jenefer Philip
TITLE: Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and
SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2009

Darcy W.R. Sperlich, Department of Applied Linguistics and Language Studies,
University of Auckland/ School of English, Manukau Institute of Technology


This book is the culmination of three years of research into implicit and
explicit knowledge in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). The authors set
themselves three goals. The first was to develop test measures in Second
Language (L2) implicit and explicit grammatical knowledge; the second to
identify how general language proficiency relates to implicit and explicit
knowledge; and finally to investigate the effect that form-focused instruction
has upon L2 explicit and implicit grammatical knowledge.

The authors approach their goals via 12 research experiments. Hence, the book is
a collection of annotated results from differing experiments. Ellis as the
senior author and researcher provides a useful introduction to current issues in
L2 acquisition, as well as contributing a succinct conclusion whereby he
integrates the experimental results and considers whether or not they achieved
their original aims.

The book itself is divided into five parts, three of which cover the respective
goals they set out to investigate. Each part is comprised of one or more
chapters, most of which represent individual research papers by the various authors.

Part 1, Chapter 1. Introduction: “Implicit and Explicit Learning, Knowledge and
Instruction,” by Rod Ellis.

The first chapter focuses on the systems involved with implicit and explicit
learning, knowledge and instruction, starting in the realm of cognitive
psychology to the field of SLA. Ellis’ position is that in the first place a
distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge, instruction and learning
can be made. The book’s main focus, however, is the investigation into the
respective aspects of knowledge and instruction rather than learning. Following
a discussion of the basic concepts involved, Ellis provides an outline of the
book, covering each chapter (on p. 24 a second mention of ‘Chapter 10’ should
actually be ‘Chapter 11’).

Part 2: The Measurement of Implicit and Explicit Knowledge

This section consists of four chapters, all of which address the instruments
used to assess implicit and explicit knowledge.

Chapter 2: “Measuring Implicit and Explicit Knowledge of a Second Language” by
Rod Ellis.

Five knowledge tests are discussed, namely the Elicited Oral Imitation Test, the
Oral Narrative Test, the Timed Grammaticality Judgement Test (TGJT), the Untimed
Grammaticality Test (UGJT), and the Metalinguistic Knowledge Test. Ellis
elaborates on the test features that distinguish between implicit and explicit
knowledge. The experimental results found here indicate that these tests can be
used for measuring either implicit or explicit knowledge.

Chapter 3: “The Elicited Oral Imitation Test as a Measure of Implicit Knowledge”
by Rosemary Erlam.

The author investigates whether or not the Elicited Oral Imitation Test is a
valid measure of implicit knowledge. The test consists of the participant
listening to an utterance (grammatical or ungrammatical), where they try to
reconstruct it orally. Erlam discusses the background of the test in detail, and
then its design factors for this experiment. She concludes that while the
Elicited Oral Imitation Test is a reliable and valid measure of implicit
knowledge, further research is needed to fine-tune its application.

Chapter 4: “Grammaticality Judgement Tests and the Measurement of Implicit and
Explicit L2 Knowledge”, by Shawn Loewen.

Here the author compares the types of knowledge tested by TGJT and UGJT,
providing a quick background for the tests. The difference between the two tests
is the timing aspect (both test whether the participant feels the target
sentence is grammatical or not), the timed one testing implicit knowledge while
the untimed one tests explicit knowledge. Loewen finds that TGJT are more biased
towards explicit knowledge, and UGJT more towards implicit knowledge - with some

Chapter 5: “Validating a Test of Metalinguistic Knowledge”, by Catherine Elder.

Elder investigates what type of knowledge is tested by the Metalingusitic
Knowledge Test (MKT). This tests the participant’s explicit knowledge of
grammar. She constructs several hypotheses around the MKT, and finds that
overall the MKT is a valid measure of explicit knowledge, but with issues that
need to be addressed in the future.

Part 3: Applying the Measures of Implicit and Explicit L2 Knowledge

As the title suggests, the respective studies apply the measures of knowledge to
four rather diverse situations (covered by each chapter, in this order):
learning difficulty of various grammatical structures, nature of language
proficiency, individual differences in language proficiencies, and
metalinguistic knowledge of teacher trainees.

Chapter 6: “Investigating Learning Difficulty in Terms of Implicit and Explicit
Knowledge”, by Rod Ellis.

