Many ESL classes for adults are designated “integrated skills”; that is, students are to work on all four language skills in the class: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
A number of commercial textbooks, especially those designed in a series, are specifically written for this kind of class, often with each chapter based on a specific topic, like transportation, and with accompanying activities related to the four skills. The class often develops a scattered feeling, as students cycle through the various activities targeted at different skills each lesson, and the teacher runs around with supplementary handouts and makes sure students are transitioning from each activity and stay on task. So with all of this hyperkinetic activity, why do students so often complain of feeling bored in class? It seems paradoxical, but it is possible to be busy and bored at the same time! Both problems in this case stem from the lack of focus: students are jumping from activity to activity enough to keep busy, but they are not staying with any one activity long enough to really fully understand it in depth or develop an interest in it, hence the boredom. What can be done about this?
How Can the Teacher Develop Focus in an Integrated Skills Class?
Learn Your Students
Plan to spend the first week of class getting to know your students. Give a diagnostic to determine their skills. I find dictating a short news story and having students write it in a paragraph taps into a number of skills: listening, writing, and grammar. I also, time allowing, have students complete a short interview so that I can get an idea of speaking/pronunciation.
As part of this interview, I ask students what they are interested in working on in class. In gathering this information, I am looking for ways to focus the class: are most of the students expressing concerns about their speaking and listening skills, for example? Do their diagnostics confirm that? Then this suggests a focus of the class on speaking and listening.
In addition to need for a focus, the speed of most integrated skills is a concern. While it seems paradoxical, when students are complaining of boredom, to say “slow down,” most of the time the boredom is related to shallow treatment of the course content. So slow down and take the time to explore the material in depth, get a full understanding of it, and discuss its cultural implications. For example, my high intermediate integrated skills class just read about EQ, or Emotional Quotient, a concept made popular by Daniel Goleman, the notion that some of us have higher “EQ” than others, or the ability to understand our emotions and regulate them as well as relate to other’s. If I just skimmed over this topic, rushing the students through it, it probably would be “boring” because they wouldn’t fully understand it. Full understanding requires time.
Limit Supplementary Materials
Limiting supplementary material is related to slowing down. Because students have been complaining of boredom, often teachers respond by dragging in myriad supplementary materials: newspaper clippings, movies, and so forth. This, however, contributes to the feeling of being rushed as the instructor struggles to cover everything. Break the cycle by limiting the supplementary materials, focusing on the course content, and giving it the in-depth treatment it deserves.
Go For Depth
Again, go for depth, not breadth, of coverage. For example, my high intermediate integrated skills class which was just introduced to the topic of EQ was very interested in the topic, and the students spent quite a bit of time on the introductory reading and discussion activities, where the concept was introduced. I allowed this time, which extended the entire class period, rather than rushing through to the more advanced vocabulary, listening, speaking, and writing activities. The students seemed satisfied with the lesson and left feeling they had understood the concept. And no one complained they were “bored,” as they might have, if we had rushed through activities on a topic they did not thoroughly understand in order to keep to an arbitrary schedule.
Focus on Skills Development, not Activity Completion
There is often the belief that the class needs to complete so many activities per day or chapters per week. I’m as guilty of this as any teacher, and the result is a rushed and frantic class flying through the textbook. The focus should be however, not on how many activities or chapters are being covered but rather whether or not student skills are developing. If students have understood the main concept of the reading material, for example, then it’s fine to move ahead to a related listening activity. If not, then some additional time is well spent on analyzing the reading and its main points and supporting details.
Focus on Students, not Materials or Activities
Ultimately, the focus of any class should be the students, not the course materials. We often lose sight of this, however, with a rigidly standards-based syllabus, which often ignores the needs of the individual student. However, if administering a diagnostic and spending some time with your students, you determine your students have little problem with conversational English but need work on their writing and academic grammar skills, that is where the class time should be spent, and the conversational and discussion activities given less time.
In an integrated skills class, it can be hard to determine where the focus should lie: conversation activities? Reading? At a fast or slow pace?
However, as with education in general, an integrated skills class should be student-centered. By administering a diagnostic, a needs analysis, and observing students, the focus should become clear—with the students.