Skills Lessons

There are four main skills in language learning; reading, listening, speaking and writing. Reading and listening have some things in common. When you read and when you listen, are you taking in information or putting out information? Taking in – or receiving. For that reason, reading and listening are referred to as receptive skills. Let’s begin by looking at reading.

Receptive Skills

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 15.29.41Reading 

Below, we will discuss typical stages for reading lessons. For a summary of stages, which could help with lesson planning, see Skills – Lesson Staging.

Let’s start by thinking about two kinds of reading text that most people will probably have read at some point; a news article (whether online or in the physical paper) and a menu.

Take a minute or two to think about the following questions; some answers will come immediately below – we will come back to others later in this section.

1.    What is our reason for reading each text?

2.    Will we read both these texts in the same way? For example, will we read at the same speed, read the same amount of text etc?

If we think first about a news article, we probably choose to read this because we have identified the subject matter as something that interests us. We have probably read the headline to get an idea of what the article is about, and from that, decided whether we want to continue reading or not. In this case, we have employed top-down reading skills. In other words, we have used our real world and external knowledge and feelings in conjunction with the information from the headline so that before we even start reading the body of the article, we have a reasonable idea or expectation of the content. Even if we aren’t aware of it, we have probably started to predict the content. This makes the article easier for us to access. We can imagine all the vocabulary and knowledge we already have on this subject coming to the forefront of our thinking (like a series of lights coming on and illuminating things a little) and interacting with the information we get from the text as we read. We tend to do this naturally when reading in our own language.

Similarly with the menu, we use our real-world knowledge to very quickly establish that the text is a menu and to use our previous experience and main information on the sheet to predict the fact that we expect to see the name of dishes, prices and descriptions. Again, as we read we are confirming or refuting our predictions. Neither of the texts and their contents are likely to come as a really big surprise to us – therefore we are able to read more effectively and efficiently.

When we work on reading in the classroom with students, we want to try and help them read more effectively and efficiently in English, and one way to do that can be to replicate the way they read in their own language through our lesson staging and choice of tasks.

So, when taking a top-down approach to reading, our first stages of the lesson would seek to generate interest in the topic of the text and get students thinking and predicting the content.

 

Stage 1 – Lead-in

Aim: to generate interest and a desire to read the text, to encourage prediction, to activate known vocabulary on the subject.

If for example, the text is about a day in the life of doctor, how might we achieve the above aim?

We could get students to think about and discuss a series of questions such as;

What kinds of things do doctors do every day?

Do you think the life of a doctor is a busy one? Why?

As with each one of the following stages, we would follow the task cycle. That is, set the task clearly before students complete it, let them do it, ensure they have time for pair/group checking and then conduct feedback.

 

 

When we read any text in real life, we have a reason to read. Going back to the two texts we mentioned earlier, let’s think about what examples of this reason to read might be. With the news article it might be: to waste time while we wait for an appointment, because this is an area of interest to us, so that we can talk about it later on in our day at work, or because we are completing some academic writing on the same topic. For the menu it is most likely to be something like to decide whether we want to eat there, to see if they have a particular dish we like, or to decide what to order.

With the news article, what we often do is start to read, perhaps the first paragraph or so, quite quickly, to see if it provides the kind of thing we wanted, and then decide whether to keep reading. Or we might look over it quickly to check our predictions. Sometimes of course, we go straight into reading it in detail, paying attention. But there is an argument in the classroom for getting students to read quickly, the first time they come into contact with a text – just to get an overall picture of what is going on.

Again, this corresponds with a top-down way of processing information – looking at the big picture first. With a text such as the menu – this may not always be necessary, but we might look at this text in a very quick way first in some circumstances. For example, to see what kind of cuisine the restaurant has. Is it Italian? Is it Greek? Does it offer food from more than one region?

