Teaching Receptive Skills: Reading and Listening

The teaching of reading and listening is one of the most problematic areas in TEFL.

As the processes involved in both take place internally, it is difficult for teachers to gain access to what our learners are actually doing when they read or listen, and therefore to help them to improve in these areas. In this article we will explore the processes involved in reading and listening and some of the best ways to teach them.
Processing language

Decoding is the process of converting language input (the visual sign in reading or the audio signal in listening) into meaning. Language processing therefore involves making links between the input and what the reader/listener already knows about the world (background knowledge) and about the language (linguistic knowledge). These knowledge systems, or schemata, are mental representations of information. They are not fixed, but constantly developing in response to new information. As the learner reads or listens, they actively match words, phrases and concepts to what they already know in order to comprehend and interpret what they read/hear.

This is why we often provide images or discussion questions before a reading or listening task; pre-reading/listening tasks activate the parts of the brain in which information relevant to the text is stored, and therefore facilitate successful processing. Such tasks are especially important when there are cultural differences that might cause processing issues. For example, to someone in the English-speaking world the topic of music festivals may activate images of Glastonbury, flooded tents and disgusting portaloos, whereas in many other countries a music festival may be a traditional, family-oriented event, so you will need to help learners understand these differences so they can achieve adequate comprehension of the text.

Differences between reading and listening

Although the processes involved in reading and listening are very similar, the contexts in which they happen are enormously different. This is mostly as a result of two basic restraints: temporal and permanence. For example, a learner can read at their own pace, and may read at different speeds depending on the task. On the other hand, listening happens in real-time, usually without the option to slow down at challenging parts or speed up for easier sections. Equally, a reader who is confused by a section of text can re-read it or look for clarification in earlier or later sections of the text, whereas the spoken word disappears into thin air as soon as it is uttered, and cannot be re-heard unless the context allows for the listener to ask the speaker to repeat what they had just said. These differences require the listener to remember, store in short-term memory, and analyse the previous section of speech while simultaneously listening to new sections.

The written sign and spoken signal are also very different. In written language, words are clearly separated by blank spaces, ideas into sentences, themes into paragraphs. The intonation used in speech acts as a form of punctuation, but there is often no clear division between word boundaries as they appear in connected speech, and words may sound different as a result of the sounds of other words in their immediate vicinity, adding to the challenges already faced by the listener.

Approaches to teaching receptive skills

Approaches to reading and listening instruction often hinge on an emphasis on either top-down or bottom-up processes. Top-down processing is the use of background knowledge to make sense of the text, while bottom-up processing is based on the input itself. These two approaches are essentially a pendulum that swings in and out of fashion every decade or so, but in reality there is no such thing as purely top-down or purely bottom-up processing. The human brain at all points makes use of both types of processing in order to reach the closest possible understanding. One thing that research has demonstrated is that what we as teachers do before asking learners to read or listen can have a massive impact on comprehension. Pre-teaching of grammar or vocabulary (bottom-up processing) is not particularly helpful, while the activation of appropriate schemata before reading or listening (top-down) is. 

Another approach that has increased in popularity since the mid-1970s is skills or strategy-based approaches. Skills can be viewed as unconscious abilities that need to be developed over time, while strategies are conscious techniques meant to compensate for and overcome difficulties. So a reading strategy might be to skim read for general comprehension or to identify where certain information might be in the text, and a listening strategy might be to listen for differences in pitch that mark a change in topic. This approach views the learner as having an active role in reading/listening, as opposed to earlier approaches which viewed reading and listening as passive activities that our students would eventually learn to do well, given enough time. A strategy-based approach insists that the teacher’s role is to guide learners to become more efficient readers and listeners.

Teaching versus testing in receptive skills

A final dichotomy in reading and listening instruction is that of teaching versus testing. Again, this is key to the development of receptive skills. The most common approach to receptive skills in the TEFL classroom is to ask students to read/listen and answer comprehension questions. The problem with comprehension questions is that they actually only test what learners have understood rather than teaching them how to improve their reading/listening skills. This does not mean that comprehension questions have no place in the classroom; the key is in how teachers respond to answers. If students have answered a question incorrectly, this gives us insight into a potential processing issue, and should be seen as an opportunity to explore why this has occurred. It may be the result of an unknown word, difficult syntax, variation in the speech signal as a result of connected speech, or any number of other reasons. If we are to teach rather than simply test receptive skills, we must guide learners towards the answer by zooming in on that section of the texts and encouraging learners to identify where they went wrong, why that was the case, and what they might do in the future to avoid making a similar mistake.

Teaching receptive skills will always be a challenge, as we cannot know what processes our learners employ. However, by questioning and asking learners to provide evidence for answers given, we can help them gain insight into their own abilities and weaknesses and encourage them to develop strategies to become more effective and efficient readers and listeners.