The necessity of grammatical language awareness (GLA)

Can learners acquire grammatical features as implicit knowledge?

Bachelor Thesis, 2021

35 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1 Necessity of grammatical language awareness (GLA)

2 Language Awareness
2.1 Definition
2.2 Implicit and Explicit Instruction, Learning, Knowledge

3 General Literature Review
3.1 Prominent findings
3.2 Results Limitations

4 Specific Literature Review: Implicit vs Explicit Knowledge benefits
4.1 Test battery
4.2 General results
4.3 Learning difficulty of grammatical structures
4.3.1 Implicit Knowledge
4.3.2 Explicit Knowledge
4.3.3 Methodology
4.3.4 Results

5 Discussion
5.1 Implications for the SL-classroom
5.2 Conclusion


Table of Figures

Table of Tables


Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research has been analysing the effectiveness of different language acquisition processes. Whereas some findings suggest benefits through implicit acquisition processes, others believe explicit acquisition to be superior. The present paper aims to identify current positions in the literature regarding the efficacy of implicit versus explicit language instruction, learning and knowledge, as well as learning difficulties for specific grammatical features when presented implicitly or explicitly and what the findings imply for the English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom. In order to do so, a general literature review was used to analyse the most relevant findings in the field to answer the first question as well as a specific literature review of The Marsden Project by Elder, Ellis (Ed.), Erlam, Loewen, Philp Reinders (2009) to answer the second research question. Findings include support for both implicit and explicit acquisition processes, although significantly more evidence of learning difficulties were found for the former, indicating that explicit knowledge seems to be acquired more easily. However, SLA-research and successful classroom practices do not always align perfectly, as the curriculum indicates that a shift towards a more communicative approach is favoured and teachers should only include explicit instruction where necessary. It was particularly interesting that some grammatical items seem to be similar in learning difficulty for both processes, suggesting that a wider variety of teaching methods can be implemented into the ESL-classroom. Also, the subjective and objective difficulty of the grammatical items do not always overlap completely, which entails that successful acquisition, regardless of its nature, also depends on the teacher-learner relationship.

1 Necessity of grammatical language awareness (GLA)

It is of great importance to future teachers to consider theoretical frameworks and research findings when deciding between different teaching methods for efficient language acquisition. In relation to this, implicit and explicit acquisition processes are most often discussed and each process has its proponents. However, scientific research and classroom reality quite often do not support the same methods. Especially regarding the acquisition of grammatical features, there exist many different positions for which method is most effective. Although it ultimately comes down to the particular group or individuals that one teaches, it is still essential to familiarise oneself with the latest empirical findings in the field.

Therefore, the following chapters are going to analyse the most prominent findings in the field as well as one study in particular, which addresses the question of ease and difficulty regarding the acquisition of particular grammatical features to answer the central question of whether it is possible to acquire some of those features as implicit knowledge. In the end, the findings are summarised and discussed. Also, language teaching guidelines from the curriculum are compared with the findings from this paper and ultimately, implications for the classroom on how teaching can be most beneficial for efficient language acquisition are outlined.

2 Language Awareness

Language awareness is defined as the "explicit knowledge about language, and conscious perception and sensitivity in language learning, language teaching and language use" (Svalberg, 2016, p. 399) by the Association for Language Awareness (ALA). The field covers various topics such as language structure or vocabulary and the function of language in a social or cultural context (Svalberg, 2016). As this paper is a bachelor thesis, the extension of research is limited and will only focus on Grammatical Language Awareness (GLA), as grammar is an integral part of language teaching. The paper aims to answer the following research questions:

(a) What is the current consensus regarding the efficacy of implicit versus explicit language instruction, learning and knowledge?
(b) How are explicit and implicit learning and knowledge related and what grammatical features can be learned better implicitly/explicitly?
(c) What implications for the ESL-classroom can be drawn from the findings?