This kind of reading can be helpful in terms of improving students’ efficiency in reading. Often when reading in another language, people tend to change the way they read, and instead of doing the kind of things described above – they begin to go through the text slowly, examining every word and faltering the minute they come to some vocabulary they don’t understand. So, to help students be better able to read quickly when necessary, we can set gist or initial reading tasks which help them get the general idea without stopping to fixate over a particular word or fact. Some argue that this is not something we always do in real life, but as was seen from the examples above, it is something we do do in some circumstances, and can be helpful when improving reading speed is important.

Before we get students to complete this gist or initial reading task, we may decide to teach a few words from the text. This doesn’t mean we are going to teach them every word they may not know (we want to help students become more comfortable with dealing with unknown words – and will discuss this skill later), but that any words or phrases in the text that are essential to overall understanding should be taught before they read. Otherwise, they will not be able to complete our initial task. This stage is called pre-teach lexis, and is optional. If there are no words in the text which we feel it is essential students need to know – we may skip this step.

Stage 2: Pre-teach essential lexis

(optional, as described above)

Aim: to remove any unknown words or phrases that will prevent overall understanding of the text / completion of the tasks.

Stage 3: Initial / gist task

Aim: for students to practise and develop their ability to skim a text, reading quickly for overall understanding.

If we imagine we are continuing to work with the tasks about the doctor’s day, the initial task could be for students to read quickly (we would set a clear and short time limit here – perhaps 1 minute depending on how much they need to read), to see if their predictions and discussions were correct / the same as the text.

NB1: always set the task (the reason for reading) before telling students to read, NOT asking them to answer the question after they have read – otherwise they will not be reading in the way the task is designed to make them.

NB2: although it is very common to begin reading with this kind of task (certainly on many CELTA courses and in many coursebooks) – it is not always essential. We need to think about the kind of text we are asking students to read and decide if this is a natural task for this kind of text. For example, if the text were a bus timetable – we don’t need to skim it to get a general idea of what it is about!

 

 

Another type of reading sub-skill we may employ, is to scan for specific information. With our menu, for example, we may have a particular dish in mind and we want to scan the menu quickly to find out if it’s there, and how much it costs. Here, we know what specific kind of information (in this case the name of a dish and the price) we are looking for, before we start to look. When scanning for specific info, we are often looking for things such as names, places, amounts and costs.

Again, not every text lends itself to this kind of task, so we would choose to do it, only where a text contains the kind of facts as described above.

Stage 4 – scanning for specific information

(optional, depending on suitability of text)

Aim: for students to practise and improve their ability to scan a text quickly for specific information.

With our doctor text this might involve answering questions about what time the doctor does something, the number of hours he works, how old he is etc.

 

 

When students are more familiar with the text, after earlier, easier reading tasks, we may want to introduce tasks that get them reading more carefully and understanding the text in greater depth. Again, we need to look at our text carefully to see if it can be exploited for this kind of information. When students do this kind of task, they will first need to scan, to try and find the area of the text containing the relevant information, but they will then, in addition, need to read more carefully to extract greater meaning; perhaps inferring meaning, or interpreting elements of the text.

In this type of task, it should not be possible for students to simply lift the information out – they need to have to think about the question and come to conclusions about the information.

Stage 6 – Reading for detailed comprehension

Aim: for students to develop their ability to find detail and gain a more in-depth understanding of the text.

In the doctor text, we could for example, ask true or false questions. Where the text says something like ‘Most doctors in this hospital work far more than the 45 hours a week their contract details as minimum’, the students would have to decide whether a statement such as Doctors have to work more than 45 hours a week is true or false. Students would scan to find the part of the text which mentions hours of work, but then have to read more carefully and understand more deeply in order to answer the question.

 

 

Students have now practised various reading sub-skills and should have a much better understanding of the text. In real life, we may have read a text in similar ways to the ones described above – and because we had a reason to read, to extract this information, then in the real world we usually do something with the information we gained. For example, if we had read the menu, we might use this information to decide not to go to this restaurant, or we might use the information to make a decision about which dishes to order. If we had read the news article on the bus, we might tell someone about it when we got to work, or express our opinion on the matter in a conversation.

