This Is How Language Learning Is Skill Oriented


Language is one of the most incredible skills we as humans possess.  As social creatures, we rely on our language skills to survive in a civilized world. This skill allows for expanded reasoning capabilities, advanced thought, and greater self awareness. In essence, it makes us more human.

Language learning is skill-oriented due to the need for practice.  Learning a language requires one to acquire proficiency in a unique set of abilities: listening, reading, speaking, and writing.  To become fluent in a language is to practice until these skills are automatic or second nature.  

In this article, we define skill-based learning.  Then we discuss the skill-oriented nature of learning the linguistic skill set in a different language. Please read on to learn more about this fascinating angle.

How Skill Oriented Learning Applies to Language

To better understand this, let’s start with the concept of skill-based learning. It can be thought of as “learning how to learn.”  Many teachers wish to impart skill-based teaching methods to their students so that they can think critically on their own.  This contrasts with knowledge-based learning, which is focused on the facts and theories themselves.

We all know the saying “knowledge is power,” and it is… but what is often overlooked are the skills to absorb and articulate knowledge.  This is where skill-based learning comes in.

So how does this relate to language? Well, it has to do with how we humans obtain knowledge: communicating with each other.

A knowledge based classroom may look like a bunch of students mindlessly memorizing historical facts or the definitions of SAT vocabulary words.  Whereas a skill-based classroom will look like students reading a historical text and discussing what insights they drew.  According to LiteracyTA:

“They are learning how to think critically, analyze ideas, and speak and write with insight and sophistication.”

And they do this by spending time practicing their communication and literacy skills, their language skills.  So, to learn a language is to learn a skill.  Yes, it requires knowledge of things like vocabulary and grammar, but it is the practical use of that knowledge that transforms it into communication.

Language Is A Skill, So Learning One Takes Practice

The biggest tell that language learning is skill-oriented is the need for practice.  One does not just memorize vocabulary words in their brain and then all of a sudden speak the language fluently.  No, communicating in any language is a set of skills that are built up.

When I was an EL focused-teacher (teaching English language learners), I had to make sure the language practice always included the 4 domains of language:  

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

When considering communication in general, we can imagine each of these skills having levels.  And the lower levels need to be learned before the more advanced levels.  For example, a basic reading skill would be the ability to recognize keywords in a body of text, and a more advanced skill would be to pick up on the writer’s attitude or emotion.

As the basic skills are practiced, they become automatic, freeing up the student to practice more advanced skills.  This is true of any skill, not just language.  Dr. Jack Richards, a professor of linguistics has this to say:

“Initially, skills are often consciously managed and directed by the learner. This is called controlled processing.”

He goes on to use the example of a pianist or any musician learning a new piece of music. At first, they consciously practice the notes, and perhaps at a slower speed.  As they continue to practice, there is less and less conscious effort required and they are able to play the score from memory.  Also known as automatic processing.

So, with language learning, at first there is controlled processing.  Consciously learning the meanings of vocabulary and being aware of how one is pronouncing words.  With meaningful, consistent practice, i.e., having conversations with another who speaks the language, one can shift from this controlled processing to automatic processing.  Also known as speaking fluently.

Meaningful practice of the 4 skills above can and does look like a lot of different things.  To understand this, it’s helpful to observe how a child learns language.  When learning a second language, it’s not necessary to learn the following skill sets in order.  However, the individual skills have been listed in the order in which children naturally learn a language.

If you are interested in learning a second language and would like a all in one inclusive guide to the intermediate level, I recommend this program. Just head to one of the following links for a free trial in… SpanishJapaneseFrench, or German.

Listening Is Usually the First Skill to Language Learning

Of the 4 skills listed above, two are considered linguistic inputs and two are linguistic outputs.  Listening and reading are the input skills.  Of these two skills, a child learns to listen before they learn to read.  I’d venture to say it’s pretty rare that a baby is born fully literate.

A young child naturally learns to recognize the sounds that their parents make when they speak.  When words are associated with objects, their little brain stores the sound they heard with a mental picture of whatever object or action.  This is listening at the most basic level.  Otherwise known as learning vocabulary.

This is why I, and other language instructors, use audio tools to help students and why there is a large market of listening tools available.

When starting your journey with language, you should immerse yourself with music CDs, audio books, podcasts, and so on in the target language. As well, this is why parents are encouraged to provide an audio language-rich environment starting from pregnancy! Using music for babies CDs and toys focusing on language such as those from Baby Einstein, parents are creating a skills-based area for their child (links to Amazon).

