Teaching the macroskills

What are the four macro-skills?

Language teaching covers four macro-skills needed for communicating - listening, speaking, reading and writing. Good language teachers plan lessons, and sequences of lessons, which include a mixture of all the macro-skills, rather than focusing on developing only one macro-skill at a time.


Oral skills

Literacy skills

Receptive skills



Productive skills



Listening and speaking are oral skills. Reading and writing are literacy skills. Each week teachers should include some activities which focus on developing the students' oral skills (e.g. pair and group interactions and games) and some activities which focus on literacy skills (e.g. reading and analysing texts and then students write their own).

The four skills can also be grouped another way. Listening and reading are receptive skills since learners need to process and understand language being communicated to them in spoken or written form. Speaking and writing are known as productive skills since learners need to produce language to communicate their ideas in either speech or text.

It is common for language learners to have stronger receptive than productive skills, that is they can understand more than they can produce. Teachers often link activities for developing students' receptive and productive skills.

What is the connection between receptive and productive skills?

It's important for teaching activities to be designed so that learners receive input and modelled language (through listening and reading activities) before they are expected to produce those modelled structures (in their own speaking and writing). Listening and reading activities prepare students to be able to speak and write their own texts.

To take an example of a speaking activity, to enable students to talk about their family, a teacher might ask each student to prepare a profile of their family for an oral presentation to the class:
My family lives in Tumut. Our house is big. Dad cuts the grass. I have three brothers. Their names are Asher, Barren and Kennedy. We have a dog called Miri. Nana lives with us too. My auntie comes for dinner every night.
To prepare the learners for this speaking activity (demonstrating their productive skills in the language) it's important that they first have many opportunities to listen to and/or read models of family profiles (developing their receptive skills in the language). The models could be: an audio or video recording of people introducing their family; the teacher speaking to the class, introducing their family using photos; family profiles written by students in previous years. Before presenting to the class, the students could work in pairs to practise introducing their family.

To take an example of a writing activity, to enable students to write about what they did in the holidays or on the weekend, a teacher might set an activity in which each student writes a recount of an event. Here is an example written by a Yuwaalaraay student, featured on the Board of Studies NSW
(2003) Aboriginal languages K-10 assessment for learning in a standards referenced framework CD ROM:
Pig hunting

Girr ngaya, bubaa-biyaay, garruu-biyaay yanaanhi maniilay-gu bibirrgaa-gu. Wilbaa-ya yanaanhi ngiyani. Madhay ngay-bula yanaanhi. Burrulbidi bibirrgaa ngaraay ngiyani. 'Bayamaili ngiyani bibirrga nhama' guwaay ngaya. Giirr maadhaayu ngay nhama bibirrgaa bamba gawaanhi. Girr bibirrgaagu maadhaay ngay bumay. Banaganhi ngaya maadhaay-gu. Bayn dharra ngay ginyi. Bubaa-gu nganha dhiyamay. Gundhi-gu ngiyani yanaanhi.

I went pig hunting with my dad and uncle. We went in the truck. My dog came too. We saw a great big pig. 'We will catch that pig' I said. My dog chased the pig. The pig killed my dog. I ran to the dog. My leg is sore. Dad picked me up. We went home.
To prepare students for this writing activity (demonstrating their productive skills in the language) it's important that they first have many opportunities to listen to and/or read model recounts (developing their receptive skills in the language). The models could be written or told in language by the teacher and/or examples of recounts written by other students in previous years. The students read those models and answer questions about them. The teacher uses those models to help the students understand the meaning of the texts and analyse the language structures.

How do you teach receptive skills?

Both listening and reading are receptive skills. For a teacher to be sure that learners have understood a spoken or written text, they need to demonstrate their understanding through a response. The response may be:
Receptive skills involve bottom-up and top-down processing. From the bottom up, teachers ensure that students know the sounds and spelling system, word roots and suffixes, and build up to phrases, sentences and paragraphs. If students understand and can analyse smaller components of language, they can build up to understanding longer texts in the language.

At the same time, it is important to present students with opportunities to process spoken and written texts from the top down. The texts will contain a mixture of vocabulary and language structures which are already familiar to the students, together with vocabulary and structures which are not familiar. This challenges and develops students' ability to work out the meaning, fill in gaps, and develop skills in finding out about aspects of the language which are new to them.

From the top down, students hear or read a whole text. At first they may just pick up the gist of the text, e.g. they take note of the setting, identify the characters, understand the general meaning of the text. They use their understanding of the gist of the text to begin to work out more of the details, e.g. they make informed guesses about unfamiliar words and phrases in the text.

