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.

By the way, if you’re struggling with your academic writing, check out The Only Academic Phrasebook You’ll Ever Need, which contains 600 sentences, as well as grammar and vocabulary tips. E-book available on Amazon and Smashwords.


4 thoughts on “Procedural knowledge”

  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.

  3. Sebastian says:


    This blog post is quite old but I thought I would leave a comment to let you know I found it quite interesting. I am not an English teacher but I am an interested self-studying student of Spanish.

    I found this post after joining lang-8 (a website where you write in your target langauge and the community can help correct it) recently and wondering how I could get the most out of the feedback. Normally I would just rewrite anything with corrections once but at my current stage I have noticed that my errors are often with things that do not occur often. For example I might get the wrong preposition with a specific verb or the wrong gender for a particular uncommon word. This leads to a problem where I find the error , correct it then do not use that grammar point for 6 months and forget all about it/make the same mistake.

    I then thought about using Anki (spaced review flashcard program) which I have use with great sucess to expand my vocabularly. I am experimenting with fill in the blank sentences with the blank in place of a corrected word/phrase from lang-8 to make a ‘mini’ grammar drill. Because the drill is the same each time I do it that means I risk simply memorising the answer and not being to transfer that knowledge to new scenarios.

    However it does keep the declarative knowledge of the grammar point ‘fresh’ in my mind allowing me to notice it when I encounter it in my reading/listening/conversations. So if the noticing point of view is correct it should help me iron out my errors. If the practice makes perfect view (Declarative –> procedural via drills/practice) then I hope reviewing the card will keep the declarative knowledge in my mind for the next change I get to practice in a real context.

    Intuitively it makes sense to me that you can not just memorise all the grammar rules and expect to write/speak perfectly. I was reading around out of interest and trying to explain to myself what the link between my explicit knowledge of grammar (e.g. from corrections) and procedural skill was and stumbled upon this. It really helped me put a few ideas together.

    Sorry for the long post , especially on such an old post! I was really geeking out on this topic and your post is very readable 🙂

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Hi Sebastian,
      What you’re saying makes a lot of sense.
      A weak interface position (worth googling this) which can be partly explained by the role of noticing and re-noticing in interlanguage restructuring.
      Thanks for stopping by!

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