Teaching receptive skills to ESL and EFL learners

Teaching receptive skills

This post is about teaching receptive skills to ESL and EFL students. The following points will be covered:

  • What are the four language skills?
  • What approaches are used to teach language skills?
  • How are the receptive skills taught?
  • What is meant by bottom-up processing?
  • What is meant by top-down processing?
  • How is the receptive skills lesson plan designed?
  • Why should the focus be on the reading and listening strategies?
  • How should the comprehension tasks be sequenced?
  • How to deal with potential difficulties?

What is meant by skill?

A skill is commonly defined as an ability to do something well or with expertise. In education, skill refers to an ability acquired through planned, deliberate, and systematic effort. Students reach automaticity and become skilled after extensive practice. Richards and Schmidt (2010, p. 532) define a skill as:

“An acquired ability to perform an activity well, usually one that is made of a number of coordinated processes”

In language teaching, language skills are categorized into two categories: receptive and productive skills. Reading and listening are part of receptive skills. The productive skills, however, comprise speaking and writing.

Receptive and productive

Receptive skills

In language teaching, the receptive skills are those skills where meaning is extracted from the spoken or written discourse. These skills are listening and reading, respectively.

Productive skills

The productive skills, on the other hand, refer to the skills where the students are invited to produce language in written or spoken forms, that is in (i.e. speaking and writing.)

Teaching language skills

Teaching language skills differs considerably from the approaches adopted in teaching the other language components, such as grammar, vocabulary, and functions. Grammar, vocabulary, and functions are usually taught using PPP (i.e. Present, Practice, produce), TBL (i.e. Task-Based-Learning), or OHE (i.e. Observe, Hypothesize, Experiment) approaches. Teaching language skills follows quite different procedures.

In the following sections, we will deal with the procedures followed in teaching both receptive skills.

Teaching receptive skills

Three important things should be taken into account when teaching receptive skills:

  1. The aim of teaching receptive skills is to help the learners develop the necessary skills to understand and interpret spoken or written materials. Consequently, the teacher has to avoid focusing only on testing the learners’ performance in getting the meaning of the texts and aim, instead, at training them to use the reading and listening strategies that enable them to deal with any type of text.
  2. People read or listen for a purpose. This can be to get specific information or to get a general idea of the text. Sometimes, listening and reading are done just for pleasure as when we read poetry or listen to a podcast.
  3. The receptive skills are not passive. Listeners and readers make use of important cognitive processing while listening or reading. Two of the most important activities that occur in the mind while processing a text are top-down and bottom-up

Top-down processing

Top-down activities refer to the activities where the learners are asked to get a general view of the passage. Here are some examples of top-down processing activities:

  • Using pictures to predict what the topic will be about.
  • Providing three or four titles and asking the students to listen to or read the passage to decide about the most appropriate title for the passage.
  • Providing headings and asking the students to match them with the different sections of the passage.
  • Providing different pictures to be matched with the different sections.
  • Putting a series of pictures or a sequence of events in the right order.
  • Listening to conversations and identifying where they take place and the people involved.
  • Asking the students to infer the type of relationships between the people involved.
  • Providing students with a set of information to be studied. They then have to listen to or read the main passage and decide whether or not the same points are mentioned.

Bottom-up processing

Bottom-up activities are concerned with things such as individual words, phrases, and sentences. These activities guide the students to construct a better text meaning. For example, these activities help the learners to retain information while it is being processed, identify word and clause boundaries, recognize key transitions, locate referents, understand grammatical relationships between syntactic elements in an utterance or sentence, and identify sentence functions. Examples of such activities include:

  • What do some underlined words refer to? Or who/what does a pronoun refer to?
  • Identify the order of a set of words in the discourse.
  • Recognize linking words or sequence speech markers.
  • Recognize the parts of speech of a set of words.
  • Identify the tense of verbs.
  • Identify synonyms or antonyms of a set of words in the text.

The receptive skills lesson plan

The comprehension tasks involved in the receptive skills should normally follow a sequence of activities from getting a general view of the text (i.e. top-down processing) to studying the more specific and smaller bits/elements that constitute these texts (i.e. bottom-up processing).

The receptive skills lesson plan starts with preparing the students through warm-up and lead-in activities. Then, the teacher focusses on the strategies (e.g. predicting, inferring meaning from the context, locating referents, etc.) needed to understand the spoken or the written text.  This is followed by comprehension tasks that aim at, first general, then, detailed comprehension of the content of the text. The lesson ends with a follow-up activity that summarizes the text, connects it to the leaners’ daily life experiences, or pushes them to react to it.

Figure 3 shows the procedure adopted to sequence the reading and listening activities:

The receptive skills procedure

The receptive skills procedure

Figure 3 Receptive skills procedure

The procedure commonly adopted to teach receptive skills can be summarized in the table below. The steps in this sequence are referred to as pre, while and post stages:

Pre-stageWarm-upAny activity that will put the students in the mood of learning (e.g. riddle, chanting, tongue twister, etc.). It shouldn’t take a lot of time. Five minutes maximum.
Lead-inPreparing the students to the topic through:

The activation of the schematic knowledge about the topic (e.g. using related pictures or graphs, discussion of related quotes, etc.)

Vocabulary pre-teaching (i.e. pre-teaching a limited set of key vocabulary.)

Grammar pre-teaching (e.g. the plural forms, time expressions, form of certain verbs, etc.)

