Tech Tuesday/Summer Study Series: A Continuum of Explicit to Implicit Learning

Summer Study imageIn this penultimate entry in the 2022 Summer Study Series, we’ll explore how the use of tools such as Story Grammar Marker® can gibe with models of instruction and learning. Baron and Yarbel’s (2022, brand new!) An Implicit–Explicit Framework for Intervention Methods in Developmental Language Disorder is a tutorial describing theories of learning related to language disorder and associated modes of intervention.

This article explores a neurologically based understanding of how we might learn explicitly: consciously trying to memorize information, facts, or apply skills, vs. implicitly: picking something up naturalistically and without really trying. These ways of learning can inform how we use tools such as SGM® particularly with young children with language disorders.

As usual, some key points are provided below, though we encourage you to check out the whole article!

  • Developmental Language Disorder (DVD) is thought to be a deficit in implicit learning in that children with these challenges may not naturally pick up language structures and rules as do their peers. Explicit learning is often used as a compensatory strategy, e.g., direct teaching of verb tenses or other language rules in these cases, and the trend has been toward defining different interventions as explicit or implicit. I would assert here that the use of SGM® could be either, as will be detailed below.
  • There is some evidence that explicit learning efforts can disrupt complex learning, and that children with DVD rely on these processes, such as memorization, and thereby struggle with retention. The two types of learning interact and it is suggested that hybrid approaches can be helpful; these would incorporate both explicit and implicit techniques.
  • Explicitness is shaped by the learner’s awareness as well as the facilitator/teacher’s or activity’s level of structure and directness.

Implicit v. Explicit Learning image

  • Described also are the role of instructions, direct elicitation, and feedback in making an activity or intervention more explicit. Interestingly, feedback seems a condition that can bridge explicit or implicit learning and facilitate the latter. For example, a play activity may involve much modeling and focused stimulation, with little explicit expectation of production by the child. However, feedback on use of an implicitly targeted structure can facilitate implicit learning. More technically, the authors state: “Feedback processing has an interesting role in the interplay between implicit and explicit learning. Although it is associated with promoting explicit hypothesis-testing intentional learning, it shares common brain bases with implicit learning. More specifically, the striatum, which is critical for implicit learning, has also been implicated in incremental feedback-based learning.”
  • The authors then examine a series of interventions and characterize them in terms of the continuum of explicit to implicit learning. For example, relating to SGM®, bombardment may be used in an activity to promote the use of the word character, or to stimulate a complex sentence structure such as one using because, and would be considered an implicit (also often associated with child-centered) technique. On the other end of the continuum, an intervention such as Shape Coding might be used to visually structure, highlight, and directly elicit verbs in the course of producing an action sequence (perhaps with the icons of character, setting and actions also guiding this activity).

The authors appear to avoid characterizing one or the other modes as best practice, but are aware of variations within learners and situations where we, as clinicians, may exercise these judgments. They describe, however, that we may have a bias towards explicitness and having an awareness of these learning processes may help us make some beneficial shifts.

There are also some guidelines based on the type of language learning target: “Explicit learning can be ideal for some target behaviors such as simple associations and rules, while implicit learning is ideal for acquiring complex information such as that found in social contexts (e.g., pragmatic skills) and in the structure of spoken languages (e.g., syntactic regularities).” Applying this to SGM®, learning the associations between the icons and story elements might best involve some explicitness, while microstructure elements such as complex sentences can benefit more from the modeling and recasting type of instruction.

As always, as a tech tie-in, consider the use of an app such as the wonderful Toca Life: Farm (part of a series providing play contexts for many world schema), (Android / IOS) . Taking the field setting below, a clinician might engage in these interactions:

  • Oh, let’s play with the field! The field is the setting (holds up star). What does the star stand for? (explicit).
  • Hmm, I wonder what’s going on on the field today? Oh, the farmer says “It hasn’t rained in a week!” That’s a problem (holds up kick-off!). What does this stand for? Right, the kick-off! How could we solve the problem? (explicit)
  • (Models a character turning on a sprinkler.) Oh, we can turn on the sprinkler SO that the plants get water and can grow! (implicit)
  • (The child uses a watering can to water other plants.) I see you are using the watering can SO that these plants can grow. It hasn’t rained SO they need water! (explicit).

Toca Life sample image

Sean Sweeney
Sean Sweeney


Sean Sweeney, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and technology specialist working in private practice at the Ely Center in Needham, MA, and consults to local and national organizations on technology integration in speech and language interventions. His blog, SpeechTechie (, looks at technology "through a language lens." Contact him at

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