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Online Resources: Digests

September 2001
EDO-FL-01-05

Integrated Skills in the ESL/EFL Classroom

Rebecca Oxford, University of Maryland


One image for teaching English as a second or foreign language (ESL/EFL) is that of a tapestry. The tapestry is woven from many strands, such as the characteristics of the teacher, the learner, the setting, and the relevant languages (i.e., English and the native languages of the learners and the teacher). For the instructional loom to produce a large, strong, beautiful, colorful tapestry, all of these strands must be interwoven in positive ways. For example, the instructor's teaching style must address the learning style of the learner, the learner must be motivated, and the setting must provide resources and values that strongly support the teaching of the language. However, if the strands are not woven together effectively, the instructional loom is likely to produce something small, weak, ragged, and pale—not recognizable as a tapestry at all.

In addition to the four strands mentioned above—teacher, learner, setting, and relevant languages—other important strands exist in the tapestry. In a practical sense, one of the most crucial of these strands consists of the four primary skills of listening, reading, speaking, and writing. This strand also includes associated or related skills such as knowledge of vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, syntax, meaning, and usage. The skill strand of the tapestry leads to optimal ESL/EFL communication when the skills are interwoven during instruction. This is known as the integrated-skill approach.

If this weaving together does not occur, the strand consists merely of discrete, segregated skills—parallel threads that do not touch, support, or interact with each other. This is sometimes known as the segregated-skill approach. Another title for this mode of instruction is the language-based approach, because the language itself is the focus of instruction (language for language's sake). In this approach, the emphasis is not on learning for authentic communication.

By examining segregated-skill instruction, we can see the advantages of integrating the skills and move toward improving teaching for English language learners.

Segregated-Skill Instruction

In the segregated-skill approach, the mastery of discrete language skills such as reading and speaking is seen as the key to successful learning, and language learning is typically separate from content learning (Mohan, 1986). This is contrary to the integrated way that people use language skills in normal communication, and it clashes with the direction in which language teaching experts have been moving in recent years.

Skill segregation is reflected in traditional ESL/EFL programs that offer classes focusing on segregated language skills. Why do they offer such classes? Perhaps teachers and administrators think it is logistically easier to present courses on writing divorced from speaking, or on listening isolated from reading. They may believe that it is instructionally impossible to concentrate on more than one skill at a time.

Even if it were possible to fully develop one or two skills in the absence of all the others, such an approach would not ensure adequate preparation for later success in academic communication, career-related language use, or everyday interaction in the language. An extreme example is the grammar-translation method, which teaches students to analyze grammar and to translate (usually in writing) from one language to another. This method restricts language learning to a very narrow, noncommunicative range that does not prepare students to use the language in everyday life.

Frequently, segregated-skill ESL/EFL classes present instruction in terms of skill-linked learning strategies: reading strategies, listening strategies, speaking strategies, and writing strategies (see Peregoy & Boyle, 2001). Learning strategies are srategies that students employ, most often consciously, to improve their learning. Examples are guessing meaning based on context, breaking a sentence or word down into parts to understand the meaning, and practicing the language with someone else.

Very frequently, experts demonstrate strategies as though they were linked to only one particular skill, such as reading or writing (e.g., Peregoy & Boyle, 2001). However, it can be confusing or misleading to believe that a given strategy is associated with only one specific language skill. Many strategies, such as paying selective attention, self-evaluating, asking questions, analyzing, synthesizing, planning, and predicting, are applicable across skill areas (see Oxford, 1990). Common strategies help weave the skills together. Teaching students to improve their learning strategies in one skill area can often enhance performance in all language skills (Oxford, 1996).

Fortunately, in many instances where an ESL or EFL course is labeled by a single skill, the segregation of language skills might be only partial or even illusory. If the teacher is creative, a course bearing a discrete-skill title might actually involve multiple, integrated skills. For example, in a course on intermediate reading, the teacher probably gives all of the directions orally in English, thus causing students to use their listening ability to understand the assignment. In this course, students might discuss their readings, thus employing speaking and listening skills and certain associated skills, such as pronunciation, syntax, and social usage. Students might be asked to summarize or analyze readings in written form, thus activating their writing skills. In a real sense, then, some courses that are labeled according to one specific skill might actually reflect an integrated-skill approach after all.

The same can be said for ESL/EFL textbooks. A particular series might highlight certain skills in one book or another, but all the language skills might nevertheless be present in the tasks in each book. In this way, students have the benefit of practicing all the language skills in an integrated, natural, communicative way, even if one skill is the main focus of a given volume.

In contrast to segregated-skill instruction, both actual and apparent, there are at least two forms of instruction that are clearly oriented toward integrating the skills.

