Teaching Receptive Skills Introduction:Listening is the ability


Listening is the ability to identify and understand spoken language. Listening is a receptive skill. The receptive skills used in language acquisition: listening and reading enable the productive skills: speaking and writing (Saricoban, 1999). Listening is the communication skill used most often in the assimilation of information and the most neglected in foreign language teaching (Norris, 1993).

Effective listening is dependent upon the listener's decoding skills, i.e. the listener's ability to make sense of the message. For foreign language learners accurate and intelligent listening is a necessity. A good teacher will enable intelligent listening by enhancing her student's decoding skills.

Unlike written and spoken evidence, successful listening is more difficult to measure. The blank stare may signify only partial understanding ' but where are the gaps' Gaps in decoding skills are hard for both the student and teacher to identify and diagnose. The first listening skill taught is the ability to recognize the need for more information. A first speaking skill is to respond appropriately (e.g. Please repeat. Please speak slowly.).

Integration with other skills:

The building of successful decoding skills requires the teaching and use of reading, writing, speaking and listening skills in the foreign language. A good foreign language teacher will break down confusing signals into their parts, show the correctly written words, explain the content and context and allow spoken and written practice. Receptive and productive communication skills are integrated; therefore the teaching of these skills is necessarily integrated.

Phases in the acquisition of listening skills:

A person immersed in a foreign language, with little or no instruction in the acquisition of the new language (and no functioning decoder) will perceive messages in the new language as noise. If the language is directed at the non speaker with anger, frustration or derision ' the experience will be fearful and confusing.

When this person learns some important words, phrases and cultural signals ' the decoder starts to function. While the majority of aural messages may still be noise, the new language learner can respond to simple (and probably important) messages appropriately. Adults living in foreign countries can 'get by' for many years (or a lifetime) with minimal decoding skills.

When decoding skills are acquired in a more systematic, purposeful way (e.g. in a classroom) the new language learner becomes able to understand and respond more fully. He begins to build a cache of vocabulary in memory and becomes able to identify the purpose of a message. As language learners advance from beginner to intermediate levels errors in listening become less frequent. Decoding becomes less of a conscious effort as the learner builds upon experience and knowledge.

What a skilled listener can do:

A functioning internal decoder allows the skilled listener to understand or predict the main topic of the message. The skilled listener draws from her memory bank of previous experience with the spoken language to assist in decoding the message. (Saricoban, 1999)

Previous experience provides the confidence a skilled listener needs to recognize that 100% understanding is not needed to derive meaning from the message. The learner gradually becomes able to filter the extra sounds and missing sounds that may or may not affect the message. (Norris, 1993)

A skilled listener can recognize 'reduced language'. The Saricoban 1999 article quotes Brooks (Language and Learning, 1960): 'Native speakers reduce the clarity of speech signals to the minimal required for comprehension'. Language is most often reduced by contractions and elision (dropping sounds). So 'I am happy to meet you' sounds like (I'mappy tomeetu). Norris points out that a skilled teacher helps raise awareness of reduced forms in spoken language.

Enabling more than teaching:

Teachers are enabling the listening skill, rather than teaching it. Exercises designed to build decoding skills are necessarily integrated into foreign language instruction. Beginners learn the sounds, meaning and written form of common words and phrases. As learners progress they are more able to identify sounds within words and content within phrases.

In classroom exercises we stress listening for meaning ' enabling the listener to discard irrelevant information in a message and concentrated on the relevant portion. Within vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation exercises we introduce the spoken form of the word or phrase and warn apt listeners that it is reduced from the written form. Through repetition the learner's decoder is enabled to attribute meaning to the reduced signals.

As decoding skills are refined, confidence increases and learners become enabled to identify sounds and meaning outside of the controlled classroom environment.


Saricoban, Arif (1999). The Teaching of Listening. Norris, Robert W. (1993). Teaching Reduced Forms: An Aid for Improving Lower-Level Students' Listening Skills. The National Capital Language Resource Center, Washington, D.C. 2003- 2004. Internet guidance materials entitled The Essential of Language Teaching.