How to Teach Your ESL Students Integrated Language Skills

Sometime in the 20th Century, teachers, administrators, materials developers, and publishers got the idea that English instruction could be divided into separate language skills, abilities, or competencies. Listening + Speaking were classified as “Oral Language Skills.” Reading + Writing became “Written Language Skills.” Grammar (sentence structure with phrasing patterns) encompassed all of these. Vocabulary was derived from targeted subject matter and purpose. The purposes of this separation were to define, aim attention at, and utilize language-skills methodologies.
The issue of segregated vs. integrated skills instruction + its resolution is summarized in articles like "The Importance of Integrating Skills in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language."
Of course, the concept of language-skills focus never meant that instructors could teach or learners could acquire any one of the four abilities without including others in lessons, activities, or even individual study or homework. Known as “Segregated Skills Instruction,” these approaches often relied—and still depend—on the use of “strategies” or “action plans.”
Examples of such techniques are listening for stressed words, emphasizing sentence-focus syllables, guessing meaning from context, skimming for main ideas, proving a point through supporting detail, and many more. And these can be naturally incorporated into “Integrated Skills Instruction.” As usual in academic controversy, there’s probably no issue to overcome at all.
As a general principle of language-skills instruction, reading mirrors listening while writing has similarities to speaking. Including clear articulation, the oral skills are usually taught together because speech has little meaning until it is heard. The written skills may be more cleanly separated, but they integrate naturally when reading is used as a stimulus or model for writing. In fact, nearly every ability in each skills area has parallels in one or more of the others. Here’s an initial attempt at a chart that indicates possible correspondences:
In any case, language skills naturally integrate because you can hardly improve in any one of them without using some of the others. Also, skills develop in tandem. For instance, the ability to learn Vocabulary in Context develops similarly whether you are listening or readingor while working cooperatively on (speaking or writing) tasks. And after understanding what you hear or see, competence in reacting rationally and clearly stating meaningful info, ideas, and views depends on both your oral and written abilities. 
The goal is to direct language instruction toward integration with the aim of having insights converge rather than diverge. In order to "manage the chaos" in lesson planning or study, one or more of these should probably be chosen as a unifying theme or principle: grammar (forms, phrasing, sentence structure, rules); language functions (using elements of language, asking & answering, requesting, offering, describing, informing, etc.); competencies (understanding & expressing, knowing what’s needed, thinking logically, communicating, etc.); and/or subject matter (Things, Information, Time & Places, Health, Food, Work & Money, Technology, People, etc.).
How Grammar—and/or Subject Matter and/or Competencies—Can Be Used as a Guiding Principle. Just about all “grammatical subject matter”—and even its sub-topics—lends itself naturally to some kinds of content, language functions, real-life competencies, and even  “Rhetorical Modes” better than others. For instance, the phrasing of imperative verbs—with and without noun objects, adverbs, and prepositional phrases is the most likely grammar to cover when giving or writing “How-to (Process) Instructions.”
For practice in use of kinds of nouns (countable [singular & plural] vs. uncountable; identified vs. unidentified; expressions of quantity), the best topics are probably related to food, life necessities/preferences, human characteristics, subjects of study/activities, and the like.  
Here’s a chart - in two parts - that attempts to correlate likely grammar topics with subjects for speaking/writing and other aspects of English instruction or acquisition. It’s incomplete and flexible, of course. To use it as a tool for curriculum, materials, and lesson development, you might add to, delete, and/or change any of its sections or overall organization.
Chart Integration Of Grammar With Subjects & Competencies
Of course, any Grammar Topic or related info can be taught/learned at any level of language proficiency, in more or less detail, with more or less attention to patterns and rules. The same flexibility applies to Subject Matter (Theme), and Language Functions/Purposes—as well as to how two or more of these could be combined.
