11th July 2017

Receptive skills for English teachers: how to teach listening and reading

By Bryan Holmes

‘Receptive Skills’ (also known as ‘Passive Skills’, or reading and listening) are often contrasted with productive skills (speaking and writing).  When learning a new language learners tend to develop their receptive skills first and then acquire productive capability. It’s a complex relationship between the two as they all play a supporting role with developing other skills. For example, reading skills can be a supporting factor to the development of writing, whereas listening can improve speaking fluency.

Developing receptive skills can be particularly challenging especially when communicating with a fluent or native speaker.  Although starting a conversation may be done with relative ease, maintaining one poses greater challenges. Most likely learners may not recognize features of connected speech or idiomatic language which may lead to an unsuccessful interaction.

Similarly with reading, if the language or grammar is too complicated it makes the text unintelligible. The key difference between listening and reading is that when learners listen to information, they have much less support than when they are working with the written word on the page. Listening requires ‘real-time’ processing of language, and once the message has finished, there is no easy way to go back and check for meaning, as there is during reading.

The best way to improve receptive skills is from exposure whether from an enjoyable authentic text or a quality ESL text book. For example, television, music, books and magazines are great ways to build vocabulary while incidentally promoting learner autonomy. Coursebooks can provide a basic scaffold and are adapted for an ESL learner, whereas authentic materials provide exposure to real language use.

However, authentic materials can demotivate learners if the materials aren’t appropriately graded or applicable to their interests. It’s an important consideration to choose material which isn’t too difficult or easy, and also which relates culturally, so adaptation is an important consideration for teachers. Equally important are effectively staging a reading or listening lesson to maximize output. The below staging is an effective way to teach either a listening or reading lesson.

1) Pre-teach vocabulary

As with the ‘present’ stage of a vocabulary lesson, elicit, drill and concept check any vocabulary that you predict students will need to navigate the reading or listening material they will work with.

2) Gist reading/listening

When students have demonstrated their understanding of the target vocabulary, set a quick skimming task for students to get a first contact with the text or recording. Gist tasks can be in the form of true-false questions, paragraph matching, ordering or adding headings.

Remember: Make sure that you go through the task BEFORE you give them the reading text. If they don’t understand the task information, they will not be able to read or listen with purpose.

3) Detailed reading/listening

When students have got the gist of the text, they can move into some more detailed comprehension or language work. Set questions which deal with the relationships between points in the text, or which focus on use of specific language in the text or recording. This encourages a closer analysis of the information being presented.

4) (optional) Response to text

A follow-up stage (which asks students to respond to what they have read or listened to) can consolidate the ideas presented in the text and engage students with the content they have read or listened to.

5) (optional) Vocabulary in Context

Another option for a post-reading stage is to examine the meanings of some other vocabulary items (which were not taught in the first PTV stage) in the context of the sentences and paragraphs where they appear in the reading or listening material.

Besides staging it’s also important to develop strategies rather than only practicing skills as you want to equip your students to practice outside the classroom. Listed below are some strategies to help your students improve their reading and listening skills.

Tips for making your reading and listening lessons shine

1. Encourage learners to read for enjoyment rather than just for study.
2. Avoid reading word for word, instead read an entire chunk and identify contextual clues to establish meaning of unknown language.
3. Look for key words such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs as these words give information.
4. Make predictions before reading or listening. Doing so activates what is already known about the topic. Also, this builds confidence since the learner isn’t confronted immediately with what they don’t know.
5. Listen for key words (information words).
6. Practice reading for gist first and then detail, breaking up the reading makes the text manageable.
7. Practice, practice, practice!!!

So are you ready to have go? How can you improve your learner’s receptive skills?

Bryan Holmes is teacher trainer and the part time course director for the Trinity CertTESOL English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL , MATESOL, and Cambridge DELTA. He has a special interest in phonetics and phonology and has been teaching for 10 years.