For more than six decades now, research and practice in English language teaching has identified the "four skills" — listening, speaking, reading, and writing – as of paramount importance. ESL curricula and textbooks around the world tend to focus, all too often, on just one of the four skills , sometimes to the exclusion of the others. Books, articles, anthologies, research surveys, and conferences typically index or organize their contents according to each of the four skills.
It is perfectly appropriate to thus identify language performance. The human race has fashioned two forms of productive performance, oral and written, and two forms of receptive performance, aural (or auditory) and reading. There are, of course, offshoots of each mode. Lumped together under nonverbal communication are various visually perceived messages delivered through gestures, facial expressions, proximity, and so forth. Graphic art (drawings, paintings, and diagrams) is also a powerful form of communication. But attention to the four different skills does indeed pay off as learners of a second language discover the differences and interrelationships among these four primary modes of performance.
Despite our history of treating the four skills in separate segments, of a curriculum, there is a recent trend toward skill (integration). That I, rather than designing a curriculum to teach the many aspects of one skill, say, reading, curriculum designers are taking more of a whole language approach whereby reading is treated as one of two or more interrelated skills. A course that deals "with reading skills, then, will more often than not also deal with related listening, speaking, and writing skills. A lesson in a so-called reading class, under this
new paradigm, might include:
• a prereading discussion of the topic to activate schemata;
• listening to a teacher's monologue or a series of informative statements about the topic of a passage to be read;
• a focus on a certain reading strategy, say, scanning;
• writing a response to or paraphrase of a reading passage.
This reading class, then, models for the students the real-life integration of language skills, gets them to perceive the relationship among several skills, provides the teacher with a great deal of flexibility in creating interesting, motivating lessons.
A. WHY INTEGRATED SKILLS?
Some may argue that the integration of the four skills diminishes the importance of the rules of listening, speaking, reading, and writing that are unique to each separate skill.
Such an argument rarely holds up under careful scrutiny of integrated-skills courses. If anything, the added richness of the latter gives students greater motivation that converts to better retention of principles of effective speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Rather than being forced to plod along through a course that limits itself to one mode of performance, students are given a chance to diversify their efforts in more meaningful tasks.
Such integration can, of course, still utilize a strong, principled approach to the separate, unique characteristics of each skill. So you may be wondering why courses weren't always integrated in the first place.
There are several reasons:
1. In the pre-Communicative Language Teaching (CUT) days of language teaching, the focus on the forms of language almost predisposed curriculum designers to segment courses into the separate language skills. It seemed logical to fashion a syllabus that dealt with, say, pronunciation of the phonemes of English, stress and
intonation, oral structural patterns (carefully sequenced according to presumed grammatical difficulty), and variations on those patterns. These language-based classes tended to be courses in "baby linguistics" where a preoccupation with rules and paradigms taught students a lot about language but sometimes at the expense of
teaching language itself.
2. Administrative considerations still make it easier to program separate courses in reading and speaking, and so on, as a glance at current intensive and university English courses reveals. Such divisions can indeed be justified when one considers the practicalities of coordinating three-hour-per-week courses, hiring teachers for each, ordering textbooks, and placing students into the courses. It should be noted, however, that a proficient teacher who professes to follow principles of CLT would never conduct, say, a reading class without extensive use of speaking, listening, and writing in the class.
3. This leads to a third reason that not all classes are integrated. There are certain specific purposes for which students are studying English that may best be labeled by one of the four skills, especially at the high intermediate to advanced levels. In an academic setting such as a university, specialized workshops, modules, tutorials, or courses may be constructed explicitly to improve certain specialized skills. Thus a module in listening comprehension might include instruction on listening effectively to academic lectures, to fellow students in the classroom, to audio programs where there are no visual cues, to the consultative register used in the professor's office, and even to fellow students in casual conversation. Such a course might encompass phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical, semantic, and discourse elements.
Aside from these caveats, the integration of the four skills—or at least two or more skills—is the typical approach within a communicative, interactive framework. As Hinkel (2006, p. 113) noted, "In an age of globalization, pragmatic objectives of language learning place an increased value on integrated and dynamic multiskill [my italics] instructional models with a focus on meaningful communication and the development of learners' communicative competence." Most of the interactive techniques already described or
referred to in this book involve the integration of skills. The following observations support such techniques.
1. Production and reception are quite simply two sides of the same coin; one cannot split the coin in two,
2. Interaction means sending and receiving messages.
3. Written and spoken language often (but not always!) bear a relationship to each other; to ignore that relationship is to ignore the richness of language.
4. For literate learners, the interrelationship of written and spoken language is an intrinsically motivating reflection of language and culture and society.
5. By attending primarily to what learners can do with language, and only secondarily to the forms of language, we invite any or all of the four skills that are relevant into the classroom arena.
