domingo, 16 de abril de 2017

Productive skills revisited

It is always a good idea to read about teaching skills... Revisit and rethink...

Harmer (2007) describes a general procedure to deal with productive skills. In the lead in stage, we engage students with the topic and activate prior knowledge. Then we set the task, i.e., we explain what they are going to do. We may need to demonstrate, by showing a model text if it is writing, or by acting out a dialogue o listening to it if it is speaking. We need to make sure they know what they have to do and they have the tools they need, such as, useful expressions, specific vocabulary and basic knowledge of the language function and type of text they need to produce. It is a good idea to ask students to repeat the instructions back to us to check they know what they have to do. This could be done in L1 if necessary. Once they have started, we need to monitor the task. We can go around the class, listening to what they say or looking at what they do. When they have finished, we give task feedback. This will help students know how they are doing and improve. It is important to focus on the content of the task and not just on the language; on the achievements and not just the mistakes. Rubrics are valuable to assess productive skills. Finally, we may move on to a task-related follow-up

Successful communication, both oral and written, depends to some extent on knowing certain rules. These rules include knowing how and when to take turns or the difference between an email to a friend and one to a manager. They also include more general sociocultural rules, such as how men and women address each other or how to address people who are older or about our age.

When speaking or writing, students will come across difficulties, especially when they do not know the words they need. To solve the difficulty, they might employ the following strategies (Harmer, 2007, p. 277)

  • Improvising: Try any word they can come up with, hoping that is right.
  • Discarding: Abandon the part that they cannot express.
  • Foreignising: Use a word or phrase in L1 and pronounce it as if it were L2, hoping that it will be equivalent to the meaning they wish to express. 
  • Paraphrasing: Express the meanings with definitions or comparisons.

In order to help students, activities should be planned ahead, anticipate the difficulties they might come across and supply key language to ensure they can cope with the task. It is important to remember that language that has been presented recently is not often available for instant use in spontaneous conversation. There is a time-lag between meeting new language and being able to use it.


Speaking seems to be the most important skill of all; in fact, people who know the language are referred to as “speakers” of that language and when we ask people if they know a language we usually ask: “Do you speak English?”. Besides, many learners claim to be interested in learning to speak. This means they need to be able to pronounce correctly, use appropriate stress and intonation patterns and speak in connected speech. But that is not everything. They also need to speak in different situations and in different genres. They also need to know conversation strategies as well as survival and repair strategies.

Speaking events have many different purposes. The transactional function of speaking has as its main purpose to convey information and facilitate the exchange of goods and services; whereas the interpersonal function is about maintaining relationships. Besides, speaking can be interactive or non-interactive, planned or unplanned (Harmer, 2007). These distinctions are not absolute but they help when it comes to designing activities for the classroom.

Our challenge is to think of speaking activities that are successful. According to Ur (2009, p. 120-122) in such activities learners talk a lot, participation is even, motivation is high, and language is of an acceptable level. However, problems may arise such as inhibition, having nothing to say, low or uneven participation and the use of L1. To solve these problems, it is possible to use group work, base the activity on easy language, make a careful choice of topic and task to stimulate interest, give some instruction or training in discussion skills and keep students speaking the target language.

When students are not fluent, a way of getting them started is the use of dialogues as models for controlled practice. It is a traditional language-learning technique to learn brief dialogues and act them out. Although the technique has gone out of fashion in recent years, it is useful when students are beginners and when they don’t know enough English to speak freely or improvise. It is also suitable for shy and less confident students. Class plays, simulations and role play are good ways to get started. Teaching students fixed and semi-fixed expressions is also useful to get started.

Speaking activities include:

  • Questionnaires: They are pre-planned and they help both questioner and respondent have something to say to each other. This may encourage the natural use of certain repetitive language patterns.
  • Acting from script: Students act out scenes or dialogues.
  • Prepared talks: Students can make a presentation on a topic. They are not designed for informal spontaneous conversation because they are prepared, they are writing-like. They should be encouraged to speak from notes rather than from a script.
  • Communication games: Information-gap games, television and radio games, yes/no-question guessing games.
  • Simulation and role-play: Students can simulate a real-life conversation and take on different roles.
  • Making recordings: Students can work individually or cooperatively both in the process and the product of making a video or audio recording.
  • Discussions and debates, ranging from formal, whole-group to informal, small-group interactions.

The first four are suitable for beginners. They are feasible and help get started.

Assessing students is hard, but it is worth the investment. Using rubrics and scales is a useful way of helping students know the criteria that will be used for assessment and thus they can try to improve to reach the highest score.


The objective of teaching writing in a foreign language should be to get learners to produce the kinds of texts an educated person would be expected to be able to produce in their own language. These may include personal stories, descriptions of a view or people, letters, book or film reviews, among others.

Giving students feedback on their writing is a controversial issue. It is hard to decide what to focus on: language, content, organization and other aspects that are involved in writing. Content is probably the most important thing, whether the ideas or events that are written are interesting and significant. Organization and presentation matter as well, whether the ideas are arranged in a way that is easy to follow and pleasing to read. Finally, we should focus on language use, whether the grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and spelling are of an acceptable standard of accuracy. “Many teachers are aware that content and organization are important, but find themselves relating mainly to language forms in their feedback, conveying the implicit message that these are what matters” (Ur, 2009, p. 170).

Language and grammar have to be corrected –we can agree on that– the problem is when and how. The correcting of language is part of the language instruction, but too much of it can be discouraging and demoralizing. Another question is whether to ask students to rewrite and, if so, whether to reread and correct all versions. Rewriting is very important because it reinforces learning but also because it’s an integral part of the writing process as a whole. However, if we ask them to rewrite, they can demand that we reread and correct their work. Correcting written work is time-consuming. One possible solution is to ask students to self-correct their work with a rubric or correct each other’s work. Peer-correction can be time-saving and although it does not replace teacher’s correction and evaluation, it may be a substitute for first-draft reading.

When teaching writing, it is important to help students understand that drafting, writing and reviewing are done in a recursive way. Thus, at the editing stage we may need to go back to the pre-writing phase and think again (Harmer, 2007).

It is necessary to make a distinction between writing-for-learning and writing-for-writing. An example of the first one, is to ask students to write sentence using a structure they just learned. This will help them remember the structure but it will not help them develop writing skills.

It is hard sometimes to get started with writing. Some ideas include: instant writing (dictating half-sentences which students have to complete) and parallel writing (using a text as guide and replacing some information).

Dealing with the productive skills is hard indeed. Learning what other teachers do about it can be inspiring and help us think of activities that are suitable for our groups. So, let's share our experiences! 


Harmer, J. (2007). Teaching language skills. The Practice of English Language Teaching (4ta ed., pp. 265-363). Harlow: Longman.
Ur, P. (2009). Teaching skills. A course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory (pp. 105-174). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1 comentario:

  1. Wow! This is worth of reading. Short (well, maybe not THAT short) and sweet. Works for me though :)
    Thanks for sharing!