For students to develop their top-down processing skills, they often need to hear or read the text a few times. Each time they will process and understand more of the text. So don't worry if they don't understand the whole text the first time they hear/read it. Rather than immediately translating it into English for them, it's better to let them listen to or read the text again and again.

Top-down listening activities often involve a pre-listening exercise before the students hear the text for the first time. Here is an example from a Gamilaraay-Yuwaalaraay program on p. 27 of the Board of Studies New South Wales. (2003). Aboriginal Languages: advice on programming and assessment for stages 4 and 5:

The students have already learned family terms. They have completed various exercises with those vocabulary items, e.g. picture card games and word-picture matching exercises. The teacher has made his/her own audio recording of a character called Harry introducing his family.

In the pre-listening stage of the activity, the teacher tells the students that they are about to hear a recording of a boy called Harry who will introduce his family. As a class or in small groups, the students are asked to predict the kinds of things Harry will say in the recording. The students brainstorm and guess some of the vocabulary and structures they will hear in the target language.

In the second stage of the activity, the teacher plays the recording to the students. As they listen, they draw Harry's family tree. Their diagrams should show as many of the details as possible which they have heard in the recording, e.g. relationships between people, their names, what they look like. The students listen to the recording a few times in order to be able to add more detail to their diagrams. The teacher might have a worksheet for the students to complete - it might contain multiple choice, short answer, true/false questions about the recording, e.g. Where does Harry's family live? How many people in Harry's family? How many sisters does Harry have? What's Harry's Dad's name? Does Harry's family have a pet?

After the listening activity the students to share the details they heard in the recording. The teacher reviews the content of the text the students have heard and may focus the discussion on any details that the students had trouble understanding.
To develop learners' listening and reading skills, teachers can be a model. That is, teachers can speak to their students and write example sentences on the board. But individual words, phrases and sentences are not enough. Teachers can provide their students with much more input, if they provide them with opportunities to hear and read whole texts (such as the one about Harry's family). Sometimes those spoken and written texts already exist in the resources available to the teacher but sometimes they need to be created, developed and recorded.

What is Total Physical Response (TPR)?

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a method developed by James Asher in the 1970s. It has been used by teachers of many languages. It is based on the well-known principle that learners' receptive skills (listening and reading) are generally a step ahead of their productive skills (speaking and writing); it is usually much easier for learners to understand something than to say something in the target language.

In TPR activities, the teacher usually does the speaking. They both give and demonstrate sequences of instructions such as stand up, walk straight ahead, run over there, skip to the window, turn around, sit down on the chair, stand up again, return here, throw the ball to me, catch it. It is also possible for learners to start speaking the language by giving instructions to each other.

TPR is helpful for beginner learners. Through TPR learners watch the teacher's non-verbal communication, and quickly learn skills to comprehend and respond to verbal commands. It has been popular because it focuses on oral rather than literacy skills. Learners are actively engaged in listening to the language.

TPR is one of many strategies teachers use. There is a lot of information on the internet about it, including a short article about using TPR in Native American Indian languages.

You can read about a Wayilwan language lesson which combines three verbs with four pronouns from the NSW Board of Studies website.

What is a cloze activity?

A cloze activity is a text with words (or parts of words) removed. Students are asked to fill in the gaps. Teachers may (or may not) give students a set of words to choose from:
Today Dad went to the supermarket and bought some ________ , _______ and ______ . He gave ______ to the shopkeeper and carried the food to the ________ . He pulled his keys out of his _____ and drove home in the _______ .
Cloze passages are used for developing and/or assessing listening and reading skills in the target language. If students understand the context and can work out the meaning, they will be able to complete the passage. Teachers may delete words systematically (every 8th word) or selectively (e.g. all of the nouns, or all of the verb suffixes).

Below is an example in Yuwaalaraay, adapted from the Board of Studies NSW
(2003) Support material for Aboriginal languages Stage 4-5 Programming and assessment in a standards-referenced framework CD ROM. The students have already learned vocabulary items such as family terms, numbers, and pronouns such as I and my. They have learned structures for introducing themselves and their family, e.g. I am ________ , My name is ________ , I live ________ . They have listened to an audio recording of a boy called Harry introducing himself and his family. They now complete a reading cloze activity. The teacher deletes some key words and asks the students to work with a partner to work out which words belong in which gap.
________! Gayrr ngay Kennedy. Ngaya milan banay bularr. Buligaa ngay galduman. Ganugu gayrr _______ , Sam, Nicholas, Barren. Maa ngay buwadhaa: Tenitia, Christine, Sharnie, Sharnie's buwadhaa, Sarah. Guni _____ nhalay. _______ nguungu Maria. Bularr ngay ________ Bob, Jeff. Ngiyani wilay-la-nha Walgett-ga. ______ ngay wambanhiya. Milan wilay-la-nha Sydney-ga, milan wilay-la-nha ______-ga, milan __________ ngiyami-ngu gunhi-dja Walgett-ga.
Here are the missing words to choose from:
  • ngay
  • Namoi
  • gulibaa
  • bubaa
  • Gerard
  • gayrr
  • Yaama
  • wilay-la-nha
Once the students have completed the reading activity individually or in pairs, the class discusses the missing words, and talks about the meaning of the paragraph and any grammatical features.