Two Forms of Integrated-Skill Instruction

Two types of integrated-skill instruction are content-based language instruction and task-based instruction. The first of these emphasizes learning content through language, while the second stresses doing tasks that require communicative language use. Both of these benefit from a diverse range of materials, textbooks, and technologies for the ESL or EFL classroom.

Content-Based Instruction. In content-based instruction, students practice all the language skills in a highly integrated, communicative fashion while learning content such as science, mathematics, and social studies. Content-based language instruction is valuable at all levels of proficiency, but the nature of the content might differ by proficiency level. For beginners, the content often involves basic social and interpersonal communication skills, but past the beginning level, the content can become increasingly academic and complex. The Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA), created by Chamot and O'Malley (1994) shows how language learning strategies can be integrated into the simultaneous learning of content and language.

At least three general models of content-based language instruction exist: theme-based, adjunct, and sheltered (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992). The theme-based model integrates the language skills into the study of a theme (e.g., urban violence, cross-cultural differences in marriage practices, natural wonders of the world, or a broad topic such as change). The theme must be very interesting to students and must allow a wide variety of language skills to be practiced, always in the service of communicating about the theme. This is the most useful and widespread form of content-based instruction today, and it is found in many innovative ESL and EFL textbooks. In the adjunct model, language and content courses are taught separately but are carefully coordinated. In the sheltered model, the subject matter is taught in simplified English tailored to students' English proficiency level.

Task-Based Instruction. In task-based instruction, students participate in communicative tasks in English. Tasks are defined as activities that can stand alone as fundamental units and that require comprehending, producing, manipulating, or interacting in authentic language while attention is principally paid to meaning rather than form (Nunan, 1989).

The task-based model is beginning to influence the measurement of learning strategies, not just the teaching of ESL and EFL. In task-based instruction, basic pair work and group work are often used to increase student interaction and collaboration. For instance, students work together to write and edit a class newspaper, develop a television commercial, enact scenes from a play, or take part in other joint tasks. More structured cooperative learning formats can also be used in task-based instruction. Task-based instruction is relevant to all levels of language proficiency, but the nature of the task varies from one level to the other. Tasks become increasingly complex at higher proficiency levels. For instance, beginners might be asked to introduce each other and share one item of information about each other. More advanced students might do more intricate and demanding tasks, such as taking a public opinion poll at school, the university, or a shopping mall.

Advantages of the Integrated-Skill Approach

The integrated-skill approach, as contrasted with the purely segregated approach, exposes English language learners to authentic language and challenges them to interact naturally in the language. Learners rapidly gain a true picture of the richness and complexity of the English language as employed for communication. Moreover, this approach stresses that English is not just an object of academic interest nor merely a key to passing an examination; instead, English becomes a real means of interaction and sharing among people. This approach allows teachers to track students' progress in multiple skills at the same time. Integrating the language skills also promotes the learning of real content, not just the dissection of language forms. Finally, the integrated-skill approach, whether found in content-based or task-based language instruction or some hybrid form, can be highly motivating to students of all ages and backgrounds.

Integrating the Language Skills

In order to integrate the language skills in ESL/EFL instruction, teachers should consider taking these steps:

  • Learn more about the various ways to integrate language skills in the classroom (e.g., content-based, task-based, or a combination).
  • Reflect on their current approach and evaluate the extent to which the skills are integrated.
  • Choose instructional materials, textbooks, and technologies that promote the integration of listening, reading, speaking, and writing, as well as the associated skills of syntax, vocabulary, and so on.
  • Even if a given course is labeled according to just one skill, remember that it is possible to integrate the other language skills through appropriate tasks.
  • Teach language learning strategies and emphasize that a given strategy can often enhance performance in multiple skills.

Conclusion

With careful reflection and planning, any teacher can integrate the language skills and strengthen the tapestry of language teaching and learning. When the tapestry is woven well, learners can use English effectively for communication.

References

Chamot, A. U., & O'Malley , J.M. (1994). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the cognitive-academic language learning approach. Reading: MA: Addison Wesley.

O'Malley, J.M., & Valdez Pierce, L. (1996).Authentic assessment for English language learners: Practical approaches for teachers. New York: Addison Wesley.

Mohan, B. (1986). Language and content. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Nunan , D. (1989). Designing tasks for the communicative classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford, R. (1990). Language learning strategies. What every teacher should know. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.

Oxford, R. (1996). Language learning strategies around the world. Cross-cultural perspectives. Manoa: University of Hawaii Press.

Peregoy, S.F., & Boyle, O.F. (2001). Reading, writing, and learning in ESL. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Scarcella, R., & Oxford, R. (1992). The tapestry of language learning: The individual in the communicative classroom. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

A full-length version of this article appeared in ESL Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 1, January/February 2001.

This digest was prepared with funding from the U.S. Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, National Library of Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-0008. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of ED, OERI, or NLE.