Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Developing Receptive Skills
There are many things different about receptive skills when compared with productive skills. I will talk about purpose and function in a moment and how that informs our learning objectives, but the first and most notable thing to say about receptive skills is that they are inherently invisible.
The productive skills are self-demonstrating, we hear someone speak or read his writing, and we know immediately how well he can speak or write. The same is not so with reading or listening, so it is essential that we find some way for the learners to demonstrate their ability during the lesson. Just asking your students to read something tells you very little if anything at all of how well they can do it.
As such, even though the receptive skills govern linguistic input either through listening to or reading material, any lesson focused on developing these skills must still conclude with some form of output so that the teacher can see the learners’ proficiency of the receptive skills. Nevertheless, as we shall see in the course of this post, the output in receptive skills lessons is not the same as the production seen in a productive skills lesson.
The other thing of note here is that, while this is a receptive skills lesson, meaning that the input is the central element of the process, it doesn’t come until much later in the lesson when compared with the productive skills lesson. For productive skills, the process begins with input, which is used to inspire the production later. For receptive skills, actually the principle is the same: before the focus skill is put to practise, some preparation is required.
In the productive skills lesson, we saw the learning process begin with input. In that case, the input was a medium for introducing new target language for the learners to use in their production later in the lesson. There was little focus on the reading or listening skills, even though they were used during the input stage. The main task for the learners was related to language analysis. Texts would not therefore be especially long or challenging; you do not want to spend too long on input because maximising time for production is key.
In a receptive skills lesson, however, the types of text is going to be quite different as is the approach to reading or listening to those texts. Here, texts will be longer, more complex and advanced, and the focus will be on meaning and much deeper reading. As such, it is important to give the learners a fair chance to prepare and get ready for the material.
The first step in this endeavour is establish context, which can begin fairly vague and then get increasingly focused on the topic of the reading or listening materials. You can initiate this process very casually, just through conversation. Try asking your students questions about their own experiences, ideas, plans, etc. related to the topic of the upcoming materials. At this point, you needn’t mention the text at all; keep it as personal as you can to the learners.
The purpose for doing this is simply to get the learners engaged with the topic. Raise their interest as much as possible so that they are primed and eager to continue finding out more about the topic. Personalisation is by far the most effective way of doing this. Get your students to talk about themselves, their preferences, their beliefs, etc. This works firstly because the students will be automatically interested if we focus on their interests and secondly because it ensures they will have something to say, rather than asking them to talk about something they’ve never considered before, which can very quickly kill any conversation.
If the materials you’re going to introduce later are about a new environmental innovation developed at a university in Europe, prepare the learners for the topic by asking them about environmental issues in their home country, what impact they personally have on the environment, if there are any environmental innovations that have come from their country, whether or not they agree that it is important to innovate in this area and so on. Personal, local, opinion and experience centric. This way, the conversation will flow freely and the students will be interested. When you later introduce materials that are perhaps not so local nor directly related to the students, they will be more interested in it because of how you have primed the topic through a personalised context.
Once the topic is established and contextualised, you can introduce the reading or listening material. This will be the first time you mention them, so if it is a reading lesson, for example, this is where you will say something like, “in a moment we’re going to look at an article about…”. The preparation stage above need not mention the article at all.
However, introducing the article still requires a further process; we do not simply hand it out and start reading immediately. It is this mistake that leads so many teachers to the false conclusion that their students do not like to read. Of course, it is true that not everybody likes to read, but in my experience, nine times out of ten, it is not that the students do not like reading but rather that they do not like reading what the teachers give them to read.
In this regard, our students are no different from us. What changes from our time in school to our lives after school is that we have the freedom as adults to read what we choose and simply ignore most things that don’t interest us. If you had somebody frequently telling you to read things that you were not interested in, they might just as well conclude that you don’t like to read either. In order to encourage our students to read more, we must give them things to read that they care about. This can be done in two ways: either we find out what the learners are interested in and select our materials accordingly or we introduce the materials in a creative, contextual and personalised way so that the learners are more likely to care about it.
