Integrated Skills Approach in EFL Classrooms: A Literature Review
Universitas Kristen Indonesia
The integrated-skills approach, which incorporates listening, speaking, reading, and writing, has become a new trend in EFL contexts because it is believed an effective approach to develop students’ communicative competence and the ability to use English to gain access to social, vocational, educational, or professional opportunities. Different from the traditional segregated language skills approach which presented a language skill in isolation from the others, the integrated-skills approach presents all language skills in conjunction with each other so that the learners do not only knows the language they are learning but also are able to use it natural communication. This article reviews current studies and ideas related to integrated skills approach in order to provide a more vivid understanding of its implementation in EFL contexts.
Keywords: integrated-skills approach, content-based language teaching, task-based language teaching, EFL
The use of English as the major lingua franca and as the main medium for worldwide dissemination of information and knowledge has made communicative competence and the ability to use English to gain access to social, vocational, educational, or professional opportunities the most essential objectives of English learning (Celce-Murcia, 2001). In relation to this, Davies and Pearse (2000, p. 99) accentuated that “Real success in English teaching and learning is when the learners can actually communicate in English inside and outside the classroom.” To achieve these objectives, the integrative language skills instruction seems to be the most effective to use because it seeks to teach language as a means of communication to serve the purpose it was originally created for, which can be motivating and realistic as well (Brown, 2001; Tsung-Yuan & Oxford, 2002). Hinkel (2010) accentuated that the current integrated language skills teaching models aim at developing learners’ fluency and accuracy, as well as their socio-cultural communicative competence. To attain these, adapting the language from context to context and from genre to genre are required.
Despite the great potential and effectiveness of the integrative skills approach many teachers, especially in EFL contexts still implement the segregated skills teaching by presenting one skill separately from the others. In many EFL programs, courses on speaking are isolated from writing or listening learning activities are divorced from reading. According to Oxford (2001), the segregation of language skills is indicated through the titles of the classes offered, such as “Basic Listening Comprehension,” “Intermediate Reading,” “Grammar I and II”, “Advanced Writing”, and so on.
The main reason for the skills segregation is the belief that teaching is much easier if syllabuses are organized around one skill than focused on some at one time. According to the teachers presenting one skill discretely from the others, focusing on more than one skill at a time can be instructional impossible (Oxford, 2001). These teachers might have been influenced by the notion that teaching language skills separately would make the learners an ‘accurate’ user of language (Klimova, 2014, p.88) because the approach allows learners to gain complete command over one particular language skill as the focus was given on one particular skill at a time (Jing, 2006). Such a practice can be a drawback because, unlike the integrated skills approach, it cannot lead to optimal learning process and outcome. Tajzad and Namaghi, (2014) found that although segregated skills teaching may help students develop their knowledge of the language, but it does not enable them to use the knowledge in actual communication. In line with this, Oxford (2001) concluded that although it is possible to teach one or two skills in absence of the others in the classrooms, discrete skill approach would fail to prepare the learners for academic, job oriented or, everyday communication.
Various current studies (Sanchez, 2000; Bose, 2003; Faydi, 2003; Dawid, 2004; Askildson, 2008; Akram & Malik, 2010; Mitrofanova & Chemezov, 2011) have revealed that skills integration of supports both learners and teachers because it inspires teachers to vary the learning activities, helps learners to use the language they learn freely, vividly and naturally, improves students’ ability to express themselves and take greater risks in using the language, and effectively increases learning outcomes. Therefore, to enable the EFL students to develop their knowledge of English and their competence to use it in real communication, implementing the integrative skills approach is unavoidable. Raimes (1983) argued that to make language learning classes as close as possible to real-life communicative situations, activities that let students use all the language skills must be organized.
This article reviews current studies on integrated language skills teaching approach in order to provide a more vivid understanding of its nature, types, and techniques. The discussion begins with a brief review of the differences between segregated and integrated language skills teaching. It is followed by a brief exposition of the advantages of integrated skills teaching implementation in EFL classroom and the discussion about the two major integrated skills teaching types and teaching techniques. Before ending this article with some conclusions, the factors that could impede integrated language skills teaching and a summary of the results of current studies on integrated language skills teaching implementation in EFL contexts are presented.
The Nature of Language Skills
The four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) are the mode or manner in which language is used for communication (Richards & Schmidt, 2002). Anytime a person communicates using a language, he employs the combination of these skills. While communicating through the oral language he receives the messages by listening and responds by speaking. In written language, he receives the messages by reading and responds by writing. In short, depending on the channel of communication, a person listens, speaks, reads and writes. Thus, language skills are a means of communication. By means of listening and reading, a person gets information as the input of language, and by employing speaking and writing he makes language output based on the language inputs.
