Teaching Receptive Skills
There are four basic skills in any language: receptive skills – reading and listening, and productive skills – speaking and writing. All are equally important and wherever possible, we should try to incorporate all of them into our lessons if we want to have a balanced approach.
Often we will want to focus more on one particular skill but still bring others in to create an “integrated”- skills lesson.
Reasons for reading and listening
When we read instructions as to how to operate a video recorder, our motives for reading are very different from when we pick up a novel by our favorite author. When we listen to directions from a stranger on how to get to the beach, our motives are different from when we listen to our friends telling us a joke.
We can divide the reasons and motives for reading and listening into two fairly wide- ranging categories:
For a purpose
This type of reading and listening takes place because it will help us achieve some particular aim or goal. In the examples above, reading instructions on your new video recorder and listening to instructions are examples of this type of motivation.
Very often, we listen to or read information because we find it pleasurable or enjoyable in some way, such as reading a novel or listening to a joke from the examples above.
Quite often, our reading and listening may be a mix of the above two motives. We may find reading a tour guide to a particular city to be enjoyable, but it may also achieve some specific purpose if we are on holiday in that city. So there will be times when our reasons for listening and reading will include both motives.
How we read and listen
Most people would say with our eyes and our ears! This may be true, but there is more to it than that. Our minds must not only be able to recognize and understand the words but also be able to grasp their overall meaning from a pre-existing knowledge of the world. For example, if an American was to walk past a newspaper stand and see the headline “ B e a r s destroyed by Cowboys,” he/she would automatically be able to recognize that this was likely to be a text about an American football game and has nothing to do with animal cruelty.
This would be based upon his/her pre-existent knowledge. A non-American, seeing the same headline and understanding every word might reach an entirely different conclusion.
So we can see that reading and listening are not simply matters for the eyes and ears, but also a matter of using our minds to literally understand words and process them in our “pre-existent knowledge” to gain true understanding.
Readers and listeners employ a number of specialist skills when reading or listening, and their understanding of the context will depend on their expertise in these areas:
For example, predicting the content of an article or dialogue from a headline or introduction.
General idea – skimming.
This is where we read or listen for the gist of a text/dialogue, we don’t focus on every single word but are just trying to get a general understanding of the content.
Specific information – scanning.
We often listen or read for specific information. For example, we look in a newspaper to find a football result (we don’t read the whole newspaper before finding it!), we listen to the news, only concentrating when a particular story comes up.
Sometimes, we read in order to understand everything in detail. For example, when reading or listening to detailed directions on how to get somewhere, we need to read/listen in a concentrated manner to gain full benefit.
Deduction from context.
Sometimes, we need to be able to understand or deduce the meaning of individual words or phrases from the context in which we hear/read them. We often also need to see beyond the literal meaning of words. “You are in a non-smoking zone” isn’t intended solely for information but also as an order to not smoke and if you are smoking, to extinguish your cigarette.
Teaching Productive Skills
We have previously looked at the importance of integrating skills in the classroom. The receptive skills, listening and reading, will be looked at in the next unit. First we take a look at the productive skills: speaking and writing. While speaking and writing are substantially different in many ways, they both are used for the same purpose – to communicate.
In many ways, writing is the most neglected skill in the TEFL world, as many teachers don’t like to see classroom hours being devoted to what is often “quiet time.” Writing, therefore, is often relegated to being a homework task, which in turn is frequently not done, and so the skill is never developed.
It is true to say that most students prefer to focus on their speaking skills, but that doesn’t mean that writing should be ignored. In many ways, writing is the more difficult skill, requiring a greater degree of accuracy. W h e n speaking, any misunderstandings can be cleared up “on the spot,” whereas this is not possible with writing. Speaking, on the other hand, requires a greater degree of fluency, as the speaker will rarely have time to think and plan an answer.
Communication between people is a very complex and ever- changing thing. But there are generalizations that we can make which have particular relevance for the teaching and learning of languages.
When two or more people are communicating with each other, we can be sure that they are doing so for one of the following reasons:
• They have some communicative purpose.
• They want to say something.
• They want to listen to something.
• They are interested in what is being said.
Therefore, if a teacher wishes to introduce a communicative activity to the students, he or she should bring in a number of the above factors. The teacher must create the need and desire in the students to communicate. If these factors are not present, it is far less likely that the activity will be the success that the teacher had envisaged. If the students don’t see the point in doing something, they’re far less likely to want to participate!