Based on 17 different grammatical structures, Ellis tests whether learning
difficulties for these structures differ for implicit (using Elicted Imitation -
EI - and TGJT) and explicit knowledge (using UGJT and MKT). He also discusses
the various factors that can influence learning of grammatical structures. Ellis
finds that while some structures may be easy to acquire in terms of implicit
knowledge, the same structures may be difficult to learn for explicit knowledge,
and vice versa.

Chapter 7: “Implicit and Explicit Knowledge of an L2 and Language Proficiency”,
by Catherine Elder and Rob Ellis.

First there is the question as to what type of knowledge is tested in the
ubiquitous International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and Test of
English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) tests, that is, whether or not a
particular test is biased more towards explicit or implicit knowledge. Taking a
novel approach, not only do the authors assess the tests through the
participation of test takers, but also ask an ‘expert panel’ of judges to assess
the tests to see what kind of knowledge would be used. The results of the study
suggest that explicit knowledge is drawn upon to a large extent in both the
IELTS and TOEFL tests. This is an important finding for the many IELTS and TOEFL
preparation courses offered around the world.

Chapter 8: “Pathways to Proficiency: Learning Experiences and Attainment in
Implicit and Explicit Knowledge of English as a Second Language”, by Jenefer Philip.

This is an assessment of the variability of learners, and whether or not their
variability can be linked to the type of knowledge they possess, e.g., will a
person who experiences a particular instruction type have greater implicit or
explicit knowledge? The study finds positive correlations between the type of
knowledge and the learner variable.

Chapter 9: “Exploring the Explicit Knowledge of TESOL Teacher Trainees:
Implications for Focus on Form in the Classroom”, by Rosemary Erlam, Jenefer
Philip and Catherine Elder.

The metalinguistic knowledge of two different trainee teacher types is assessed
in this chapter, native speakers and non-native speakers, and the implications
it has upon Focus on Form teaching. The key finding of the study is that both
groups have a relatively low metalinguistic knowledge, even more so in the
native speaker group. As one can imagine, this has serious consequences for the
classroom. The language learners will be short-changed, if not confused, by
teachers who lack the knowledge to impart form and function of the English

Part 4: Form-Focused Instruction and the Acquisition of Implicit and Explicit

This part tries to establish whether or not form-focused instruction influences
the acquisition of implicit and explicit knowledge. The form-focused options
include input based options, explicit, production and corrective feedback
options. The four studies below investigate these options, either by themselves
or together.

Chapter 10: “The Roles of Output-based and Input-based Instruction in the
Acquisition of L2 Implicit and Explicit Knowledge”, by Rosemary Erlam, Shawn
Loewen and Jenefer Philip.

What are the outcomes of input-based versus output-based teaching of the
indefinite article ‘a’ to express generic meaning? Each method combines several
options, and the study finds that instruction that includes producing language
output is beneficial to the acquisition of implicit knowledge.

Chapter 11: “The Incidental Acquisition of Third Person -s as Implicit and
Explicit Knowledge”, by Shawn Loewen, Rosemary Erlam and Rod Ellis.

When learners come across the third person -s without much explanation, will
they be subject to incidental acquisition? The study found that if the learners
are exposed intensively to the target structure without their attention focused
upon it, there was no effect on their implicit or explicit knowledge. They
speculate this may be due to a number of features, one of them being for
example, problems with learners even noticing the third person -s.

Chapter 12: “The Effects of Two Types of Input on Intake and the Acquisition of
Implicit and Explicit Knowledge”, by Hayo Reinders and Rod Ellis.

This chapter investigates the effects that enriched and enhanced input has upon
the intake and acquisition of English negative adverbs. By using Grammaticality
Judgement Tests (GJT), they found that enriched input has a positive effect on
intake and acquisition.

Chapter 13: “Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback and the Acquisition of L2
Grammar”, by Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen and Rosemary Erlam.

The research question posed is whether or not there are different outcomes when
using implicit versus explicit corrective feedback in the target structure, past
tense -ed. The authors found that the group that received explicit feedback (in
the form of metalinguistic information) benefitted more than the implicit
(recasts) group.

Part 5, Chapter 14. Conclusion: “Retrospect and Prospect”, by Rod Ellis.

