Receptive or Expressive?

23 Apr

Learning a new language is always both fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Fascinating because a whole new world opens up, and new connections are made. Frustrating because even though I am soon starting to understand some sentences in the new language, I am still far away from speaking fluency, and I know from experience that it will take a looong time before I get there.

It occurred to me that learning always seems to follow the same pattern, no matter what we are learning, language or something else. First you gain some basic ideas about the topic (or language), and try to wrap your mind around it. Then you try to produce something  from you newly learned knowledge. In language learning we call these receptive and expressive language skills. And language teachers have long time known how important it is to get students started with speaking on the target language from the day one, to keep the expressive threshold low for them.

Already in elementary school we are introducing several new “languages” to students: math has a large vocabulary, so does science…not to talk about linguistics, and learning all the names of different features in language. If these “new vocabulary requirements” are not discussed openly with students, they will remain as parts of the hidden expectations. Encouraging students to learn these new vocabularies and use them in everyday speech is a single teaching strategy that will carry for years and years in the future.

Language teachers also know how important students’ talking in the class is,  when we want to help them get fluent.  It is equally important for students to externalize their thoughts and individual understanding about other school subjects to gain the necessary depth of learning. This is easily done by providing every student an opportunity to verbalize their understanding – and because we have limited time in the classroom, it must be done in short pair or group discussions. Every day. In every subject.

Why do we still seem to think teachers’ talking being more important than students’ talking? When the teacher is talking  students are building  only their receptive skills.  Of course, this is the same truth as in learning being more important than teaching.

Only when your expressive skills are adequate  (i.e. you know what you are talking about) you can master the subject.

What is your expectation for your students? Do you wish them to become “fluent” enough with your subject, or are you happy if they have limited receptive understanding about it?

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