Topic 3 – Development of language skills: listening, speaking, listening and writing. Communicative competence in English.

Topic 3 – Development of language skills: listening, speaking, listening and writing. Communicative competence in English.

Everybody who can use a language well has a number of skills. Generally speaking there are 4 main linguistic skills: oral production and comprehension, relating to the oral medium, and written production and comprehension relating to the visual medium. Speech and Writing involve production on the part of the language user, which is why they are called productive skills. Listening and Reading are receptive skills. Frequently, a person uses a combination of abilities. For example, a participant in a conversation is involved in oral production and comprehension.

When we think of language skills, the four skills LISTENING, SPEAKING, READING AND WRITING readily

come to mind. Of course other skills such as pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary or spelling all play a role in

effective communication. The amount of attention we give to each skill area will depend both, on the level of our learners, and their situational needs. Generally beginners –especially those who are not literate– benefit most from listening and speaking with relatively little work on reading and writing. As fluency increases, the amount of reading and writing in our lessons may also increase.

The four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) can be classified in three main ways:

(1) according to the medium, they are oral or written,

(2) according to the role of the language user, we speak of the encoder, the one who speaks or writes, and the decoder the one who listens or reads.

(3) they are also classified as receptive: listening and reading, and productive: speaking and writing.

Very often we use these skills in combination. For example, a participant in a conversation is involved

in oral production and comprehension. It is also important to integrate these skills in our lessons.

We have to mention the natural order in which children learn their mother tongue or L1, as this natural order needs to be taken into account when teaching a second language or L2: Babies or very young infants listen to the sounds they hear without understanding, then little by little they can understand words. As they grow up, they start to speak by imitation. The way in which they learn the written language is not so natural. In order to learn to read and write some form of formal instruction is needed.

Once we have made this brief introduction to the topic, we are going to focus on the next step: the oral skills, and we will start with LISTENING.

We can define the listening skill as the development of pupils’ ability to understand and respond to spoken language. Listening to English is hard work and learners usually find it the most difficult. Our students concentrate more if the listening activity is purposeful, interesting and useful.

For this reason, we must consider pupils’ psychological characteristics, help them to build up their confidence, tell them that it is OK not to understand every single word, use visual materials and help them develop strategies for listening. According to Harmer, the most important of these strategies may be divided into two main categories: strategies for general understanding and strategies for specific understanding.

As regards the first type, they refer to the overall structure or the whole information. They can focus on predicting meaning or getting the general picture.

Specific understanding strategies involve a detailed comprehension on the text. They include: inferring the speaker’s opinion and attitude through stress, intonation, accent or body language; deducing meaning from context (the listener’s own experience and knowledge about the world permits to understand unfamiliar words); and, finally, recognizing discourse patterns and markers, such as but, and, or, first, among others.

Listening has to play a central role in language teaching.

When we are planning a class, we need to decide whether we are going to carry out the activities planned in the usual classroom or in the language lab –if there is one. We will also have to consider the time available and the level of the group.

Underwood states that there are several steps the teacher has to follow. They are the following:

– Choosing an oral text and adapting it if it is necessary, for example by shortening its length

– Checking that the activities planned are suitable.

– Adjusting the level of difficulty of the activities.

– Considering whether the listening work we are planning will fill the time available.

– Thinking about using visual aids.

– Deciding whether any special equipment will be needed.

– Deciding what procedure we will adopt for the listening session: number of stops, replays, type of grouping, etc.

– Practise reading the text if the teacher is going to read it aloud.

Once we have mentioned the steps needed to prepare the listening session, we will continue with the typology of the listening activities. There are three types: pre-, while-, and post-listening,

Pre-listening activities should create, in learners, expectations and interest in what they are going to listen to. Some of this type of activities may be: looking at pictures and talking about them; making lists of ideas; predicting, speculating; and reviewing grammar structures.

While-listening activities are usually of general understanding for the first listening. They may include: marking or checking items in pictures, true or false responses, gap filling, predicting, putting pictures in order, following a route in order to instructions, spotting mistakes and so on.

Finally, post-listening activities have as aim the reflection on the language, mainly on relevant points about grammar and vocabulary. Examples of these activities are: chart completion, summarising, identifying relationship between speakers, role play or simulations.

Our students need a lot of listening practice in order to get used to English sounds, as well as English stress, rythm and intonation. The texts should be relatively short, and they should listen several times. As pupils progress in their listening skill, we can use longer texts. Listening to songs is also very useful, as pupils find songs very motivating.

