Acquire The Fire: Why Do We Care About Motor Learning Theory?


Featuring Integrated Implicit-Explicit Learning Approach to Voice Therapy by Cari M. Tellis

I wonder to myself all the time how I would train another SLP to be like me. Would I be good at it? Thank goodness I had skilled and patient mentors, because voice therapy is a difficult bear! And the skills you acquire should set a fire in you to save the world, one voice client at a time. You have to listen closely and train yourself to command poor productions as well as target ones. I wonder too, how did I obtain all of my skills at discriminatory listening and skilled productions? Which learning type was I? I wanted to spare you the hairy read of this very thought provoking article, and try to give you the quick and dirty. I had time to peruse this article thoroughly, so here is the scoop.

Don’t freak out just yet. I had flashbacks to graduate school cognitive therapy classes and I almost began to have a melt down. Let’s begin with Implicit Learning. This is what you pick up on in your unconscious learning abilities. Easy, right? You can think of it as how a child learns communication skills as he or she grows and develops. Babies, Implicit babies. Children demonstrate new receptive and expressive communication skills in new ways literally every day and they did not sit through a powerpoint presentation to do so. Plenty of studies have looked at Implicit Learning and say that skills learned implicitly mean that a person has no conscious memory of learning the skill.

Continue to breathe, do not freak out. Let’s discuss Explicit Theory now. This is learning tasks or information after detailed instruction. You must easily be able to demonstrate this newly acquired skill on command. This can be done because you had someone telling you the most optimal way to achieve that target production or skill. Explicit teaching is thought to streamline you to the best possible outcome. Think of every CEU you have ever earned. Now, all of that information was most likely learned explicitly through whatever forum you decided to obtain it from…be it online, classroom instruction, one-on-one training, whatever. Explicit learning is usually the mode of choice for left brained individuals, and this is because it appeals to the organized and supported way to learn new information.

So now that we have defined Implicit and Explicit, there is one more potentially complicated term pair that might get your knickers in a twist: Top-down and bottom-up. Okay, the flashbacks are here again. Bottom-up is where you begin with implicit learning and scaffold to explicit learning. Top-down is the exact opposite. This article suggests that combining both, regardless of which is first, can support all learning avenues and give you the best outcome.

So why do we care about how a person learns new information? Because voice therapy attrition rates (fancy word for drop out) are climbing. With 30% of adults reporting voice issues, 65% of them drop out of voice therapy prior to achieving some sort of positive result. Is this because we as voice therapists aren’t appealing to each person’s learning type right off the bat? It’s worth looking into how well you can identify a person’s preferred skill acquisition type because your therapy can then propel the client on the most efficient path.

You don’t want to overwhelm or confuse clients in the therapy room. Yes, you know your stuff, but they don’t care. They just want to get better. So where do you start? Your run-of-the-mill voice therapy sessions utilize auditory-perceptual, implicit learning to get the job done. This is when you produce a target sound, the one you want the client to mimic, and they produce it exactly. Why do we do this? We hope that eventually after practice and repeating-repeating-repeating, the client will generalize because all toddlers walk eventually. Implicit babies, remember?

This is all well and good, but what about when the client is home and discharged from therapy. Can he or she conjure up the targets again? How will the client know if the targets are correct targets? This is where the importance of explicit learning comes into play. Explicit teaching needs to be completed by a therapist who is well versed in anatomy and how the anatomy functions properly and in error. We can only see so much of our speech mechanism (tongue, lips, teeth etc.) and we are left to depend on feeling, visualizing and hearing the rest. So we create metaphors for our clients. Kittie Verdolini cautions to be careful of over doing the metaphors in the therapy room because although they may facilitate, they may confuse.

So Misericordia University and its Voice Science Laboratory have come up with this 5 step process to combine the best of both learning processes for voice therapy purposes. This is because they feel that your brain works better if you are presented with easy and difficult tasks from day one. This should promote generalization outside the therapy room and cut down on in-therapy frustration.

Step 1 is to teach basic auditory perceptual cues to get the client to produce sounds. Have the client ahh like you, then ask the client assess the production. Based on the answers and production accuracy, you can then decide what the client is stimulable for and use that to guide your therapy technique choices. (Oh, and this is implicitby the way.)

Step 2 is teaching anatomy and physiology for my favorite part of the body. The laryngeal mechanism and how it works can be taught two ways, depending on your learner. Part-whole and whole-Part. (Don’t hyperventilate, no flashbacks please.) The part-whole peeps learn specific ahhs, oohs, eeehs, forward resonance, back resonance, etc. and then prefer to piece together how they add up to a target voice quality. The whole-part peeps prefer achieving the desired quality before those specifics are even discussed. Decide which your client is, then go. And don’t worry, experts and novice voice clinicians both obtain a similar outcomes for patients when helping them while relying on perceptual measures only. Trust you ears and eyes people. (Step 2 is explicit, in case you were testing yourself, you overachiever you.)

Step 3 is adding gestures. Yes, like your voice teacher did with rainbow phrasing and your own personal arm rainbow. Yes, like you do with your little ones while teaching “sh” and running your hand up your arm. Yes, like you do when describing an exquisite Italian meatball dish your grandmother used to whip up. (Lip pucker optional.) Research shows that using gestures offloads the cognitive mechanism. Maybe the Italians are on to something…

Step 4 is, surprise, letting your clients do the work with your guidance. “Deliberate practice is important to skill learning and improves performance and reduces the potential for practicing improper voice productions.” Help your clients generalize by giving them a firm base of implicitly and explicitly learned skills to pull from. Guide their practice so they can generalize in a variety of contexts.

Step 5 is nurturing fully capable clients. They have used top-down, bottom-up, part-whole, whole-part, implicit, explicit, however and whatever. They can troubleshoot their own productions and hopefully help themselves in the future because of the expert knowledge and skills you have given them.

Help decrease attrition! Acquire the fire! This study pulls from much hard work and it is right here at your fingertips to take to the streets….or therapy room…hey, you might givevoice therapy on the streets…I don’t know. Anyway, happy Research Tuesday!



Integrated Implicit-Explicit Learning Approach to Voice Therapy. SIG 3 Perspectives on Voice and Voice Disorders, November 2014, Vol. 24, 111-118. doi:10.1044/vvd24.3.111

Kristie Knickerbocker, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and singing voice specialist in Fort Worth, Texas. She rehabilitates voice and swallowing at her private practice, a tempo Voice Center, and lectures on vocal health to area choirs and students. She also owns and runs a mobile videostroboscopy and FEES company, Voice Diagnostix. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 3, Voice and Voice Disorders, and a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing and the Pan-American Vocology Association. Knickerbocker blogs on her website at She has developed a line of kid and adult-friendly therapy materials specifically for voice on TPT or her website. Follow her on Pinterest, on Twitter and Instagram or like her on Facebook.


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