To answer these questions, the paper is divided into four chapters. The first one aims to clarify important words and phrases by providing definitions and distinctions; the second part is a general literature review, which focuses on the most important works from the past decades to the most recent findings in order to answer research question (a); the third part is a specific literature review which examines Rod Ellis' (Ellis et al., 2009) studies on implicit and explicit language acquisition and knowledge to answer research question (b) and the last part consists of a summary and discussion of the findings from the previous parts which are compared and contrasted with the Austrian curriculum in order to give implications for the classroom and to answer research question (c).

2.1 Definition

Second Language Acquisition (SLA) researchers have been studying the field of explicit and implicit acquisition for over half a century. Therefore, specific key terms used throughout the literature, including the main terms implicit and explicit, differ in meaning from one paper to another. Others also differentiate between implicit and explicit instruction, learning and knowledge. This section aims to mention and compare several of those definitions and how consciousness, as well as intentional and incidental acquisition, are related to the field to provide a clearly defined base for the rest of the paper and to avoid confusion.

2.2 Implicit and Explicit Instruction, Learning, Knowledge

Ellis (1994) demonstrated the importance of the distinction between implicit and explicit processes with the following introductory statement:

Some things we just come able to do, like walking, recognising happiness in others, knowing that th is more common than tg in written English, or making simple utterances in our native language. We have little insight into the nature of the processing involved - we learn to do them implicitly like swallows learn to fly. Other of our abilities depend on knowing how to do them, like multiplication, playing chess, speaking pig Latin, or using a computer programming language. We learn these abilities explicitly like aircraft designers learn aerodynamics (Ellis, 1994, p. 1).

Ellis (1994) mentioned an important fact in a very eloquent way: there seem to be some things that we just do without giving them much thought; they just happen automatically. For other things, there exist clearly defined rules, patterns or instructions on how to successfully do them, which we have acquired and consciously get back to when we do them. As Ellis (1994) researches in the field of Second Language Acquisition Studies, his introductory statement concerns implicit and explicit processes in second language acquisition. Consequently, it seems that we somehow have subconscious knowledge of some language features and conscious knowledge of others. Some would argue that the former can be referred to as implicit knowledge and the latter as explicit knowledge. However, the distinction seems to be more complicated.

Many researchers define the two terms as follows: Rankin Whong (2020), for example, see implicit language acquisition as a natural process similar to the learning of L1 and explicit language acquisition as an entirely conscious learning process. Others give a more detailed explanation: Rebuschat Williams (2012) believe that implicit learning has happened when (a) unconscious knowledge that cannot be accessed via conscious introspection has been acquired, (b) there was no intention to learn and (c) the learner is unaware of the knowledge he/she has acquired. Explicit learning, on the other hand, has happened when (a) conscious knowledge that can be verbalised was acquired and (b) there was an intention to learn (Rebuschat Williams, 2012).

However, Ellis (1994) differentiates between the two terms "learning" and "knowledge" in his introductory statement and Hulstijn (2005) even provides a set of definitions that clarify not only those two terms but also how "instruction" is related to the concept of implicit and explicit acquisition. According to him, instruction that resembles a traditional approach including rule explanation is considered explicit, whereas implicit instruction does not follow that principle. Explicit learning occurs when there is a conscious intention to learn more about structural regularities (hence grammatical rules), whereas implicit learning does not, as it happens unconsciously. Whether the knowledge that results from learning, regardless of its kind, is of implicit or explicit nature depends on the ability to verbalise what has been learned (Hulstijn, 2005).

Other researchers do not seem to make such a distinction and only use the term "learning": Reber (1976, as cited in DeKeyser, 2003) saw implicit learning as "a primitive process of apprehending structure by attending to frequency cues" contrary to "a more explicit process whereby various mnemonics, heuristics, and strategies are engaged to induce a representational system" (p. 93). DeKeyser (2003) points out that a formulation of a clear definition of consciousness and awareness has proven to be difficult and mentions studies that opt for implicit learning as a process involving intentionality and automaticity (Frensch, 1998; Anderson Labiere, 1998; both as cited in De Keyser, 2003). He argues that irrespective of what is learned, a conscious intention to learn something precedes the process. Automaticity refers to the product after the learning process. The learner can perform the task(s) automatically, without the need to invest further effort and attention (Segalowitz, 2003).

