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CELTA Syllabus
Topic 3: Language skills


It's not hard to figure out that most learners need to be able to read, write, understand and speak English.
Different learners, however, have differing priorities.
If you are learning a language primarily to fit into the society in which it is spoken then all four skills will be important: you need to understand what you read and hear as well as respond to it either orally or in writing.
However, if you have other reasons for learning the language, the mix may be different.

think write Task 1: Can you decide what might be the priorities for these 3 learners?
Click here when you have some thoughts.

This area of the CELTA syllabus ...

... contains the following areas (as one might expect):

topic 3
and we'll consider all these areas in this guide, albeit briefly.


Classifying the skills

Here are the four skills classified the conventional way:

skills classified

It's not a simple as that, of course, because we rarely speak without listening (although some of us do) and we often respond to what we read in writing.  Most of the time, then, skills are combined and operate together.
There are, however, times when we only use one skill at a time: reading a book, writing a website, listening to the radio or a station announcement, speaking to an answering machine or giving a presentation.


Analysing the skills

When it comes to analysing the skills, each one is tackled differently but there are some commonalities and some differences.


Receptive skills

Receptive does not mean passive.

A listener or reader may not seem to be doing much but that doesn't mean that a lot is not going on.  In fact, both listening and reading are active skills and listeners and readers use a number of strategies to understand.

There are, however, some clear differences between listening and reading.

think write Task 2: Can you fill in the missing bits in this chart?  Do that on a piece of paper and then click on the chart when you have an answer.

listening and reading

If you are unclear about what is meant by some terms, don't worry now.  The individual guides to the skills will make things clear.

Two key terms:

gist listening or reading
refers to getting the main message.  That may be enough in a lot of cases.
intensive listening or reading
refers to getting the details clear. That may be essential if you are listening to a train announcement or reading instructions for operating a chain saw.

Receptive strategies

When we listen or read, two processes happen simultaneously.

  1. The first of these is what is called bottom-up processing
    We try to decode what we see or hear using our knowledge of the grammar, lexis and phonology of English.
    When reading we decode the letters or chunks of letters and words, match them to the vocabulary store we have (our lexicon) and then figure out what the grammar is telling us about the meaning.
    When listening, we do much the same thing but here we are trying to divide the stream of noise into recognisable sections (words and phrases) and then match these with items in our lexicon.  At the same time, we are listening to how things are said so we can get an idea of the speaker's attitude.
    Using redundancy

    is a key concept which applies to top-down processing.
    We can't usually understand everything we hear or read and we don't need to.  Our eyes can skip sections of text and we can miss large amounts of what a speaker says and still follow the message.
    For example, it isn't difficult to understand these:


    and in a sentence like
        John is going to London early tomorrow morning
    there are bits of grammatical and lexical redundancy, too.
    We don't need the 'is' because we have said 'John' and that's enough to tell us that it's the third person.  We don't need the '-ing' ending on the verb (especially if we already know that we are talking about a current arrangement concerning the future) and we don't need the word 'morning' either, because we have already said 'early' and so on.
    Redundancy in language is not a problem for learners; it's a positive aid because it means we can miss or skip large sections of what we hear and read without losing our way.
  2. The second thing we bring to reading or listening is our knowledge of the world and the cultural setting.
    Using this kind of knowledge is called top-down processing.
    If, for example, if I already know the subject of a conversation, it makes understanding what is said much easier.  Equally, if I know how a newspaper is set out in terms of pictures, headlines and so on as well as the subject of an article, it is much easier for me to predict what I am going to encounter and that makes understanding easier.

It's important to realise that top-down and bottom-up processing happen at the same time.  We can practise the skills separately (and we often need to) but we apply them together.
There is a guide on this site concerned with the essentials of skills teaching which you may like to follow.
If you want to know much more about top-down and bottom-up processing and how we use them to infer meaning in the language we hear or see, go to the guide to inferencing.


Barriers to understanding

Both when listening and reading there are potential barriers to understanding.  These are sometimes called blocking events.

think write Task 3: Can you think what things might make it difficult to understand?
Click here when you have a couple of ideas.

The teacher's job is to reduce the barriers or give our learners ways to overcome them. 


Productive skills

Here, too, there are commonalities and differences.  Both skills require us to be comprehensible.
In writing, that means picking the right words and grammar to communicate our meaning.
We need to do that when we are speaking, too, but as we saw above, accurate grammar is not always required and we can also use simpler words (and even replacements for words we don't know like stuff or thing or even whatsitsname and thingummyjig) to get our message across.  We do, however, need to form the sounds of the language accurately enough and be aware of intonation and that's something the writer can ignore.

Speaking and writing differ in a number of ways.

think write Task 2: Can you fill in the missing bits in this chart?  Do that on a piece of paper and then click on the chart when you have an answer.

writing and speaking

Again, if you don't understand all these terms, don't worry. The individual guides will make things clear.

move on

Moving on

OK, now you are ready to move on to consider each skill at a time.
Go to the skills section of the initial plus training index and follow the links to the skill(s) that interest(s) you.
Take each skill at a time, read the What is ... guide first and then go on to the teaching guides.

The links below will lead you to guides to the other areas of the syllabus and to an overview unpacking what the syllabus means and how it is assessed.

Topic 1 Topic 2 Topic 3 Topic 4 Topic 5 Unpacking The CELTA Index
Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context Language analysis and awareness Language skills Planning and resources for different teaching contexts Developing teaching skills and professionalism Unpacking the syllabus and assessment The index of all the CELTA guides