Strategy teachingExplicitly teaching the learners about how to use a reading or listening strategy (e.g. using prior knowledge, skimming, scanning, locating referents, etc.)
While-stageStrategy practiceThe learners apply the strategy. They do the task first individually, then they compare answers in pairs or groups.
Comprehension tasksTrue/false exercise



Sentence completion

Text workLocating referents.

Matching words with their definitions.

Finding in the text synonyms or antonyms of given words.

Inferring the meaning of words from the text.

Identifying verb tenses.

Identifying linking words.

Post-stageReviewingRecalling information from the text.

Re-telling the story.

Summarizing the text.

Completing a chart with the main ideas discussed in the text.

ConnectingConnecting the text with other texts.

Connecting the texts with the learners’ lives.

Connecting the text with the world.

Follow-upUsing the textUsing the text as a springboard for teaching other components such as writing, speaking, or grammar.



Teaching reading or listening comprehension is not testing comprehension. A receptive skill lesson aims at training the learners to use the necessary tools to understand any type of text. In other words, the teacher should initiate learners to make use of different strategies to get meaning from written or spoken text.  These strategies are related to either top-down or bottom-up cognitive processing. Ideally, the teacher should start with a general understanding of the text (i.e. top-down processing) and end up with a more detailed understanding (i.e. bottom-up processing).


As readers or listeners, we never start reading or listening completely from a “zero starting-point.”  We always use our prior knowledge to predict what the text will be about or to make sense of what is said or written. In addition to that, we always look for contextual clues to help us in our quest for making sense of the text. We also often recall and connect the information in the text to other texts, to ourselves and the world.

As teachers, we have to train our learners to make use of strategies such as those described below so that they can become better readers and listeners. Here are short descriptions of some of these strategies:


Using information or elements from a passage (e.g. title, headings, pictures, diagrams, words in bold type,…) and personal knowledge to anticipate what the text is about.


Reading a text quickly to get its general idea (i.e. to get the gist) of the content.


Reading a text quickly to locate a specific fact or piece of information. This may be a date, a name or a figure… This strategy is also referred to as reading for specific details


Previewing or surveying consists of having an idea about the content and goals of a reading text before starting to read. To do so, readers look at the title, sub-titles, a picture or read the first sentence of each paragraph, …


Generating questions about the text and the writer’s intentions. This helps learners get engaged actively with a text instead of reading it passively.

Making connections

Readers relate the content of the passage to self, to other texts or to the world. Good readers take advantage of the connections they make between the current passage with:

  • Their personal experiences (text-to-self),
  • The content from other texts (text-to-text),
  • Their knowledge about the world (text-to-world).

Making connections enhance deeper insight and understanding.


Making meaning of the text by reading between the lines and using personal knowledge. The aim is to construct meaning beyond what is literally expressed. By inferring, readers are adding information that is not explicitly stated.


Summarizing consists of giving a brief statement of a text (using one’s own words) by identifying the most important points. This strategy helps learners integrate the main ideas in a meaningful way.

Using background knowledge

Using what is already known to better understand something new. By activating prior knowledge, readers try to make sense out of what they read by seeing how it fits with what they already know.

Locating referents

Identifying the antecedents of some words in a text.


Relying on memory to retrieve a specific piece of information or a general idea from a text/ retelling the content of a text without going back to it


Critically reflecting on and judging the author’s purpose, attitude, opinion, etc.

Comprehension questions

The comprehension question aims to get both an overall and a detailed understanding of the text. These may be in the form of:

  • True or false questions.
  • Wh-questions – questions that start with what, when, why, how…
  • Sentence completion
  • Matching

General to specific tasks

Teaching receptive skills follows a sequence that starts from general to more specific understanding. The following table provides examples of tasks that can be assigned in each stage in this sequence.

Table 1 General to a specific understanding of texts

Overall understandingMore detailed understandingLanguage focus
How many people are speaking?

What are they talking about?

Where are the speakers?

Choose an appropriate title.

Match the headings with the different sections


Why are they in the hospital?

What happened to Jane?

What was the doctor’s prognostic?

What are the words that describe Jane’s health problem?

Underline the words/ expressions that describe her parents’ feelings.

What tenses are used?

Authentic texts

Some teachers prefer to use authentic texts. Their rationale is that the students have to be confronted with real language although they might miss some words.  This can be challenging. It is true that learners sometimes work harder when they are challenged with real language, but this can be counter-productive and might demotivate them. One way to overcome the problems that may arise when using authentic texts is to provide some scaffolding (i.e. fine-tuned help when needed) while they are doing the task. Another way is to redesign authentic materials to fit the learners’ level without affecting the naturalness of the language. Simplifying the texts does not mean that we should sacrifice the elements that give a natural pigment to the text.

Dealing with potential difficulties

Sometimes, the students find difficulty understanding the spoken or written text. This generally happens because of the presence of some difficult words or complex grammatical structures. In this case, it is advisable to pre-teach these language elements through brief presentation and explanation before starting the comprehension questions. However, teachers should be cautious not to explain every difficult word or structure when we want our students to make an effort to get the general meaning of the text. When it is the case, we have to warn our students that they have to get the general meaning in spite of the presence of difficult language that they might not know.


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2 thoughts on “Teaching receptive skills to ESL and EFL learners”

  1. I am impressed to have read you work and its of great help to my studies .I am doing post graduate diploma in Education majoring in English.

  2. To learn to speak English,we need the ability to read, listen ,speak and undertanding,this Will help us to speak in english fluently.

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