Four Language Skills Research Paper Starter

Four Language Skills

(Research Starters)

To have full mastery of a language, individuals need to be competent in reading, speaking, listening and writing. These four skills, as they are referred to, are interrelated because using a language generally requires using more than one skill at a time. However, learners can be more competent in one skill than another. Language teachers must teach students in a way that encourages mastery of all four skills. The research on the skills draws from linguistics, psycholinguistics, psychology and cognitive science.

Keywords Bottom-up Processing; Communicative Competence; Four skills; Listening Comprehension; Multimodal; Reading Strategies; Schema Theory; Speech Act; Top-down Processing


In the field of English as a second language, language is frequently discussed in terms of its four component skills:

• Reading,

• Speaking,

• Listening and

• Writing.

To have complete mastery of the language, individuals must be competent in these four skills. Yet the four skills do not exist as separate entities within the language; to the contrary, all of the skills are interrelated. When students are in a conversation, they are not just speaking, but also listening. When students listen to a lecture in class, they may also take notes. At the same time, it is possible for students to be more competent in one skill than another. Students from some language backgrounds may have no trouble reading and writing in English, but find the sounds of the language more difficult to produce. On the other hand, students from orally-based cultures may find it easier to speak than to write. Some students can speak a lot, but cannot understand much of what they hear. The task for the language teacher is to provide instruction that facilitates the development of all four skills.

While the four skills are inseparable in terms of their use, research on the teaching of the four skills typically focuses on one component skill with the aim of better understanding the processes involved in the acquisition of that specific skill. The research draws upon developments in the fields of psychology, linguistics, psycholinguistics, and cognitive science. In the sections that follow, the research and theories related to each of the four skills are presented.


Of the four skills, listening would appear to be the most basic to language learning for in most instances, learners use this skill first. Typically, learners hear spoken language before they speak it; many learners exhibit a silent period in their language development when they can comprehend more language than they can produce (Brown, 2001). The importance of listening as a source of input is widely recognized, yet listening as a discrete skill with its own set of strategies has not always been emphasized in the classroom. In the 1950s and 1960s, students spent many hours in language labs and the classroom completing listening/speaking drills, but the purpose was for students to repeat sounds accurately, not necessarily to improve listening comprehension. In the 1980s, listening became more important with the advent of Krashen's (1995) concept of comprehensible input, which said that learners need to be exposed to massive amounts of comprehensible language in order to acquire it. Today, with a greater emphasis on the importance of all four skills, listening receives attention in its own right, and the focus in the classroom is on learning how to listen through the application of listening skills and strategies.

Four primary goals for listening instruction are:

• To improve learner's comprehension of spoken language;

• To increase the quality of learners' uptake (i.e., the words actually retained) from spoken input;

• To develop learners' strategies for understanding spoken discourse;

• To encourage learner participation in face-to-face communication (Rost, 2006,)

One of the reasons that listening in a second language is difficult is that spoken language often varies greatly from the grammatically correct written language presented in the classroom. People, for instance, often speak in incomplete sentences or use colloquial language and slang. They reduce language as in You wanna go? instead of Do you want to go? In speech, there may frequently be false starts such as "I went to the hospital yesterday… you know, I went to the hospital because I was feeling pain in my chest…" Along with these, listeners may have difficulty deciphering intonation, stress and rhythm, or understanding speech that has few pauses (Brown, 2001; Mendelsohn, 2006).

To foster better listening skills, teachers need to provide input that is relevant, authentic and not too difficult. Relevancy is important because research shows that for learners to turn input into uptake, they must find the language to be personally significant. White (2006) suggests that students should be allowed to choose what they listen to, and design their own listening texts and tasks. Authenticity refers to whether the language in the listening task is language the student would actually hear in a similar real-world situation. Texts should include examples of pauses, false starts, redundancy, etc. Level of difficulty refers to the overall comprehensibility given many variables such as length, rate of speech, text organization, etc (Rost, 2006).

Teachers should also encourage students to use both top-down and bottom-up processing strategies. Top-down processing occurs when students utilize their prior knowledge to help them understand a speaker. For example, a student may infer what a speaker intended to say given the learner's understanding of the topic. Bottom-up processing occurs when listeners focus on the sounds, words, patterns, etc. of the language. Rost (2006) identifies two important phonological processes that help listeners identify words in a stream of speech: feature detection and metrical segmentation. Feature detectors are phonological processing networks in the brain that respond to specific sounds. Although children are born with the ability to hear all sound combinations, adults only hear the sounds for their native language(s). This means that adult listeners will experience perceptual difficulties when decoding streams of L2 speech. Metrical segmentation refers to a listener's use of stress, intonation, timing rules, etc. to turn speech into words. This kind of processing can be improved through training.

With greater access to technology, more options for listening activities are available. Students are listening to podcasts, online lectures, and video clips while completing activities involving the other four skills. Research indicates that students enjoy this kind of learning and find multimodal forms of learning, which involve the use of more than one skill, beneficial for language retention (Patten & Craig, 2007; Smidt & Hegelheimer, 2004).


Speaking and listening are closely related skills, for one rarely occurs without the other. In the classroom, speaking has frequently received more attention, for it is the primary skill learners want when learning a language.

Communicative Competence

The speaking skill is often discussed within the context of a theory of communicative competence. Communicative competence describes a language learner's ability to communicate appropriately within a given situation. Canale & Swain (1980) outlined four components of communicative competence. These are:

• Discourse competence,

• Grammatical competence,

• Sociolinguistic competence and

• Strategic competence.

In terms of speaking, learners demonstrate communicative competence when they choose the correct words/phrases to convey their meaning while showing an understanding of the particular sociocultural or sociolinguistic context in which they speak (e.g., choosing language to be polite or formal based on the situation). Speakers also show communicative competence when they can compensate for language deficiencies such as using other words to describe a concept for which the speaker has no word (Martinez-Flor, Usó-Juan & Soler, 2006).

An important area of research that has influenced speaking instruction is the discovery that much language use is formulaic. For example, when greeting someone in English, it is likely you say, "Hi. How are you?" and the hearer responds, "Fine, thank you." Speech Act research has identified multiple situations where language is formulaic such as in greetings, thanking, requesting, apologizing and complimenting (University of Minnesota, 2007). These formulas, in their appropriate context, can be directly taught to L2 learners to quickly increase their proficiency.

Bottom-up processes related to speaking include the ability to pronounce the sounds of the language, to recognize how words are segmented and to use rhythm, stress and intonation correctly. While pronunciation is taught as a speaking skill and pronunciation can improve through practice, it is also recognized that adult second language learners rarely achieve native-like...

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