Issue 27 – Pedagogical Content Knowledge Revisited

By Ross Ng (ELED Graduate)

In accordance with the Teacher Competencies Framework put forward by the former Advisory Committee on Teacher Education and Qualifications (ACTEQ) in 2003, all teachers in Hong Kong are expected to be equipped with extensive curriculum and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Afterwards, with the advent of incorporation of information technology into education, the scope of PCK has been extended to include technological knowledge, which leads to the concept of technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK). In the field of TESOL, while local teacher education has taken much heed of the pedagogical and technological aspects of TPACK, more emphasis unequivocally has to be put on enriching prospective teachers’ content knowledge and heightening their language awareness.

Traditionally speaking, the notion of PCK is a combination of content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge, which denote knowledge on the subject matter and that on teaching and learning (Shulman, 1986). When this concept is applied to the field of TESOL, content knowledge is often conceptualized as language awareness, which refers to “the knowledge that teachers have of the underlying systems of the language that enables them to teach effectively” (Thornbury, 1997, p.x). Such knowledge includes knowledge on distinct levels of the grammatical hierarchy (Nelson, 1998). On the other hand, pedagogical knowledge in TESOL refers to (1) knowledge of second language learning, such as second language acquisition (SLA) and instructed second language acquisition (ISLA) theories, (2) knowledge of second language teaching, such as a range of English language teaching (ELT) pedagogy, (3) knowledge of learners, such as theories from developmental psychology, as well as (4) knowledge of the curriculum and educational context (Andrews, 2001). Construed as pedagogical knowledge applicable to instruction of specific content, PCK in TESOL entails teachers’ use of pedagogical knowledge to transform their language awareness into instruction conducive to students’ learning (Shulman, 1986). For instance, in order to successfully deliver a task-based grammar lesson on the simple present tense to a group of secondary one students in Hong Kong, the teacher has to capitalize upon his/her content knowledge (i.e. knowledge on the form, function, and use of the simple present tense in English) and pedagogical knowledge (i.e. knowledge on the interaction approach to SLA, task-based language teaching, developmental needs of secondary one students, the English language curriculum in Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong education system).

Since the prevalence of computer-assisted language learning (CALL) arising from computer-mediated communication (CMC) in the 1990s, technological knowledge has been incorporated into the framework of PCK to constitute a more comprehensive framework of TPACK. The concept of technological knowledge goes beyond the canonical notion of computer literacy to include digital literacy, which      entails productive application of information technology to everyday life (National Research Council, 1999). In educational settings, deemed to be the basis of effective teaching with technology, TPACK denotes integration of digital literacy with pedagogy to deliver effective instruction of specific content (Koehler & Mishra, 2009). In other words, not only are teachers expected to possess knowledge on the operation of various educational technology, but      they are also required to be informed of ways to incorporate such tools and platforms into their lessons to enhance pedagogical efficacy. While the role of educational technology was considered by some teachers as supplementary on normal school days, it is beyond the doubt that its role has become indispensable in recent days when schools are closed. As suggested by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2020), it is necessary for online education and education resources to be mobilized in the context of school closure. Teachers’ TPACK is therefore argued to be a vital factor in the success of CALL.

TESOL programmes worldwide are largely grounded upon the framework of TPACK with three areas of focus: learner factors conducive to successful learning, traditional and digital teaching techniques, and the content of language learning; local teacher training programmes are of no exception. However, among the three aforementioned areas, Kennedy (2003) observed that the first two possessed a tendency to dominate language teacher education with language teachers’ subject knowledge and language awareness receiving much less attention. Such a trend is reflected in candidates’ performance in the Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers (LPAT) in Hong Kong, which is an annual assessment providing a channel for prospective English teachers to attain the Language Proficiency Requirement for teaching English set by the Education Bureau. In accordance with the assessment reports, among the five papers in the assessment, namely reading, writing, listening, speaking, and classroom language assessment, the attainment rate is usually the lowest in the writing paper, one part of which requires candidates to leverage on their metalinguistic knowledge to correct and explain linguistic errors. This reveals candidates’ weak content knowledge or low language awareness despite their satisfactory proficiency of general English and mastery of classroom language. Without solid or rich knowledge on the system of the English language, by no means can English teachers conduct effective teaching or facilitate effective learning.

In the 1980s, with the declining prominence of structural syllabi influenced by Noam Chomsky and proposals for various innovative ELT methodologies, teachers’ and researchers’ attention was drawn from a more popular topic of “what to teach” to a less popular topic of “how to teach”. More than three decades have passed, and more components have been added to the concept of PCK. Paradoxically, having observed tremendous pedagogical advancement, I now have to call for a shift of the pendulum from pedagogical knowledge or technological knowledge back to content knowledge, which seems to have been kept out of consideration, in order to pinpoint the importance of accurate, comprehensive, and systematic subject knowledge in effective teaching and learning. In particular, several practical suggestions are made:

  1. Language teacher education is suggested to lay more emphasis on equipping prospective English language teachers with accurate metalinguistic knowledge. Besides knowledge on fundamental levels of the language system, such as phonetics, morphology, and syntax, knowledge on higher levels of the grammatical hierarchy, such as semantics, pragmatics, and discourse, should also constitute mandatory components of language teacher education.
  2. English teachers and prospective English teachers are recommended to take the initiative to update themselves with the development of the language system. As the saying goes, language is always changing. New words are coined every moment, and prescriptive rules are no longer the norms. Language knowledge learnt in the past is therefore inadequate for teachers to conduct their lessons, but it is necessary for them to acquire new language knowledge perpetually.
  3. Researchers are advised to conduct more corpus-based studies on the language system to advance knowledge in the field as corpora comprise primary language data and reflect authentic language produced by language users. In fact, teachers can also play the role of researchers and conduct linguistic investigations on their own should they possess the ability to do so.


Advisory Committee on Teacher Education and Qualifications. (2003, November). Towards a learning profession: The teacher competencies framework and the continuing professional development of teachers. Retrieved from

Andrews, S. (2001). The Language Awareness of the L2 Teacher: Its Impact Upon Pedagogical Practice. Language Awareness, 10 (2-3), 75-90.

Kennedy, G. (2003). Amplifier Collocations in the British National Corpus: Implications for English Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 37 (3), 467-87.

Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge?. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9 (1), 60-70.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2020, March 23). Education responses to covid-19: Embracing digital learning and online collaboration.

National Research Council. (1999). Being fluent with information technology literacy. Computer science and telecommunications board commission on physical sciences, mathematics, and applications. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nelson, G. (1998). The Internet Grammar of English. Retrieved from

Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15 (2), 4-14.

Thornbury, S. (1997). About Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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