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Understanding the Four Basic Language Skills for Second and Additional Language Teaching

(Haiku Science Academy) One of the main things to understand about the four basic language skills is that they are most naturally, and best taught together according to a coordinated plan.

The Four Basic Language Skills are understanding, speaking, reading, and writing. The skill of understanding is also commonly referred to as listening.

“The student must be trained adequately in all four basic language skills: understanding, speaking, reading and writing.

The following order of presentation must be taken as axiomatic:

  • Nothing should be spoken before it has been heard.
  • Nothing should be read before it has been spoken.
  • Nothing should be written before it has been read.”

– New Concept English; L.G. Alexander

The Four Basic Language Skills have 2 modes of communication, and 2 directions of communication

  1. Directions of Communication: Reception (input) and Production (output).
  2. Modes of Communication: Oral and Written.

■ It may be obvious that before we can produce language by speaking it, or writing it we must first recieve it. This is understood to be natural order of how we learn our native language as children.

The order of reception before production is likely why L.G. Alexander insists that nothing should be spoken before it is heard, and nothing should be written before it is read.

You may also infer from the axiomatic order suggested by L.G. Alexander, that the oral mode of communication is usually best developed before the written mode of communication is attended to.

In other words hearing, understanding, and speaking the new language is best learned before reading, and writing the new language.

“When a foundation of listening comprehension has been established, speech evolves effortlessly and naturally out of it.”

– Widodo; 2005

  • We could then extend this to say that when a foundation of speaking ability has been established, reading evolves effortlessly and naturally out of it.
  • When a foundation of reading comprehension has been established, writing evolves effortlessly and naturally out of it.

■ In our nervous system, when we observe and listen to someone speaking, nerve cells connected to our own ability to speak the same utterances are activated. These nerve cells are known as mirror neurons (Acharya, S., Shukla, S. 2012).

According to the research on mirror neurons, which basically confirms many people’s experience and intuition about how we learn; whenever we observe another person performing any action, the neurons that we use to produce that action ourselves are activated.

Practice makes perfect.” Naturally, the more that we observe and perform an action, the more “hard-wired” the neural pathways become, making the production of the action more efficiently performed.

These insights from neural science highlight the importance of making sure that as teachers, we feed our students the best input possible.

Because if something is practiced incorrectly such as poor pronunciation for example, this also gets hard-wired making it more difficult to correct later on.

One useful way to apply the 4 basic language skills is as follows: Use 4 images on flashcards of a duck, a chicken, a cat, and a mouse. (Of course you will use the images corresponding with your specific lesson).

  1. Show each card and say the animal name and have the students repeat after you (Listening / Speaking)
  2. Turn over the card to show the written name and say it again.(Understanding / Reading).
  3. The students repeat again while viewing the word. (Reading / Speaking).
  4. Finally, demonstrate that the students will say the word, write the word, spell it out loud by doing so yourself. (Listening, / Speaking / Reading / Writing).

■ It may be apparent to you that the suggestion provided here is very, very simplistic. This is as it should be. This allows you the opportunity to build upon this framework to keep it as simple or as ornate as required for your needs.

Let’s assume you only have 2 hours for each lesson. Then you would teach steps 1 and 2 from above in the 1st hour, and then teach 3 and 4 in the 2nd hour. There are various permutations of this activity, and just as many fun ways to present it.

By being flexible and imaginative while sticking to the guidelines you must work within, you will begin to understand for yourself more and more just how natural and logical this order of the four basic language skills actually is.

All the while, keep in mind that there is really no good reason to attempt to separate the teaching of the four basic language skills from each-other unless there is a specific mandate from your organization to do so.

Another reason that you might logically derive from the natural order for focusing on one specific skill is if one of the skills downstream is lacking. It may be the case that more work needs to be done upstream.

For example, if the student is not speaking it may be that they need to do more listening to get to a point where they understand enough to feel comfortable speaking. Students may also require more listening if their pronunciation is not up to a standard.

If a student is not reading well, then it may be that they need to practice more speaking through call and answer exercises and read alongs.

And if the student is not comfortable writing, then it may be useful to practice more reading to recognize the letters, spelling, and sentences to become confident with writing.

The 4 basic language skills are interconnected. However, listening and understanding in practice often become most important.

You can illicit a Total Integrated Response (TIR) from your students by speaking and having them respond with an action; repeating back to you; reading to you; or writing down what you have said.

Assuring that your students understand the language 1st through listening will provide the necessary foundation to build upon for the rest of the skills to naturally and efficiently evolve out of as the lessons progress.

[SALT – Second & Additional Language Teaching – Haiku Science Academy – HypnoAthletics: Exercising Your Mind.]


¹ Aydogan, H. & Akbarov, A (2014). The Four Basic Language Skills, Whole Language & Integrated Skill Approach in Mainstream University Classrooms in Turkey; Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences.

² Vernier, S., Barbuzza, S., del Giusti, S.D., del Moral, G. (2007). The Five Language Skills In The EFL Classroom; Universidad de Cuyo.

³ Hinkel, E. (2010) Integrating The Four Skills: Current and Historical Perspectives; The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics (2 ed.)

“The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning” by James J. Asher. The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Jan., 1969)