Our next skill is SPEAKING, or the development of pupils’ ability to communicate in speech. Children have to feel sure, in a comfortable environment, without being afraid of making mistakes. In this way they will decide to speak in English. At first, their speaking will be a simple repetition or imitation, in choral activities or individual ones. Then, step by step, they will be able to speak more and more.

In the earlier stages, students learn vocabulary for basic concepts, conversational routines, polite formulas (such as simple greetings), classroom language, etc., and by hearing this language over and over again, our pupils will be able to make utterances in English. It is important to bear in mind that the more input they receive the more output they can produce.

As we have said for the listening skill, we have to prepare carefully our speaking lesson. An oral lesson to teach new items is often divided into three stages: presentation, practice and production, usually preceded by a warming-up, that can go from the simply writing the date on the blackboard, to a game as an ice-breaker or a song as a preparation for the English class. We will develop each of those three stages.

The aim of the presentation stage is to present the meaning and form of the new language. Our main role in this stage is as an informant. We can carry out this stage in different ways: showing pictures or flashcards to introduce the new vocabulary, singing a song in which a structure appears again and again, or with other similar activities.

The second stage is practice, which can be done in group or in pairs. When pupils practice speaking, they should do it , as far as possible, without referring to a written text. Guided oral practice is useful. We must make sure that they have something to say, and that what they are saying is meaningful to them, and not just mechanical oral practice. Oral practice should be as extensive as possible, that is: the more, the better.

As regards the production stage, our pupils will use the language in freer, more creative ways and check how much they have learned. We should not interfere too much, so it is important they have clear instructions for purposeful tasks. At this stage they can do different activities, such as games, role plays, discussions, etc. The aim in this step is to fully develop our pupils’ ability to speak in English.

In any case, we must take into account that the level of language input must be higher than the level of language production expected of the pupils. For this reason we have many speaking activities used in the first levels that enable pupils to participate with a minimal verbal response, for instance songs, chants and poems. However in the last levels, pupils are encouraged to begin to manipulate language and express themselves in a much more personal way. In this case we can use games or pair work activities.

Now we will focus on the written language and we will start with the READING skill.

As adults, we can read for many purposes: for action (public signs, recipes or maps), for information (newspapers, textbooks or travel literature) and for entertainment (comics, poetry, novels and so on), but everything our pupils read must be related to their needs and interests. Reading in English in the early stages will usually remain at the word level, but little by little we must present our pupils with longer texts based on words they know orally.

As teachers, we have to bear in mind some aspects when we elaborate our reading plan. First of all, when choosing texts we will consider not only their difficulty level, but also their interest for children. Secondly, it is important to spend time preparing for the task (the same as in listening), by using illustrations or pupils’ own knowledge about the subject matter, making sure that they can understand the essential vocabulary they need to complete the task and so on. While the children are reading the text, the teacher can move around the class providing support if they need it. Finally, if we ask students to read a text aloud, we should make sure they are not going too feel inhibited by doing so.

Reading strategies are very similar to listening strategies, as reading and listening are both receptive skills.

We can divide reading strategies into (1) those which develop the general understanding and (2) those that develop specific understanding.

As regards reading activities, we can distinguish pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading activities. Pre-reading activities must generate the interest to read the text that we have chosen for them. While-reading activities constitute the reading itself, where some skills are to be used, for example inferring meaning from context. Finally, post-reading activities have the aim of relating the information with the wider context of students’ knowledge. Post-reading activities, are not based on receptive but productive skills. The most common activities used for developing the reading skill are the following: playing games, arranging jumbled sentences or paragraphs, matching pictures to speech bubbles, skimming for gist (for example, suggesting a title), scanning for specific information (for example, underlying parts of the text).

We will now focus on WRITING: Writing is relatively difficult for our students. We have to bear in mind that English spelling is not consistent or predictable. We must also think about their age: in Infant Education children do not write anything or, in the best of cases, they copy some words. In the first cycle of Primary Education pupils can write a bit more, but not very much. It is in the second and third cycles that they are able to write more, in both quantity and quality.

Our students need to learn: use of capital letters (for days of the week, months or nationalities), use of question and exclamation marks which are only used at the end of a sentence in English, among other important things.