You’ll notice that the above few paragraphs focused on reading, while receptive skills covers both reading and listening. You might think, “hang on, I’ve never heard of students who don’t like to listen—listening activities rarely provoke as much groaning as reading activities do—is this not proof that my students do not in fact like reading?” I would still answer, no. The simple fact is that reading requires much more concerted effort than listening. Not to mention that quite often, when you think your students are listening to the material you’re playing, they probably aren’t anyway.
If we want our students to engage in deep reading or to actively listen, then we need to give them a reason to do so other than, because the teacher said. That is why it is so important to introduce your materials properly. Once the topic and context are established, present your students with the material, but before you ask them to read or listen, spend some time discussing what they are about to see or hear. Effectively, direct the broader conversation from the previous step more specifically towards the material.
This can be much more direct than the casual, preparatory conversation from before. You can ask the learners to look at the pictures that accompany written articles, perhaps. You can ask them what looks interesting about the pictures. You can ask them to predict what things they expect to read about. You can ask them what they already know about the topic. You could also ask them where they might expect to find such a text—magazine, social media website, novel, etc.—and whether that’s the kind of thing they would normally choose to read.
As for listening materials, describe the setting to the learners before they hear the conversation or speech. Let them know whom they are about to hear from, the format of the audio—i.e. one person speaking, a conversation between two people, a group discussion, etc.—where the conversation takes place and what, in general, they are talking about. These are all clues they would be able to get from looking at an article and also from being present when such a conversation took place, so try to put them in that situation before they listen. Of course, using video provides a lot more cues than does audio.
Preliminary activities with audio materials will be basically the same as with reading materials; get the learners to make predictions about what they expect to hear and what cues led to those particular predictions. Also, have them think about the register, i.e. whether it is likely to be formal or informal, etc., and any particular language features they are expecting to hear.
All of the suggestions here in the introduction stage are about priming the learners for the language they’re about to encounter, which should make digesting the materials much more efficient and effective as well as making the whole process much less daunting for the learners. Again, it is important to remember that in life outside of the classroom, people are not consuming every piece of text that is presented to them; they only engage with the things they choose to. As much as possible, you want to make your students’ engagement with selected materials feel like their own choice, rather than something they feel forced into.
Once enough ground work has been done, it is time for the learners to get their hands, eyes and ears on the language materials. This portion of the lesson is for extended listening and reading. In fact, that is the main difference between the input stage in a receptive skills lesson and the input stage of a productive skills lesson as was described in the last post.
In a productive skills lesson, the focus is on language production, and the input stage is all about providing language models that can then be used as a basis for later production. As such, the input stage in a productive skills lesson usually focuses on a short text with particular, prominent linguistic features. However, in a receptive skills lesson, where the input is in fact the central focus, the materials will be quite different. The focus will be less on isolating linguistic features—though that can still play a role—and more on understanding the content of the text, which means that texts can be longer and more complex.
Here, you should give the learners a good amount of time to engage with the text on a deeper level than they would when just looking for linguistic features. The complexity of the text is likely to make the digestion of the materials more challenging, so if it is written text, they’ll probably be reading slowly and might well need to go over sections of the text more than once. If it is an audio recording, you should play the whole thing through more than once; depending on the structure of the recording, it might even be appropriate to play it in parts first, pausing at strategic moments to make sure everybody is following, before playing it through in full the second time around.
In the previous stages, we talked about what should be done before the reading or listening, and in this stage we’re talking about the input itself, or the during phase. Afterwards we’ll look at what to do after the input stage. This three-phase (before, during and after) approach to input materials is fairly well known and widely applied, however there are several schools of thought regarding the during phase in particular. Most simply, some believe that there should be specific tasks assigned to the students while they are reading/listening to ensure that the reading/listening is effective, and others believe that reading/listening should not be burdened with further distractions. To this question, I would say the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
I agree that, if our target here is for the learners to engage with the materials in a deep and meaningful way, then that will require a certain degree of focus, and giving them certain types of tasks to complete at the same time will only distract them from understanding the materials. However, there are some accompanying tasks that we can set that instead aim to assist our students in digesting and understanding the materials. These tasks, rather than distracting from their efforts to understand, provide methods and approaches for engaging with the materials effectively and meaningfully.