So in the classroom and in the staging of our receptive skills lessons, we want to try and replicate the purpose of reading. Therefore our final stage seeks to give students the opportunity to use English to output, based on the information they have taken in from the text.

Stage 7 – Productive follow up task

Aim: for students to develop their fluency on the topic of the text, and give them the opportunity to react to the content.

In our doctor’s day text, this might take the form of a group discussion, where students decide if they would like to do this job and why / why not. Or perhaps they could perform a role-play where one student is a doctor and the other is someone considering becoming a doctor and asking for advice on what it’s like.

Both these activities give students opportunities to react to content, to recycle language they may have come across in the text and to develop their fluency.

 

 

Listening 

As with reading, listening is a receptive skill – we take in information when we listen. For that reason, a listening lesson is pretty much the same in terms of staging as a reading lesson. However, there are some practical differences we need to consider.

Spend a couple of minutes thinking about how listening lessons might differ, then read on.

Here are some of the main ways listening differs from reading:

  • The speed is not under control of the receiver – when reading we can determine the speed at which we take in the information. Not so with listening!
  • Things such as speed of speech and accent can radically affect how difficult a listening text is to understand.
  • With a reading text we can often read as many times as we want – with listening there is usually a limit on the number of times we will hear something.

We need to take these differences into account when planning and executing a listening lesson. For example, if there is a strong accent we may warn students of this, and ensure we give them plenty of opportunity for pair checking before conducting feedback.

As with any task, we need to follow the task cycle with each listening task. We set up the task clearly before students listen, they listen and complete and then they check in pairs or small groups. With listening tasks, it is even more important that the teacher monitors both completion of the task and the pair checking stages. Why do you think this is?

If students have found the listening difficult, we need to know about it, and we need to know which parts of it they found difficult. This is because based on our monitoring, we may decide to play the recording again (always complete pair checking before this), or we may decide to play a particular segment again. These decisions are based entirely on what we see when we are monitoring. So, we should never be in a situation where we need to ask students ‘Do you want to hear it again?’ It’s our job as teachers to know, and in addition, students nearly always want to listen again, even when they have correctly completed the tasks. This is usually because their perception is that they need to have understood every single word – which is not the case. In both reading and listening in the real world, we frequently come across unknown words – but we have strategies to deal with them so that we don’t miss important information in the text while we are fixating about what may be a relatively unimportant but unknown word. These are the kind of strategies we need to develop in our students, so they can cope with real-world reading and listening.

As previously mentioned, the stages of a listening are the same as a reading, except for the necessity to possibly play the recording more than once for either a listening for specific information or detailed comprehension task. (Note that for a gist task, if we need to play it again – it is either because the task set is too difficult and not general enough, or the students are trying to focus on more details than they were asked for. ) We also want to avoid playing the recording over and over again. Generally, for detailed the comprehension questions, twice all the way through plus once focusing on specific segments should be enough if our tasks are are an appropriate level.

 

Receptive Skills – good practice / hints

  • Always tell students what they are reading or listening to discover before rather after they read or listen – task before text.
  • Make sure students always have a god amount of time to check / compare answers before doing feedback or replaying a recording.
  • When conducting feedback, ensure questions which students got wrong are clarified – identify where the information was in the text and make sure students know why the answer is what it is.
  • Skimming is moving quickly across the surface of the text – like when we throw a flat stone across the surface of a lake. It skims the surface.
  • Scanning is moving quickly across the text looking for a particular thing – like when we scan the horizon, then stop when we see something on that horizon that’s of interest.
  • Use simple wording in questions – we are trying to develop reading or listening skills around the text, not test vocabulary knowledge in the questions.
  • Let students listen to the whole recording and only split it up after they have attempted the tasks and compared with a partner if they are still finding it difficult.

 

Productive Skills

We have already talked about reading and listening – receptive skills. Now let’s focus on speaking and writing – productive skills; so called because although during the process of creation, we need to intake information, we are mainly involved with outputting, or producing language.

