The Difference Between Receptive and Productive Skills

December 10, 2018 by Lauren McKenzie

Although the difference between productive and receptive skills may seem obvious, they require very different approaches when preparing for the IELTS exam. Of course, one of the best ways to prepare for the IELTS is to use past tests to familiarize yourself with the topics commonly found on the test. However, that should not be the only method you use during your preparation. Real life situations can be invaluable to build and hone your skill set.

First, do a self-diagnosis. What's your strength in your first language? Are you an avid reader, or maybe your friends tell you what a great listener you are. Alternatively, you may be the life of the party with the ability to talk to anyone. Do you love to write, or write a lot for work or school and find that an effective way to express yourself and communicate?

Most people gravitate to either receptive or productive skills, and it may be related to whether you identify as more or an introverted or extroverted person. Regardless of your skill level, try to be honest with yourself and consider how your skill set in your first language may follow you into learning and practicing English.

Productive skills
These include speaking and writing – the production of language. Overall, it's easier to receive feedback from others about your productive skill set. Whether you're taking an IELTS preparation course, working with a tutor or just interacting in English in your daily life, you can easily tell if those you are communicating with can or cannot understand you. If you struggle to get or take feedback effectively, please feel free to read a previous blog post on this topic.

talking into a tin can phone
Speaking and writing are the skills that are more visible to others and, as a result, may be easier to address and practice with support from teachers, friends, or colleagues. A more extroverted person will likely feel more comfortable speaking in their first language, and over time, this ease of communication will become apparent in the additional language you use.

Receptive skills
Reading and listening are the skills we use to receive information – this makes it inherently more difficult to receive feedback from others. We all come with a filter that the information we receive passes through. This filter is informed by our age, background, education and life experience. We have personal interest areas, curiosities and expertise.

Young woman smiling holding a can with a string to her ear

While IELTS examiners and markers assess the productive skills, there is no subjectivity in the reading and listening, there isn't a scale, as seen with the band scores for the productive skills. You fill in a blank, and the answer is correct or incorrect. This focus is on right and wrong, versus the band scores which evaluate your skills more holistically. Therefore, being familiar with common IELTS topics and specifically, the question types and expectations of the IELTS test will help to allow you to focus on the skills you need to read and listen for main ideas and details successfully during the exam.

On a typical IELTS exam, you'll encounter many different topics, and some will be familiar, and others, by design, will be unfamiliar to you. Developing your areas of interest, reading, and listening to a wide range of material will increase your familiarity and your ability to understand the related vocabulary and achieve your desired score on the IELTS test.

Good luck!

Lauren has been teaching English for close to fifteen years in universities and language schools in Halifax, NS. To meet the needs of her students, she began her own study of the IELTS exam nearly five years ago and has since taught preparation workshops. Lauren lives in Halifax, NS where she enjoys hiking and live music as well as travelling, studying languages and reading nonfiction.

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