One example of a task that seems an obvious and is common as an accompanying task in many classrooms but that I would argue are in fact counterproductive is comprehension-type questions. These are questions that ask the reader to find specific information and details from within the text, such as “who did Jenny meet at the restaurant?” These are generally considered a good measure of how well the reader was able to digest the information in a text, whether they were reading or listening. However, I much prefer these for a post-input activity, and I will discuss the value of them in the next stage.
The reason I don’t like comprehension questions as an accompanying activity is primarily because they do exactly what we talked about above, which is to distract the reader from the task of reading. It might not seem so, as you might think that the questions give the learners a pointed reason for reading carefully, but in fact what they tend to encourage is for the learner to scan the text for the answers and ignore anything that is irrelevant to the questions. This is a very valuable skill to develop, and so sometimes we might have precisely this as our learning objective, but unless that is explicitly the case, then it is not what we want the students to be doing. I shall come back to this in another post.
Another reason that I don’t encourage the use of comprehension questions duringreading or listening is that the learner is more likely to cherry pick the information they are asked for and jot it down without really contextualising it. Asking a reader to tell you the answers they found to the questions asked then only tells you that they were able to identify the information but does not guarantee that they understood the meaning of the information and even less so the contexts and nuance of the text as a whole. This then cannot be called deep reading or listening.
Tasks that we can set during the input stage to facilitate deep reading or listening include things like note-taking tasks and organisation tasks. These are valuable for two reasons: a) they require that the learner digest the materials carefully and in depth in order to get all of the information needed, and b) they are valuable skills to develop for use in later life. Note-taking tasks are very straightforward; they could be as simple as just telling your students to make notes as they listen of anything that seems important or interesting. This is immediately more beneficial that comprehension questions because the inherent vagueness leaves it to the learner to decide what is important, meaning that they have to listen to and assess everything they hear or read.
Organisation tasks are perhaps a subset of note-taking tasks in that the learner still has to listen or read carefully and assess and select information as they go, but in this case, how they record that information is different. In a basic note-taking task, the learner might just end up with a list of information on their page, or maybe a mind-map or some other kind of non-discriminatory array, but with an organisation task, there is a predetermined structure that the learner must follow. This could be temporal, such as creating a timeline or sequence of events, or maybe categorical, such as putting information into groups based on type, or even ranking, such as by importance or perhaps relevance to a central theme.
These types of task encourage the learner to listen to or read everything carefully, to digest all of the information they encounter and then to make judgements about that information, all of which both requires that they understand it in the first place and furthermore enhances their understanding in the process. Encouraging our students to engage in these tasks while reading and listening sets them up with good practice that they can implement as lifelong learners. They will be especially helpful for learners who go on to university, attending lectures and reading endless textbooks, or into may professions that require an analytical approach to data and materials.
This stage is where the after reading or after listening phase goes. Here we want to do something that both assesses how well the learners understood the material from the input stage and strengthens their learning at the same time. One fairly straightforward way of doing this is with comprehension questions. As previously mentioned, these comprehension questions should not be given until after the learners have finished thoroughly digesting the materials at least once through. If we wait until afterwards and then ask the comprehension questions, we can assess how well our students we able to take in a large volume of information from the materials.
If the students read or listened to the text effectively and were able to digest it successfully, then the answers to most basic comprehension questions should be stored within the learners’ working memory, and they should be able to retrieve the information and answer without having go back to the materials. For questions that are more nuanced or deal with more complicated texts or just ask for very precise and detailed information, the learner might need to go back and reread or replay a section of the materials, but this should not take to long, and they should be able to identify almost instantly which part of the text the information is found in, even if they don’t remember the specific details.
For lower level learners, the same concept can be applied and the same benefits achieved with multiple choice or even true/false questions, though we should always be somewhat cautious with these types of questions for reasons that I have already discussed elsewhere.
Another task that can be used after the input phase is a summary task. This is where we simply ask the learners to recount, either as a spoken report or in written form, what happened in the text they heard or read. At this stage of the lesson, we’re just looking for a plain-facts summary, i.e. what happened according to the text. Ideally, the learners will be able to explain what happened in an accurate order with regards to sequence, identify basic cause-and-effect elements and describe concrete relationships between objects. We do not need them to include any personal assessments, feelings or conclusions about morality or other deeper meaning at this point.
