The Beans on Implicit and Explicit

by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness, developers of the Phono-Graphix Reading Method

Original paper presented to the Office of Standards in Education, December 1998

Some of the most frequently asked questions on our phone lines and website center on uncertainty about what is implicit and what is explicit in reading and spelling. Questions such as, "Some of the kids in my class can't recite the code", "My child is reading well now but his spelling is not as good", and "I have this one client who knows most of the ways to show ee, but he always forgets ie". This article will clear up the issue of what Phono-Graphix teaches explicitly and what it teaches implicitly.

The difference between implicit and explicit is more than just the first syllable. It could be the difference between spending twelve or a hundred hours teaching a child to read. It could be the difference between fluency and no fluency. This article starts out with what you've all heard before... The nature of the code, and the phonological skills used to read such a code, and moves on to supporting research as to why those two things are what we teach explicitly, while we let the actual code become implicit information functioning under the surface.

Letters are pictures of sounds

The nature of the code: these are pictures of sounds: b  oa  t

The nature of the child: We believe that children can understand this perfectly well. Children have a remarkable ability to assess visual figures. At two days a baby can distinguish his mother's face from any other human face. Children assess and use visual figures in the world around them every day.

Sometimes a sound picture is one letter and sometimes it is two, or more

house analogy

The nature of the code: The pictures can be made of one b / t or more oa letters. So boat has three sounds, and three sound pictures: b  oa  t


The nature of the child: We believe children can manage this. They reuse figures in the world around them every day.



There is variation in the code

The nature of the code: Most of the sounds can be shown with more than one picture:

b oa t

s l ow

m o s t

t oe

n o t e

th ough

The nature of the child: We believe that children can easily learn that these





o _ e


are all a picture of the same sound!


There is overlap in the code

The nature of the code: Some of the pictures are used for more than one sound

ow = sh ow


ow = f r ow n

The nature of the child: We believe children can manage this just as they easily manage that this:    can be a picture of a ball, a circle, a moon, a polka dot, and more!


Exactly what is learned explicitly as opposed to implicitly?

The analogy we've demonstrated - "squares and triangles being reused to make houses" - is not learned explicitly, but implicitly as children operate on the world around them each day. Just as learning the label or 'word' for house or flower is learned implicitly, so too can the code be learned implicitly. Exactly what is learned explicitly as opposed to implicitly is critical to the instructional formula. So where Phonics has invented rules to try to explain why letters represent the sounds they represent, Phono-Graphix employs hands-on activities and games that offer an explicit understanding that these figures are pictures of sounds to be assessed and used as tools, just as we assess and use all the visual figures in our world every day. We offer here three additional pieces of evidence to support this approach.

Reber (1989), Berry (1984) and Berry and Dienes (1993) tested the hypothesis that direct explicit instruction would improve memory for logic-based systems. They devised a synthetic phonetic code with rules for combining symbols, and taught it to students under two controls. One group received direct explicit instruction in the rules. The other group was exposed to the code and told that it was a code with rules, but they received no explicit instruction in the rules.The results of these studies clearly indicate that students became proficient with the code whether they received explicit instruction or not. In the Berry (1984) study researchers found that explicit instruction improved the subjects' knowledge about the rules. But the study also showed that the students who received explicit instruction and acquired knowledge about the rules, performed the same or not quite as well as the students who received exposure only with no explicit instruction in rules. The implication is that explicit instruction in rules impairs performance. It would seem from this study that although it doesn't hurt much, it certainly doesn't help at all unless your goal is knowledge about rules rather than performance.

The premise of Phono-Graphix, that explicit instruction is not necessary to successful use of a phonetic code, is supported by an effect that is well known in the field of perceptual psychology. In 1886 James Cattell discovered what has become known as the word superiority effect. It has since been replicated in dozens of published studies (e.g., Chastain, 1981, 1986; Jordan & Bevan, 1994; Krueger, 1992; Pollatsek & Rayner, 1989; Taylor & Taylor, 1983; Wheeler, 1970). These researchers have found that when asked to perform a visual pattern recognition task, specifically to locate a target letter in a string of real as opposed to nonsense words, performance is higher with real words than with nonsense words. The implication is that the process of constructing meaning, occurring simultaneously with the process of visual scanning, actually aids the visual scanning process. Based upon this, it would seem that explicit instruction in the rules of the code may distract the learner and actually prove harmful to learning the visual code for our spoken language. It seems that the code would better be taught in the context of meaningful words which, as it happens, is the very context for which it was intended.

