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Stick to Basics: Emphasize the Four Skills in Foreign Language Learning

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/13/2013

In foreign language circles, the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing have been eclipsed by the Five C's of Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons and Communities. If you want your child to learn a foreign language, which approach would you want in his or her classroom?

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    The 4 Skills

    The 4 Skills in Learning a Language There are four major skills that a learner of a foreign language needs to master: listening, reading, speaking and writing. After the foreign-language classroom games, cultural activities and puzzles are over, these are the skills that a student will either have mastered or not.

    In the past twenty years or so, the overt teaching of these skills has been pushed into the background in the interest of encouraging students to “express themselves."

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    The 5 C's

    Curricula, textbooks and teacher preparation, armed with theories and research, have held up the Five C’s of Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons and Communities, in the belief that people of all ages learn languages more effectively if they are involved in interpersonal, interpretive and presentational activities with one another. Beware of alliterative slogans in education!

    There is nothing inherently wrong with these five categories except that in their implementation, they have put the hard work in the background. Perhaps it is a symptom of our culture with its emphasis on having “fun."

    The idea is to move them “beyond merely" conjugating verbs correctly, to use a common metaphor for talking about grammar generally. In other words, according to the “latest" thinking, it is important to “get students interacting verbally" from the get go, which is to say, before they have mastered proper grammar paradigms.

    But wait! If learners aren’t conjugating the verbs correctly already, and if they are engaged with each other, then they are going to reinforce each other’s bad habits, fossilizing their errors – and feel very good about themselves – because they have communicated and interacted.

    Imagine turning a group of people loose with a Monopoly game and telling them that what matters most is being able to roll the dice and move the correct number of spaces around the board in the right direction, taking turns and collecting $200 each time they pass GO. To a casual observer, they would appear to be playing the game, but on closer examination, it is a dog-and-pony show.

    Take a look at this website by Teaching Foreign Languages (TFL) and perhaps you’ll agree with me that the Five C’s approach has eclipsed the four skills that were the cornerstone of foreign language pedagogy a couple of decades ago.

    In my thirty years of classroom experience, the successful language learner is the one who cares about the details. The most frustrated -- and frustrating -- ones are those who precociously churn out sentences with such poor command of those dirty little details as to make their speech nearly unintelligible to a native speaker of that language.

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    Let’s Revisit the Four Skills Briefly

    Two are passive: listening and reading. Of these, note that listening involves one side of oral communication and reading involves printed material. Most people’s passive skills are better than their active ones. For instance, most native speakers of English can read Shakespeare and have a pretty good idea of what is going on, but would never be able to speak or write as he did.

    The two active skills are speaking and writing. These two active skills involve one’s ability to produce language – according to the rules of the language. In early childhood, language production begins only after a long period of real-time, real life, unstructured input. Beyond early childhood, particularly after puberty, the window for learning language does not close, but it certainly narrows. The best foreign language classroom for young children is simply regular sustained contact with native speakers of a second language who play with them. Around puberty, foreign-language pedagogy has to be conscious and so also must learners be meta-cognitive – aware of the process in which they are engaged.

    Good textbook writers will not sugar-coat the reality that there is serious study involved in order to learn the rules of a language; good teachers will keep their individual lessons focused on one or two grammar points at a time, providing closely controlled opportunities for students to “express themselves." Good learners will accept the challenge, roll up their sleeves and learn to master the four skills.

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