Language learning is comprised of four foundational skills. Here’s how you can teach them in your course.

From the earliest days of the Internet, online learners and educators have looked for ways to use it as a resource for teaching and learning languages. It’s no surprise why: the Internet connects users around the globe, but that connection is only as useful as the communication it facilitates.

However, despite the interest, teaching language is as difficult as learning it. Many people have devoted their lives to learning more about how language acquisition works—and how better to teach new learners. From my own experience trying to teach business English in Russia, I can testify that you never realize how much of your own language you take for granted until you try to explain it to others.

There are a lot of ideas about how to teach language, but one common precept is that learning a language can be broken down into four foundational skills. These are listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

You’ll notice that two skills have to do with conversational communication, and the other two have to do with literacy. It’s also the case that two are passive skills (listening and reading), while two are active skills (speaking and writing). If you’re trying to offer a complete language package, you’ll need to cover all four of these skills to guide your learners to complete mastery. Here are some ideas for how to accomplish this over the Internet.

Listening: helping learners adjust their ears to a new language.

One of the biggest challenge a new language learner has lies in deciphering the flow of words from a native speaker. Many learners who only practice in a classroom become discouraged when they can easily pass a written exam, but fail in even a simple conversation.

I had a similar experience a few years ago when taking a German proficiency test. I felt confident in my ability to read and speak, and I thought my conversational skills were decent. But during the listening portion of the exam, I struggle to follow the audio conversation being played to my test group.

High-quality listening resources can be difficult for learners to come by. Many learners dive straight in to native speakers, trying to keep up with a television show or pop songs in their target language. But the dialog in the former can be too fast-paced for learners to follow, and music often has idiosyncratic timing or pronunciation. More importantly, neither of these listening methods offers a way for learners to test their understanding.

Ideas for teaching listening skills in an online course:

  • Pronunciation guides to help learners tell the difference between different words with similar pronunciations.
  • Audio of a text being read slowly, then repeated at the pace of a native speaker.
  • Comprehension tests that help learners check if they’ve understood an audio clip correctly.

Speaking: building language fluency and conversation skills.

A couple years ago, I started a Russian language meetup at my local bar/coffee shop. After some trial and error, we eventually hit upon a formula that worked for us. Rather than devoting a lot of time to a study group, we picked a conversation theme and went around the table giving each person a chance to speak. Then we’d have someone else in the group translate, to test both their understanding, and the speaker’s communication.

We’ve since moved our group to Skype, and it’s been encouraging to see how well that structure holds up. There are a lot of sophisticated learning platforms online that offer personal tutoring or which facilitate tandem learning among peers. But it is harder to arrange group conversations, and that’s before you consider other speaking resources.

For instance, many language learners struggle to be understood not because they lack the vocabulary, but because their pronunciation is poor. Resources that help train a learner to make the right sounds and hear the difference between similar sounds can help them be understood.

Similarly, learner can submit audio for review where they recite a poem, read an excerpt from a book, or deliver a presentation. This would be more intensive for the educator, but could deliver greater benefits to the learner.

Ideas for teaching speaking skills in an online course:

  • Pronunciation guides that help learners improve their pronunciation so that they will be understood when speaking.
  • Video presentations to share with the group.
  • Group chat sessions over Zoom or other video conferencing software.
  • Private tutoring.

Reading: growing literacy and reading comprehension.

My main motivation in learning languages has always been literature-based. I like reading, and I’ve always dreamed of reading some of my favorite books in their original language, rather than in translation.

However, depending on the language you’re teaching, there can be some pretty big hurdles to building literacy among your students. These can include a different alphabet from what your learners are used to, complex, front-loaded grammar that requires a lot of knowledge to sort out the relation between different words in a sentence, and specific words or phrase that are specific to written language.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of ways online educators can help ramp up the reading skills of their students.

Ideas for teaching reading skills in an online course:

  • Short texts of different difficulties with quizzes to test reader comprehension.
  • Focusing vocabulary on the most frequently used words in a language.
  • Allowing students to mark words they don’t know and automatically adding their dictionary to a tailored vocabulary list.

Writing: mastering formal communication.

As a writer, nothing is more painful to me that not being able to communicate fluently in writing. And yet, this is undoubtedly the hardest area to learn. It’s also the place where teachers spend most of their time: drilling grammar and building vocabulary lists of scarcely used terms.

Personally, as with reading, I find it most helpful to focus on vocabulary lists based on frequency rather than focusing on topic-related lists. (I remember being asked to memorize a list of theater-related terms during my second year of Russian. I still remember the Russian word for “dress circle,” but I have no idea what that is, nor have I ever encountered it in use.)

It’s also my personal opinion that writing is something learned by doing. The question is how to build up those skills over time so that learners aren’t thrown in the deep end. This will require grammar practice, but it will also require more personal attention from instructors as they work directly with their students to build up their written skills.

Ideas for teaching writing skills in an online course:

  • Short, daily grammar exercises.
  • Text or chat functions that allow learners to practice writing in short sentences with immediate feedback.
  • Asking students to write blog posts in the target language, starting with a few sentences and building up to several paragraphs.

Your course doesn’t have to cover all four foundational skills.

Here’s something to consider as well: you don’t need to teach all four skills. There are a lot of language learning resources out there, and some might cover these better than you would ever be able to. So instead of trying to offer the complete system, you could focus on just one.

You’re offering resources to help build listening comprehension, for instance. Or you’ve created special writing exercises. Pick your niche, and market your course as a learning supplement.

Unless you’re teaching a set course in a formal environment, your language learners might have language goals that don’t depend on mastering all four skills—and you can use that to tailor your course to their needs. Some might want to understand the lyrics to their favorite musician. Others may be planning to travel, and want to pick up some conversation skills. I started learning Russian because I wanted to read Russian literature—a goal I’m still working toward.

Learn about the goals your learners have, and it may help you design a course that better fits their interests.

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