Introduction

Teaching the skills and linguistic and cultural awareness which make up competence in a language is a vastly wide topic, and researchers in the field of language pedagogy have devoted many years, books and papers to the individual skills and how to teach them. This page cannot begin to present the scholarship and experience which has been gained, but will attempt to provide a few practical hints and suggestions as to how the various skills can be taught.

In language teaching today it is generally accepted that language competence includes not only the traditional skills (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and knowledge (of vocabulary and grammar), but also linguistic and cultural awareness. As teachers, we have the challenging but satisfying task of transmitting this to our students.

We are never using just one skill, whether in class or in authentic situations:  if we are teaching our students speaking skills, they are listening at the same time (although this does not equate to teaching listening, see below); if we are teaching our students to write in the language, they are also using their reading skills (if only to read what is on the board, on a slide or on a handout); and even if we are conducting a ‘reading’ course, the students still need to write, even if this is just to make notes of vocabulary and grammar or do exercises.

Moreover, although the two productive skills, speaking and writing, need to be taught in different ways, and for different purposes, they have a lot in common, and teaching them will involve much of the same content, at least in part. The same can also be said of comprehension skills (listening and reading). The teaching of each skill, however, needs to take into account the differences in purpose, discourse, structure, register, vocabulary, etc. in written and spoken language.

Using the target language in class

Using the target language (the language you are teaching) in class as much as possible is generally recognised as good practice and motivates students. It is very easy to introduce the target language as the normal means of communication in:

  • greetings and courtesies
  • asking about what students did in their free time
  • classroom business
  • indicating/resolving problems
  • brief presentations prepared by students
  • asking questions
  • reading aloud (where this is justified and uncontrived).

All students benefit from this type of activity. Less experienced learners feel secure, as the language used is normally predictable (as are the situations in which it is used), and can be easily learned. Simple conversations, such as asking what students did in their free time etc. also provides the more able and adventurous students with a challenge, as it gives them an opportunity to experiment. The teacher does need to be sure, though, that the language s/he uses is accessible to all, even to the less able/experienced, otherwise this can cause anxiety for some students. It is always a good idea to start with known and predictable language, and then go on to something a little more challenging.

If, though, the main objective of a course is to teach students to read texts, or to translate into English, this will need to be the main focus of the lessons. Even in general courses teaching all four skills, the language being used, target language or English, will depend on the activity. If you are teaching students to produce an effective translation into English, you will need to discuss the issues in English.

Listening skills

Listening is often called the Cinderella of language skills, as listening is often performed as a task in the classroom, but rarely taught as a skill, as discussed in Graham, Santos and Vanderplank, 2011. Rather than just being faced with the text and a task (e.g. questions on the test), learners need to be provided with strategies which they can use to help them understand. A useful way of approaching this is to divide the process into:

  • pre-listening tasks (for example, preparing or revising the language content, looking at the title and context, looking at the questions, gap-filling, trying to predict what the text is about etc.)
  • the listening itself (and here focus can be placed on techniques such as effective note-taking while the listening is taking place etc.)
  • post-listening (including filling in gaps, making deductions/guesses etc.).

Speaking skills

Using the target language in class is not the same as teaching speaking skills. Before embarking on this, the teacher needs to decide what the students are expected to achieve by the end of the course, and to build up their communicative competence within this framework. Of possible course outcomes, are students expected to be able to:

  • participate in social situations?
  • talk about themselves and their everyday lives?
  • discuss aspects of the country whose language they are learning?
  • handle practical everyday situations when visiting the country where the language is spoken?
  • talk about their studies, topics of interest, dissertations, either informally or as a presentation?
  • conduct focus groups or surveys?
  • negotiate study-related situations such as hiring translators etc.?

Each of these objectives will involve a different focus on the speaking skills being taught.

Reading skills

The acquisition of reading competence in Slavonic and East European languages has probably been the most researched of all the skills, and the greatest number of resources have been created to support this. Students and researchers learn many of the ‘less widely taught languages’ so as to access texts in the original language, archival documents etc. Logically, therefore, teachers of those languages have created and published relevant resources, both to support their own teaching and in the hope that they will be of benefit to other teachers of the language and as a model for other languages.