Rebuschat Williams (2012) consider it important to also distinguish between incidental and implicit learning. If the rule can be verbalised without having been taught explicitly, the type of learning is called incidental learning; if the rule has been acquired unconsciously and the learner is thus not able to verbalise the rule, implicit learning has taken place. This is particularly interesting, as the distinction suggests that implicit learning can result in explicit knowledge. It is, in fact, possible, as research by Ellis et al. (2009) concludes: although they see implicit and explicit processes as "related but distinct concepts that need to be separated" (p. 6), the acquisition processes with their corresponding form of implicit or explicit instruction, learning and knowledge seem to overlap considerably. In simpler words, learning that has taken place implicitly, e.g. without metalinguistic awareness, can still result in explicit knowledge about the particular structure (incidental learning). On the other hand, explicit learning of a particular linguistic feature (intentional learning) may result in another feature's incidental or implicit acquisition. Consequently, implicit instruction does not necessarily result in implicit learning or knowledge and explicit instruction in explicit learning or knowledge (Schmidt, 1994, as cited in Ellis et al., 2009).

This chapter shows several definitions of and distinctions between explicit and implicit instruction, learning and knowledge. In particular, Ellis et al. (2009) explain the difficulty of a uniform definition quite well, as those processes cannot really be considered distinct concepts because the utilisation of either explicit or implicit instructional methods does not necessarily entail the corresponding acquisition processes. However, concerning the research questions, the most critical part is the result, the product of instruction and learning: the knowledge. Whether learners have acquired implicit or explicit knowledge regarding grammatical language features is best defined as follows: Implicit knowledge can be defined as subconscious (Rebuschat Williams, 2012) and non-verbalisable (Hulstijn, 2005), where the learner relies on his or her intuition. On the other hand, explicit knowledge can be defined as conscious (Rebuschat Williams, 2012), thus verbalisable (Hulstijn, 2005) knowledge, where the learner relies on his or her metacognitive knowledge of syntax and morphology.

3 General Literature Review

As the field of research exceeds the limits of this thesis considerably, only an assortment of relevant literature will be discussed in this chapter. The aim is to explain the different hypotheses, follow-up studies and limitations up to the most recent findings in the field to answer research question (a) "What is the current consensus regarding the efficacy of implicit versus explicit language instruction, learning and knowledge?" The chapter is structured as a timeline where it made sense to group several works, as some of the works mentioned refer to earlier research either to support the hypotheses with evidence or to express counterarguments. It was refrained from dividing the chapter into works that support implicit and explicit acquisition as two separate chapters because most authors discuss both. 3.1 Prominent findings

One of the first mentions of the term "implicit learning" was in Reber's (1967) Implicit Learning of Artificial Grammar. He conducted two memorisation experiments with artificial grammar structures, in which the participants' ability to detect lawful grammatical letter sequences implicitly and the subsequent verbalisation of the underlying rule were tested. He concluded that although the students could not verbalise the rules they followed, they seemed to have acquired them unconsciously.

Following Reber (1967), Krashen (1981) introduced five hypotheses regarding SLA. In the Acquisition Learning Distinction, he differentiates between language acquisition as a subconscious, thus implicit process where only a "feel" for correctness is developed and language learning as a conscious, thus explicit process where knowledge and awareness of rules, as well as a general conscious understanding of the language, is acquired. The Natural Order Hypothesis assumes that there exists a specific order in which grammatical features of a second language are acquired, regardless of the speaker's first language. The Monitor Hypothesis makes a distinction between subconscious and conscious language, the former being responsible for the fluency of our speech, the latter acting as a corrective device, the Monitor. Whereas in spontaneous speech, the focus would lie more on the subconscious language production (the ability to use the Monitor depends on the time given between input and response; therefore, a balance of fluency and accuracy of speech is needed) in controlled speech or writing the Monitor is used thoroughly. The Input Hypothesis assumes that in order to acquire new language competencies, the input has to be just a little bit beyond the learner's current language level and thus correlates with Vygotsky's (1978) Zone of Proximal Development theory. With the Affective Filter Hypothesis, Krashen (1981) concludes that motivation, anxiety and self-confidence affect the learner's ability of SLA.

