The four macroskills (listening, speaking, reading, writing) are all part of normal language proficiency and use. They can also work together in language acquisition, and the phrase integrated skills is commonly used to describe curricula that develop the skills in parallel fashion.
FOCAL SKILLS integrates the skills in a particularly effective way: by exploiting certain skills as tools for developing others. Progressive Functional Skill Integration refers to the logical, systematic integration of the skills in accordance with their potential uses in the classroom.
Since all classes in our intensive ESL environments are conducted in English, the ability to understand spoken English is fundamental for the development of reading, writing, and speaking. Reading ability is essential to the growth of writing ability. Speaking skills are built gradually on the foundation of the other skills, especially listening. All four skills contribute to academic performance.
These considerations lead to the following principles:
- Students should have good listening comprehension before working on reading, writing, and academic skills.
- Students should have good reading comprehension before working on writing and academic skills.
- Students should have good writing ability before working on academic skills.
- Speaking should be encouraged throughout the process of acquiring English, especially after good listening comprehension has been attained.
The disciplined order of development set forth in these principles intensifies the efficiency of language acquisition, since students are always working on their weak skills from a position of strength.
We have developed some terminology to facilitate discussion of skills in this framework:
- A focal skill is a language skill that a student is currently working on. Our system of modules is set up in such a way that each student works on only one focal skill at a time.
- Supporting skills are language skills that can be used to support work on a focal skill. As outlined above, listening can be used to support work that is focused on all other skills; reading supports work focused on writing; and so on. A skill that has developed to the supporting level can normally continue to develop through regular use, and no longer requires focused attention.
- An emergent skill develops to some extent as a consequence of work focused on some other skill. For example, speaking and reading both improve somewhat as a result of progress in listening; and writing improves as reading improves.
The FOCAL SKILLS modular placement system makes sure that students have adequate supporting skills before they work on a focal skill. The system also ensures that students do not continue to focus unnecessarily on supporting skills, which will continue to grow through use. Furthermore, our system sequences the focal skills in such a way that emergent skills have the opportunity to grow spontaneously for a time.
All of these factors contribute to the efficiency of the classroom. We focus time and attention on a skill only when it needs focus, and only when its supporting skills are well developed. This eliminates a lot of the wasted effort that can be seen in some other programs.
This bare description of Progressive Functional Skill Integration may sound dry and artificial. However, the FOCAL SKILLS modular design fleshes out these concepts in a curriculum that is both natural and engaging.