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Language Skills by Jane Willis

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Language skills are an interdependence of receptive skills, which are listening and reading along with the productive skills of speaking and writing. However, some authors (like Boris Naimushin) see translation as being the fifth skill. Traditionally there has been a focus on grammar through repetition and drills for practicing reading and writing. Modern methodological points of view shifted the focus on practicing all four skills for a functional use of language, according to different purposes of communication. It is the modern understanding that no skill is useful only by itself, but a proper and efficient communication requires intertwining of all four language skills and systems.

Jane Willis gives a few examples of exercises that teachers may use in the classroom to focus on oral production and practice: discrimination exercise, explanation and description, substitution tables, substitution drill, conversation drill, role-play, dramatizations, discussions, using picture cues, guessing games, transformation drills, using wall charts, imaginary situation, elimination games, expanding, true/false statements, Give Me Another One, Just a minute, Don’t answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, Twenty Questions, My grandmother went to market and she bought…, Conversation Gambits, Glug and others (1982: 104-132).

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In focusing on listening, Jane Willis identified different kinds of listening, like: discussions, talks, descriptions, dialogues, directions, telephone conversations, pop songs, folk songs, lectures, stories, interviews, instructions, news broadcasts, advertisements. These may be harnessed into listening activities such as: “true or false?”, “discuss for or against (debate)” “identify who said what, who did what”, “continue the dialogue”, “complete flow charts”, “fill in a table”, “is it A or B?”, “compare and contrast (with optional reading texts)”, “take notes (not just copying)”, “write short answers to questions”, “put events in chronological order”, “draw a picture”, “multiple choice”, “think (problem solving)”, “follow directions (with a map)”.

According to Jane Willis, listening enabling skills are:

  • identifying relevant points; rejecting irrelevant information;
  • predicting what people are going to talk about;
  • using one’s own knowledge of the subject to help one understand;
  • retaining relevant points (by note taking, summarizing);
  • recognizing discourse markers, such as Well
  • guessing at unknown words or phrases;
  • recognizing cohesive devises, link words, pronouns, references,
  • understanding inferred information, e.g. speakers’ attitude or intentions;
  • understanding different intonation patterns, and uses of stress, etc. which give clues to meaning and social setting (1982: 134)

When it comes to listening, every teacher has found out that learners face a lot of difficulties. Some of them are listed by Penny Ur as follows: hearing the exact sound, understanding after multiple repetitions, rapid tiredness, understanding every word; or only spoken slowly and clearly; impossibility of prediction (1999: 43).

Extensive listening refers to listening activities that take place outside the classroom and improve listening skills. It is driven by motivation, which takes power from curiosity, pleasure and peer influences, and it is a great engine for English learning in the classroom, if harnessed properly. Offering many intensive listening material is beneficial for students, since they are exposed to various voice and accents, rhythms of speech outside the familiar one of the teacher. They are portable (easier with the new modern telephone technology) and repayable, but some classes have poor acoustics due to the space itself, its vicinities or the number of students. In operating with audio materials both the teacher and the student can have total or partial control of the material, using various activities, such as jigsaw listening. Intensive listening might take the form of reading aloud, by the teacher / student / a guest, story-telling, conversations or interviews.

According to Jane Willis, the purposes for someone reading are: pleasure (magazines, brochures), survival (official papers and bills), work (professional documents), study (dictionaries, textbooks, bibliographies) and other (newspapers, posters, literature). At the early stages of reading she recommends activities like matching words to pictures and then sentences to pictures, as well as sorting words. After this stage different activities are recommended like: complete the sentences, arrange jumbled sentences into a paragraph, pick out TRUE, FALSE, or NOT STATED, answer the questions, multiple choice, fill in, label, find specific information, summarize, cloze passages, match.


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