Focus on the 4 basic language skills: Productive
Wednesday, November 02, 2016
Considering all four basic language skills, the majority of students and teachers I surveyed claimed the productive skills — especially speaking — were more difficult than the receptive skills when beginning to learn English.
These receptive skills, reading and listening, were highlighted in Part I of this article. Now, let's take a look at speaking and writing, the two productive language skills.
One reason for this distinction may be that producing language makes learners visible and vulnerable. Many of my secondary students related embarrassing incidents when their spoken English was laughed at by cousins or friends who were native English speakers.
This scenario is often repeated in the classroom with L1 English-speaking students or L2s with a higher degree of fluency. While written work is usually visible only to the teacher and later to the parents, speaking can be heard by everyone.
Elisa Alcocer, a seasoned ESL teacher, wholeheartedly agrees that speaking poses the most challenge to her grade one students. What she has found most successful in building up their confidence is giving simple set language patterns to imitate. Such controlled practice reduces the students' emotional risk and allows them to focus on accuracy in pronunciation, intonation and word stress.
In order to move beyond rote repetition and toward fluency, she often bases her lessons on projects or the simple books students are reading or being read. Using these stories to provide a context, students begin to express their personal opinions and preferences within the structured framework they are given.
When the focus is fluency, it is advisable not to correct the speakers in the moment and allow them to concentrate on expressing themselves and conveying their message.
My students have criticized me for not jumping in to correct a peer's speaking errors. Yet I believe in getting students to verbalize themselves in unstructured activities as soon as possible, long before they have perfected the many subskills and nuances of the language.
Their willingness to participate depends on them having the courage to speak, which rests largely on feeling unthreatened emotionally. Therefore, when I provide feedback it is on an individual basis after the exercise is completed, and seldom do I let students correct their classmates.
In its tips for teaching ESL students, The Writing Center at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, makes related recommendations for professors: "Provide a word here and there when you can see the student is groping for a particular expression. If the response is slightly off, try to do something positive with it. You might rephrase the response if it's just a bit ungrammatical, ask clarifying questions or elaborate on their response. In any case, your positive reaction is positive reinforcement of their participation."
Due to the rapid nature of speaking, people don't necessarily plan what they are going to say nor do they use the language completely accurately. Writing, on the other hand, allows time for thoughtful planning and to examine grammatical accuracy.
Yet for this extra time to be seen as an advantage, students need to be familiar with grammar use and know how to plan.
Like in speaking, we distinguish between accuracy and communication-oriented writing subskills. Accuracy skills are usually the focus at the preschool and lower primary level, as well as for language learners whose first language doesn't use the Roman alphabet.
Emphasis is first placed on getting the words down on paper, namely teaching letter and word formation, then simple sentence structure, punctuation and the necessary grammar to achieve that. Numerous options exist to help learners reinforce accurate writing such as copying, sentence completion, gap-filling, putting punctuation into an unpunctuated text and proofreading to find errors in a text.
Yet to get children enthusiastic about writing, they need to feel free to express ideas they are excited about. Being constantly corrected on spelling and grammar can demotivate them. As I mentioned in reference to speaking, waiting for a student to have a high-level of accuracy before being able to write freely and creatively impedes the fostering of a love for learning in that child.
In the school where Alcocer teaches, the Big Writing program developed by Ros Wilson is used in primary and secondary. A key tenant of the program, which aims to bring up writing standards while creating an enjoyable experience for students, is to always give more positive than negative feedback (or targets). Alcocer has gained a reputation among students for the special way she incorporates it.
A student who typically measures her success by her grades doesn't even mention how she did gradewise on the assignment. Instead she reminisces about the feeling she had: "When Miss Elisa does Big Writing, it feels like we are in a spa. There are flowers, music, candles and relaxing lotion for your hands!"
Another younger student, often negative about school and insecure about her academic abilities, shared how excellent her school day was. She did art then had to write a report, but it was really easy because all the words were on the board. Then, she added proudly that she had used one of the most advanced words in her report.
Reflecting on what we as teachers want to instill in our students long term should guide us as we plan our language skills lessons. Inspiring pride and joy in the process is a reachable aim.
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