Approaches to the acquisition of strategies for reading  have been presented in a project to prepare language readers for Finnish and Hungarian. Different approaches,  deductive and inductive are discussed, as is the role of various linguistic sub-disciplines in the teaching of the two languages.

Teachers can find useful advice on acquiring reading skills in the introduction to Enhancing Reading Skills for Polish. Whilst this resource is addressed primarily to the learner, it also gives teachers an overview of the skills that students are expected to acquire for the efficient and accurate reading of authentic texts.

By using authentic materials we, as teachers, not only support our students in their acquisition of reading skills, we also widen their cultural awareness. This is exemplified by a Serbian/Croatian language learning resource which presents both linguistic and cultural material, with transcripts, commentary and exercises relating to the life, work and legacy of Ivo Andrić.

Writing skills

Why do we teach our students to write? Evidently, few will achieve literary eminence in the language they are learning (although one never knows)!

At the most basic level, students need writing skills for functional purposes, to note down vocabulary, to do exercises etc. The CEFR levels give a range of descriptors, from being able to write ‘simple isolated phrases and sentences (A1) to ‘clear, smoothly flowing, complex texts in an appropriate and effective style and a logical structure which helps the reader to find significant points’ (C2). In the end, it will be the aims and expected outcomes of a course which will decide how much writing students should learn and to what level.

Writing skills can be divided, broadly, into two areas: processing texts and producing content. The former include forming letters correctly,  copying words and phrases from the board, coursebooks or course materials correctly and using the language in digital form (word-processing, using search engines, writing emails, filling in online forms, texting etc.). Efficient word-processing in the target language is a very useful skill, which students can use to write drafts of essays and oral presentations and refine these, before handing them in or after marking by the teacher.

The processing of texts also includes being able to write texts in ‘clearly handwritten format’ (CEFR Level A2), which is of particular relevance for languages using Cyrillic script. Many teachers of, say, Russian, would emphasise the need to get their students using flowing (cursive) script as soon as they start writing. Whilst there are arguments for this ‘bite-the-bullet-and-get-it over-with’ approach, students who have no knowledge of a Slavonic language or of Cyrillic need to be given time, and practice, to familiarise themselves with the alphabet in its printed form.  This is the first thing they see  in textbooks and course materials, and most teachers of languages using Cyrillic do, initially, use print when writing on the board. Once students have learned to associate the sounds with the letters, and are comfortable with the alphabet (which, for the average student, tends to be after 6-8 contact hours), the different shapes of the letters in flowing script may safely be introduced. How much emphasis is placed on well-formed flowing writing will, again, depend on the course objectives. A pragmatic approach might stress the importance of clarity in students’ writing, and the avoidance of ambiguity or miscomprehension for anyone reading what the students have written.

In terms of content, learning to write messages, emails and filling forms in the language is useful for a period of study abroad. Composing tests oneself helps with language learning (understanding sentence structure, vocabulary usage, importance of word forms and endings, among others). Whilst not all students will reach a level where they can write creatively, the more able and adventurous will enjoy trying out their literary skills in composing simple poems, haikus, short stories etc.

Writing tasks can also be used for assessment and diagnostic purposes (giving a good idea of what has been learned and what has not been absorbed or understood), as a complement to the acquisition of speaking skills and to provide variety of task and activity in courses where writing is not one of the objectives (for example, in so-called reading courses).

Translation

This topic is quite deliberately not headed “Teaching translation”. Early-career academics who may not be native speakers of the target language are frequently asked to ‘teach translation’ from the target language into English. In reality, though, they are probably being asked to use translation as a way of teaching grammar, vocabulary and reading skills.

The typical language course tends to contain a translation component not so much to train students to translate, but as a way of presenting, consolidating and (in exams) assessing knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. Many assessments which involve translation also ban the learner from using the translator’s essential tool, the dictionary.