In this final chapter Ellis provides a considered evaluation as to whether or
not the goals of the study were achieved. He concludes that the first goal was
achieved, while the second goal was not. The third goal was achieved but with
some reservations. This casts the whole endeavour as a work in progress whereby
definitive outcomes are not always possible and a lack of outcomes is equally
acknowledged. Ellis and his team give substance to the often used but empty
formula of ‘further research being called for’. As such Ellis correctly points
to the limitations of the study as a whole, and thereby suggests real research
avenues to pursue.


My view of the book is that it is a must-have for any person interested in SLA.
It represents the peak of collaborative effort in tackling the issues at hand. I
come to this conclusion by bringing two different perspectives to the table, one
as a researcher, and the second as a teacher of ESOL.

Firstly commenting as a researcher, this book certainly brings new depths to our
understanding of implicit and explicit knowledge. Overall, the studies are
methodologically extremely rigorous, giving detailed information about
participants, test designs, delivery of instruction (where applicable) and test
situations, allowing others to replicate the experiments if they wish. Regarding
the battery of tests used, each test has been assessed to their suitability in
measuring either implicit/explicit knowledge, not just in theory but with
empirical data to back up their claims. The use of statistics is extensive to
prove the reliability of test results, and used to good effect to observe
different types of influences upon the acquisition of implicit and explicit
knowledge. On the other hand the authors also note the limitations of each
study, which indeed is a welcome feature. Their analyses enable anyone
considering an experiment of a similar nature to enhance what has been found
already, instead of starting from scratch and possibly replicating the same
problems and errors. Each experiment is put into retrospect, noting areas for
improvement, other underlying factors that may have influenced the study, and
directions for further study. An example regarding limitations are the
confidence ratings, where a scale from 0-100% was used. Ellis notes in the
conclusion that this may have been the wrong way to go, and perhaps a 50-100%
rating would have been better. He quotes from a paper that scales 50% as a
complete guess and as such would represent a more intuitive approach to
confidence scaling. Such remarks are very useful for researchers who are
contemplating similar research designs. As Ellis also considers aspects of the
psychology of language and SLA, we gain a much broader understanding of the
issues involved - confidence ratings as a question of psychology being a case in
point. Finally, the book is very easy to read, language is used in a
straight-forward manner, with technical concepts clearly explained and
described, making the book all the more accessible to students of language and SLA.

Assessing the book from a language teacher’s point of view, Ellis states on p.
352 that “Tests of implicit and explicit knowledge, then, can assist course
designers in deciding the order of items in a syllabus and can also help
teachers establish to what extent their students have developed implicit and/or
explicit knowledge of a specific target feature”. I whole-heartedly agree with
this statement, for as a teacher I am able to see the immediate benefit of
applying these tests in order to assess my students’ knowledge for specific
items. I can use these tests as a diagnostic tool for student errors, as
exemplified by the Elicited Oral Imitation test. More generally, interesting
issues are raised with regard to testing language students. For example, once
tests have been devised for implicit and explicit knowledge, how are we supposed
to, as a next step, assess students’ language progress? Would it be fair to
‘fail’ a student who has not internalized language principles and parameters,
but is better able to expound them than a teacher does? Or do we instead
concentrate on communicative production, regardless of what kind of
non-linguistic knowledge is used in the process? Also of interest is Part 4,
where the authors study the effect of instruction on implicit and explicit
knowledge. Certainly one very important finding concerns the type of corrective
feedback to give to students. The study notes that explicit feedback helps with
language attainment more than implicit recasts – which can be easily applied by
any teacher. Of equal note for any teacher must be that enriched input
outperforms enhanced input. Hence with this book, the authors have done well to
bridge some of the gaps between theoretical and pedagogical concerns.

This book makes a valuable contribution to the field of SLA , and it will become
an indispensable text for graduate students, researchers and language
professionals alike.

Darcy Sperlich is currently a lecturer of ESOL in the School of English of the Manukau Institute of Technology, in Auckland, New Zealand. He is also a PhD student at the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland, investigating anaphoric interpretation of Mandarin in English and Korean learners of Mandarin, and whether or not this suggests an anaphoric pragmatic/syntactic division of labour in the languages concerned. His other research interests include Chinese comparative dialectology, especially as related to syntax.

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