Our premise that explicit instruction is not necessary or helpful to successful use of a phonetic code is further supported by another research piece. Anne Treisman and others (Treisman & Schmidt, 1982; Treisman & Souther, 1986) have isolated what they call anillusory conjunction. These researchers asked subjects to scan text composed of nonsense words such as dax and kay, explaining that they would be asked questions about the text after having studied it for a brief period. The researchers found that subjects reported having seen words like day, which could be constructed with parts of the nonsense words, such as dax and kay, appearing in the text. The implication is that the construction of meaning is a powerful overriding force in the processing of visual stimuli, and must be a primary part of the instructional mix.

What knowledge is needed to be able to understand the nature of the code?

To be able to use the code, three skills are needed (C. McGuinness, et al, 1996):

Segmenting - The ability to separate sounds in words. So when you hear frog you can say the isolated sounds f - r - o - g.

Blending - The ability to blend sounds into words. So when you hear the sounds f - r - o - g you hear the word frog.

Phoneme Manipulation - The ability to manipulate sounds in and out of words. So when you read brown with the sound oe, and realize it's not a word, you can drop the oe and add the sound ow:

br oe n - is not a word

br ow n - bingo!

These skills are not an invention. They are a result of the brain trying to work out our writing system, just as rotating both legs in a clockwise motion simultaneously is the brain sorting out how to ride a bike. Such skills are best learned in context of the procedure for which they are needed. In the case of bike riding we teach the skill of pedaling on a bike. In the case of reading and spelling, we teach the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation using real code reading and spelling real words. This kind of 'learning by doing' is called latent learning. Latent learning is quite common for the learning of procedural skills. Procedural knowledge is implicit. We can be completely proficient at the skills and completely unable to talk about the intricacies of the process. So the child must learn explicitly the nature of the code, and implicitly the skills needed to use the code, and implicitly the symbols of the code. Phono-Graphix maximizes instruction by teaching all of these simultaneously. This is instructionally sound for two reasons, again based on the nature of the code and of the child.

The code doesn't exist in isolation from the process of segmenting, blending and manipulating phonemes. Neither do these processes exist without the code. One without the other will always be two halves of a whole. So we teach these together in the context for which they exist: reading and spelling words. Humans learn best when material and procedure are linked and embedded in context! (Bandura, 1985; Flavell, 1977)

One final piece

One final piece of the instructional mix that Phono-Graphix has recognized is the importance of error correction. This piece comes to us from the fields of learning theory and motivation psychology.

While Systematic or Analytic Phonics seems bent on controlling every word that falls before a child's eyes so that there is no chance of failure, Phono-Graphix knows better! According to motivation psychology it's errors that get our attention. Motivation psychologists call this an orienting response. Without error, there's no disequilibrium, no limit, no reason to take in new information, no reason to do what psychology calls 'orient'. Hence no motivation. Motivation psychologists Miller and Dollard coined the term learning dilemma to describe this phenomenon. They explained that old skills and information must be activated in order to solve problems. When a problem cannot be solved with existing skills and information, failure occurs resulting in anxiety. New skills and information are taken into the learner's repetiore in order to solve the problem and relieve the anxiety. The dilemma learning follows failure. In Phono-Graphix this process is made easier for the student and teacher through lessons that externalize what the child doesn't know, and a system of error corrections that offers just the right amount of missing information to keep the child engaged in the problem solving process. In this way each new error is an opportunity to learn.

About the Authors:

Geoffrey and Carmen McGuinness are the co-founders of Read America, and co-developers of Phono-Graphix and Language Wise. Together the couple have authored two books, Reading Reflex, and How To Increase Your Child's Verbal Intelligence.

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Related Pages

About the Phono-Graphix Reading Method

Research on Phono-Graphix - Peer Reviewed Publications

The Research Behind the Phono-Graphix Reading Method

Understanding Reading and the Challenges Readers Face

Get Certified in the Phono-Graphix Reading Method

Phono-Graphix for Teachers

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