Segregated vs Integrated Language Skills
Up to the end of the 1970s, the four language skills were taught in isolation. This was due to the predomination of the traditional language teaching methods including the Grammar Translation Method (GTM), Structuralism Approach, the Direct Method, the Audio-Lingual Method, Total Physical Response, and the Natural Approach. During the domination of GTM up to the beginning of the 20th century, for instance, learning activities were focused on analyzing the English grammatical rules and translating literary texts from English the students’ native language. Therefore, students were not prepared to use the language as a means of communication in everyday life. To take another example, under the Structuralism Approach, which views language as a complex system of interrelated parts, language teaching was aimed to help the students master the language elements and learn the rules regulating how these elements were combined, like using phonemes to form morpheme or using words to create phrases and sentences” (Usho-Juan & Martinez-Flor, p.5). As a consequence, the students knew what the elements and rules of the language but could not use them to communicate.
Additionally, the underlying belief of Audiolingualism which was very popular in the 1940s to 1960s, that language is basically oral and thus language learning should be focused on speaking caused language skills treated separately. Under this method the students managed to know the language skills but were unable to communicate their thoughts by means of the language. Dubin and Olshtain (1986) accentuated that in the purest form of segregation, the language was taught as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, i.e., the authentic interaction and communication. This is confirmed by Tajzad and Namaghi’s (2014) observation revealing that Iranian EFL learners actually had an acceptable knowledge of language components such as grammar, vocabulary and the like but could rarely use them to communicate in English because class time was devoted to learning grammar, vocabulary and the isolated reading skill and rarely provided chance to use language skills in an integrated fashion.
The discrete skill approach was based on the belief that a separate focus on individual skills accelerates students’ language learning (Jing, 2006). Therefore, in that approach, the four language skills are taught separately, and materials and activities were designed usually focusing on only one specific skill where other skills were ignored. In relation to this, the discrete skill approach came to be known as “language-based approach” (Oxford, 2001), where the language itself is the focus of instruction and learning for authentic communication has no importance (Jing, 2006).
The use of discrete skills approach in ESL/EFL classroom was challenged by the emergence of the communicative language teaching (CLT) at the end of the 1970s. The first advocate of language skills integration was Widdowson (1978) who pointed out that language uses take place in the form of discourse and in specific social contexts, not in discrete “units”. Other linguists (Corder, 1978; Stern, 1993) supported the idea by emphasizing that the teaching of language skills cannot be conducted through separate and discrete structural elements. Thus, to be a competent language user, the learners should develop receptive and productive skills in both spoken and written discourse. In other words, the four language skills should be learned interactively. Honeyfield, (1988) added that skills integration generally refers to linking two or more of the traditional four skills of language learning. Carols (1990) posited that the integration of skills in the language classroom is simply a series of activities or tasks which use any combination of the four skills in a continuous and related sequence. In addition, Richards and Schmidt (2002) stated that “integrated approach is the teaching of the language skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, in conjunction with each other, as when a lesson involves activities that relate listening and speaking to reading and writing” (p. 262). Thus, in the integrative skills approach, the learning of skill leads to the learning of one or more other skill. For example, speaking may be pursued by related writing or reading in language teaching/learning process (Brown, 2001).
Based on these definitions, it is obvious that the philosophical basis of integrative skills approach is the concept based on the fact that in everyday life communication the four language skills are used together. Using a single skill is very rare because anytime people engage in a conversation, to interact with the person they are talking to, they are listening as well as speaking. Hersan (1998: 22) pointed out that in daily life the four language skills “are seen in integration … So, in the classroom, the activities should be taught in integration in order to arrive at ease in communication.” Pysarchyk and Yamshynska (2015) added that “In the real life each person can’t use reading, listening, writing skills in isolation. All these skills serve as a bridge that connects a person with a society.”In many forms of communication, people even involve all of the skills. In a lecture, for instance, the lecturer and the audiences “read” the slides previously written. The lecturer provides explanation through speaking. While listening to the lecture, the audiences also take their own notes. Then, in the question and answer session, the students and the lecturer listen and speak in turn. Realizing this, to enable students to use the language they are learning in real communication, these skills should be learnt in an integrative approach.