A summary of writing skills was given by Matthews. He includes graphic skills, such as writing graphemes, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and format; grammatical skills, stylistic skills, rhetorical skills and organisational skills. But of course, not all these skills apply to English at Primary School level.

As regards writing activities for our students of Primary School level, they depend mainly on the age and level of our learners. We can mention activities at word-level, such as making lists, completing crosswords, making personal dictionaries or matching label to pictures; at sentence-level we can point out writing speech bubbles for cartoons, answering questions, matching halves of sentences and copying them or correcting mistakes in written sentences. Finally, they can write letters, invitations, cards and similar things. In any case, the writing activities should be based on a parallel text that students can use as a guide.

After we have developed the four language skills, we have to say that they should be used in an integrated way. The main reason for integrating these skills was given by Carol Read, and it consists in PRACTISING AND EXTENDING the pupils’ use of language items within what she calls “a constant context”. Many combinations are possible, although listening will normally precede speaking, and reading writing (first input, then output), and writing is usually final in the sequence. One possible way to integrate different skills is through the activity “Penfriends” which is adequate for 5th and 6th year students, and which I will describe briefly: (1) We choose some authentic letters -written by children- from a Penfriend internet website, and give them to the students to read (READING). (2) In groups of in pairs, students discuss and decide what they are going to write in their answer to the letter (SPEAKING). (3) They write a letter and send it by email to their penfriend (WRITING).

Finally, we will deal with communicative competence. Through the influence of communicative language teaching, it has become widely accepted that communicative competence should be the goal of language education. This is in contrast to previous views in which grammatical competence was commonly given top priority.

Communicative competence is therefore a linguistic term which refers to a student’s L2 ability. It not only refers to a student’s ability to apply and use grammatical rules, but also to form correct utterances, and know how to use these utterances appropriately. The term was coined by Dell Hymes in 1966, reacting against the inadequacy of Noam Chomsky‘s distinction between competence and performance. Competence is what a speaker of a language knows implicitly, and performance is how he actually speaks the language.

The American linguist NOAM CHOMSKY defined language as a set of sentences each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements. He said that all speakers have a subconscious knowledge of the grammatical rules which makes it possible for them to construct sentences. This subconscious knowledge is what, in 1965, Chomsky called LINGUISTIC COMPETENCE.

However, DELL HYMES thought that Chomsky had forgotten some very important information about the rules of use, because when a native speaks, he doesn’t only utter grammatically correct sentences. A speaker also knows WHERE, WHEN, and to WHOM to use these. He said that linguistic competence by itself is not enough to explain a speaker’s knowledge, and, he introduced the concept of COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE.

Hymes distinguished FOUR ASPECTS of his CC: systematic potential, appropiacy, occurrence and feasibility

SYSTEMATIC POTENTIAL means that the native speaker possesses a system that has a potential for creating a lot of language. This is similar to Chomsky ‘s linguistic competence. APPROPIACY means the native speaker knows what language is appropriate in a given situation. His choice is based on the following variables: SETTING, PARTICIPANT, PURPOSE, CHANNEL and TOPIC OCURRENCE is the short form for “frequency of occurrence” and means that the native speaker knows how often something is said in a language and acts accordingly. FEASIBILITY means the native speaker knows whether something is possible in a language or not.

Other authors have established other components of Communicative Competence. The best known model of Communicative Competence is Canale and Swains model (1980) which has been adopted by the Spanish national syllabus for foreign languages. This model consists of five subcompetences:


GRAMMAR C.: the ability to put into practice the linguistic units according to the rules of use established in the linguistic system

DISCOURSE C: the ability to use different types of discourse and organize them according to the communicative situation and the speakers involved in it.

SOCIOLINGUISTIC C: the ability to adequate the utterances to the specific context, in according with the accepted usage of the determined linguistic community.

STRATEGIC C: the ability to define, correct or in general, make adjustments, in the communicative situation.

SOCIOCULTURAL C: which has to be understood as a certain awareness of the social and cultural context in which the foreign language is used.

As a conclusion, I would like to say that helping students develop the four basic linguistic skills and improving their communicative competence in English is our basic aim. Nevertheless, at Primary School level these four skills do not have equal weight: some are more important than others. Speaking and listening are much more relevant, especially in the first and second cycle of Primary Education. Apart from developing the four skills, the English class should be fun for our students because if they like English class they will feel motivated to learn and continue learning.


