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Teaching the Four Language Skills: integrated or separate?

Abderrahim AGNAOU 2001

A research paper submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the TESOL Certificate Program at Universal Students Center , Montreal, Canada.

Table of Contents:
0. Introduction I. Language skills considered I.1. Receptive Skills I.2. Productive Skills II. Integrated Skills III. The challenge of teaching speaking IV. Conclusion

0. Introduction:
This research paper addresses the skill areas of language learning. I will first look into the nature of these skills by classifying them into groups. Then, I will discuss what is involved in learning these skills. After that, I will consider possible ways of approaching the teaching of these skills. Finally, I will examine the factors and intricacies involved in teaching the skill that poses difficulty to most second/foreign language learners, speaking.

I. Language skills considered

In modern ELT, both theoreticians (applied linguists) and practitioners (teachers) are stressing "communicative competence" as the ultimate goal for any language teaching program. By this they mean the ability to actually use the four language skills -ie. listening, speaking, reading and writingto communicate an appropriate message in a given social context. So one of the purposes of any teaching methodology should be to develop these skills because through them students get to understand the linguistic input they are exposed to and make themselves understood. The fundamental questions a teacher can ask then are: How can I teach these skills? Can I teach them seperately? If so, is there an order in which I can teach them? A closer look at the four skills is important to answer these questions. There are two ways to group language skills: either on the basis of orality and literacy or on the basis of reception and production. The following chart may give a clearer picture of the two


On the vertical axis, the skills are grouped according to whether they are oral or written. Listening and speaking are the skills necessary in face-to-face communication. For some learners, this is the main focus of their interest. Reading and writing are the skills necessary in written communication, and this is the main motivation for other learners. So in our teaching procedure, we should take into consideration the purpose of the program taught and the needs of the students. When teaching English to prospective flight attendants or tourist guides, we might have listening and speaking as the focus of the program. But when teaching English for academic purposes (eg. to science researchers), we might want to focus on reading and writing, the purpose being to aid students carry out their research more than to turn them into public speakers. On the horizontal axis, the skills are grouped according to whether they are receptive or productive. Listening and reading are referred to as receptive skills because they are both used to receive language which was produced (either in oral or written form) by someone else. In the same vein, speaking and writing can be grouped together because they are both used when producing language. To this extent, we can call them productive skills.

I.1 Receptive Skills

One of the points about which there is unamimous agreement among ELT professionals is the importance of providing students with large amounts of meaningful language input. As students develop their receptive skills, greater amounts of input become meaningful to them and the greater chance they have of learning the language. Of course, there are various sources of this input, formal and informal. The teacher is suposed to be a good one, either providing input herself/himself or recommending extra materials for students. When the teacher talks in class, she or he is in fact practicing the students' listening skills. One point should be made clear, however, that reading written language out loud is not the same thing as providing authentic listening practice. Now, what is it that motivates the learners to use their receptive skills? As a rough generalisation, we can say that they listen and read for two basic reasons: for enjoyment and for information. The more students use their language skills for enjoyment, the more language ability they are likely to acquire. Encouraging students to practice out-of-class listening and reading in English is desirable. (Un)fortunately, enjoyment is not something that can be timetabled. What can be timetabled is time for teachers to spend on encouraging the kind of listening and reading that would interest their students. When students see that the teacher finds something important enough to spend class time on it, thet are also likely to take it seriously. The extra effort required to make language learning a meaningful and enjoyable experience can make all the difference between relative success and relative failure for learners and teacher. As for listening and reading for information, it depends on what type of listening and reading the class focuses on. Many students have learned to listen and read English by working intensively on passeges of spoken or written English. A word of causion is in order: reading and listening should not be used to teach texts, but rather texts should be used to teach reding and listening. In other words, various aspects of reading and listening should be taught, including the so-called microskills or strategies. We have to show that we listen and read in different ways, according to our purpose. Therefore, the important question is not: "did the students learn all the new words in this reading text and answer all the comprehension questions correctly?", but rather "did the students learn the skills

which will make them better readers of English, or get more practice in the skills of purposeful reading?" It is worth emphasising one obvious difference between listening and reading. With a written text, one can go backward and forward at will. A spoken text is usually only there for the moment it is spoken. If students panic over a few unknown words, they can easily miss the whole point of a message. So, when teaching listening, it is even more important to build up the students' sense of purpose and strategy, coupled with an attitude of confidence in the face of possible uncertainty.

I.2 Productive Skills

The is a debate about the role of productive skills. Some people argue that when students produce language, they are showing you what they have already learned. Some others argue that communicating in the language is part of the learning process itself. This should not be a problem. As teachers, we certainly depend on our students' production of language to give us information about their progress. An emphasis on communicative language production will give us this feedback on what they have learned, while also arguably assisting their learning. The teacher's role in this regard is to involve students in the types of language use which motivates them, while teaching them skills and strategies which they will be able to use independently. As with receptive skills, there are also all the microskills of linguistic ability which underlie this level of skill, plus the skills of language learning. Once again, the essential attitude to build is one of confidence in a situation of uncertainty. Students have to use language skills to receive the language we are teaching and produce the language they are learning. So, the teacher then should stay in overall control in order to provide meaningful freedom for the learners as they move toward independence.