While with receptive skills, the stages discussed in the previous section tend to be more consistently followed, with productive skills there is often more flexibility, depending on what kind of speaking or writing we are expecting students to produce.

Writing 

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 15.22.30

When we focus on the skills of writing, we are taking what could be called a process writing approach. Imagine for a moment that you have an assignment to write for a course. Is it likely that you’ll sit down, immediately put pen to paper and write the assignment from start to finish? Would you then hand in this first version? If you want to receive a good mark, the answer is probably no! You are likely to think about the question, do some reading as research, plan, organise, edit etc. These elements are part of the writing process. So a process approach emphasises students having practise going through this process and hopes to make them better independent writers.

Now imagine that you are applying for a job and need to write a covering letter to accompany your CV. Would it be OK if you started the letter with ‘Hi!’? Not if you want the job! Are there any particular phrases you’d be likely to use in this letter? Probably. For example, you might start with something like, ‘I am writing in response to your advertisement for…’. Elements such as particular language points / vocabulary and layout are examined when we are taking a product approach to writing. This emphasises students producing an accurate, appropriately laid-out piece of writing and usually makes use of students following a model text as a guide.

When we plan a writing lesson, we can choose to take an entirely process approach, an entirely product approach or an approach which takes elements of both. The degree to which we go either way may depend on the kind of text we want students to write and the amount of time available. With the application letter, since there are certain conventions that must be followed, we would want to do some product work. It would be useful for students to look at a model text so they know how to set out the letter. It would also be helpful for them to focus on useful chunks of language for this sort of text.

However, it could also be argued that if we want them to be better able to write not just this one letter, but subsequent letters too, then they also need help with the process of writing: thinking, planning, drafting, editing etc.

For this reason, most writing lessons have elements of both approaches, appropriately balanced based on the text type, and this is the way it will be considered below. Note though, that with a short lesson, we may omit some of these stages. The staging suggested below is for a full and comprehensive writing lesson.

 

As with any lesson, the first thing we want to do is create interest and get students actively involved in the topic. If we begin by telling students they are going to write, we may demotivate some students who feel like writing is a difficult or uninteresting. It’s our job to make writing engaging and we need to begin doing this at the very start of the lesson. It’s also worth noting that just because it’s a writing lesson, it doesn’t mean we can’t incorporate a good amount of interaction and student talking time – we can!

Stage 1 – Lead-in

Aim: to get students engaged and interested in the lesson, to begin creating a context for the writing task and to activate known vocabulary.

Let’s imagine that the writing task we want students to complete is a review of a product – perhaps a mobile phone. First, we might introduce visuals of three of four phones and ask students to discuss what they know about any of them – for example, the price, make, any features they know about.

 

Now that students are engaged and talking, we want to introduce their writing purpose and audience. When we write in real life, we are always aware of these two things. Even if we’re writing a journal, the audience is ourselves and the purpose is enjoyment or recording experiences so that we can look back on them. In other circumstances, with the covering letter, our purpose is to try and get an interview, and the audience is our potential employer.

In the case of our example, the purpose is to advise others of the good and bad things about the phone and the audience is people checking out online reviews with a view to buying a new phone. A writing task is a lot more meaningful if students can imagine who they are writing for and why.

Once students know the task, we can help them by letting them read a model. So, in this case, they would read another review of a phone, similar to the one they are going to write. As always though, we need to provide students with a reason to read any text we give them. For this, we can introduce an initial task that gets them to make contact with the text and see generally what it is about, but does not at this stage make them focus on specific language or too much detail.

Stage 2 – Gist reading of model text

Aim: for students to see the example text and get an overview, to practise reading quickly for overall understanding.

From our example with the phone review, we could give students the task of reading and deciding whether the reviewer a) would recommend this phone overall or b) would not recommend this phone overall.

 

 

Now that the students have had a general look at the model, we can begin to highlight things about the model that students can notice and use in their own texts.

Rather than telling students what they should do, we keep the lesson more active and student centred by using tasks that get them to focus on these things.