# WIDDOWSON, H., “Teaching Language as Communication”. Oxford, OUP, 1988

# RICHARDS, J.C. Y R. SCHMIDT Language and Communication, Londres, Longman. 1983.

# CANALE, M. Y M. SWAIN Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing, Applied Linguistics, 1980

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Listening is the language skill which learners usually find the most difficult. This often is because they feel under unnecessary pressure to understand every word. To achieve the aims related to this skill, the teacher plays an important role that is defined in the following steps.

  1. It is important to help pupils prepare for the listening task well before they hear the text itself. First of all the teacher must ensure that the pupils understand the language they need to complete the task and are fully aware of exactly what is expected of them. Reassure the pupils that they do not need to understand every word they hear.
  2. The next important step is to encourage pupils to anticipate what they are going to hear. In everyday life, the situation, the speaker, and visual clues all help us to decode oral messages. A way to make things a bit easier to the pupils is to present the listening activity within the context of the topic of a teaching unit. This in itself will help pupils to predict what the answers might be. The teacher can help them further by asking questions and using the illustrations to encourage pupils to guess the answers even before they hear the text.
  3. During the listening the pupils should be able to concentrate on understanding the message so make sure they are not trying to read, draw, and write at the same time. Always give a second chance to listen to the text to provide a new opportunity to those who were not able to do the task.
  4. Finally, when pupils have completed the activity, invite answers from the whole class. Try not to put individual pupils under undue pressure. Rather than confirming whether an answer is correct or not, play the cassette again and allow pupils to listen again for confirmation. You may be given a variety of answers, in which case list them all on the board and play the text again, so that the class can listen and choose the correct one. Even if the pupils all appear to have completed the task successfully, always encourage them to listen to the text once more and check their answers for themselves.


First of all, we must take into account that the level of language input (listening) must be higher than the level of language production expected of the pupils. So we have many speaking activities used in the first levels that enable pupils to participate with a minimal verbal response. However in the last levels, pupils are encouraged to begin to manipulate language and express themselves in a much more personal way.

In primary schools two main types of speaking activities are used. The first type, songs, chants, and poems, encourages pupils to mimic the model they hear on the cassette. This helps pupils to master the sounds, rhythms, and intonation of the English language through simple reproduction. The games and pair work activities on the other hand, although always based on a given model, encourage the pupils to begin to manipulate the language by presenting them with a certain amount of choice, albeit within a fairly controlled situation.

In order for any speaking activity to be successful children need to acknowledge that there is a real reason for asking a question or giving a piece of information. Therefore, make sure the activities you present to the pupils, provide a reason for speaking, whether this is to play a game or to find out real information about friends in the class.

Once the activity begins, make sure that the children are speaking as much English as possible without interfering to correct the mistakes that they will probably make. Try to treat errors casually by praising the utterance and simply repeating it correctly without necessarily highlighting the errors. And finally, always offer praise for effort regardless of the accuracy of the English produced.


In order to make reading an interesting challenge as opposed to a tedious chore, it is important that pupils do not labour over every word, whether they are skimming the text for general meaning or scanning it to pick out specific information. Other things to keep in mind are:

  1. When choosing texts consider not only their difficulty level, but also their interest or their humour so that children will want to read for the same reasons they read in their own language: to be entertained or to find out something they do not already know.
  2. As with listening activities, it is important to spend time preparing for the task by using the illustrations (a usual feature in reading activities for children), pupils’ own knowledge about the subject matter, and key vocabulary to help the pupils to predict the general content of the text. Discuss the subject and ask questions to elicit language and to stimulate the pupils’ interest in the text before they begin reading. Also make sure that the pupils understand the essential vocabulary they need to complete the task before they begin to read.
  3. While the children are reading the text, move around the class providing support if pupils need it. Where possible, encourage pupils to work out the meaning of vocabulary as they come across it, using the context and the supporting illustrations.
  4. Do not encourage pupils to read texts aloud unless this is to learn a play or recite a poem. Reading aloud inhibits most pupils and forces them to concentrate on what they are saying as opposed to what they are reading and the meaning is very often lost.


In primary schools, EFL pupils progress from writing isolated words and phrases, to short paragraphs about themselves or about very familiar topics (family, home, hobbies, friends, food, etc.)

