PhD Dumitru Alice Madalina
Liceul Teoretic „Ion Barbu” București
At an international level, the English language speakers fall into different categories. Moreover, people who are characterized by distinct racial and national identities, values, cultural contexts and regional backgrounds will perceive the language differently. Nevertheless, the enrolment in the community of the English language speakers provides multiple opportunities: access to education, the possibility to work abroad, as well as the development of tourism or economics business. It is also necessary to speak English especially because postmodern civilization is characterized by multiculturalism and plurilingualism. The English language speakers also have the advantage of working in the cultural and artistic fields. The aim of this article is that of emphasizing the significance of the main didactic instruments: the receptive skills (Reading, Listening) and the productive skills (Writing, Speaking).
According to the Common European Language Framework (CEFR), the English language learners belong to different categories according to their level of knowledge: Beginner, Elementary, Intermediary Threshold, Upper-intermediate, Advanced and Proficiency/Mastery. The primary outcome of the Cambridge exams is that of stimulating and motivating students to gradually improve their Speaking, Reading, Writing and Listening skills.
An important element in the process of English language teaching is the contextualization of the linguistic concepts in the lead-in stage of the lesson. Before all didactic procedures, the teacher activates the students’ schemata in order to increase their interest and to motivate them to use the language in specific contexts: writing, speaking, reading and listening. An efficient method of encouraging the students to learn a foreign language are the linguistic or cognitive prompts. The authentic resources are often the most useful because they help students to involve themselves in contemporary social issues. Jeremy Harmer, author of a study from the speciality literature, defines the authentic language as “a normal, natural language used by the competent or native speakers of a language” and this is “what our students encounter (or will encounter) in real life if they come in contact with target-language speakers”. The specialist draws attention to the fact that precisely because it is authentic, this language is unlikely to be simplified or spoken slowly.” (Harmer 306) In order to achieve these endpoints, teachers frequently use the following authentic resources: pictures, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, flashcards, tickets, letters, film or theatre reviews, sport commentaries, crosswords etc. In all the previously mentioned situations, the teachers act as the cognitive prompter of the students by asking questions and instructing them to make connections. The role of the teacher is to dissociate between the authentic and the inauthentic didactic materials.
I will dedicate the first part of this article to the description of the principal ways of improving the students’ receptive skills, which work well with the read or listened text. In order to guarantee the success of the receptive skill teaching activities, both the materials and the didactic procedures employed have to be suitable for the students’ level. In the study The Practice of the English Language Teaching, Jeremy Harmer discusses the issue of the linguistic obstacle in the acquisition of a foreign language, which is specific of activities focusing on receptive skills. Harmer explains that “comprehensible input aids language acquisition, then it follows that incomprehensible input will not.” (304) In order to practise their skills, the students must know approximately 95% of the vocabulary of a text. In addition, the recordings or the texts must be adapted to the students’ needs. In the study Learning Teaching, Jim Scrivener advises the teacher “not to worry too much about what student level the recording is suitable for”, but rather to make sure that “the task is set for the right level”. Moreover, Jim Scrivener argues that the teachers should “grade the task, rather than the recording”.(Scrivener 177) Moreover, the teacher must remove different barriers which may emerge before or along the task. According to Jeremy Harmer, the understanding of the read or listened text represents the essential element of a successful lesson.
In traditional scholarly practice, the information were processed by students by following an upward trajectory. The learning process was progressively guided by the teacher. Jeremy Harmer describes bottom-up procession as an opportunity of focusing the reader’s or listener’s attention “on such things as individual words, phrases or cohesive devices, and achieves understanding by stringing these detailed elements together to build up a whole.” (Harmer 302) Currently, this approach is not reliable anymore. Although the construction of a message from various morph-syntactic elements and the item-by-item approach is a challenge for many teachers, Jim Scrivener suggests the use of top-down procession during lessons. This approach implies the use of pre-existing knowledge so as to predict the textual structure and content or to extract the main idea. An audio material in English involves multiple structures and perspectives, which I will list in a descending order (top-down processing): background knowledge on the topic, the main idea, the text, the constitutive parts of the text, sentences, phrases or expressions, words and sounds. (Scrivener 178-9) For the lower levels, the bottom-up procession method will prove useful because the learners are beginning to assimilate sounds and words. When working with advanced level students, Harmer proposes the interaction of both reading and listening tasks and top-down and bottom-up procession.
The success of a lesson focused on developing receptive skills consists in the choice of adequate resources and their inclusion in suitable activities. Reading and listening tasks allow the evaluation of both the linguistic knowledge and the assessment of different skills. Continuous skill practice and assessment is a good solution for preparing Cambridge exams. According to speciality literature, we can talk about two typical receptive skill practice tasks. First, the students will read or listen to a message in order to get the main idea (text skimming, gist listening) and second, they will have to identify the key words or to realize a detailed text analysis (text scanning, listening for specific information). According to Jim Scrivener, scanning and skimming are actually top-down procession methods. As Scrivener remarks “although scanning is involved with details of the text, the way that a reader finds those details involves processing the whole text, moving her eyes quickly over the whole page, searching for key words or clues from the textual layout and the content that will enable him/her to focus in on smaller sections of the text that he/she are likely to get answer from.” (Scrivener 185) In reality, it is the central message of the text which will allow the reader to focus on particular paragraphs and to provide specific answers. (Scrivener 185) In the study The Complete Guide to Teach EFL, David Riddell highlights the major shock generated onto students by the new voices, accents and dialects of the speakers from the audio recordings during the listening tasks. Riddell explains that, in opposition with reading task experiences, the students have generally no control over the recording during a listening activity. The role of the teacher is to raise awareness about these difficulties and to create an optimal learning environment for the reception of the audio message.
