There are two aspects of language: receptive skills and productive skills. Knowing about receptive and productive language enables you to understand the natural process of language development.
Receptive skills include understanding and reading the English language. Receptive skills pertain to receiving information. When a student is spoken to, the student is receiving what the speaker is saying by listening to the speaker and understanding the speaker. The student is listening to the person’s speech and observing their body language to understand what the person is communicating. The same is true for the reading process. When a student is reading, the student is receiving information such as letters, sight words, punctuation, etc.. Receptive skills are easier, and therefore faster, to acquire than productive skills. In other words, typical ESL students will develop understanding and reading skills easier and faster than speaking and writing skills.
Productive skills include speaking and writing the English language. Productive skills refer to producing or expressing language or information. When a student speaks or writes, the student is producing or expressing information. Producing information is much more difficult than receiving information. Therefore, productive skills are more difficult and slower to develop than receptive skills. Writing skills in particular are the most difficult skills to learn and will be acquired last.
It is important for parents and teachers to know this natural process, so they are able to exhibit understanding and patience when a child is speaking or writing (or when evaluating a presentation or writing piece). Knowing about receptive and productive skills can alleviate a parent’s or teacher’s confusion and/or frustration when, for example, a child has stronger reading skills than writing skills and stronger understanding skills than speaking/expression skills.
What do receptive and productive skills have to do with identifying an ESL student with a learning disability?
It is important for ESL teachers to understand how typical English language learners develop language skills. It is necessary for ESL teachers to know that their students will develop understanding and reading skills faster than speaking and writing skills and to not, for example, misdiagnose an ESL student having a speech and language disability because their speaking skills are not as fully developed as their understanding skills. Knowing about receptive and productive skills is helpful when identifying an ESL student having a reading disability. An indication of an ESL student having a reading disability could be that their reading skills have developed much slower than their other skills. This is atypical of English language development and could be a sign that the ESL student may have a reading disability.
I had a student whose understanding and speaking skills were much more fully developed than his reading and writing skills. Since understanding and reading skills are acquired faster than speaking and writing skills, this student was developing his English language skills in an atypical way than most ESL students. This child entered the school district in kindergarten, was in the second grade, but reading at the kindergarten level. Again, reading skills are acquired at a faster rate, so this discrepancy would be atypical of an ESL student. ESL students who begin their education in kindergarten would typically be reading at grade level or close to grade level by the second grade. Because I knew about productive and receptive skills and the natural process of English language development, I was able to identify a reading disability. The student received special education services for reading in addition to his ESL services.