The integrated skills approach emphasizes that interaction is both the means and the essential goal of language learning. Therefore, learning activities should be directed to enable the students to communicate the message in terms of its meaning, instead of concentrating exclusively on grammatical perfection or phonetics. In relation to this, the students’ mastery of the language they are learning is evaluated in terms of how much they have developed their communicative abilities and competencies. To enable the students to develop their communicative abilities and competencies, the language components and skills must not be separated. Hinkel (2010) accentuated that a language may need to be broken into parts to study it. However, to use the language, we need to integrate the skills and components. In line with this, Harmer (2007) accentuated that both of the receptive skills and the productive skills are two sides of the same coin. They cannot be separated because one skill can reinforce another in various ways.
Advantages of Integrated Skills Teaching
The implementation of an integrated skills approach offers some advantages. Carols (1990, pp. 73-74) described five advantages. First, skills integration provides continuity in teaching-learning/program because in this approach tasks are closely related to each other. Second, activities in the integrated skills approach can be designed to provide input before output. Third, it provides realistic learning as skills integration allows for the development of four skills within a realistic communicative framework. Fourth, it provides chances to know and redeploy the language learned by students in different contexts and modes and it can be valuable for motivation because it allows for the recycling and revision of language which has already been taught. Fifth, skills integration increases confidence to a weaker or less confident learner.
Based on his literature review, Kebede (2013) listed seven advantages of integrated skills teaching. First, language skills integration provides more purposeful and meaningful learning at all proficiency levels. Second, it contributes to consistent teaching and to better communication. Third, it brings variety into the classroom, which enables teachers to enrich classroom instruction by integrating language skills cooperatively. Fourth, it makes language learning comes nearer to the way we do in real life. The language skills integration enables students to learn to manage the language and to easily transfer the acquired knowledge of the other areas. Thus, it promotes language learning and affects the new language knowledge of learners positively. Fifth, language skills integration helps students develop their communicative competence (grammatical/linguistic competence, strategic competence, sociolinguistic competence, and discourse competence). Sixth, it provides exposure to authentic language learning environment so that students can interact naturally with the intended language. Seventh, it assists students to develop their critical thinking so that they can analyze, synthesize and evaluate information better. This enables them to learn language skills in a better way and be successful academically. Seventh, it creates motivation in students by avoiding a routine practice of forms of the language that often creates dullness in students. Eighth, it provides student-centered and humanistic approach to language teaching in a classroom.
Integrated Language Skills Teaching Types
Integrated language skills teaching is differentiated into two types: content-based language teaching and task-based language teaching. However, a hybrid of the two types is possible to use as an alternative. In content-based language teaching, students practice language skills while engaging with activities focusing on a specific subject. In task-based language teaching, students are involved in activities that require comprehending, producing, manipulating, or interacting in authentic language while attention is principally oriented to meaning rather than form (Nunan, 1989). The students work together to solve a problem, complete a task, create a product and etc. Therefore, learning takes places through social activity. Structured cooperative learning techniques (e.g., peer editing and sequence chains) are often employed in task-based teaching.
Content-based Language Teaching
Content-based language instruction is probably the most frequently used mode of language skills integration. In this mode, students practice language skills while engaging with activities focusing on subjects such as education, physics, culture or science. In other words, all the language skills are practiced in a highly integrated, communicative manner while the students are studying the contents of certain subjects. The main objective is to develop students’ communicative competence in the target language, and the secondary goal is students’ mastery of content knowledge of the subjects being learned. In Communicative Language Teaching method, the term ‘content’ refers to two things: the functions or the communicative purposes for which students use the target language (e.g., making introduction, invitation, greeting, interviewing, etc.) and the use of subject matters for second/foreign language teaching purposes (Hauptamann, 1988; Celce-Murica, 1991; Cunningsworth, 1995). In content-based language teaching, a topic or a theme of the subject matter is employed as a basic building block to unify language skills. In other words, language skills are interwoven around the common topic/theme being learned (Brown, 2001; Robson, 2002).
Content-based language teaching includes three major models of language teaching, i.e., theme-based language teaching model, adjunct language teaching model, and the sheltered model (Oxford, 2002). In the theme-based model, language skills are interconnected to the study of a theme or a topic (which was carefully selected to ensure it very interesting to students and offers a wide variety of language skills to be practiced, particularly in communicating about the topic), which serves as the context for language use. In the teaching-learning process, the language skills ‘revolve’ around a common theme/topic; and the theme serves as ‘catalyst’ to join two or more language skills (Cunningsworth, 1995; Hauptamann, 1988; Brown, 2001). Since the themes or topics that are suitable for elementary, intermediate, and advanced grade levels are relatively easy to find on the internet, theme/topic-based language teaching is applicable at any grade levels. It is even suitable for heterogeneous sets of learners. That’s why it is the most helpful and frequently used form of content-based language teaching (Brown, 2001).