In the second part of this article, I will concentrate on the productive skills, namely writing and speaking. The key for successful message production tasks is the manner in which the teacher organizes the lesson and provides feedback to the students. The principal aim of an oral class discussion is to increase fluency and to motivate students. David Riddell explains that speaking fluency is “the ability to talk fairly freely, without too much stopping or hesitating – to keep going”. He adds that fluency “also requires that the speaker understands what is being said, so there must be intelligibility and meaning”. The concept of accuracy makes reference to the correct use of English grammar and vocabulary. (Riddell 125) In order to insure the achievement of a dialogue, the teacher has to structure his discourse attentively and adapt it to the context. The teacher, as a competence and skill shaper, must remove all the obstacles which obstruct communication by specifying clearly the roles, the time limit, the conversation succession, the discursive markers and the grammar items. In addition, teachers have to encourage the appeal to the strategies of improvising and paraphrasing in order to help the students with fluency difficulties. The English speaking skills can be improved by means of frequent practice.
In the marking scheme of the subjective-type items, the final score is calculated by adding the points obtained for the following aspects: coherence and cohesion, accurate spelling and punctuation, correct grammar structures and vocabulary and connectors. In order to complete a writing task successfully, it is very important that the candidates follow these stages: the analysis of sample models, the making of a sketch of the main ideas, the elaboration of a draft on which they could make corrections and the reedition of the paper with the subsequent changes. In the view of Jim Scrivener, creative writing tasks should be opportunities to have the learners “get practice in the range of real-life writing tasks that they will face”: writing a letter or a newspaper or magazine article, creating advertisements, making quizzes or collaborating in group projects.(Scrivener 195-6) Harmer associates the concept of coherence with “a writing which makes sense because you can follow the sequence of ideas and points”. The concept of cohesion is also defined by Jeremy Harmer as “a more technical matter, since it is here that we concentrate on the various linguistic ways of connecting ideas across phrases and sentences.” The linguistic features of the English language represent the chains of reference for the elaboration of a correct discourse: addition, contrast, cause and effect and time linkers, synonymy, lexical repetitions and pronouns. (Harmer 309) I consider that we must stress the motivational role of the teacher in the writing tasks. For instance, we can motivate students by explaining them the practical usage of the task in daily life (for example, filling in a form in English). Moreover, we can motivate them to learn to write discursive, narrative, descriptive or informative texts, by emphasising the necessity of the acquisition of these skills for the resolution of Cambridge exam tasks. The achievement of a Cambridge certificate is a powerful motivation, because many students wish they had this accreditation.
The advanced English speakers will also use their critical thinking skills during the text comprehension tasks. Moreover, in the social and political discourses of the global community, emphasis is placed on the capacity to synthesise and argue. Planning an oral debate centred on a popular current topic or on an article requires a preliminary brainstorming activity. The outcome of this activity is to refresh the vocabulary notions and to create mental shortcuts. The diagram of ideas will represent the main impulse towards the formulation of reliable arguments and their presentation by means of a fluent, coherent and logical discourse. The role of the teacher is guiding the students to take the reliable aspects into account and to use a contextually suitable language. The current political, cultural and medical realities will catch the attention of advanced level students. (i.e. the Covid vaccine breakthrough)
In conclusion, an efficient lesson must keep a balance between the four tasks-types aiming to improve receptive and productive skills. In the projection of the didactic scenario, the teacher plays multiple roles: task setter, monitor, observer and feedback provider.
1. Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching, UK: Pearson Education, 2014
2. Riddell, David. Teach EFL. The complete guide, Great Britain: Teach Yourself, 2014
3. Scrivener, Jim. Learning Teaching. A guidebook for English language teachers. Second edition, UK: Macmillan Books for Teachers, 2005
 “Skimming is mainly concerned with fast reading for finding key topics, main ideas, overall themes, basic structure etc. (Scrivener 185(
 “A natural-sounding recording will usually consist of two or more speakers using ungraded language. Their voices, accents, and maybe dialects will be new to our students. These new voices often come as a shock first time round. Often, too, the conversation, is, or seems, fast. There is no body language and there is no voice understanding. (…)There is no control, at least not on the student’ part in a lesson”(Riddell 115)
 “Conversational discourse, often appears considerably more chaotic. (…) In order for this construction to be successful, the participants need to know how to take turns and what discourse markers, for example they can use to facilitate the smooth progression from on speaker to the next. (Harmer 309)