Since many pupils at this level are not yet capable either linguistically or intellectually of creating a piece of written text from scratch, it is important that time is spent building up the language they will need and providing a model on which they can then base their own efforts. The writing activities should therefore be based on a parallel text and guide the pupils, using simple cues. These writing activities generally appear towards the end of a unit so that pupils have had plenty of exposure to the language and practice of the main structures and vocabulary they need.

At this stage, the pupils’ work will invariably contain mistakes. Again, the teacher should try to be sensitive in his/her correction and not necessarily insist on every error being highlighted. A piece of written work covered in red pen is demoralizing and generally counter-productive. Where possible, encourage pupils to correct their own mistakes as they work. If there is time, encourage pupils to decorate their written work and where feasible display their efforts in the classroom.


Listening is an active, not a passive, operation because the listener is engaged in actively searching for meaning.

It is important to bear in mind what Krashen calls ‘comprehensible input’ or that ‘we acquire when we understand what people tell us or what we read, when we are absorbed in the message.’ Individual progress is dependent on the input containing aspects of the target language that ‘the acquirer has not yet acquired, but is developmentally ready to acquire.’ This implies that the language level taught should be matched to the learners level, which means that teachers must understand their learner’s abilities.

Krashen also believes that acquisition works best when ‘the acquirer’s level of anxiety is low and self-confidence is high.’ This reinforces the importance of making the learning environment in our classrooms relaxing, fun, non-threatening, etc.

On he other other hand, it is extremely important to develop listening skills. ‘If someone is giving you a message or opinion, then of course you have to be able to understand it in order to respond.’ (Brewster, Ellis, Girard).

  • Listening skills need to have a ‘real-life’ meaning, Donaldson says that children need ‘purposes and intentions’ which they can recognise and respond to in others ‘these human intentions are the matrix in which the child’s thinking is embedded.’
  • This implies that we need to carefully select materials and purposes for practising listening skills and that they need to have an authentic meaning to young learners.

Theories I consider when I develop listening skills
Keeping in mind that listening is an active process, Brewster, Ellis and Girard believe that asking children to ‘listen and remember’ can make them ‘anxious, places a great strain on their memory and tends not to develop listening skills.’

The teacher would support children’s understanding more effectively, if they direct their pupils’ attention to specific points that have to be listened for ‘using activities that actively support learners’ understanding and guide their attention to specific parts of the spoken text.’

Wells says a lot of children’s learning ‘is dependent on making connections between that they know and what they are able to understand in the speech they hear’ but they don’t learn only listening, motivation for learning language is to be able to communicate ‘using all the resources they have already acquired to interact with other people about their needs and interests.’ This seems to be in line with social constructivist theories.

  1. Piaget believed that a young learner ‘constructs’ or builds understanding over time.
  2. Vygotsky believed that learning was ahead of development and for development to occur, interaction with adults or peers who are more knowledgeable is needed. This has been termed the ‘zone of proximal development’.
  3. Bruner extended Vygotsky’s ZPD theory by defining the role of the more knowledgeable ‘other’ as someone who is actively involved in the learning processes by closing the gap between what has been partially and fully understood. This has been termed ‘scaffolding’.

Some considerations for classroom listening
These are some of the things I consider when I try to develop my students’ listening.
(Brewster, Ellis & Girard)

  • Give the children confidence. We should not expect them to always understand every word and they should know this.
  • Explain why the children have to listen. Make sure the learners are clear about why they are listening, what the main point or purpose of the activity is.
  • Help children develop specific strategies for listening. An important strategy that the teacher should teach is ‘intelligent guesswork’. Pupils are used to drawing on their background knowledge to work out something they are not sure of.
  • Set specific listening tasks. I try to think of listening in three stages, pre-listening, while-listening, post listening and have activities for each stage.
  • Listening does not have to rely on the availability of a cassette or pre-recorded material. Most listening is teacher talk.

What I do to be more comprehensible
There are a number of ways that I try to make myself easier to understand.

  • Keep sentences short and grammatically simple
  • Use exaggerated intonation to hold the child’s attention
  • Emphasise key words
  • Limiting the topics talked about to what is familiar to the child
  • Frequently repeating and paraphrasing

Listening is an active process, as the mind actively engages in making meaning. It is therefore our duty as teachers to ensure that the materials we use are comprehensible to our young learners, as well as within the range of what they are developmentally ready for. Listening is also hard work! And can be stressful! So in order to maximise the potential for acquisition of language, we need to ensure that our young learners are not stressed about this process.