There has been much discussion regarding the appropriateness of using translation as a tool for teaching, and assessing competence in, language, but this practice continues to be widespread. If you are asked to do this, it is worth stressing to students that, once future employers, friends etc. find out that the student has studied another language, there is a good chance that they will be asked to translate in some circumstances or others. So this is a useful transferable skill to acquire.

Translating into English from another language

Translation is an activity which can be daunting for students. One can make it less so by selecting texts carefully, so that they contain a mix of:

  • familiar material that the students have met before (this is reassuring for students and pedagogically sound);
  • new grammar and vocabulary which relates to the points being taught;
  • unfamiliar words and phrases that students can work out (by association or by guessing); this can be fun, is satisfying for those who manage to get the right answer and provides a challenge for the more able or experienced learners in the group.

As with all tasks which involve comprehension of a source-language text, it is useful to present the students with pre-translation tasks, involving revision of previously-learned material,  identifying familiar vocabulary and trying to place it into the overall picture and attempting to predict the overall content of the passage, as well as some of the details.

In any language class there may be a number of native speakers of languages other than English, for whom the language you are teaching is their third, fourth or subsequent language. This raises a number of issues.

Some students may be concerned that their non-native English competence will, in some way, jeopardise their progress and exam results. If the students’ English is adequate to the task (even if it is not perfect) the teacher will need to allay this anxiety. This can best be done by stressing that translation is being used as a tool to teach comprehension and knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, and not to produce publishable English renderings.

There are, though, other students who wish to learn a language but have relatively poor competence in English (in spite of achieving the university’s minimum IELTS score!). These may be students who are learning the language for research purposes, and may not be specialists in linguistics or literature studies. This presents teachers with a much greater challenge. Any problems of this kind need to be picked up as quickly as possible, frank discussion with the student (and their personal tutor, where applicable) needs to take place. If this is likely to help, the student needs to be advised to take a remedial English course.

Translating from English into another language

In some respects, asking students to translate from their first language, in which they have a high level of competence, into a language they are learning, may be considered questionable.

In terms of the acquisition of transferable skills, many of the most competent and experienced professional  translators acknowledge that their competence in the target language is, at best, 60-70% of that of native speakers. Many organisations (government, international, NGOs etc.) who require their employees to have language skills accept  this, and tend to use native speakers for translation into the target language.

However, using translation into the target language as a grammar and vocabulary exercise does raise awareness of the structure and features of the language, so the argument could be made that it does have value. Texts for translation, though need to be selected with great care, so as to reflect these objectives and not to put students off.

Translation studies

It is a good idea to give students at least a limited theoretical framework for what you are asking  them to do, so that the whole activity makes more sense and is motivating. A useful basic textbook is In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation, Routledge, 2011. Its author, Prof. Mona Baker of Manchester University, talks about the revised 2nd edition of her book and translation studies in an interview which can be viewed in two parts: Part 1, Part 2.

An important additional point is that translation provides a wide context for gaining insight into culture. Whether you are an early-career academic or a professional language teacher, your background, experience, reading, education and/or research  will have made you into a valuable source of knowledge about the culture related to the language you are teaching. To quote Peter Newmark, “the translation teacher has to be not only a solid classroom teacher, but a person of wide cultural background” (“Teaching translation”, in About translation, Multilingual Matters, 1991).

If you are asked to teach a course which involves translation, it is a good idea to start by finding out what the objectives are of this, whether you are expected to use translation as a means of consolidating knowledge of the language or to teach students the basics of translation (theory and practice).

The ideal approach, of course, is to combine the two, as the student will then gain valuable understanding of the process, into culture and a transferable skill. If, in addition, this can be done in an authentic linguistic and cultural context, this is an ideal situation, and highly motivating. For example, a group of intermediate and advanced students of Czech from the University of Sheffield had the opportunity to participate in the ‘Translating Czech Castles’ project. To quote one of the students:

“ … because it was an actual project, with actual results at the end instead of just a grade, we all got really into it.  Everyone cared a lot more about the end result than they would have had we not gone to visit …”

What’s next?

The lesson Reflective practice