Teaching receptive skills

30.04.2020
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There are two main types of lessons we teach: language and skills (receptive or productive) lessons. Language lessons can be taught using different approaches (e.g., PPP, TTT, Text-based approach, Guided discovery, etc.). It all depends on the students’ level, teachers’ preferences, materials and other factors. Skills lessons usually have one framework. In this article, I’ll talk about receptive skills, sub-skills and lesson framework. 

There are different approaches to teaching receptive skills, but frequently macro-skills are broken down into micro-skills or subskills which we develop or practise in class. Let’s revise some typical and common reading and listening sub-skills:

  • activating schemata (predicting. Read more in this article.)
  • reading/listening for gist (skimming). Students read a text quickly, skim it or listen to audio to get a general idea of it.
  • reading/listening for specific information (scanning). Students scan a text or listen to audio to find out certain information: dates, numbers, names, etc.
  • reading/listening for detail (intensive). Students read or listen attentively to comprehend a text or audio fully.
  • inferring attitude. Students read a text or listen to audio and try to understand what the narrator, author or speaker think about the topic, their opinion, point of view.
  • inferring the meaning of unknown words

This list isn’t limited, but it’s important not to confuse skills with strategies. For example:

  • predicting the content using non-linguistic information
  • looking up the words in the dictionary
  • using non-linguistic visual clues

Reading and Listening activities can be used for developing reading or listening skills or focusing on the language. They can also be used for both purposes. When working on skills themselves there can be 2 aims:  either to develop or test the receptive skills. When teachers test skills, they usually only give questions to check comprehension of the text or audio. When teachers develop skills, they try to improve their reading and listening skills and sub-skills, not assess. There are two main approaches to developing receptive skills: holistic and segmental. When teachers use a holistic approach, they improve listening/reading skills by providing lots of authentic listening and reading practice and being facilitators of the learning process; they don’t focus on sub-skills and strategies. Whereas, when teachers use a segmental approach, they focus on developing sub-skills and strategies.  The segmental approach can be skills-based or text-based. In a skills-based lesson, one sub-skill is focused on and practised through several texts or audios. In a text-based lesson, we use only one text and develop several sub-skills using it. The latest is more common and wide-spread in class.

Now, we’ve revised some sub-skills and approaches and can move to the framework itself.

The basic framework for receptive skills is the following:

  1. Activate schemata, provide the context and lead into the topic of the lesson. For example, set a discussion about the topic you’re going to listen to or read the text about; or brainstorm ideas students have about it. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of being an only child or having brothers, sisters.
  2. Pre-teach key vocabulary. Don’t clarify all the new words, but only those they’ll need to do the next task. That’s called blocking vocabulary. For example, the words they need to know to understand and answer the question. Let’s say the question is “How does this affect the writer?”, you’ll probably need to pre-teach the word “affect”.
  3. Set a gist task to have learners understand the general meaning of the text or audio.  For example, “Read or listen and say what it’s about”.
  4. Have the students read quickly or listen to the audio and do the task. Then, ask them to check in pairs. Finally, get feedback from the learners.
  5. Set an intensive task to have learners find specific or detailed information, infer the attitude, etc. For example, hand out questions or statements where students have to choose if they are true or false. 
  6. Have the student read or listen more attentively and do the task. Play the whole track twice if necessary, or you can play certain parts for the third time. Then, ask students to check in pairs. Finally, get feedback.
  7. If necessary, use the text for further language work (focus on vocabulary, grammar, functional language). If you have a reading task, you may highlight the target vocabulary or grammar structures. If you have a listening task, you the script. Then, for example, ask students to match the words, phrases with the definitions. For grammar structures, you can give guided discovery questions.

I hope now it’s become more clear how to teach receptive skills, sub-skills, strategies and what lesson framework is usually used.

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