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Effective Strategies for Teaching Language Skills

The phrase ‘language skills’ refers to Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing.

The first two, Listening and Reading, are receptive skills – also known as passive skills. This is because the learner does not produce the language, but they receive it, process it, and understand it.

On the other hand, Speaking and Writing are productive – or active – skills because the language is produced by the learner in spoken or written form.

Teaching language skills is something that teachers need to learn, as it doesn’t come naturally. For this reason, and to increase your career opportunities with TEFL employers, it is important to train as a teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL).

Understanding Receptive Skills

Reading and listening are receptive skills because students do not produce the language, as they would when practising skills such as speaking and writing. There are some similarities in the way people process the information they read and hear, but there are some differences in the way reading and listening skills are taught.

Processing received Information

There are two main approaches to processing information: the top-down approach, by having a general overview, and the bottom-up approach, by connecting details to understand the meaning.

  • Top-down process

When using the top-down process, we rely on our existing knowledge and life experiences to understand the overall meaning of a piece of information. For instance, by reading newspaper headlines, we can typically grasp the main news stories and understand what’s happening in the world.

  • Bottom-up process

In contrast, the bottom-up process involves analysing individual details to comprehend the overall meaning of a text or conversation. Here, readers or listeners focus on small language elements such as words or phrases to piece together the meaning, like when reading a manual.

English basic words

Developing Receptive Skills

To enhance their ability to understand and absorb information, learners should engage in both extensive and intensive reading/listening exercises.

During extensive reading/listening, students have the freedom to select their own materials to read or listen to. This approach encourages them to explore topics of personal interest, which can foster a deeper engagement with the material and improve overall comprehension.

On the other hand, intensive reading/listening involves the teacher selecting specific texts or audio materials for students to focus on. In this approach, the teacher determines which sub-skills need to be practised and guides students through exercises designed to strengthen those skills.

This structured approach ensures that students receive targeted instruction in areas where they may need improvement, leading to more focused learning outcomes.

  • Extensive reading/listening

Encouraging extensive reading can be facilitated by establishing school or classroom libraries with books and audio materials organised into different levels. Despite having access to appropriate materials, extensive reading and listening can still pose challenges for students. Therefore, they need support and encouragement to persist with this practice.

Reading circles offer an effective method for promoting extensive reading. In a reading circle session, students can take turns reading a passage aloud or silently and then engage in discussions about the main points of the text.

This allows them to ask questions to clarify meaning, while the teacher can provide tasks to assess comprehension and deepen understanding. By participating in reading circles, students not only enhance their reading skills but also develop their ability to discuss and analyse texts collaboratively.

  • Intensive reading/listening

In an intensive reading/listening lesson, the teacher typically selects materials for students to engage with, focusing on specific skills and content. The teacher also provides tasks to assess comprehension and offers activities to delve deeper into the topic or content of the materials.

While exposing students to authentic reading texts is common, incorporating authentic audio materials into English Language Teaching (ELT) classrooms can be challenging. One approach to introducing authentic listening is through teacher-led activities such as reading aloud or storytelling.

To incorporate authentic conversations, the teacher may invite another educator to the lesson to engage in a brief conversation for students to listen to and observe. Alternatively, students could generate questions for the guest, making them active participants in the interview process.

By involving learners in formulating questions, they become more invested and eager to listen to the responses to their inquiries. This approach fosters engagement and interest in authentic listening experiences.

Speaking skills

Understanding Productive Skills

Both writing and speaking are essential productive skills that require frequent practice to achieve fluency in a foreign language. Effective communication relies on applying specific language processes tailored to each skill.

Speaking is often a quicker and more immediate means of conveying a message compared to writing. This presents a significant challenge for English language learners, who may struggle with processing information and expressing intended meanings promptly.

Similarly, writing is a productive skill that requires practice. However, there are notable differences between speaking and writing. Unlike speaking, which is typically acquired naturally, writing often needs to be explicitly taught, even in one’s native language.

Learners encounter obstacles such as handwriting, spelling, punctuation, and layout, especially if their first language does not use the Latin alphabet. Addressing these differences is crucial for learners to develop proficiency in writing.

Processing produced information

  • Processing input and output

When communicating in a foreign language, learners typically take longer to process the message provided by their conversation partner compared to when speaking in their native language. During this processing period, learners often mentally translate the words to aid comprehension.

Likewise, when formulating a response, learners tend to first consider the message they wish to convey in their native language, then translate it into a foreign language, considering appropriate words, expressions, grammatical structures, and pronunciation before finally expressing it. 

  • Unplanned processing

To shorten their response time, learners often prepare their replies while waiting for their turn to speak, rather than actively listening to the ongoing conversation. While this strategy can be effective in situations where the conversation remains relatively unchanged, it often leads to learners “missing the point” of the discussion, which may have evolved or shifted in direction.

By focusing solely on formulating their response, learners risk overlooking important nuances, cues, or developments within the conversation that could impact their understanding and participation. 

Developing Productive Skills

In the past, language teaching methodologies often relied heavily on repetitive sentence drills to help students memorise language structures for various situations. However, modern approaches allow students to express themselves more freely and naturally.

Teachers can support learners in building their confidence in speaking through specific activities. One example is the “Three Pictures” activity:

  • students are divided into small groups and provided with sets of three pictures on related topics, such as different jobs or hobbies. 
  • They are then given a list of discussion areas related to the pictures and guided in using language expressions for expressing opinions and agreeing or disagreeing. 
  • Students decide the order of speaking and engage in a conversation where they express their opinions on different aspects of the pictures, inviting others to contribute.

Writing can also be used as a tool to reinforce other language areas, such as grammar. When focusing on writing skills, the goal is to develop specific writing sub-skills, such as writing emails or structuring essays. 

One effective method to assist learners is by providing them with a sample text, such as an email, and analysing it together. This collaborative analysis allows students to understand the structure and language features of the text before attempting to write their own email on a similar or different topic. This approach helps learners to grasp writing conventions and apply them effectively in their own writing tasks.

The Importance of Teaching Language Skills

Teaching language skills is crucial for effective communication and personal development. Through speaking, listening, reading, and writing, individuals can express themselves, connect with others, and access information. Modern methodologies prioritise active engagement and practical application, giving learners the tools to confidently express themselves in a foreign language.

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