General Rules on Teaching Receptive Skills in ESL
In any language, there are four basic skills. They are equally important and teachers should try to include them in every lesson. Reading and listening are known as receptive skills while speaking and writing are known as productive skills. Teachers may focus more on one particular skill in each lesson while still integrating the others.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Milena S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
How do skills work?
All sets of skills naturally support each other, however, the relationship between receptive and productive skills is very complex. For example, working on reading skills could contribute to the development of writing skills. Learners of a new language tend to develop their receptive skills first and then gain their productive capabilities.
Developing speaking skills can be particularly challenging when the student is communicating with a fluent or native speaker. Even if starting a conversation could be done relatively easily, maintaining and sustaining that conversation could create a greater challenge. Learners may not recognize the details of connected speech or idiomatic language. An unsuccessful interaction can make the learner feel insecure.
Developing reading skills is slightly easier than developing speaking skills. Listening requires “real-time” processing of language without any support once the speaker is finished. Nevertheless, if the text or grammar is too complicated, it makes the language impossible to read.
Before talking about the most important strategies that teachers could use when teaching receptive skills it is necessary to analyze why and how we read and listen.
We may read and listen for a specific purpose. For example, we read the instructions for a new washing machine or we watch a cooking tutorial for a dinner we have in mind. But we also read and listen because we enjoy doing it – we read a book and we go to the theatre.
Readers and listeners utilize, among others, the following skills:
- Predictive skills –predicting the idea of an article from the title or predicting a dialogue from the introduction.
- Skimming for the general idea – readers and listeners read and listen to the most significant information to get the gist of a text or a dialogue.
- Detailed information – Readers and listeners need to pay a lot of attention to the text/conversation.
- Scanning for specific information – Readers and listeners know what information they are looking for.
- Deduction from the context – Readers and listeners are well aware of the context, which becomes a great help even if a few words are not understandable.
Problems in receptive skills and techniques to improve receptive skills
In general, the best strategy to improve receptive skills is from exposure to the English language, watching a video, listening to music, or reading a magazine or a book.
Teachers could use several strategies to improve listening and reading skills.
- Pre-teach vocabulary - One-way teachers can help students to gain a more positive understanding of texts/dialogues is to teach them the more difficult or technical words from the text/dialogue before they read or listen.
- Selection of texts and listening materials – To keep the students motivated and interested, it is important to offer a wide variety of material – authentic and non-authentic texts - to the students. A non-authentic text refers to any text that is created specifically for language students (such as a quality ESL textbook). Carefully selected authentic material (texts not designed for language students) can be useful for motivating deeper student engagement. The best way to do this is by getting to know what students are interested in and choosing topics accordingly.
- Tasks – The comprehension tasks should not simply check that a student understands. Instead, they must promote understanding by challenging the student in a way that is not too difficult or too easy. Example of a receptive skills lesson utilizing a patchwork ESA lesson. This lesson is for students with ability B1/B2.
- Engage – Say the name of “Martin Luther King” and elicit information or questions about this important figure before playing his famous “I have a dream” speech.
- Study - Play the speech.
- Activate – Elicit words that the students may know or recognize from the speech. Pre-teach difficult vocabulary.
- Activate – Elicit and drill the words just learned. Play the speech again, this time with English subtitles. Invite the students to take down expressions or words that are not clear.
- Study – Elicit from the students the words or expressions that are not clear. Teach the meaning of the words using definitions. The students listen to the speech again, this time without subtitles, while working.
- Students fill out a gap-worksheet containing the script of the speech with missing words.
- Activate – After correcting the worksheet, listen to the speech again and start a discussion on the values expressed in the speech.
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