Stage 3 – Task to focus on language / layout

Aim: for students to pick up useful language and be aware of the structure and layout of the text they will write.

In the case of the review, maybe the layout is such that there is a short list of facts, for example the phone model, brand, cost and main features, followed by a short paragraph of ‘pros’, a short paragraph of ‘cons’ and a brief summary and recommendation. This layout would be useful for students to apply to their own writing. A helpful task then, might be for students to match a heading to the paragraph content. For example, they would match the paragraph containing pros with the heading, things the writer likes about the phone. In this way, we will have lead them to examine the layout and they should be able to apply it to their own writing.

There may also be language in the text that would make the students’ writing better. Here, a task to help them notice and use this language might be that they read the text and add words with positive meanings and expressions to one column of a table and negative words and expressions to the other.

NB: the language and aspects of layout you choose to focus on at this stage will be dependent on the type of text students will write. In a formal letter for example, you might focus on where addresses go, or what greetings are used.

 

Students now have a clear idea about the kind of text they are going to write, why, who it is for, what it should look like, and what kind of language will help them. However, they have not yet had time to think about what they want to say.

When we write in the real world, let’s go back again to the example of the covering letter, we always have a thinking period. This will be done to a greater or lesser extent depending on formality and how difficult the text is for us to write. If we were writing the covering letter, we would probably first think and make notes of what it is we wanted to include, and then plan out whereabouts in the letter each piece of information should go. We therefore want to give students practice doing the same things.

It’s important to note, that writing does not have to be handled as an individual activity in class. It is possible for students to do these stages collaboratively if the text lends itself to that. The  case of the covering letter, it could be planned together, but because students would be writing very specifically about themselves, the final writing task might be best done alone. However, with a lot of writing, pair and even group text construction is possible and indeed beneficial – increasing the feedback students get at each stage and making the whole process more engaging.

Stage 4 – Brainstorm ideas and make notes

Aim: for students to practise gathering ideas

In the review example, this is where students, possibly in pairs could decide on which phone they are going to review and make notes about the phone in general as well as the things they like / dislike about it.

Stage 5 – Organise notes and make a rough plan

Aim: for students to practise organising ideas in a logical manner appropriate to text type

For our review text, this stage might not take too long. Since the model and their examination of it have highlighted the purpose of the short paragraphs as being; phone information, pros, cons and conclusion, it is likely thy have brainstormed their ideas in these groups – but if not, we need to give them time to do this, and to begin thinking and deciding on the order they’ll mention them in and any particular language they’d like to match with a point they’re making.

 

 

Now that thoughts are organised and planned, students can start to write. In the lesson, we want to ensure students have a good chunk of time available to do this. During this time they construct their first draft.

The teacher’s job at this stage, is to monitor and be a resource. If students want advice, a piece of language that they don’t know etc. – we need to be available to provide it / give guidance.

If there is time in the lesson, we want to follow the subsequent stages, but if not, we could go directly to stage 9, and then allow students to make changes for homework.

Stage 6 – Write the first draft

Aim: for students to develop their ability to construct a text, organising and expressing their ideas with relevant language.

Again – it some cases it might be helpful for students to do this in pairs or groups – writing is not only the process of holding and manipulating the pen.

 

 

When we have finished writing something in real-life, the chances are we are going to go through it, and at the very least check we have spelled things correctly, punctuated correctly and made sure that our ideas make sense. Students need the same opportunities. This could be done by either giving them time to read and self correct / make changes, or perhaps they could swap with a partner. We can give the students instruction as to what to look out for – for example a list of questions to consider. Depending on the level of our students and the complexity of the writing, this could range from a very simple instruction such as ‘tick the things you like and underline any mistakes you see’, to a much fuller checklist. This not only provides students with a pair of fresh eyes for their work, it may allow them to get ides from their peers.

Stage7 – Revise / edit

Aim: for students to develop their ability to self- correct and assess their written work

 

 

We now provide students with the opportunity to use what they gained in looking critically at their work, to make changes, and produce a final ‘best’ version.

