Module 1.1: Language Skills

Teaching English often involves teaching grammar through its use, as we have just seen in the previous Module. However, learning English is also divided into the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. These four skills are known as macro skills. Dependant upon the type of school you are teaching at, and the particular English program you are teaching, you may spend part of a lesson on getting your students to practise these skills, or you may spend a whole lesson focusing on one of these specific skills. When practising these skills, students will usually use language they have already learnt and know. The lesson may also be organised in a slightly different way, with different types of activities to those you use when you’re teaching new language and grammar structures.

Reading and listening skills have some similar features, as do speaking and writing. When students read and listen in English, they have to recognise and understand the language that they read or listened to. We call these two skills the receptive skills. On the other hand, when students speak and write, they have to produce language, so we call these the productive skills.

Reading also has some features which are similar to writing, in that students who are reading and writing have time to think about the meaning of the language. They can read the text again, they can rewrite and correct what they have written and look back and think further about what they have done or are doing. However, when students listen or speak, they have less time and have to react on-the-spot. Usually, outside the classroom environment, your students have just one chance to hear something; when they are asked a question they have just a short space of time to understand, think of a reply and say it in English.

It is these individual, specific skills that are what your students need practice in doing when they are in class. When you plan your lessons, you need to think about how you can incorporate these skills into your activities.

Tips from Teachers

“I find the classroom can be so sterile sometimes. When my students listen to tape recordings, it is always very quiet so they can hear, and often they get to listen to the recording a few times in order to answer the questions. Every now and then I like to make things more realistic, so I will make a lot of noise whilst the students are listening to the recording, and only give them one chance to hear. It drives them crazy, but I always remind them that it is good preparation for the real world when they might have only one chance to hear an important announcement at a noisy train station.”

Darryl teaching in South Korea

Planning for a language skills lesson – reading and listening

The organisation of a language skills lesson involving reading and listening is different to the model we looked at for teaching grammar or vocabulary – although in the previous model, there may be listening and/or reading activities or activities which include reading and/or listening. Usually, a reading or listening skills lesson will be divided into three parts:

  1. Before-reading, or before-listening activities
  2. During-reading, or during-listening activities
  3. After-reading, or after-listening activities

The reason for these separate phases is to reflect what we actually do in real life when reading or listening. Usually, when reading or listening, it is for a specific purpose, and it’s something that we choose to do. When we read a book, we usually will know something about that book and can predict what language we’re likely to encounter in the text. If you are reading a book on gardening, for example, you can predict that some of the language is likely to be about plants, trees, soils, fertilisers, pests and flowers. This you will know based upon your previous knowledge or interest in that topic. If you are listening to the cricket on the radio, you can expect to hear the names of the players, the names of the teams, scores and specific lingo relating to the game. A lot of the language is not new, and is probably interesting to us, so we end up using a micro-skillknown as prediction.

This skill of prediction is a lot harder to exercise in another language where the words are not so familiar. Therefore, you need to give your students a chance to predict in English, and this is what happens in the “before” phase of the lesson. You will give them a task or activity to motivate them to read or listen in the next part of the lesson, and to predict the likely language they will hear or the content they will read.

Let’s go back to our example of listening to the cricket on the radio. You know what kind of language you will hear as part of the commentary – you have automatically predicted this, as English is your native or near-native language. Once you turn on the radio and start listening, you will either be listening for the score (some very specific information about the game), or you may just want to listen to the game and the commentators’ description of how the latest innings of the game is going (the general idea). If you are reading the book on gardening, you will do the same thing. You might be reading to find out some specific information about how to prevent a certain pest from eating your roses, or perhaps you are just reading to find out some general information about growing roses, for your own knowledge or pleasure. So, when we read or listen, we use micro-skills to read or listen for the main idea or for specific information.

In the “during” stage of your lesson, you will therefore do a task or activity that will give your students practice in these micro skills. You need to give them the opportunity to listen or read from start to end in order to identify what the main idea is as well as the opportunity to select specific information, not worrying about the other information or ideas that are not necessary. You must give a task to your students that they will do while reading or listening that is a real reason to read or listen- whether that be for the general idea or specific information will depend upon which skills you want your students to practise at that time.

Finally, in real life, when you listen or read something, you will take some sort of action based upon what you have read or heard. You may tell your friend about the cricket score, or make a note about the correct fertiliser to use on your roses. So, in the “after” phase of your lesson, you need to set a task or activity where your students can react to the information they have just gathered. In doing so, you will know that your students have understood what they have read and heard and it provides practice for reading and listening in real-life situations.

Tips from Teachers

“Since being in China, I have got my mother to send me old junk mail and also take-away restaurant menus. These are invaluable in the classroom! My students are always amazed at the things that are sold in shops overseas, and it’s a great way to get the students talking together in English. Menus are also intriguing and fit in nicely with lessons involving food!”

Linda teaching in China

Organising a Before-During-After language skills lesson

Plan your Objective

Do you want your students to practise reading?
Will they practise reading for main ideas?
Will they practise reading for specific information?

Do you want your students to practise listening?
Will they practise listening for main ideas?
Will they practise listening for specific information?

Plan a Before Reading/Listening Activity

An activity to predict what type of information will be in the text or listening activity. This task should generate interest in the recording or text so your students will want to read or listen.

Focus on some key words or phrases which are required in order to understand the text or recording.

For example:

  • Look at the headline and pictures of the newspaper article and get students to predict what the article might be about
  • Match the definitions to the correct words which are in the listening text
  • Brainstorm in groups synonyms for some of the words that will be in the recording or the text

Plan a During Reading/Listening Activity

The type of activity you select will depend upon whether you are looking at main ideas or specific information.

Give the task before your students listen or read so they have a reason to do so. You may need to play the tape or get students to read again, and provide feedback, if necessary.

If you are practising the main idea, example tasks might be:

  • answer some comprehension questions about the text to test the gist (not the details) or the main idea of the article/recording
  • give students a time limit (to encourage faster reading) and fill in a chart of what happened and when

If you are practising for specific information, example tasks might be:

  • answer some true/false questions about detailed parts of the text or recording
  • read some specific sentences from the text and answer some questions about them
  • take notes while listening and answer specific questions on the content

Plan an After Reading/Listening Activity

An activity to follow-up and consolidate the whole lesson.

This is a chance for students to check their answers with each other and to discuss any issues or problems.

Some example tasks might be:

  • Get students in groups to discuss the topic, using some of their own ideas as well as info from the text/recording
  • Prepare and perform a role-play related to the text/recording
  • Write a letter in pairs in response to something mentioned in the text/recording

Tips from Teachers

“It can be tricky sometimes to get your hands on authentic texts when you’re living in a country like Turkey. I love using internet news sites to get story ideas, and love ones like the Bangkok Post and BTN which cater especially for ESL students through simplified stories and which even provide classroom worksheets!”

Carla teaching in Turkey