Putting the hypotheses into practice, Krashen (1981) suggests that the focus in SL - classes should lie on language acquisition through a comprehensible, interesting and relevant input, as such implicit learning conditions appear to be superior to input that facilitates explicit knowledge/conscious awareness of the language. According to Krashen (1981), this is especially true for complex stimulus domains. The learners should focus on meaning rather than on form and errors are not to be corrected. Conscious use of grammar, in the sense of explicit language knowledge, is only applied through the use of the Monitor in planned speech or writing. However, according to Krashen (1981), for the Monitor to be used efficiently, only easy to remember rules should be studied consciously, as more complex structures tend to be hard to learn, as they are not easily remembered and therefore difficult to apply correctly. All in all, Krashen favours an implicit approach through a comprehensible input that resembles the language used in a natural setting.

Schmidt (1990), on the other hand, argues through his Noticing Hypothesis that conscious attention to input facilitates the "noticing" of language features which, if the input is sufficient, again results in the intake of the features into the learner's language repertoire. However, noticing is not guaranteed as it is influenced by (1) whether or not the feature has been introduced in an instructional (language class) setting already, (2) the frequency of the item occurring in conversational settings, (3) perceptual salience of the item, (4) the skill level of the learner and (5) the demands of the task (as it determines the way, the material is processed). He distinguishes three levels of awareness: (1) perception (not necessarily conscious), (2) noticing (conscious awareness of one or more items) and (3) understanding (noticing at a level that enables to compare, reflect and problem solve; metacognitive awareness). Schmidt (1990) concludes that language learning below the threshold of consciousness is impossible as the intake is made up only by what the learners consciously notice.

In his work Aptitude, awareness and the fundamental similarity of implicit and explicit second language learning, Robinson (1995) picked up Reber's, Krashen's and Schmidt's theories and addressed them empirically. Through a grammaticality judgement test (GJT), a grammatical sensitivity subtest as well as a memory subtest and a post-exposure questionnaire, he found evidence that only explicit learning shows differences in aptitude among learners and that higher levels of awareness (understanding in Schmidt, 1990) correlated with better performance on the GJT. Also, Reber's and Krashen's claim that through a complex stimulus domain, nonconscious learning conditions result in more effective learning was not confirmed by the study.

Leow (1997) conducted the first study of awareness as a process in SLA, using think- aloud protocols. Through a multiple-choice task and a controlled written production task, he concluded that different levels of awareness result in differences in processing, higher levels of awareness facilitate recognition and production of noticed forms in writing and therefore support Robinson's (1995) and Schmidt's (1990) claims regarding the facilitative effects of awareness. Follow-up studies support Leow's (1997) findings regarding the correlation of a higher level of awareness and superior intake in comparison with a lower level of awareness (Rosa O'Neil, 1999, as cited in Leow Donatelli, 2017) and better performances on assessment tasks addressing recognition and production (Rosa Loew, 2004, as cited in Leow Donatelli, 2017).

Following Reber's (1967) methodology, Williams conducted two studies (2004, 2005) using semi-artificial grammar items. The motivation behind the study lay in the discussion between researchers whether students can learn a new grammar rule in a known language without being consciously aware of it. Whereas some studies conclude that without noticing (Schmidt, 1990) the language feature consciously, learning cannot take place, others suggest that this only applies to simple memorisation of new information and that proper language learning requires a deeper understanding of the language, which develops unconsciously through exposure. In order to shed light on this controversy, the study tested students' ability to learn an additional meaning of a known grammatical rule which they had been taught implicitly through exposure. The aim was to find out how students connect grammar rules in


Excerpt out of 35 pages


The necessity of grammatical language awareness (GLA)
Can learners acquire grammatical features as implicit knowledge?
University of Linz  (Department for Languages and Intercultural Communication, Johannes Kepler Universität)
Seminar in English Studies (FD): Language Awareness
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
implicit acquisition, language awareness, explicit aquisition, instruction, learning, knowledge, The Marsden Projekt
Quote paper
Axel Kolbeinsson (Author), 2021, The necessity of grammatical language awareness (GLA), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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