How to Balance Implicit and Explicit Teaching as an Educational Parent

Edward Wong The Educational Parenting Blog Leave a Comment

Welcome back to the Educational Parenting Blog, where parents can find advice, answers, and awesome resources on becoming their child’s first and most influential teacher.

Something that all of a child’s teachers—professionals and parents alike—need to keep in mind is the variety of ways that it is possible for a child to learn a given skill.

For example, children can learn both by implicit learning and by explicit learning. Explicit learning is what most people think of when they think of classroom instruction—in explicit learning, children are directly told what they are trying to learn and then directly taught the skills or knowledge required. Implicit learning happens when children learn skills by watching others and then figuring out how to do the skill themselves, and it tends to create more lasting skill and memory.

Although all children will engage in both kinds of learning to some degree over the course of their education, there is some debate among educators regarding whether implicit or explicit learning should be emphasized more, especially when it comes to learning to read.

On one hand, some greatly respected teachers strongly recommend implicit teaching, which involves setting up lessons so that children figure things out for themselves—getting their own “aha!” moments (See, for example, Spelling Through Phonics by Marlene and Robert McCracken).

On the other hand, researcher and most phonics advocates support explicit teaching for essential skills such as reading and writing, noting that it helps more children who would otherwise not figure out the skills for themselves, and thus is much more inclusive.

As an Educational Parent, you have the opportunity to employ both methods when teaching your child to read. When children make mistakes, you can give them the correct answer when you want to emphasize explicit learning, and you can ask questions designed to prompt them to discover what their mistake was when you want to emphasize implicit learning.

Something seldom discussed in the debate over explicit vs. implicit learning is that implicit teaching requires a very good teacher. It is possible for a someone to attempt to teach implicitly but end up teaching nothing, whereas someone teaching explicitly only needs to know what they are teaching and be able to explain it well to have some effect. But explicit teaching comes with its own challenges as well, especially for parents who have not had the professional training that a teacher has had. There are two major difficulties that parents will face when they attempt to explicitly teach their child.

The first is that parents are no longer consciously aware of the skills they need to teach, because skills a person has mastered are done automatically at the subconscious level. One example of this is the left-to-right eye-movement we use when engaging with English print, which most adults have forgotten is unnatural to children and had to be developed through practice.

The second difficulty is that in order to get the lesson to stick, parents have to know several great ways to explicitly teach the same thing. An example of this might be using modelling clay to teach letters, an amazing tool that children love but often does not come to a parent’s mind before less useful alphabet posters or painful flashcards.

As with many areas of disagreement in education, the truth is that there is room for both implicit and explicit teaching. As an educational parent, one of your superpowers is you can perfectly balance implicit and explicit teaching.

In regards to reading education, I am in agreement with advocates of implicit teaching in the following ways:

  • Oral language proficiency should be developed through conversation with your child, and by them listening to others in conversation. Your child should be able to speak in full sentences comfortably before you should teach your child to read.
  • Implicit phonemic awareness is beneficial and maybe even necessary before teaching explicit phonemic awareness and reading. Even the term phonemic awareness implies that it was originally thought of as implicit knowledge. You can teach this via singing or playing songs that rhyme, reading poetry to them, playing games involving rhyme, and contrasting two words that almost sound the same except for one sound.
  • There is no rush to teach your child to read (which always requires some explicit teaching) if your child is not ready.

However, explicit teaching is also valuable for children who are learning to read. Here’s just a few skills that would benefit many children if taught explicitly at the right time, but are often ignored:

Left-to-right eye tracking

This is automatic for mature readers, which means you will not be consciously aware of it, but it is not natural for young children and needs to be taught.

Definitions of high-function words

Few children are taught these words and most people assume they know their meanings from frequent exposure, but explicit instruction unlocks significantly greater reading comprehension and better writing. In fact, most adults do not know their definitions! A few examples:

  • “a” versus “the”
  • “could” versus “can”, “would” versus “will”, “should” versus “shall”
  • “that” versus “which”

Phonics patterns

Do you find the rules of English tedious and taxing? If you do, your child probably does too. It helps to think of spelling-to-sound correspondences as patterns instead of rules. It is easier to learn patterns than to memorize every word that comes up, plus memorizing every word will stop working once your child needs to engage with more advanced texts.

For example, when your child asks you how to spell the word “school” and you spell it for them, you are laying another brick towards a spelling system based on memorizing the arbitrary spelling of every word. It would be better if you asked them to sound it out, and avoid correcting their spelling the word as skl, skull, or skool, depending on what phonics patterns you have taught them so far. This might seem like an implicit teaching strategy, but later on, when you teach them the /k/ sound spelled “ch”, you can explicitly show them the pattern in the words “school”, “schedule”, “chasm”, “Christmas”, “chronic” etc.

so they do not need to memorize the spelling of every word. This explicit teaching of the correspondence between the /k/ sound and the “ch” spelling will make reading and writing easier for children than waiting for them to implicitly learn the pattern on their own.

Conclusion

Children will encounter moments of both implicit and explicit learning on their journey to literacy. Because each type of learning has unique advantages—namely, that implicit learning creates longer-lasting memories, while explicit learning is necessary for skills and knowledge that your child is unlikely to understand without explicit instruction—you can support your child by employing both implicit and explicit teaching strategies as you help them learn to read.

In order to find the right balance between implicit and explicit teaching, use implicit strategies to help build implicit phonemic awareness and oral language proficiency, and explicit strategies to teach the less-intuitive aspects of reading English, such as phonics patterns, definitions of high-function words, and left-to-right eye tracking.

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About the Author

Edward Wong

Edward Wong is a primary tutor and the Senior Designer at English Cosmos. He teaches children how to read, coaches parents on education in the home, and has been passionate about reading education since 2019. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Juris Doctor degree and qualified as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA).

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