The 4 Language Skills

When we learn a language, there are four skills that we need for complete communication. When we learn our native language, we usually learn to listen first, then to speak, then to read, and finally to write. These are called the four ‘language skills’:

In traditional teaching the emphasis tends to be on the students doing reading and writing, probably because it seems to keep them quiet and it is easier to organize. Similarly most teachers probably do most of the talking while the students do most of the listening, with a questionable amount of understanding.


In real life, it is not so easy to separate these four skills, as most language skills are preceded or followed by a different skill. Most teachers try to incorporate all four skill areas into their planning, though some classes may focus more on one set of skills or the other, due to the course and learner objectives.


When learning new language material, the order of acquisition is generally this, for both second language learners and children learning their first language:


Listening: The learner hears a new item (sound, word, grammar feature, etc.)

Speaking: The learner tries to repeat the new item.

Reading: The learner sees the new item in written form.

Writing: The learner reproduces the written form of the item.


When you are planning to present a new teaching item (sound, grammar point, vocabulary word, etc.,) keep the order of acquisition in mind. It is best to expose the learners to the item in that same order, so that they are exposed to it as a listener before they are called on to use it as a speaker, and that they hear it before they see it in text.


In this way, the order of learning a second language is similar to the way a child learns his or her first language. He/she will be able to understand the new item for quite a while before he/she is able to produce it and use it in communication.


In technical terms, the difference between being able to understand an item and being able to produce it is known as passive versus active knowledge. So it is important to expose learners to a large amount of material using the new item before they are able to actually employ it in communication.


Even though it is not apparent, your learners will be absorbing the new items on an unconscious level. Consequently, you should expect that the learners will go through a period of being exposed to new language and internalizing it before they can produce. They will be able to understand, but will not be able to produce. It is because of this so-called “silent period”.  This means that the teacher presents material that does not require the students to respond verbally, but rather allows them to show comprehension without having to actually produce speech in the target language.


Many teachers, in addition to the coursebook, use supplementary materials. These include skills development materials, grammar, vocabulary and phonology practice materials, collections of communicative activities and teacher’s resource materials.


Supplementary materials may come from authentic sources, for example, newspaper and magazine articles, video, etc. Some coursebook packages include supplementary materials and activities, especially designed to fit the coursebook syllabus, and there are also many websites where you can download supplementary materials.


Reasons for using supplementary materials

To replace unsuitable material in the coursebook.

To fill gaps in the coursebook.

To provide suitable material for learners’ particular needs and interests.

To give learners extra language or skill practice.

To add variety to your teaching

The most common situations where supplementary materials are useful include when the textbook:

provides insufficient or ineffective examples

provides too few examples

is too simple or complex for your students

fails to cover an item of language at all

can’t be conveniently or logically suited to a complete class due to time constraints.

Coursebook vs supplementary materials

Coursebooks are organised according to a syllabus, and are often graded (grammatical structures, etc. are presented in a helpful sequence for learning) so that Ss’ knowledge of the language builds up step by step through the book.

Supplementary materials and activities can provide variety in lessons and useful extra practice, but it is important to make sure that they fit into the learners’ programme, are suitable for the class and match the aims of a particular lessons. Supplementary materials and activities will not totally replace coursebooks.

Supplementary materials can be:

Class library of readers


Encourages extensive reading.

Gives learners confidence.

Learners work at their own pace.


Language is sometimes too simple and may not be challenging.

Language is too difficult and may be discouraging.

Skill practice books

Advantages: Focus on individual skills.


May not fit aims in the syllabus and/or coursebook.

May not provide useful feedback.



New ideas for lessons for teachers.

Variety of lesson plans, teaching materials, other resources.


May not suit lesson aims, learners’ levels, needs/interests, etc.

Sometimes difficult to find the right materials for the learners



Provides visual context

Source of cultural information

Shows body language


Equipment may not always be available

Language may not be graded

Lack of cultural background

Electronic materials

Advantages: Familiar technology for learners


Difficult for teacher to control how learners are working

Little or no feedback



Language practice


May not be suitable for older learners

Problems with other classes (noise)

What to consider when selecting supplementary material

Supplementary materials are not always accompanied by teacher’s books, and the aims of activities may not be clear. Therefore, when selecting material, you need to think about how it will replace or improve materials in your coursebook.

It may be useful to use authentic material, which is not designed for a particular level, in order to give learners the experience of working with more challenging texts and tasks.

The activities in materials designed to develop individual skills often include the use of other skills, e.g. learners need to read a text before they carry out a listening task, or to do some writing as a follow-up activity after a speaking activity. When selecting materials and activities, think carefully about all the skills that are required.

Many publishers produce materials for practising separate language skills at different levels. Teacher’s resource books, too, usually list tasks and activities according to level. However, you should check how appropriate the level is for your learners. Think about the language they will need to understand or to produce.

Use of supplementary materials and activities

Learners get used to the methodology in their coursebook. If you are using supplementary materials with different procedures, you may need to give special attention to instructions.

You can adapt many supplementary materials for use with classes at different levels. The texts used in these materials may not be graded, but you can grade the activities by making the learners’ tasks more or less challenging.

Games and extra communicative activities can provide variety and make learning fun. But you need to think about your reasons for using them, so that your lesson still has a clear purpose. Older learners may want to know why they are doing these activities.


No coursebook or skills book can work wonders. The key to acquire and master a foreign language is PRACTICE. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE it as much and as often as possible.•