Why there is not, and will never be, a ‘fifth skill’

My first teaching job was working at GEOS. The GEOS method was ingenious. First you present the daily grammar target, then students practice it then you do some kind of role play. It wasn’t until I started my MA that I realised that this method hadn’t in fact been dreamed up by the geniuses at GEOS. It was PPP!

I first became aware of Jason Andersons writing when I saw his piece on PPP in ELTJ. As I read the article and the posts that accompanied it, I really enjoyed the level of detail Anderson went into.
 He is someone who can really do a deep dive on a subject, see for example his recent piece on the origin on Jigsaws and information gaps

Jason is one of those people who seems to have produced 5 papers while other people are thinking about writing one. He has written several books and has a very long list of papers and talks to his name with subjects from Translanguaging to teaching large classes. 

Jason Anderson @jasonelt
Teacher educator and researcher: www.jasonanderson.org.uk

Visit Jason’s blog here.

Google the term “fifth skill” and you’ll find numerous references, mainly from (English) language teaching communities, including blogs, talks and even articles in academic journals. The range of things offered forward as ‘the fifth skill’ is extensive, including:
  • translation (e.g., Janulevičienė & Kavaliauskienė, 2002)
  • grammaring (e.g., Larsen-Freeman, 2001)
  • culture (e.g., Hong, 2008)
  • cultural competence (e.g., Kramsch, 1993)
  • intercultural awareness and language learning (Pulverness, 1999)
  • viewing (e.g., Donaghy, 2019)
  • retelling (e.g., Burns, 2005)

And recently even Mario Rinvolucri (2019) joined the ‘fifth skill’ club, proposing… inner monologue. Doh! It seems so obvious now he’s said it. Reference to the fifth skill even shows up on a Google Ngram search (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Google Ngram showing frequency of ‘the four skills’ and ‘the fifth skill’. From https://books.google.com/ngrams/ Copyright 2018, Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Yet, in this (hopefully humorous) blog post, I’m going to argue that they’re all wrong to suggest that X is the fifth skill. First and foremost, if any one of these writers is going to argue that their choice IS the fifth skill, they either have to be ignorant of the numerous prior attempts to offer a fifth skill (which suggests incompetence), or they are dismissing the others as wrong, yet without justifying why (which suggests complacency). They can’t all be the fifth skill, can they?

The point I’d like to make is not that they are wrong to suggest that the specific skill that they are talking about is important – I’m sure that they all are, even inner monologue (how many times has ‘inner karaoke’ saved you from boredom?). There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of identifiably discrete skills involved in learning of any kind, and within this, the learning of languages.
The point is a very simple one. The reason why some of us still talk about ‘the four skills’, sometimes called the “foundational language skills” (Hinkel, 2006, p. 110), is not because we’re so stupid that we haven’t realised that there might be other skills involved in language learning, it’s because we are referring to a matrix of two dichotomous categorical variables that enable us to describe how we use language for communication, what Candlin and Widdowson (1987) call “modes of behaviour”. Any instance of language behaviour, or if you prefer, communicative  language ‘use’ (i.e., excluding entirely internal processes such as inner monologue) involves, on a fundamental level, one of two channels, the written or the spoken channel, and on an individual level, one of two directions – reception (we see or hear something) or production (we utter or write something). That makes 2×2 which equals? You got it, four. See Table 1 – hopefully it’s familiar.
Table 1: Where exactly would you put the fifth skill?

Within each of the four quadrants there are numerous discrete and fuzzy skills, both those things often labelled sub-skills, and many others besides, and there are broader skills that link these four skills together, such as translation. Behind this two-dimensional table there are numerous other cognitive skills that necessarily support and manage acts of communicative language use. And in the beautiful, messy, complex world that is social interaction we are able to use two or more of these skills simultaneously (in conversation, for example). There are also, of course, many other, interpersonal and multimodal skills that accompany our languaging acts. But that doesn’t make any of them ‘the’ fifth skill.
Analysed synthetically at the simplest meaningful level there is no act of language use possible that isn’t unambiguously categorizable within the matrix of the four skills. What I am doing now. What your eyes are doing now. What your speech organs might do if you don’t like this blog, and what the person near to you might do with the sound waves entering their ear to cause them to take offence. That’s why we talk about the four skills. So no, you can’t add another one. Sorry.
Burns, D. E. (2005). Your story, my story, history. In Tomlinson, C. A. et al. (Eds.) The parallel curriculum in the classroom, Book 2: Units for Application across the content areas, K-12 (pp. 5-56). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Candlin, C. N. & Widdowson, H. (1987). Language teaching: A scheme for teacher education (preface). In Bygate, M. Speaking (pp. ix-x). Oxford: OUP.
Donaghy, K. (2019). Advancing learning: The fifth skill – ‘viewing’. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.onestopenglish.com/community/teacher-talk/advancing-learning/advancing-learning-the-fifth-skill-viewing/557577.article
Hinkel, E. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching the four skills. Tesol Quarterly, 40(1), 109-131.
Hong, S. (2008). The Role of Heritage students in incorporating culture into language Teaching. South Asia Language Pedagogy and Technology, 1, 1-10.
Janulevičienė, V., & Kavaliauskienė, G. (2002). Promoting the fifth skill in teaching ESP. English for Specific Purposes World, 1(2), 1-6.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford: OUP.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001). Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
Pulverness, A. (1999). The fifth skill-intercultural awareness and language learning. British Studies Now: Anthology Issues, 2, 6-10.
Rinvolucri, M. (2019). On my mind. IATEFL Voices, 272, 19.

2 thoughts on “Why there is not, and will never be, a ‘fifth skill’

  1. This made me laugh or, at least, chuckle. But that was Jason's intention, wasn't it? I'm surprised he doesn't mention the exam skill though, which is also sometimes referred to as the elusive 'fifth skill'.Leo


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