6. Often one skill will reinforce another; we learn to speak, for example, in part by modeling what we hear, and we learn to write by examining what we can read.
7. Proponents of the whole language approach (see Chapter 3) have shown us that in the real world of language use, most of our natural performance involves not only the integration of one or more skills, but connections between language and the way we think and feel and act.
B. MODELS OF SKILLS INTEGRATION
How can you maintain an integrated-skills focus in your teaching? All of the models and approaches described in Chapter 3 are predicated on the use of at least two if not all four skills; learner-centered instruction: cooperative or collaborative learning, interactive learning, whole language education, content-based instruction, and task-based instruction.
Even the added "candidates‖ for approaches, the Lexical Approach and Multiple Intelligences, imply several skills in developing communicative competence.
In order to illustrate a number of possible integrated approaches to language instruction, two of the previous models (content-based and task-based instruction) will be briefly analyzed here along with some further concepts that highlight the integration of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Content-Based Instruction Content-based (sometimes referred to as "content-centered") instruction, described in Chapter 3, integrates the learning of some specific subject matter content with the learning
of a second language. The overall structure of a content-based-curriculum, in contrast to many traditional language curricula, is dictated more by the nature of the subject matter than by language forms and sequences. The second language, then is simply the medium to convey informational content of interest and relevance to the learner. Examples of content based curricula include immersion programs for elementary school children, sheltered English programs (mostly found at elementary and secondary school levels), writing across the
curriculum (where writing skills in secondary schools and universities are taught within subject-matter areas like biology, history, art, etc.), and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) (e.g., for engineering, agriculture, or medicine).
It is perhaps already clear that content-based teaching allows learners to acquire knowledge and skills that transcend all the bits and pieces of language that may occupy hours and days of analyzing in a traditional language classroom. Research on second language acquisition at various ages indicates the ultimate strength of learning that is pointed toward practical non-language goals. The meaningful learning principle applies well
here. Learners are focused on useful, practical objectives as the subject matter is perceived to be relevant to long-term goals. This also increases the intrinsic motivation that is so important to learning of any kind.
Content-based instruction allows for the complete integration of language skills. As you plan a lesson around a particular subtopic of your subject-matter area, your task becomes how best to present that topic or concept or principle. In such lessons it would be difficult not to involve all four skills as your students read, discuss, solve problems, analyze data, and write opinions and reports.
Task-Based Language Teaching
Task-based language teaching (TBLT) was defined and discussed in Chapters 3 and 11. As you will recall, there are a number of different interpretations in the literature on what, exactly, a task is. What these various understandings all emphasize, however, is the centrality of the task itself in a language course and the importance of organizing a course around communicative tasks that learners need to engage in outside the classroom. At its heart, then, TBLT implies several integrated skills in its focus on language in the real world.
Most real-world situations demand simultaneous use : two or more skills.
In task-based instruction, the priority is not the forms of language, but rather the functional purposes for which language must be used \Yhile content-base^: instruction focuses on subject-matter content, task-based instruction focuses < n A whole set of real world tasks themselves. Input for tasks can come from a varictv .f authentic sources:
• oral descriptions
• narratives • media extracts
• public announcements
• games and puzzles
• cartoon strips
• letters, e-mails
• telephone directories
And the list could continue. Evident in this variety of source material is the necessity of attending to more than just one of the four skills. Course goals in TBLT are not linguistic in the traditional sense of just focusing on grammar or phonology; by maintaining the centrality of functions like exchanging opinions, reading newspapers and menus, writing letters and e-mails, etc., the course goals center on learners' pragmatic language competence.
So we have in task-based teaching a well-integrated approach to language teaching that asks you to organize your classroom around those practical tasks that language users engage in "out there" in the real world. These tasks virtually always imply several skill areas, not just one, and so by pointing toward tasks, we disengage ourselves from thinking only in terms of the separate four skills. Instead, principles of listening, speaking, reading, and writing become appropriately subsumed under the rubric of what it is our learners are going
to do with this language.
Another way of looking at the integration of skills is to consider the structure of many English language courses around the world. Courses tend to focus on topics, situations, or "themes" as one of their organizing parameters.
Theme-based instruction is not the same as content-based. In order to distinguish the two, let's think of the former as a "weak" version of the latter. In the strong version (content-based), the primary purpose of a course is to instruct students in a subject-matter area, and language is of secondary, and subordinate interest. The examples of content based instruction mentioned earlier in this chapter are good illustrations of the strong
version. English for Specific Purposes (ESP) at the university level, for example, gathers engineering majors together in a course designed tolteach terminology, concepts, and current issues in engineering. Because students are ESL students, they must of course learn this material in English, which the teacher is prepared to help them with. Immersion and sheltered programs, along with programs in writing across the curriculum, are similarly focused.
