Posted by: lyonenglishnetwork | May 18, 2011

The 4 stages of competence: what relevance for language teaching ?

A few years ago, someone explained to me the four stages of competence. Last week, it kind of “clicked”. So, what relevance for the 4 stages and what are they ?

Here’s one explanation:

The first stage, unconscious incompetence is when you don’t know that you don’t know how to do something. For example, before you have ever tried to drive a car, you might think it’s easy. It’s not. You don’t know that you don’t know.

The second stage is when you realize you don’t know: conscious incompetence.

The third stage: conscious competence: you can do it but you have to think about it.

The fourth stage: unconscious competence: you can do it but you don’t have to think about it. For example, the other day I had to go to an appointment in French. For this situation, I didn’t have to write down what I needed to say, or think about it before, I just did it without thinking about it.

So what relevance for language teaching ? My thoughts are that it could be more relevant to beginners than advanced students. Advanced students can just watch a film and acquire language. Beginners will have to go through a conscious process of thinking “O.K., when do I use the modal ‘will’ ?”

It’s also evident that it’s not like as a language learner, you will have reached stage 4 for all situations at once. For some things (giving directions, ordering a restaurant) you might be O.K., but for others (negotiating an important contract or conference calling in a foreign language), it’s going to take longer.

I’m sure there’s other things that could be said about these 4 stages of competence so go ahead, add your comments.


Learn English Naturally



  1. These 4 stages remind me of something I regularly check with my students : do they think in French or directly in English when speaking English?
    I guess when they start thinking directly in English, they have reached the 4th stage and they can be proud of themselves because they “overcome” a threshold!
    But I also think that they haven’t necessarily reached this stage for good. By that I mean that if they don’t continue practicing regurlarly they will “fall back” into the 3rd stage…

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