Why do some English learners struggle with reading and listening? How can we support them in navigating these receptive language skills? Let's take a closer look at these two basic language skills.

Having strong receptive skills provides a solid base for achieving success in the productive skills. Verbal fluency and writing ability are more tangible for learners and teachers alike. On the other hand, both reading and listening involve a great deal of internal mental processing on the part of the student, which can create obstacles when it comes to teaching and assessment.

Due to their inherent nature, listening and reading pose distinct challenges.

Verbal language can be difficult to grasp because it disappears immediately after it is spoken, while written language remains on the page to be read at one's own pace and reread if necessary. On the other hand, the gestures of the speaker as well as the tone and intonation of the voice provide the listener additional information about the speaker's message and opinion.

Listening involves understanding the meaningful sounds that comprise spoken language. It is the first skill that's developed by an L1 learner as an infant. Long before speaking his or her first word, a baby has been surrounded by language in the context of daily life.

Having such a context is an advantage over the typical classroom environment. As teachers, providing lessons that use props and regalia and are taught using a contextual format is a way to bridge this gap for students.

In terms of assessment, keep in mind the significant amount of time an L1 learner takes to produce accurate language, and do not expect to gauge comprehension on what a new L2 or L3 student can express verbally. Written true-false questions, multiple-choice questions, or ticking the word or sentence heard assessment options that address this issue.

Young learners who lack basic reading skills can demonstrate their understanding in similar exercises with images instead of words. Older students who are tentative about the language also relax when they aren't expected to read in order to complete listening comprehension tasks.

When secondary and high school students were asked about these two language skills, the general consensus was that they found reading more difficult when they began learning English. Some cited the difference in how the letters are pronounced in English as compared to their L1, while others found that not having sufficient vocabulary kept them from deducing the meaning of what they had read.

When learners are strong readers in their L1, they can easily transfer this skill to reading in English. However, if they find it challenging or their language level isn't high, they will need assistance in transferring these skills. A good starting point for teachers is determining the specific weak area or subskill, then helping students build that up.

Some students may be getting stuck at the decoding or word level and need to expand their vocabulary, while others know many isolated words but lack understanding of sentence structure and the grammatical links between sentences. On the discourse level, reading subskills include reading for gist or skimming, reading for detail, reading for specific information or scanning and deducing meaning from context.

In reading — and in most cases listening to — a given text, there are three recommended stages: pre-, during- and after-reading. Key activities at the "pre-" stage are preteaching unfamiliar vocabulary and identifying the purpose for reading the text.

On the British Council site, Teaching English, Shahin Vaezi Ph.D., explains how an interactive approach might look like in the prereading stage.

"The teacher leads a discussion to draw out students' prior knowledge of the theme and interjects additional information considered necessary to an understanding of the text to be read," Vaezi said. "Moreover, the teacher can explicitly link prior knowledge to important information in the text."

Vaezi cited several during-reading tips, including:

  • teaching readers to be on the watch to predict what is going to happen next in the text to be able to integrate and combine what has been read with what is to come
  • instructing them to make use of context to guess the meaning of unknown words in a text
  • encouraging them to pause at certain points while reading a text to absorb, sort out and internalize the material being read

Post-reading activities not only serve to check comprehension and correct areas of miscomprehension, but they also provide a prime opportunity to engage students' critical thinking skills and led to deeper analysis of the text and its significance on a larger scope.

"In the real world, the purpose of reading is not to memorize an author's point of view or to summarize text content, but rather to see into another mind, or to mesh new information into what one already knows," Vaezi said.

Perhaps this sounds pretty lofty to the first-grade teacher who's trying to convey the difference between long and short vowels. But in the long run, isn't language learning all about expanding an individual's horizons — step by step?

Check out Part II of this article, which focuses on the productive skills — speaking and writing.