A weak form of content-based teaching actually places an equal value on content and language objectives. While the curriculum, to be sure, is organized around subject-matter area, both students and teachers are fully aware that language skills don't occupy a subordinate role. Students have no doubt chosen to take a course or curriculum because their language skills need improvement, and they are now able to work toward that
improvement without being battered with linguistically based topics. The ultimate payoff is that their language skills are indeed enhanced, but through focal attention to topic and peripheral attention to language.
This weak version is actually practical and effective in many instructional settings. It typically manifests itself in what has come to be called theme-based or topic-based teaching. Theme based instruction provides an alternative to what would otherwise be traditional language classes by structuring a course around themes or topics. Theme-based curricula can serve the multiple interests of students in a classroom and can offer a focus on content while still adhering to institutional needs for offering a language course per se. So, for example, an intensive English course for intermediate pre-university students might deal with topics of current interest such as public health, environmental awareness, world economics, etc. In the classroom students read articles or chapters, view video programs, discuss issues, propose solutions, and carry out writing assignments on a given theme. English for Academic Purposes (EAP) in a university is an appropriate instance of themebased
Granted, there is a fuzzy line of distinction between theme-based instruction and "traditional" language instruction. You could easily argue that many existing reading and writing courses, for example, are theme-based in that they offer students substantial opportunities to grapple with topics of relevance and interest. I don't think it is important, or necessary, to dichotomize here. What is important is to view theme-based instruction as a context for the integration of skills.
Numerous current ESL textbooks, especially at the intermediate to advanced levels, offer theme-based courses of study. Challenging topics in these textbooks engage the curiosity and increase motivation of students as they grapple with an array of real-life issues ranging from simple to complex and also improve their linguistic skills across all four domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Consider just one of an abundance of topics that have been used as themes through which language is taught: environmental awareness and action. With this topic, you are sure to find immediate intrinsic motivation—we all want to survive! Here are some possible theme-based activities:
1. Use environmental statistics and facts for classroom reading, writing, discussion, and debate. You don't have to look very far to find information about environmental crises, research on the issues, and pointers on what individuals can do to forestall a global disaster. Here are some modes of performance based on such material (coded for each of the skills):
[for intermediate to advanced students]
• (R) scan [reading selections] for particular information
• (W) do compare-and-contrast exercises
• (R) look for biases in statistics
• (L,S) use statistics in argument
• (W) use the discourse features of persuasive writing
• (W) write personal opinion essays
• (L,S) discuss issues
• (L,S) engage in formal debates
[for beginning students]
• (S,W) use imperatives ("Don't buy aerosol spray cans.")
• (S) practice verb tenses ("The ozone layer is vanishing.")
• (L,S,R,W) develop new vocabulary
• (S,W) use cardinal and ordinal numbers
• (L,S) practice simple conversations/dialogues like:
A: Why do you smoke?
B: Because I like it.
A: You shouldn't smoke.
B: Well, it makes me less nervous.
A: But it's not good for your health.
B: I don't care.
A: Well, you will die young.
2. Carry out research and writing projects. When your ESL syllabus calls for a research project, an intrinsically motivating assignment is to research an environmental topic. Libraries, bookstores, newsstands, television and radio programs, and even political campaigns are fruitful sources of information. While individual projects are suitable, you can also encourage students to work in pairs or teams, each assigned to a different aspect of an issue. Data are sought, gathered, and synthesized; counter-arguments are explored; and results are presented orally and/or in writing to the rest of the class.
3. Have students create their own environmental awareness material. Whether you are teaching adults or children, beginning or advanced students, you can get a great deal of language and content material out of a language experience approach (see next section, below) in which students create leaflets, posters, bulletin boards, newsletter articles, or even a booklet that outlines practical things they can do to "save the Earth." If time and equipment permit, some exciting projects can be done with a video camera, such as an information program, a drama, interviews, or news reports.
4. Arrange field trips. These could involve a pre-trip module (of perhaps several days) of reading, researching, and other fact-finding, and a post-trip module of summary and conclusions. Field trips can be made to recycling centers, factories that practice recycling, wildlife preserves, areas that need litter removed (abandoned lots, beaches, parks), etc.
5. Conduct simulation games. A number of simulation games are being created that use the environmental crisis as a theme around which to build various scenarios for the gaming process. Some games get quite elaborate, with countries of the world and their
respective resources represented by objects like egg cartons, bottles, cans, newspapers,
and the like, and players charged to resolve problems of unequal distribution of wealth
as well as environmental controls.
It should be apparent from the foregoing that all four skills intertwine in these types
of activities in the language classroom, and that it would be difficult not to involve several
(To be continued to part.2)
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