Four Skills and Three Modalities

Over the last 80 years several major shifts in foreign language teaching have occurred. All have been strongly motivated by perceived failures and gaps in the educational process and all have had the underpinnings of theories of learning, not just learning language but based in learning psychology. Those participating in these shifts have been not only highly motivated but have deep professional backgrounds and experience. There are none of those folks you see on-line who claim to have the magic key to learning languages, but that has not stopped detractors of new insights from characterizing them as the product of new fads and fly-by-night upstarts.  Some of these “new” approaches have been around for thirty to forty years; they just have not always entirely penetrated the profession.

The first shift in teaching actually occurred in the late 19th century when only the classical languages were taught in an academic setting. The theory was one of “faculties of the mind” that needed to be cultivated and intense grammar study clarified by translations became the vehicle for that cultivation. When modern languages were introduced into the curriculum in the early 20th century, in order to achieve acceptance they had to show they were taught as the classical languages were taught, i.e. grammar-translation.

The next motivation occurred when college educated language majors were found unable to function in the language in critical need during WW II. That wake-up call corresponded with the dominance of behaviorism as a learning theory and the wedding of the theory and the need produced the Audio-Lingual Method. The failure of that method to achieve the goals hoped for then generated the movement for proficiency. That rose to prominence in the early eighties, culminating in Alice Omaggio-Hadley’s book Teaching Language in Context (which, BTW, contains extensive analysis of other methods, past and present, and their underlying theoretical bases). The question to be answered was how to teach for proficiency rather than an intellectual understanding of how the language works. (A-LM aimed for the same but failed to deliver).

The method adopted to reach a proficiency goal was Communicative Teaching. With an emphasis on communication, learners were involved in activities designed to generate communication e.g. information gap, wherein a student has information the other student needs in order to complete a task and gets it by asking for it. The underlying psychology of learning theory was Cognitive Psychology.

At the same time, specialists in second language acquisition were looking at the research literature and wondering if all these approaches and methods accurately reflected how an individual  learns a language. Tracy Terrell and Stephen Krashen developed what they called The Natural Approach whose theory was that people learn a language when they understand messages in that language.While that input is going on, the brain is processing it and laying down the patterns of the language, which results, after a silent period, in production of the language as well as comprehension.

While a great many fl teachers have never heard of Krashen or reject his approach, which is called comprehensible input or the monitor theory, his impact on the field has been immense as attested to the number of pages devoted to him even in books on second language acquisition that are hostile to his approach and method. One outgrowth of the comprehensible input theory is a method called Teaching For Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling or TPRS.

Given this background, we have to evaluate these theories, approaches and methods based on research into their results. With little funding for research, the individual teacher is left to find a match for their students that produces results. An understanding of how and why these shifts in fl teaching occur helps us decide what methods to try. Within fl teaching, the abilities (called skills) aimed for have been broken down into listening, speaking, reading and writing. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a large organization (12,500 members) of fl educators, has committees who work on projects to support the profession. The Five Cs (Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities) offered hooks teachers could hang their curriculum on. Taking on the Communication domain, the ACTFL standards state, “Communication can be characterized in many different ways. The approach suggested within this document is to recognize three “communicative modes” that place primary emphasis on the context and purpose of the communication. … Each mode involves a particular link between language and the underlying culture that is developed gradually over time.” So these modalities are one way of defining communication. They are not meant as a replacement of the four skills and least of all a rebuke of them. Shrum and Glisan (The Teacher’s Handbook) put it this way: “The standards … thus depict the four skills as working in an integrated fashion [with the three communicative modes].”

The first modality is interpersonal and it is characterized by active negotiation of meaning. Bear in mind, these modalities function in both oral and written language, i.e. communication need not signal oral language only. Anyone who is not perfectly proficient in another language knows what it is like to negotiate meaning: repeats, requests for restatement, offering some confirmation of meaning, and so forth. In this modality, all four skills would be employed e.g. an exchange of letters or e-mails (I think of my poor Russian pen pal deciphering my very unidiomatic letters) or setting up a date for dinner after a conference.

The second modality is the interpretive mode where we understand what is said or written. In both modes, speech and writing, we practice “reading between the lines,” which requires a good knowledge of culture and the pragmatics of the other culture, e.g a “why don’t you drop by some time” or, depending on the part of the country, “y’all come,” might produce an unexpected visit the following day, perhaps with the whole family in tow. The CIA scours foreign newspapers, reading between the lines as to who is out and who is in in the hierarchy: “General Timofeyev is enjoying a well-deserved rest.” Oh yeah, where? This modality would emphasize receptive abilities.

And the third modality, presentational, emphasizes output. Here is where Krashen’s monitor model comes in, when you check and revise what you are saying or writing, thinking about grammar and word choice. It is output or production oriented. Since it is one-way communication, the presenter needs to have a good knowledge of the receiving audience’s culture and knowledge base because there is no way to negotiate the meaning; it has to be clear on first presentation.

Some languages and some language purposes might emphasize a particular one or two of the four abilities or one of the three modalities, e.g. Latin teacher usually  emphasizes reading and a learner might need only to use spoken Japanese, dispensing with the writing system.

In looking at these shifts in teaching methodology and theory, an authoritative and prescriptive tone has no place. We are all looking for ways to teach effectively. These three modalities offer us one view of what our purpose as teachers might be. It is in no way meant to be what every teacher should be doing and it is worthwhile to have more than one perspective on our goals. I might throw out another triplet here: the ability to communicate in the three modalities requires knowledge of the practices, perspectives, and products of the receiving culture, e.g. an American in Japan assuming a corporate decision making process similar to that of U.S. culture can result in treading unfamiliar ground. Doing business in India is accelerated by the use of poetic couplets (ghazals). In Appalachia fast talk puts up barriers: slow down, inquire about the person, then talk business.

What motivated this shift in what amounts to terminology, since the 3 modalities certainly include the four abilities? My guess is that it is similar to what motivated the abandonment of grammar-translation. Francis Fukuyama tells us that great progress in a society’s functioning, especially its government’s functioning, results from the pressures of war. No doubt it is the same for language instruction, as much as we might hate to admit it. The pressures of the Cold War pushed the search for ways to ensure that foreign language learners emerged from our classes with the ability to “read between the lines.”


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