Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills

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After the first day at a college I had previously taught at, I noticed a long line of students outside our EAP (English for Academic Purposes) director’s office.  It was my first day teaching in this program, so, needless to say, I was curious.  It turns out these students all felt that they had not been placed in the right level.

I soon discovered that this was a common occurrence on the first day of each term in that program.

The courses in that EAP program were organized around integrated skills, so each student was placed into one of five levels for all five hours of instruction. 1 By the end of the first day, students were quick to notice that some of their classmates were weaker than they were in some skills (e.g. speaking) but higher in others (e.g. reading).  They also were aware that some of the activities during the course of the day, depending on the skill, were right at their level, but others were above or below.

It’s not too surprising that this would happen.  New students had been given a placement exam that tested multiple skills: reading, writing, speaking, listening and grammar.  The exam resulted in one score, and their level was determined by that one score.  That seemed to be the crux of the problem. 

Here is an example of how two Level 3 classmates, Alan and Cii, performed on their placement exam.

Alan

Writing: Level 4

Reading: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

Integrated-Skills Placement: Level 3

Cici

Writing: Level 2

Reading: Level 2

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 4

Listening: Level 4

Intgrated-Skills Placement: Level 3

The problems with an integrated-skills course:

1) The examples of Alan and Cici are fairly common.  Obviously, each of them will be forced to work with materials that are either above their ability or below it.  If it’s above their ability, they can become frustrated and develop weak study habits.  For example, for Cici, the reading passages will be above her skill level, so she may lose confidence and tolerance for ambiguity, and as a result, over-translate.  For Alan, since the readings will be below his skill level, there is a good chance that he will feel he is wasting his time and money.  At the same time, Alan might feel intimidated during discussions with someone like Cici, whose speaking skills are much higher than his.

2) Students who are progressing well in one skill but struggling in one or two others may fail the course because their overall score is not passing.  Thus, they will continue to be under-challenged in their “strong” skill and often feel discouraged because of what they will perceive as a lack of progress.  On the other hand, they may pass to the next level based on their strong performance in some skills even though they continue to be weak in others. When I taught Level 5 in that integrated-skills program mentioned above, it was not unusual to have students who were quite fluid in speaking but whose reading skills were Level 3.  It was painful to observe them struggling to read passages so far above their proficiency level.

3) Even the most adamant promoter of integrated skills will readily acknowledge that finding a subject area that is relevant and appealing to the majority of the students and is at the right level for all the skills can be a huge challenge.  This is a major drawback, especially when one considers the fact that the students will be required to listen to information about, talk about, read about, and write about that one subject area of the integrated-skills course.

Clarification about discrete-skills courses

Before describing the many advantages that the discrete-skills approach has over integrated ones, there needs to be some clarification about discrete-skills courses.

  • In discrete-skills courses, students do not only use that specific skill. For example, in a Speaking class, needless to say, students use listening, and often reading and writing. The difference from an integrated-skills course is that, in a discrete-skills course, development of the specific skill is the goal, and the other skills are used to stimulate that skill’s development.
  • Discrete-skills courses do not rely on mechanical practice of skills rather than authentic communication. In discrete-skills courses, students develop techniques that are commonly used by native-speakers in “real” situations. They don’t learn these mechanically but rather through activities that are at their level and during which the techniques are beneficial for communicating their “authentic” ideas.

This is what the example student above, Alan, would have as his schedule in a discrete-course program:

 Placement Exam

Writing: Level 4

Reading: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

Assigned Course

Writing: Level 4

Reading: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

The advantages of discrete-skills courses:

1) Teachers are liberated.  Imagine a conversation teacher is selecting materials for her discrete-skills class.  The topics used for the speaking activities can be chosen according to how stimulating they are for students to talk about.  They are not chosen simply because the teacher needs to match the topic with what students will be reading about in the reading-skills part of an integrated course.  Similarly, the Reading and Writing teachers are liberated to find materials which will be engaging for students read about or write about but may not be topics that are easily applied to discussion-skill development.

2) Students are placed into a skills course with other students who have a similar level of ability in that skill.  The materials are chosen primarily to facilitate the development of that skill with students who are at that level.  And their promotion to the next level is determined by their performance in that skill.  For example, a student whose speaking and listening skills improve enough will be promoted to the next level of those skills.   But a student who has not progressed enough in, for example, reading, will repeat that reading level, where the level of passages is most appropriate for his development.

Although no class will have students whose skills are all at the exact same level, it’s more likely that they will be homogeneous with discrete skills.   Thus, it’s much easier for the teacher to present lessons and engage students in activities that at the right level for all the students.  As a result, students feel that they are in the “right” level.

1 An integrated-skills class is one in which several skills (e.g. reading, writing, listening and speaking) are equally developed.  A discrete-skills class is one in which only one skill is the focus even though students may use other skills during activities.

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you about your experiences with an integrated vs. discrete  approach and hearing your perspectives.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and we can continue this discussion.

David Kehe

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