In the adjunct language teaching model, students are currently enrolled in a language class and content lessons. The language teacher collaborates with a content course (subject matter) teacher in such a way that the content course teacher may provide information pertaining to the language forms, language skills students need to develop and so on for the language teacher. Then, the language teacher helps the students develop the skills which help them learn the content course (Brown, 2001). To make the collaboration successful, there should be a coordination of objectives and assignment between the language and content teachers (Brinton, 1989; Brown, 2001; Alemayehu, 2008). Since this model requires a linking or ‘adjuncting’ between language and content, it could be implemented on in post-secondary settings (colleges and universities) where the language and content linking is feasible.
In the sheltered language teaching model, the students acquire knowledge about the subject matter subject in simplified target language tailored to suit their proficiency level (Oxford, 2002).
Task-based Language Teaching
In task-based language learning, students participate in communicative tasks in the target language. Communicative tasks are activities which can stand alone as fundamental units and require comprehending, producing, manipulating, or interacting in authentic language while attention is principally paid to meaning rather than form (Nunan, 1989). To let the students develop their language skills, they are assigned to work in pair or group to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. For instances, students collaborate to criticize a poem, analyze a short story, enact scenes from a play, etc. While doing the tasks, they should communicate in the target language. In such a context, the tasks function to help unify two or more language skills together to facilitate meaningful communication (Nunan, 1989; Long & Crookes, 1992; Parrott, 1993). In addition, these tasks also serve as a ‘glue’ to relate the language skills to learners’ background, goal, culture, and linguistic competence.
To effectively develop students language skills, the assigned learning tasks should include four components: goals (implicit/explicit outcomes of tasks), inputs (verbal and non-verbal data presented to learners; for instance a short story, a movie, or pictures), activities (what learners actually do with the input; for example, analyzing, reading) and teachers’ and learners’ roles (Nunan, 1989). According to Richards and Rodgers (2001) and Brown (2001), there are two broad types of language learning tasks that teachers could use to integrate language skills: pedagogic/academic tasks and real/actual-world tasks.
Pedagogic/academic tasks refer to the tasks, which, based on second language acquisition theory, can stimulate second language learning/acquisition process (Richards & Rodgers, 2001; Brown, 2001), such as information gap tasks, problem-solving tasks, jigsaw tasks, etc. These tasks require the students to engage in tasks which they are unlikely to get involved outside of the classrooms. However, while learners are conducting it, they might build up language skills which they probably transfer to perform real/actual-world tasks (Nunan, 1989). Real/actual -world tasks’ are the tasks which are identified via the students’ needs analysis and are and brought into a classroom to facilitate language skills development. The tasks may be in forms of making a presentation or reporting a survey, which is directly related to their need for tasks in the real world (Richards & Rodgers, 2001).
Techniques for Integrating Language Skills
In integrated language skills teaching/learning process, the contents/task, and activities should be sequenced in a logical progression, by placing the easier aspects at the beginning, which are then followed by more difficult ones. In the process, the language skills should be sequenced and unified within a framework of a lesson or sequence of lessons (Atkins et al., 1996). The skills integration to the topic or task in the lesson unit(s) could be done in various ways, but the most common and convenient way is using the pattern that sequences them from receptive—listening and reading—to productive skills—writing and speaking (McDonough & Show, 2003).
Cohen (1990) and Burgess (1994) posited that the best model for integrating language skills is where the practice of receptive skills of listening and reading leads into the practice of the productive ones of speaking and writing. Such integration can be realized by exposing the learners with a body of information from enjoyable authentic texts, videos, music, magazines they read, watch, or listen to and later asking them to reproduce at least some of its content in spoken and or written language. This model is supported by the theory stating “input-interaction-output” as the three essential compositing elements in language learning or acquisition. Language learning takes place when the students get “input”—the language data exposed to the learners—through listening or reading. After receiving the input, the students will make interaction—exchanges of ideas taking place because the students have not entirely understood the input (text, utterance, and expression) so that they interrupt, ask questions or make a discussion. During or after the interaction, output—the language a learner produces—will emerge. Output (spoken or written) can emerge during the interaction because while asking and answering a question, the students produce language. Output can also emerge after the interaction, if, for instance, the students are given an assignment.