So how might it work? Here are samples to download to get an idea of the types of materials and lessons that can be used at the same time or in sequence with one another:  
Chapter One of the SkillsBook + Workbook of WorkLifeEnglish: Life Skills, offer a prototype of how the integration of content, sentence or phrase structure,  functions, competencies, and vocabulary with language skills might work at basic levels. The subject matter is “Things,” which suggests the grammar of “Singular & Plural Nouns,” “Adjectives before Nouns,” and ’Prepositions.” A grasp of these patterns develops learners’ ability to “Name,  Count, & Describe Things,” as well as to “Make & Answer Requests for Things.”   
Text users begin by hearing a SkillsBook (SB) “shopping exchange” while seeing the spoken words in print. The introduction of noun phrases in requests can be immediately reinforced with a WorkBook (WB) strip story of a customer’s thought balloons containing numbers before nouns. Next in both the SB and WB come simple grammar exercises, illustrated by more “stories,” which lead learners to comprehend and distinguish among singular & plural nouns, numbers & adjectives in noun phrases, and prepositional phrases of place. The SB chapter reinforces the same and comparable structures + vocabulary with targeted Listening Activities that include guided conversation. It ends with Reading & Writing activities based on clock times (numbers) and common signs (nouns). The Spelling & Vocabulary section of the corresponding WB, then, can do no less than coordinate simple vowel sounds (spelled by a, e, i, o, u) with familiar words in noun phrases.
For a sample of how excerpted segments might fit together, click on the underlined title above.
At a higher level of proficiency, Chapters 4 of WorkLifeEnglish: Cross-Cultural Communication are typical of the integration of language-skills instruction with subject matter, grammatical patterns, and vocabulary. Their overall theme (subject matter) is Eating & Drinking.” Sections or even pages of the three chapters can be used together, one after another, or in various combinations or orders at separate times and for different purposes:
  • From Level 4 of WorkLifeEnglish; Competency-Based Grammar, Reading/Writing, & Listening/Speaking Books, here are the Chapter 4 Openers. They list the Chapter Theme (“Eating & Drinking”) and various ways of labeling the Competencies, Grammar Focus, and Written or Oral Skills addressed by their instruction and exercises.
  • From Chapter 4 of Level 4 of WorkLifeEnglish: A Competency-Based Grammar, here are an illustrated Pretest, instruction (pedagogy) and exercises on The Future: will vs. going to (on the subtopic of “Planning a Potluck), the Future Continuous (with exercises related to “Reading a Menu”), and The Future-Possible Conditional, (in the context of “Avoiding Food Poisoning.”) 
  • Chapter 4 of Level 4 of WorkLifeEnglish; A Competency-Based  Reading/Writing Book starts with pre-reading story-telling for four brief selections related to the chapter subject matter “Eating & Drinking.” These are “How to Enjoy an Elegant Restaurant,” “How to Save Money at the Supermarket,” “How to Make Fudge,” and “How One Person Can Use Five Pounds of Potatoes.” After a comprehension exercise that targets “Recognizing Supporting Detail” there’s a Vocabulary section that includes an oral game. Part Two is “Writing Your Own Story,” guided writing activities on the relevant topics. Next come individual and cooperative ways to read and understand Supermarket Ads. Finally, “Questions & Answers” invite cross-cultural comparison and interaction.
When text-users get to sections of Chapter 4 of Level 4 of WorkLifeEnglish; A Competency-Based  Listening/Speaking Book, they’ll hear, show understanding of, and retell stories about eating and drinking customs in the United States and Canada. After observing people in relevant situations, they’ll tell about their own cross-cultural experiences, including misunderstandings. Next come “Practical Listening” tasks that involve descriptions of typical dishes; Speaking Activities involving recipes; and a wrap-up section that leads to comparison of food customs. 
Click here to see the complete WorkLife English Program, 17 texts + ancillary Teachers’ Guides and Audio material.
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About Work/Life English
For over 35 years, Work/Life English has been dedicated to improving the lives of English language learners. We offer a comprehensive range of fun, effective English language improvement lessons and activities to help adult education ESL educators successfully engage their English language students and improve their English competencies, leading to a host of positive effects in students’ professional and personal lives. Better English, Better Life. For more information, visit www.worklifeenglish.com.

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