Teaching language skills Pt 1: Are you really teaching language skills in your lessons?

When we think about teaching the four language skills - reading, writing, speaking and listening, we are really thinking about developing a whole range of different abilities in our learners, many of which are not related to language, but to other types of cognitive processing. Awareness of these strategic and thinking skills, as well as the pure linguistic decoding skills which learners employ when they carry out these practical skills can really help us to improve our students’ performance in these four core areas of language use. This is the first in a series of five articles which will look closely into the ways in which learners process language through four-skills work, and how we as teachers can facilitate more effective routines in the classroom to help them do just that.


We start this series with a little bit of the theory behind how we can define the different ways that we process language, and how this can inform how we teach it.


Skills and competencies


The broad areas represented by the four language skills encompass a huge range of different activities which we all perform when we read, write, speak or listen. Using language productively or receptively as a method to convey or receive a message depends on many factors including language, setting, social relationships between participants, the mode of communication, genre, register, dialect, idiolect and personal point of view, not to mention the specific language choices that we make when we perform these communicative actions.


Enabling language learners to become proficient with the language used with reference to these factors requires the development of many different component skills, other than pure language study. Someone can have a perfect grasp of grammar and vocabulary, and yet perform entirely inappropriately in a specific communicative setting if they do not have the full range of tools with which to put their language into action.


This range of communicative tools has been defined in various ways in different branches of linguistics, but perhaps the most useful for current trends in the field of TESOL are Bachman and Palmer’s (1996) Communicative Competence Framework. Bachman and Palmer describe three main skill-sets, or competences, which come into play when we use language productively or receptively: organisational competence, pragmatic competence and strategic competence. Only one of these competences, however, is strictly language-based: organisational competence. This refers to the ways in which we organise words in phrases, sentences and interaction to convey the message we want to get across, or how we decode the sequences of words in those stretches of language. This competence relates to grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, as well as the ways in which larger points are linked across longer stretches of information. Organisational competence is what allows us to process what is being communicated.


Pragmatic competence includes the functional, cultural and social aspects of how we use language in specific situations; the ways we can change our message to fit different situations, to meet the expectations of those we are speaking or writing to, and to achieve the purposes we require when we communicate to perform tasks with language. Although this is closely related to the pure language that we use when we read, write, speak or listen, this kind of competence refers to the ‘how we say something’ rather than ‘what we say (or hear)’. Thus, pragmatic competence takes us one step away from the pure message, through the filter of the situations and people we find around us.


Strategic competence, by contrast, refers to the ways in which we can plan a message, and the ways in which we make choices about the specific language that we use (not the use of the language itself, but the process of selecting language for use). This is an essential skill to develop in second language learners, as language choices are much more explicit and conscious in students than in native speakers, meaning that we can expose these choices to evaluation and amendments as we work through lessons dealing with language use in the four skills areas. It is important to remember, however, that strategic work is not linguistic - it is about the language being used, not focused directly on the words and structures being used, as with organisational competence.


Using this very simplified summary of Bachman and Palmer’s framework, think about a language skills lesson that you have taught recently - perhaps a reading class using a text, or a listening activity. How much of the work that you did was purely language-based (organisational), and how much went into the hows and whys of the language being used in the text or recording? The question is: can we really teach students to listen, read, write and speak effectively in another language if we do not focus on all three (and more) of these areas of language application? Over the next four weeks, we will take each of the four skills and break it down into these areas of communicative competence, thinking about how we can make the most of the activities we lead in class in terms of all-round communicative work.


Linguistic and metacognitive skills


Another distinction which can be drawn between different aspects of reading, writing, speaking and listening is that between linguistic and metacognitive skills. As we have seen, linguistic skills relate to the actual language being used to communicate the message - the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of the words and phrases themselves. Metacognitive skills, however, are the tools we use to process how and why texts or utterances are structured in the way that they are, and to think about the messages we are employing with language. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of language use is essential to enable students to take control over the ways in which they form and understand messages, so should not be discounted for the sake of the descriptive, accuracy-focused ‘what’ of linguistic processing.


Again, think about a skills lesson you have taught recently - this time, based around a productive speaking or writing exercise. How much attention did your students pay to the organisation, word choices, ordering of information or ways of joining ideas, as compared to the pure use of vocabulary and grammar that they had learnt. These aspects of productive skills form the structure for effective speaking or writing, creating a more creative, student-controlled message which goes beyond the simple ‘can they use accurate grammar / vocabulary’ focus of many productive tasks.


Skills and sub-skills


In order to help students develop their skills work to a level where they are making appropriate language and content choices in their communication, it is useful to break down the acts of speaking, listening, reading and writing into their component sub-skills, including work on the different types of competency and metacognitive areas mentioned above. By isolating sets of skills which are at work in different types of communicative event, and teaching them along with the language that they need to do the job, we can help students to develop their skills in a much broader way, enabling them to use language that they learn with flexibility, confidence and fluency.


Over the next four weeks, we will break down the four language skills into their component sub-skills, suggesting activities and classroom strategies to help you to develop ways of developing your learners’ skills in these areas effectively.


Next week we will focus on speaking skills, so in the coming week of your teaching, think about the speaking activity that you do with your students. Make a note of the materials you use, and the strategies you employ to teach and practice speaking, and reflect on this in light of next week’s article. What do you expect your students to achieve with their speaking? What different competencies are involved in that communicative event? How do you give your students the skills to achieve this with ease? All of these questions and more will be the topic of the next article on the Language Point blog.


In case you missed them, you can read Part Two and Part Three of this series of blog posts


Tom Garside is a teacher trainer and education developer who works with trainee teachers on his blended Trinity CertTESOL course, which is delivered at partner locations around the world. He also consults for international schools and universities, helping teachers and tutors to develop their skills in their local teaching settings and advising on curriculum development in language and content areas. He has written a reader-friendly e-resource for developing teachers: TESOL, A Gateway Guide, and a pronunciation teaching resource pack: Pronunciation Card Games, as well as a teacher development resource based around peer observation tasks.


Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a training event at your centre, or to take part in the Blended Trinity CertTESOL course that Language Point runs or Sign up to the Language Point newsletter ‘From the Training Room’ for articles, resources and offers on Language Point products.

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