Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills

Startup Stock PhotosAfter the first day of the term a few years ago, I noticed a long line of students outside our Academic ESL (English for Academic Purposes—EAP) 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 were not in the right level.

I soon discovered that this was a common occurrence on the first day of each term.   During that first term for me, we made a change to the format of the courses.  After that, students rarely complained about being in the wrong level.  And students’ skills improved substantially.   Here is what we did.

The courses in this EAP program were organized around integrated skills. 1  So each student was placed into one of five levels for all fours hours of instruction.  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 were given a placement exam that tests 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.

For example, here is how one student, Anna, performed on the various sections of the placement test:

Reading: Level 4

Writing: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

Anna’s Final Integrated-Skills Placement: Level 3

Why some administrators like an integrated-skills program:

It’s easier making schedules for students and teachers than in a discrete-skills program.  Students can be given one classroom to attend for the entire term, and teachers have one class of students to teach.  Often, they can order just one integrated-skill textbook for each level.   On the other hand, with a discrete-skills program, each student has a different teacher, classroom and book for each skill.  That adds work for administrators.

Why some teachers like an integrated-skills program:

There is a mistaken belief that unless the skills are all “taught” simultaneously and in the same context, students won’t learn authentic communication.   They mistakenly believe that in a discrete-skills class, students only use that specific skill.  For example, in a conversation-skills class, they think that students only use speaking, when in fact, they will needless to say, use speaking and often reading and writing too.  Finally, they believe that students should be learning “real” content.

The problems with an integrated-skills course:

1) As illustrated at the start of this posting, quite often students are 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, if a reading passage is too difficult, they may lose confidence, especially tolerance for ambiguity, and as a result, over-translate.  If the course work is below their skill level, they will feel that they are wasting their time and money.

2) A student who is progressing well in one skill but struggling in one or two others, may fail the course because his overall score is not passing.  Thus, he will continue to be under-challenged in his “strong” skill and often feel discouraged because of what he will perceive as a lack of progress.

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 can be a huge challenge.  This is a major drawback, especially when one considers that the students will be required to talk about, read about, and write about the one subject area.

I had a colleague who was supposed to teach “environmental studies” in an integrated-skills program.  During the term, she came across an article and related video concerning minority rights.  She was very excited about doing a one-week unit using this with her students because it was relevant to her students and the level was right.  She could easily see how motivated her students would be to read, write and discuss it.  Unfortunately, because it didn’t “fit” environmental studies, she was told that she couldn’t use it.

Despite all the drawbacks to integrated skills listed above, an integrated skills course can be effective with higher-level students because the language skills of students who reach the top levels tend to be more homogeneous.

The advantages of discrete-skills courses:

1) As mentioned above, “discrete skills” does not mean that students only use one skill during activities.  For example, in a conversation course, students will of course use their listening skill and often their reading and writing skills too.  However, they are placed into the conversation course with other students who have similar speaking skills.  The materials are chosen primarily to facilitate the development of their speaking skills.  And their promotion to the next level of conversation is determined by their speaking skills.

2) Most teachers would agree that for students to improve their skills, the materials, exercises and activities should be near their level.  (Krashen proposes that for optimal benefit these should be one level above the students’ present level.)

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.

For example, here again is how Ann (mentioned above) performed on the various sections of the placement test.  The chart shows what course(s) he would take:

 

      Integrated-skills program     Discrete-skills program
Placement test result for sample Student

Reading: Level 4

Writing: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

 

Ann’s schedule

 

 

 

Level 3 for all skills

 

 

 

Placement test result for sample Student

Reading: Level 4

Writing: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

 

Ann’s schedule

 

Reading: Level 4

Writing: Level 4

Grammar: Level 3

Speaking: Level 2

Listening: Level 2

 

3) Imagine a conversation teacher is selecting materials for her 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 (e.g. family life) with what students will be reading about in the reading-skills part of the integrated course.

4) The teacher is not confined to one topic (e.g. the environment), which may not be appealing to some of the students, for the entire term.  The teacher is liberated to find materials which will be engaging to students and simultaneously help them develop the specific skill.   Because of the large variety of topics which can be read about (in a reading course), written about (writing course) and discussed (in a speaking course), students will have many opportunities to apply their skills to something that is actually stimulating to them.

Returning to the program that I mentioned at the start of this posting, we did change from integrated to discrete skills.  As a result, students’ satisfaction improved greatly along with performance.  And interestingly, teacher-moral also was raised as they found themselves liberated to choose the content that they felt best helped students improve each skill.  Moreover, they were well aware of the fact that students in their classes felt that they were in the right class.

In addition, our administrators came to realize that although scheduling and book- ordering took more time, in the long run, their job was made easier since they no longer had to deal with long lines of dissatisfied students.

 

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.  For example, in a Conversation class, the students will, needless to say, use their listening skills, and at time, reading skills.  However, the goal of the exercises during a lesson are to improve conversation skills, not other skills like reading.  The students’ grades for the class will be based on how well their speaking skills have improved, not on their other skills.

 

David Kehe

2 thoughts on “Integrated vs Discrete Skills ESL Courses: Advantages of Discrete Skills

  1. Pingback: List of Common Sense Teaching ESL Posts | Common Sense Teaching ESL

  2. Pingback: Best Subject for an ESL Integrated-Skills Class (Part 1 Overview) | Common Sense Teaching ESL

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