Cambridge English Southern Europe

Experts in Language Assessment

Article for parents: Exploring the four language skills

with 5 comments

In this article, we explore how children develop the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. We will see the difference between learning to ‘receive’ language – listening and reading – and learning to ‘produce’ language – speaking and writing. Of course, we will also discuss how parents can help children develop these key skills.

Input – listening and reading skills

From a very early age, children understand much more than they can say. Their main source of language is from listening and making sense of what they hear. Slowly, as they get older and learn to read and write, they add to their knowledge of language and they learn more difficult words and expressions.

As Lynne Cameron says, ‘meaning must come first. If children do not understand the spoken language they cannot learn it’ (Cameron 2001:36). At first, when we read to very young children, they are simply listening and looking at the images. As parents, we can help children increase their knowledge of English by reading them stories that they can relate to. We can encourage them to make sense of the new words by linking them with the pictures. We can also use English DVDs of children’s films or cartoons, and sing songs with our children. If we know any English-speaking families, we can talk and play together to expand the range of English our children encounter.

When children hear or read stories, watch movies or have new experiences in English, they can often talk about these in their mother tongue, but they would find it more difficult to do so in English. This is because speaking in a foreign language is much more difficult than listening. If your child understands many things that people say in English, but says very little in English themselves, don’t worry – this is part of the process. Encourage children to speak, but don’t expect them to learn to speak as quickly as they learn to listen.

As children get older, they become more curious about the words on the page and start to make sense of the writing itself. Once children start learning to read, it is natural that they will want to learn how to do this in English, too.

There are many different ways that children may learn to read at school. For example, they may learn to read whole words, or they may learn different letters and sounds and then put these together, or there may be a combination of approaches. When children learn to read, this quickly gives them a real sense of achievement. Once they have achieved this in their own language, then reading and writing in English will help to add a new dimension to their language learning.

Output – speaking and writing skills

Learning to speak accurately and fluently in a new language is one of the greatest challenges for language learners’ (Pinter 2006:55).

As Pinter says, this can be especially true for young children as they may still be learning their own language. Some writers talk about the ‘silent period’: this is the time when children are listening and trying to make sense of what they hear. When they are ready, they will begin to speak and start to use some of the language they have learned. This is why it is important to expose children to a lot of language so that they build up their ‘store’ of words and phrases in English. Children’s natural curiosity and ability to communicate will make them want to use the language they have learned. So, it is important to provide children with useful language they can easily understand and use from a young age. This will be short phrases that the children can use frequently when they communicate, like What’s that? How are you? Bye-bye! Thanks. Me too. Why not? Can I …? etc.

Children need lots of practice in speaking and we should try to provide many opportunities for them to do so. This is where English-speaking friends or local English clubs are very useful. Otherwise, you could play games with toys or puppets, and make one or more of the characters English speakers.

From simple letters, to words, to sentences and finally to text, young children can get a real sense of achievement from producing a piece of writing. This is the same in a foreign language. Writing is a complex skill and is usually linked closely to learning to read. Once again, the method used by your child’s teacher will affect how they learn. Writing in a foreign language can be very challenging. However, if children can write the new language they have learned, this can help them to learn and use this language more confidently. Also, as Pinter says, some learners learn effectively when they can see the words and phrases written down.

So as we’ve seen, it is useful to remember that the four skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing, all contribute to your child’s language-learning experience. Things you do with your child can help them to develop these skills. Try to do English activities frequently, in short bursts, repeating over and over while making small changes or adding new activities. Sometimes something simple, like reading a bedtime story in English with your child, can make a real difference.

Cameron, L (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pinter, A (2006) Teaching Young Language Learners, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Written by Cambridge English Southern Europe

October 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

5 Responses

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  1. One of the best things we did for our kids was get them an online/web based learning to read program. It gave them a lot of confidence when they got to the classroom.

    Derrek B

    October 31, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    • We think so too. In fact, we have published a few articles in the past about how blogging (along with other online tools) could really benefit the children. We should be able to add further posts on this in the future.

      Thank you for your comments.

      Cambridge ESOL Greece

      November 1, 2013 at 11:48 am

  2. indeed, it is a challenging way of getting YLs to love EFL/ESOL, to develop their critical thinking skills along with developing their language skills and inviting them to incorporate into English culture…

  3. This is an excellent post. Very useful. I’ll keep these tips in mind 🙂


    October 20, 2013 at 10:11 am

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