key concept: procedural knowledge

Procedural knowledge is, in a nutshell, knowing how to do something. It contrasts with declarative knowledge, which is knowledge about something.

For example, I may read about the importance of perfect arm strokes and coordination while swimming and yet drown like a stone when inside the pool. This may sound obvious, I know, but as far as language learning goes, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Declarative knowledge enables a student to describe a rule and perhaps apply it in a drill or a gap-fill. Procedural knowledge, on the other hand, enables the student to apply that rule in real language use.

Not surprisingly, procedural knowledge does not translate automatically into declarative knowledge – try asking a native speaker to explain why exactly she said “I’ve been there” rather than “I went there”. In the same way, declarative knowledge does not automatically cross over into communicative language use. In other words, students may be able to describe a grammar rule and manipulate it through controlled exercises, but consistently fail to apply the rule in communication – spoken or written.


classic example of procedural knowledge in action

Some people (like Krashen) claim that declarative and procedural knowledge are two separate entities, while others believe that declarative knowledge can be proceduralized through practice. There’s a third group that argues that it’s noticing (and renoticing) rather than practice that will push students’ interlanguage development forward.

In other words, there is far from unanimous agreement that practice makes perfect as far as language learning goes.

By the way, click here for another post on declarative knowledge vs procedural knowledge.

Click here for my contribution on Scott Thornbury’s wonderful A-Z blog.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I think I belong to the third group… Not sure, though. Food for thought, as usual. Thanks.

  2. Luiz Otávio Barros says:

    Carla, I've found myself shifting back and forth between the second and third groups for as long as I can remember. I've been leaning towards the second group (practice helping proceduralization) for a few years now, though, especially because of the interest I have taken in lexical chunks. You see, I think if anything lends itself to oral practice (ranging from drilling to quasi communicative) it's probably formulaic language.
    By the way, if you're interested, google up procedural knowledge + no interface + strong interface + weak interface.

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