Learning Theory

How Talking Is Like Reading

Language skills are usually broken down into four domains. In order of acquisition, they are: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. When I taught English in school settings, I had to put the cart before the horse and teach reading and writing in English from day one, while students are just beginning to hear for the language, understand vocabulary, and speak a little.

Over time, we have developed a lot of ways to talk about how students learn to read well. I think we can use these analyses of reading processes to inform how to better teach listening and speaking, specifically in the context of teaching students who have already mastered the four domains (L/S/R/W) in their first language (L1).

(Students who have not had the opportunity to become strong readers in their L1 (for whatever reason) will face other obstacles beyond the scope of this essay.)

In public schools in the US, reading teachers talk about “bottom-up” processing versus “top-down” processing to explain how learners become good readers. Bottom-up processing essentially requires knowing enough of the target language and having sufficient perceptual and linguistic skills to efficiently decode the vocabulary and language structures of the text. So, good readers recognize words and phrases and grammatical forms easily, even apart from context.

Top-down processing is when readers use what they already know about language, reading, the world and life in general to “facilitate higher-level interpretation of texts.” (p.95) Readers rely on background knowledge related to the subject, assumptions about the author’s intent (including that the text itself is cohesive), assumptions that we (humans) share an ability to reason and that our language has rules and structures which allow us to convey meaning through it via text.

An interactive approach to reading asserts that bottom-up type skills and top-down type skills tend to exist on something of a continuum and that good readers can draw on the various skills and strategies as needed without resorting to random guessing.

I would argue that development of similar bottom-up and top-down skills are prerequisite in spoken language before they can be applied to reading, and limitations in the development of these skills conversationally will render the individual a poorer reader by default.

To be a good conversant in the target language (TL), bottom-up skills would include being able to acquire enough vocabulary (both receptive and productive) so the individual can interpret what is heard and respond with correctly formed words and phrases using correct grammatical structures and prosody of the TL with minimal L1 interference.  

Further,  language learners must recognize and correctly interpret and use appropriately, basic visual cues (body language) in real-time and in context. Individuals with visual impairments and those listening to audio-only or conversing via telephone will likely struggle with fluid conversation unless they can compensate by faster and more accurate processing of spoken language without any visual context.

Being able to master these skills with a level of automaticity results in the conversant being able to listen and respond to general interactions with individuals in the TL.

From a more top-down perspective, good conversants must be able to make connections between what is being said, related topics (both broadly and in detail), and what might be implied other speakers in order to make a sense of and respond to the conversation.

Participants in conversation would also use culturally specific tactics such as opening and closing, turn-taking, and transitioning to other subjects.

Just as with reading, all of these skills can be strengthened and improved with practice. We suggest working with a language coach to specifically improve your spoken-language performance.

Jackrabbit English strives to provide professionals with opportunities for you to master spoken English. Examples of situations where speaking skills are imperative:

  • Participation in professional conferences
  • Sales presentations
  • Conversation with peers, supervisors, or employees
  • Teaching in English-language universities

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