There are several steps to take in learning a foreign language. As we know, there are 4 language skills to address – listening, reading, writing and speaking. These four skills belong to two categories; input skills – listening and reading, when the language is acquired through exposure to the target language, and “output skills”– writing and speaking, when the language is produced in either form.
To ensure the assimilation of those skills, one needs commitment and readiness to go the extra mile in the learning process.
Here are some ideas and tested ways of upgrading one’s language skills in a productive and fun way.
Upgrading Listening Skills
Listening and understanding a foreign language is one of the first steps in learning the language on the whole. Here the exposure to the language is to the fullest. Pronunciation, accuracy and fluency are all touched upon, thus providing the learner with threefold information to deal with. Copying the pronunciation of the speakers, the following sentence structure is a very effective way to get hold of the language.
Things that we can suggest the students do in order to upgrade listening skills are:
Listening to real-life conversations – there are a lot of resources available in coursebooks that help to improve listening comprehension. Our job as teachers is to make sure the material is challenging for the students but not too much so that we don’t have to deal with demotivation later on. Staging listening exercises appropriately can be very helpful to upgrade their skills – listening to chunks, repeating, acting out, etc.
Same is true for listening to music. Everyone has their favourite type of music, so why not to use it to improve their understanding? Ask the students to choose a song they like and analyze the lyrics, make sure they understand what it is about. This is also a good way to boost reading comprehension.
Watching movies is another great way to work on listening skills. Personally, I ask students to watch a movie in English on their choice but to start with those that they had seen before. This makes sure the students know the context of the movie and will spend time to learn new words and phrases, adjust to chunks of speech, ligated phrases, etc.
Another thing that works for me is to take the students to museums and galleries where the guide talks in English. This requires a little preparation before the visit in terms of teaching some terms to the students and some background information about the place to visit, so they feel more comfortable during the tour. With young learners and teenagers, you can also prepare some questions that they will be supposed to ask the guide. This puts the students in a real-life situation where they need to understand and use the language to gain information and keep communication.
Upgrading Reading Skills
Reading is probably the most passive skill where students can take their time to deal with unclear language. This is one of the overlooked skills to address during foreign language courses, which results in slow reading patterns, no progress in increasing vocabulary and generally a dislike towards reading.
To help the students upgrade reading skills we can start small. One of my favourite things to try is to choose some short stories, assign a different story to a group of 3 students and allocate 2-3 days for them to read. This gives them a chance to read in groups, clarify things for each other, deal with difficult parts together. As a result, students feel more comfortable and grasp the story much better. Later on, they can be asked to present their stories to the rest of the groups, teach them several words and phrases that they had learnt, do character analysis using the words learnt, etc.
Another fun thing to try is to ask the students to choose a genre that they like more and assign a book for them to read. To teach them to better dealing with unknown words and phrases ask them not to look up every single word, but only those that occur more than once in 2-3 chapters (depending on the level of the book). That will mean that it is a recurrent word, a relatively popular one, so it’s good to check.
It is always a good idea to bring authentic newspapers, magazines to class and ask the students to read a section and share in class. This will give them a grasp of the real world, they will be talking about ongoing events, so the language they learn will be up to date.
Last but not the least, make sure the operation systems on students’ laptops, PCs and phones are in English. A lot is learnt in everyday interaction with our gadgets.
Upgrading Writing Skills
Writing skills are also quite important to upgrade. Some will argue that in the age of technology it is not that necessary as we have all the autocorrect and stuff, however, if we want to be a competent bearer of the language, we need to keep that skill active.
There are a number of techniques to do this. To keep the interest of the students, you can start by asking them to write personal notes for each other (thank you notes, requests, short messages, etc.).
Another interesting thing to do is to ask them to create Facebook/Whatsapp dialogues around a topic. You can simply assign a topic to them like “Should capital punishment be reinstated?”, make sure one student agrees and the other one disagrees with the topic. Now, students can start chatting by sharing their ideas and giving reasons. The end result of the task is for the teacher to read those chats and give feedback on the performance.
Another thing to try is to ask the students to write reports, proposals, emails to each other. The type of activity depends on the structure you want to practice.
Blog posts can also be a good idea. Asking the students to write comments and reviews on their favourite blogs or movies also boost writing skills very nicely.
Upgrading Speaking Skills
Speaking is probably the ultimate goal of every student studying a foreign language. They normally can’t wait to produce competent speech with no accuracy mistakes, with extensive vocabulary and very fluently. To help the students reach there, we can do several things.
Always encourage students to use the target foreign language in class and whenever they see you as a teacher (in the halls, on the street, etc.). If we keep consistent here, students will find it hard to listen to us speaking in the mother tongue, always commenting that we sound different.
Try is to work on enriching their word-stock. We can do that by presenting sets of synonyms and antonyms and putting them in context for the students by asking them to make sentences, creating a dialogue, preparing a monologue, etc. This can be done very effectively in the error correction slot. Read more about error correction here.
Another interesting idea is to ask the student to record their monologues on a topic assigned initially and play it back trying to give feedback to themselves on performance, finding errors and fixing them. A nice platform to do it is Flipgrig. You can read more about it here.
To incorporate technology in the learning process more, we can ask the students to join voice chats by sending voice messages to each other. It can basically be the same as the written chat, where students were debating about an idea. Only now, they will need to speak.
These are some general ideas that normally work when working with students with different interests and backgrounds. Follow us for more exercises and practical advice on how to upgrade students’ language skills.