How do you teach productive skills?

Both speaking and writing are productive skills. To enable learners to produce language, teachers select the vocabulary and structures, and the spoken or written text types which will be the focus of a lesson or unit of work.

As summarised in the diagram and example activity below, firstly the selected language is presented to the learners through listening and/or reading activities. That is, the teacher provides input and models the vocabulary and structures that the students are expected to produce. Secondly, students are given opportunities for controlled practice of that language. Ultimately this supports them to use that language to produce new spoken and written texts.

The modelled language may be provided by:
When students have listened to and/or read various models, teachers provide controlled practice activities so that the students can begin to rehearse the set vocabulary and structures in their own speaking or writing. Controlled practice may be in the form sentence substitution activities - the students take the model and substitute similar word types into each part of a sentence frame. For example:
Example/model: Kangaroos lie in the shade.

Sentence frame: animal name + animal action + place

Controlled practice: The sentence frame allows for many possibilities (e.g. Fish swim in the river. The dog eats outside the house. Birds fly in the sky. Brolgas stand in the water. Pipis burrow in the sand). The list of animal names can be long. The actions can be past, present or future tense. The place can be a number of different locations. The action and place parts of the sentence frame are an opportunity to teach and rehearse various verb and noun suffixes.
A series of additional sentence frames could model for the students how to describe what the animal looks like, how it moves, what it eats, its habitat and so on. In this way students build up a lot of relevant vocabulary and grammar for this topic. Controlled practice may also involve the whole class or small groups of students working together to jointly construct a text. After that, each student chooses an animal and independently writes a factual text, for example:
Emus are large birds. Their necks and legs are long. They have feathers and small wings. They don't fly. They walk and run fast. They live in flat country and near trees. They eat plants, insects and stones. They see and hear well. They live in pairs and groups.
Controlled practice supports the students to manipulate the learned vocabulary and structures in new ways. They create series of linked sentences in their own original spoken or written text. They use the newly introduced language but also incorporate language they have learned in previous lessons, units of work, school terms and years. They draw on recently learned language as well as the language skills and knowledge they have developed over a number of months or years. They can also use resources such as dictionaries.

Here is an example of a speaking activity in Gumbaynggirr, adapted from a unit of work about country
featured in the Board of Studies NSW (2003) Aboriginal languages K-10 assessment for learning in a standards referenced framework CD ROM. At this point in the unit, students have learned vocabulary related to coastal animals, place and activities. They have been introduced to nouns with ergative (doer to), locative (in, at, on) and purposive (for) suffixes. They have copied example sentences containing those suffixes, listened to sentences containing the suffixes and drawn pictures to indicate their understanding, and used the suffixes in controlled practice written exercises.

In the speaking activity, students are given a picture of a beach scene. They draw their own additional figures into the picture, e.g. people spending time on the shore.

Students then use the modelled and rehearsed vocabulary and structures, to take turns in talking with each other (in pairs or small groups) about what is happening in each of their scenes.

Barramalin warriida gaagala.
Yanggidam ngayinggi giduuda.
Junuybin wiigunay.
Yanggidam birrmading gaagalgu wurruugigu.
Gawbalambu maanay garraany barramalingu.
Junuybindu garraany yiilay.
Gamiigu gaguugu biyambay garraany.
Giibarrin bawging julgaagu.
Nyamiganambu maanay yaalgirr barramailingu.
Yarrang jiibiny garaala.
Yanggidam banging gaaba.

The family is down at the beach.
They are sitting on the sand.
The children become hot.
They are running to the sea to swim.
Uncle collects pipis for the family.
The children cook the pipis.
Grandma and grandpa eat the pipis.
The boys are swimming to the island.
The girls catch flathead for the family.
There are birds in the sky.
They are flying to the west.

This page was first published on January 24, 2022 and was last updated on January 24, 2022. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise.