Implicit instruction

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Implicit instruction occurs in instructional tasks that do not provide specific guidance on what is to be learned from the task. It may provide examples, uses, instances, illustrations, or visualizations of a knowledge components without a direct statement (or rule) that specifically directs the learner on what is to be learned (knowledge component). It contrasts with explicit instruction.

The National Reading Panel identified five main methods for teaching vocabulary (NRP, 2000, p. 4-3), the first two of which provide an illustration of the difference between explicit and implicit instruction:

  • "Explicit Instruction: Students are given definitions or other attributes of words to be learned.
  • Implicit Instruction: Students are exposed to words or given opportunities to do a great deal of reading."

Implicit instruction and implicit learning (see below) are not the same. Implicit instruction affords implicit learning, but implicit instruction can also be processed explicitly and lead to explicit learning. For instance, when a student is given a worked example, a form of implicit instruction, and spontaneously decides to explain the reasoning behind the steps taken (see self-explanation), that student is engaged in explicit learning (trying to generate a verbal rule) in the face of implicit instruction.

Ellis (1994) provides definitions of implicit and explicit learning:

"Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process which takes place naturally, simply and without conscious operations. Explicit learning is a more conscious operation where the individual makes and tests hypotheses in a search for structure. Knowledge attainment can thus take place implicitly (a nonconscious and automatic abstraction of the structural nature of the material arrived at from experience of instances), explicitly through selective learning (the learner searching for information and building then testing hypotheses), or, because we can communicate using language, explicitly via given rules (assimilation of a rule following explicit instruction)." (Ellis, 1994, p. 1f)

See also the distinction in ACT-R (e.g., Anderson & Lebiere, 1998) between procedural knowledge, which is implicitly processed and learned, and declarative knowledge, which includes (but is not limited to) explicit verbal knowledge and is open to (but does not require) explicit processing and learning.

Often instructional forms or sources combine implicit and explicit instruction, for instance, examples and rules (see example-rule coordination) or diagrams and text (see visual-verbal coordination), and the potential benefits of such combinations are a topic of the Coordinative Learning cluster.


  • Anderson, J. R., & Lebiere, C. (1998). The Atomic Components of Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Ellis, N. C. (ed.) (1994). Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages. San Diego/CA: Academic Press.