Integrating skills

Integrated skills

When teaching skills in English, we generally refer to 4 skills: 2 receptive ones (reading and listening) and 2 productive ones (writing and speaking). However, we rarely encounter skills in isolation in real life. We read what other people wrote to us, and we reply, be it a text message or an email, we listen as well as speak during a conversation, we take notes when someone is speaking or when we are reading something, and so on. So, it would make much more sense to teach them as such, in an integrated way rather than in separation.

The integrated-skill approach comes in opposition to the segregated-skill one, which maintained that the key to successful language learning is the mastery of separate, individual skills. But language was created and is used to communicate, and this communication cannot happen in isolation. Both in its oral and written form, communication needs a sender and a receiver. As a result, if we use the language communicatively, it only makes sense to teach and learn it in the same way.

Integrated vs segregated

One reason why integrating skills is important is that language acquisition happens more naturally and effectively in this way. When students are engaged in a conversation, for example a dialogue they have to create in pairs, they will get instant feedback from their peers, they will know if what they produced using their speaking skills was understood, if their message was clearly expressed and received by the listener, so one skill can reinforce another. This also allows the teacher to track the students’ progress regarding the different skills involved, and it is also highly motivating for the students themselves, as they see the immediate and genuine application of the language they are learning. 

In recent years, experts have identified two major ways of integrating skills:

  • Content-based language instruction – this refers to learning content such as science, mathematics or social studies in a highly integrated communicative way, that is learning content through language; an example could be the study of a theme such as natural wonders of the world through different media (text, video, discussions/debates, letters/articles, etc.)
  • Task-based instruction – this refers to communicative tasks in English that students are engaged in; a task is defined as an activity that stands alone as an independent unit, and some examples could include creating a television commercial or editing a class newspaper.

Content-based language instruction – refers to learning content in a communicative way/learning content through language.

Task-based instruction – refers to language learning through communicative tasks.

These two approaches can also be found in combination and one major advantage would be that apart from language acquisition, students develop 21st century skills like communication, cooperation, creativity and critical thinking. The integration of the skills also leads to task continuity, which means that the completion of a prior activity will lead to the success of the following ones, and this is an important skill to master in real life.

Now let’s look at some practical examples of integrated-skill activities. Simple games and activities like Chinese whispers or telephone, which entails students passing around a message in a whisper, involve integrating skills, in this case speaking and listening. Another example, this time for the written medium, would be chain stories, which engages students in reading and writing as they add their own sentences to create a group story. Starting from a written prompt, each student writes one sentence without seeing what was written before and then they read the whole story at the end, or they are allowed to read the previous sentences as they go along and develop the story naturally.

More complex activities could be task-based, such as writing an article for the school magazine. Students are asked to work in small groups in order to come up with some ideas to include in an article on pollution in their area, and some possible solutions to alleviate it, thus practising and developing 3 skills: speaking, listening and writing. If they also do some research on the topic, then they develop their reading skills as well. Another example of task-based activity would be planning an imaginary trip, including itinerary, means of transport, accommodation, places to visit, budget and so on. While doing research, discussing in groups and presenting their plan to the whole class, students develop their reading, listening and speaking skills. Their presentations could be accompanied by a poster or followed by a writing task (such as writing a postcard home from their trip). In this way, all four skills will be integrated in the activity.

Content-based activities, which can be found nowadays in the CLIL sections of almost all coursebooks, also involve multiple skills at work at the same time. One example would be learning about the art of comics by reading and analysing a comic, listening to an interview with a famous comic writer and working in pairs to design their own comic. Once again, all skills will be involved in this activity, which will also be very interesting and instructive for students. In addition, this activity could be considered a combination of task- and content-based instruction if, for example, the whole class puts together a comic book.

Some practical examples of integrated-skill activities:

  1. Games Chinese whispers or telephone – integrate speaking + listening
  2. Chain stories – integrate writing + reading
  3. Task-based activityarticle writing – integrates speaking + listening + writing (+ reading)
  4. Task-based activity – planning a trip – integrates all 4 skills
  5. Content-based activity – the art of comics – integrates all 4 skills

As can be seen from all these activities, it would be very difficult to segregate skills in teaching a foreign language nowadays, when the focus is on communication, which involves sending and receiving messages, thus making production and reception just two sides of the same coin. The interaction promoted by this approach allows students to be exposed to authentic materials and use English efficiently and naturally for communication in class and in everyday life.