Stage 8 – Write a final version

Aim: for students to focus on accuracy and improve their end product.

 

 

As mentioned earlier, when we write, we do so for an audience and with a purpose. With our covering letter, we send it to the person specified in the advert and wait and see if we got an interview. With an assignment, we hand it in and get feedback in the form of a grade and comments. With an internet review, we would upload it to the website so that other people can read it and possibly comment.

In the classroom, we also want to give students some kind of an audience and feedback. Imagine yourself as a student; you have just spent time and effort writing your review, and the teacher says, ‘OK, that’s the end of the lesson’ and you simply put your work away and leave the classroom. How valuable with that piece of writing feel? Will you feel like your time was well spent? The chances are, you would feel like you had wasted your time, that the whole activity was rather pointless.

At this stage of the lesson then, we built in time for feedback. This can be done in a number of ways. The most typical, but not always the most beneficial, is for the teacher to collect in the writing and mark it. See below for an alternative.

Stage 9 – ‘Publish’ and get feedback

Aim: for students to compare their writing with other texts, to feel a sense of completion, to understand what they did well and what they can improve on

With our phone review lesson, there are a couple of interesting possibilities for the publish stage. One is for students to actually publish their review on a real website – they can then read each other’s published reviews and comment on them. Another, more classroom based idea, is to do what is known as a gallery walk. Each student, or group of students, sticks their review up on the wall and then the whole class mingles, reading the reviews and reacting to them. It’s important here to give students a clear task. Rather than telling them just to go around and read, we might tell them to go around, read, and decide from the reviews which phone they would most like to buy. This gives more purpose and a greater sense of completion than simply reading. We could then do a short final feedback slot on any good language / common errors and find out which phone was the most popular.

 

 

Speaking 

As we know, speaking, like writing, is a productive skill, and again, we’ll see many similarities between the staging of these two lessons, in the same way we saw similarities between the two receptive skills lessons (reading and listening).

Just like with writing lessons, in speaking there is quite a bit of flexibility in the ordering of stages and how we choose to run the lesson based on the kind of speaking task we want students to complete, and the speaking sub-skills we want them to develop.

As you will no doubt have noticed, all lessons contain quite a lot of speaking. For example, when we practise grammar, we often do so through speaking. We need to think carefully about our aims here. In the grammar lesson, (a language lesson), we are hoping to improve students’ spoken communication using a particular grammatical structure. In a speaking lesson (a speaking skills lesson), there is less emphasis on using a particular structure or group of words, and more emphasis on developing fluency with all language or the language which the student has chosen to use. We are hoping to improve students’ ability to get their point across using whatever language they want / need. However, just as in the writing lesson, we considered if there was any language we could include that would help students construct a particular type of written text, in a speaking lesson we may need to highlight some language which will help students more effectively complete a particular spoken task. It will depend largely on what the task requires. If students have to complete a discussion and come to a decision, it may be useful for them to have some focus on language for agreeing and disagreeing at some point in the lesson. If they are going to perform a role play of a job interview, they may need some extra help on talking about experiences or abilities.

Essentially a speaking lesson can follow the same stages as those of a writing lesson. We need to get students interested in the topic, set the task, perhaps give them a model of the speaking task being completed, focus on some relevant useful language, give them time to think and plan, time to complete the speaking task and then give them feedback before, if there is time, letting them apply the feedback and have another go at completing the speaking task.

A summary of possible stages for speaking and writing lessons can be found in Skills -Lessons Staging

 

Productive Skills – good practice / hints

  • Use visuals where possible to create interest and engagement.
  • Ensure models are realistic and not too long.
  • Always make the purpose and audience clear and set a clear task near the beginning of the lesson.
  • Examine the kind of spoken or written text you want to students to work towards and include appropriate language / layout focused stages.
  • Ensure there is enough time to give meaningful feedback and if possible, a chance for students to apply this feedback.