Sunday, February 23, 2014

Speaking and Listening - The Cinderella Skills

“Every normal person in the world, past infancy in years, can and does talk.”
- Whorf 

In his 1940 publication Science and Linguistics, Benajmin Lee Whorf (joint author of the infamous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) points out that speaking is a skill that we all naturally acquire. We’re not concerned here with the conclusions that he goes on to draw from that remark, but it’s worth reflecting on the significance of the fact that speech is a skill that we all acquire in the course of natural development, just as we acquire teeth or the ability to walk.

In our methodology textbooks, all four of the language skills - reading, writing, listening and speaking - are given roughly equal weight. But in the coursebooks we use in the classroom, there generally seems to be a lot more reading and writing, and a lot less speaking and listening. A coursebook designed for around 120 classroom hours over the course of a year may well only have a couple of hours’ worth of listening material on the accompanying CD, while speaking activities are generally regarded as an optional extra at the end of the lesson and are often omitted, particularly in schools with large classes. Of course, the relative emphasis given to each of the four skills varies depending on the style of the book and the level for which it’s intended.

More significant differences are often noticeable in the respective weight given to the language skills on the one hand and the language systems – pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar – on the other hand. Exam preparation tasks often dictate a balance that is heavily weighted towards learning about grammar, ignoring the fact that this explicit knowledge about the language does little or nothing for our learners’ ability to actually use the language in communication. Perhaps also because of exam requirements, there is often a strong emphasis also on writing, including many types of texts which our learners will probably never need to write outside the classroom.

This approach to the teaching of language skills overlooks the radical difference between the way the skills are naturally developed and used in real life. Throughout history, speaking has always been the primary means of human communication. It’s only in relatively recent years that most societies have become literate, with the majority of people knowing how to read and write. And however desirable this is, we should recognize that most people most days read very little and write even less, while their day is filled with conversation and other oral interaction.

 Reading and writing, even in our first language, are skills that need to be taught and learnt through study, while listening and speaking are things that we naturally do. This radical difference should be reflected in the approaches that we take to teaching each of the four skills, in order to equip our learners with the ability to be able to succeed in the situations where they will actually use the language.

Peter Beech -

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