II. Integrated Skills

Any language teaching program that does not teach all the skills is of course defective. However, which is more effective, to teach them seperately or integrally? What is true is that at the very early stages of learning a foreign/second language, it is important to note that there is a logical order for learning these skills. To put it differently, there can be no output without input. By way of illustration, we cannot imagine a language learner speaking or writing English before she or he is exposed to it. While she/he may write because she/he can transfers writing skills from her/his firt language, we do not expect a beginner to speak English before she/he has listened and read enough. Most recently, there has been also a significant shift toward greater attention to reading and writing as a complement of listening and speaking, based on a new awareness of significant differences between spoken and written languages, and on the notion that dealing with language involves an interaction between the text on the one hand, and the culturally-based world knowledge and experientially-based learning of the receiver on the other. As mentioned earlier, there is a logical way in which the four skills are learned. Be that as it may, there are various learning and teaching situations where the four skills are integrated. It seems to me that, at the very early stages of learning, the teacher should focus first on receptive skills then on productive ones. But as the learners advance in their acquisition of the language, an integrated approach to teaching the four skills would pay dividends. In the same way each skill relates to the other within both groups, a skill of one group reinforces a skill of the other. The most obvious way in which the skills are integrated is in face-to-face interaction, where listening and speaking interchange constantly. These points relate to the information exchange part of a large-scale communicative activity, and also to straightforward conversation classes.

It is my observation, as both a learner and teacher of second languages, that writing CAN help develop speaking skills, but not the other way round. It also occurs to me that what several people are noticing is that the 'writing' that can help speaking is the kind of writing that is really a kind of script for speaking and not the highly conventionalized system that can be significantly remote from day to day speech. 'Real' writing might not assist speaking very much, but speech written down could surely help in many ways. In developing the four skills, we constantly refer to the importance of taking language from relevant sources, and producing language towards relevant ends. These are the keys to motivation. From a teacher's pespective, which of these skills poses difficulty for the student? It is my view that, the most challenging skill for the language learner is speaking.

III. The challenge of teaching speaking

From my own experience as a language learner, speaking was the skill that required a lot of practice. In fact, it is possible to find a student who can read and write perfectly, but when it comes to speaking it is helplessly mediocre. The kind of speaking I am talking about is not the controlled language practice where students say a lot of sentences using a particular piece of grammar or a particular function, for example. What I am referring to is the kind of speaking that is always an active exercise. In other words, it is that through which the students use any and all the language at their command to perform some kind of oral task. The important thing is that there should be a task to complete and that the students should want to complete it. As suggested earlier, it is recommended that speaking be delayed until students have been exposed to enough comprehensible input so that they would feel ready to speak with lower anxiety. This relieves the students of the oftem traumatic pressure to begin performing almost before they have a chance to understand anything in the new language. There are many factors that make speaking a tough task. Among these, there are the so-called affective factors. They have to do with the learners' attitudes towards what is going on when speaking: motivation, self-confidence, anxiety, context, audiance etc. Most of the time language learners feel afraid of making mistakes, of looking stupid, and of being incomprehensible. The implications for the teacher are clear enough, the most obvious of which is achieving a low-anxiety situation in the classroom. Much of that will come about simply because of the teacher's perceived attitude and body language and the "good vibes" that she or he generates in the classroom. Anxiety will be lessened also by activities that involve the students personality in such a way that they feel comfortable discussing themselves and their feelings and become genuinly interested in the feelings and opinions of the others. The materials the teacher chooses can also make the students feel more at ease, because it is intersting, appropriate, and not frustratingly difficult. There are three basic reasons why it is a good idea to give students speaking tasks which provoke them to use all and any language at their command: rehearsal, feedback, and engagement. When students, for instance, take part in a role-play, they are allowed to rehearse a real-life event in the safety of the classroom. This is a way for students to get the feel of what communicating in the foreign language really feels like. This kind of practice provides feedback for both teachers and students. Teachers can see how well their class is doing and what language problems their students are having. Students can also see how easy they find a particular kind of speaking and what they need to do to improve. And if all the students are participating fully, they will get tremondous satisfaction from it. Many speaking tasks are intrinsically enjoyable in themselves. Some of the multiple techniques that can be used to practice in-class speaking include picture description, story-telling, discussion, role-play, interviews, and presentations. For a multi-ethnic class of adult students, I would use discussion as an effective technique for getting the students to speak. I believe that such discussion provokes spontaneous fluent language use because it involves exchange of opinion and divergence of views, which generates a good atmosphere for conversation.

I would, for instance, start by asking individual students to name the last film they saw. Did they enjoy it? Was it funny? Serious? Violent? The replies I get at this point will be fairly limited, but at least the topic has been introduced and the students are enjoying thinking about movies. After that, I would draw the students' attention to the issue of violence in films. I would ask questions like: Is there too much? Does it matter? Should anything be done about it? etc. I would then put the class into groups. In one group, the students would have to think (and make notes about) the level of violence in films and what effects it might have. In another group, students would have to think of (and make notes about) ways of stopping the portrayal of violence in films. In another group, students would have to think up (and make notes about) reasons why the level of violence in films is quite justifiable and unworrying. When students have had a chance to think of ideas (with me going around the class offering help where necessary), I would ask for an opinion about violence from one of the groups. When a student has given it, I would encourage other students to ask questions about that opinion. I would then ask a different student to say what could be done about it, and that student, in turn, would be questioned. Finally, I would ask a student from the 'violence is not worrying' group to disagree with the violence in movies is a bad thing. This kind of activity enables students to make use of the language functions they have learned. When the ativity has run out of steam, I could work on any language arising out of the activity. There are many discussion possibilies. The important thing is that students need to be engaged with the topic. They then might do some study (if there is a necessity for language input, facts or figures, for example) and move quickly to active stages which include the discussion itself. Alomost certainly, however, there will be feedback after the discussion is over.

IV. Conclusion
Mastering the four language skills constitutes the backbone of second and foreign language learning. Any formal teaching of English should then include these skill areas. The achievement of communicative competence, however, requires, in particular, the skill of speaking more than any other one. So, efforts should be made to work toward a product-based kind of approach to teaching the four language skills. That is, an approach which aims at developing all the skills for the sake of the productive ones.