Speaking Closely Follows Listening in Language Learning

Over time, as these sounds are ingrained in a child’s brain, they begin to learn to speak (speaking and writing are literary output skills). Now, here is where the term “meaningful practice” comes in.  Left to their own devices, a child can naturally use their vocal cords and their tongue to make noises.  To learn to speak a language, though, their parents or guardians are there to provide them feedback.

Consider this example.  If a child points to the family dog and blurts out “cat!” their parents will correct them.  This feedback is what makes the practice meaningful.  This is where the skill of speaking becomes a skill of communicating.

So as an adult is learning a second language, hearing a word or statement while seeing a picture or the actual object itself, is much more effective than directly translating vocabulary words.  And then speaking that back to someone that can give feedback is the meaningful practice required to learn this skill.  It’s the act of speaking wrong and being corrected over and over again until no correction is needed that is inherent to skill-oriented learning.

As an English language teacher, I couldn’t expect my non-English speakers to immediately start in the speaking domain. However, for learning to take hold, I gave my students simple English phrases right from the start and provided opportunities for meaningful practice.

Once you’ve learned some phrases in your target language, it is important for you to find ways to practice them, meaningfully.

One study published in the ELT Journal conducted with ESL students observed the effects of oral skills improvement in English by utilizing drama practice. The study not only took for granted that oration in any language is skills based, but that language as a whole can and should be improved in a variety of methods.

Reading and Writing Skills Come Next

Following the natural progression of language learning, we get to reading (input) and writing (output).  Whether it is a child learning their native tongue, or an adult learning a second language, there is no doubt that literacy in any language is a skill that is developed.

Once basic vocabulary is learned and can be heard and spoken, the learner can then learn phonetics.  This is a little tricky for adult learners, because they may need to unlearn the phonetics of their native language.  However, learning phonetics again requires practice to build on the skill of listening. To read more about the best age to learn a second language, go to this other article where I address it in detail.

Once listening is in the bag and one can identify words, the next building block in the skillset is to identify the combination of letters making that sound.  This often happens at the same time as writing.

Using spiral notebooks and composition books easily purchased from Amazon or your neighborhood store can be helpful when practicing the writing domain. You don’t need anything specialized or costly.

For a child, there is learning the actual physical skill of putting pen to paper and writing letters.  An adult learning a second language has a bit of an advantage here if the alphabets are similar.  However, if an English speaker is to learn the symbols of Mandarin, then it’s back to square one in terms of phonetics and writing.

However, just as there are some advantages for adults learning a second language, I’ve found from my teaching experience there are advantages and disadvantages for a child to learning a language like English, too.

For some children, the affective filter is so low that they breeze into learning English (generally, adults’ affective filter is higher than children’s because they are more prone to the embarrassment factor attached to learning something new). For other children, the drawbacks of not being very skilled in their first language is a detriment because they don’t have that to work from as a connection.

The affective filter is a metaphor that describes a learner’s attitudes that affect the relative success of second language acquisition. Negative feelings hinder a person’s acquisition of the target language and act as filters to block learning.

Nevertheless, learning phonetics, be it the first or the second time around, is all about practice.  Think flashcards; think repetitive “sounding it out.”  As with any skill, it’s truly about learning by doing.

There Is A Knowledge-Based Aspect, As Well, to Language Learning

Certainly, all learning has some level of new knowledge.  In terms of language, the knowledge-based side of the coin consists of vocabulary and grammar.  But once learned, even those abilities are a measure of one’s literary skill level.

What we are talking about here is controlled processing vs. automatic processing.  When learning anything new, like a new set of vocabulary words, there is a period of controlled processing.  This is where the individual makes conscious effort to “memorize” the vocabulary words.  Again though, this is an act of processing.  

For example, one might learn vocabulary by using flashcards.  The act of reviewing a deck of flash cards repeatedly is what’s known as controlled processing.  After enough controlled processing (practice), the flashcards are no longer needed, and one can now automatically recognize these vocabulary items in a different language.

The Final Talking Point on How Language Learning Is Skill Oriented

So to wrap it up:

  • Learning a language requires focus on for domains- listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
  • The hierarchy embedded in the domains are what create the progression of skills for learning English or any language.
  • While new knowledge is learned, the undying need for practice is what makes language learning very much skill oriented.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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