To conduct a summary task, you might start by merely asking the learners “what happened” or “what was it about” and then prompt if necessary with simple follow-up questions, using “what”, “when”, “where”, “who”, “why” and “how”. Once the concrete elements have been well outlined, you can use your prompts to extract more abstract or personal elements, such as how the readers felt about what they read or heard; whether they thought things were good or bad; whether they liked or didn’t like the people or principles they learned about and so on.
In a productive skills lesson, this would not be important, though you could incorporate it if it felt relevant, of course. in a receptive skills lesson, on the other hand, this is practically the whole point. You want to develop your students’ ability to deeply understand things that they read or listen to and to engage and interact personally with the concepts and information that they find. Learners should be encouraged to form opinions based on what they read and hear, but they should also be taught the principles of informed and valid opinions regarding responses to content, as opposed to uninformed and unfounded opinions.
Another thing that you might be analysing at this stage instead of or as well as (I would certainly suggest an either/or approach rather than trying to do two things in one lesson) the meaning of the content is the structure and organisation of the materials.This focus would be with a view to learning how to approach particular types of text, and might be used with regard to things like contracts, proposals, lectures, speeches, fictional literature (novels, poetry) as well as others. This assumes that each of these types of material has a typical structure, organisation or style that differentiates it from other types of material and that it shares in common with other texts of its type.
An example of this is the generic narrative structure: introduction, complication, development, climax, resolution, denouement. While every story is unique and will have its on features and peculiarities, broadly speaking, all traditional stories follow a sequence that looks something like this, and knowing that can help the audience better follow the story. Thus, if we develop our readers understanding of this structure with one example, then as well as understanding the story they read today, they should also get better at reading all texts of that type in the future.
This can be practiced and developed by asking students to break a text down into parts that correspond to the structure you are describing and then identifying the typical features found in each part that can be reasonably generalised across the genre.
Finally, you might also want to analyse the language from a structural or lexical perspective, e.g. learning some new grammar or vocabulary. This will be done in much the same way as it was in the productive skills lesson: by having the students identify selected features (sentence types, word sets, etc.) and then having them work out meaning and understanding from the context with guidance and prompting from the teacher where necessary. Comprehension questions can help support this analysis too, as they can be directed to specific areas of ambiguity based on understanding or not understanding the language. For example, questions about when something happened can demonstrate whether or not the learner is recognising and understanding the use of tenses.
This final stage builds upon the previous stage, taking the analysis and forming a conclusion or other response. The analysis stage can be seen, on the one hand, as planning for this stage. The summary, any answers to comprehensions and prompt questions, notes taken while reading or listening, and the outcome of any group discussions can all be brought together here to compile a complete response to the input materials.
The purpose here is two-fold. First of all, we want to ensure without any doubt that the learners have fully understood the input materials; after all, this is a receptive skills lesson. The main thing we want to develop here is their reading or listening ability, and since those are receptive skills, and thus non-demonstrative, there must be some kind of output to demonstrate the understanding. Secondly, we want to prepare the students for the kinds of response they are likely to have to make in the real world when they encounter reading and listening materials. In life, if we read or listen to something, our relationship to the material rarely stops there… We must have read or listened to them for a reason, and usually we will go on to do something about it in one way or another.
It is important to reiterate here that the most important thing in this lesson is for the learner to have successfully digested the written text or audio recording. As such, the response can even be something none linguistic, such as performing an action in response to receiving instructions. If I present my students with a recipe and cooking method in the input stage, then perhaps the most effective demonstration of understanding would be to respond to the materials by making the dish in question. If it comes out right, then we know the learner understood the text.
Again, think about what you’d be most likely to do in real life after encountering a piece of text. What kind of purpose would you have for reading or listen to the text in the first place, and what kinds of response would be required to fulfil that purpose? Would your response be written, spoken or non-linguistic? Would you respond by yourself or would your response be more collaborative, working with others to produce something big? Whatever would be an appropriate response in real life, that’s what you should aim for in the classroom, because that’s what your students need to be able to do.
Obviously, that means that the possibilities are nigh on endless. However, here are some basic examples to give you an idea:
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