Besides the receptive-productive skills sequence model above, language skills lesson(s) could also be integrated using the productive-receptive pattern. For instance, in pre-reading and pre-listening activities, students can start with a discussion/speaking and then move on to reading or listening (Atkins et al., 1996). Which of these two patterns to choose in designing a lesson? It depends on the view taken of the best ordering of the skills, the relative importance of the language skills, the level of students (Davies & Pearse, 2002).\
Factors that Could Impede Integrated language skills teaching
Despite its great potentials and the various advantages it offers, some factors can hinder the integrated language skills teaching approach. Based on his literature review, Kebede (2013) differentiated three groups of integrated language skills teaching approach impeding factors: teachers’ factors, school’s factors, and learners’ factors.
The hindering factors emerging from the teachers are related to competence and belief. Frazee (1995) pointed out that English teachers may not have adequate knowledge and skills as to how to teach language skills in integration. Consequently, they do not play their ‘managerial roles’ in the classroom. English teachers may also think that it is much easier and logistically simpler to teach language skills in isolation than to teach two or more language skills at a time. They may even believe that it is instructionally impossible to teach more than one language skills at a time (Richards, 2001). Shai (2016) pointed out that the four skills integration can be challenging from the part of the teacher for it requires a good understanding of discourse and the skills of using textbook flexibly. It can also be time-consuming for it requires a lot of preparation to choose materials and design activities. In addition, assessing integrated skills is not yet precisely defined because all skills are assessed at once while it must be kept in mind that the skills of each student are diverse in terms of levels and skill types. Some have better oral abilities, while others have better writing skills, and so on. In order to succeed integrated skills teaching, the teachers must be willing to collaborate extensively, perhaps giving up some of their own personal comfort zones in order to further the curriculum process (Erickson, 1995).
In addition, integrated skills teaching can work only if the class is based on learner- centered approach. Therefore, to help learners experiment with the language for developing their skills, the teacher should create friendly classroom conditions. In line with this, Graham and Harris (1994) urge the teachers to try their best to create supportive, enjoyable and nonthreatening classroom environment. Such environment will make the students feel safe, engaged, connected, and supported in the whole learning process and activities.
The hindering factors related to the school concern with the climate, policy, and equipment. To succeed the integrated language skills teaching approach, there should be conducive conditions in schools. In relation to this, the school should provide enough instructional materials and equipment, such as books, newspapers, magazines, photocopy machine, LCD, computers, internet connection, and so on. In addition, the classroom needs to be comfortable and could be easily set up to meet the learning process requirements.
Students’ factors that may hinder the integrated language skills teaching approach are related to their motivation, attitudes and language proficiency. Students with low motivation, very poor language proficiency, and negative attitude towards their teachers and/or peers may hamper integrated language skills teaching (Oxford, 2001; Richard, 2001).
Some Current Studies on Integrated Skills Teaching in EFL Contexts.
A great number of studies have been conducted on integrated skill presentation in EFL contexts. Based on their objectives, these studies could be classified into two main groups: studies investigating the effectiveness and studies that explore learners and teachers’ attitudes. The results of the studies focusing on the effectiveness of integrated skills presentation revealed that if it is managed well, of integrated skills teaching is effective to improve students’ language skills and/or language components (pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary). Shatnawi’s (2005) study of the effectiveness of a proposed EFL integrative program based on the whole language approach (WLA) on the basic stage students’ achievement in English revealed that the experimental group got higher achievement than the control group. The findings also indicated significant differences in favor of female students and a ranking interaction between the method of teaching and gender. The results of Alptekin, Erçetin, and Bayyurt’s (2007) quasi-experimental study examining the effectiveness of a theme-based syllabus and a grammatical syllabus for Turkish primary school learners revealed that the students using a theme-based syllabus developed better English proficiency than those using a grammatical syllabus in both listening and reading or writing. The study of Askildson (2008) focusing on the effects an integrative approach on improving word recognition and reading comprehension among intermediate EFL readers showed that the integrated approach resulted in significant efficacy of in reading rate, comprehension, vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. The study of Borhany, Tahriri, and Tous (2015) focusing on explicit/integrated instruction of listening comprehension strategies impact towards lower-intermediate EFL learners’ listening comprehension and their overall strategy use showed that the participants’ performance during the experimental phase outperformed that of the control phase.
The results of qualitative studies exploring learners and teachers’ attitudes indicated that the integration of skills supports not only learners but also the teachers. Mitrofanova and Chemezov (2011) found that students enthusiastically accepted the implementation of integrated skills and had a positive attitude toward the approach. It also led to students’ better comprehension of the material. Sanchez (2000) and Akram and Malik (2010) affirmed that skills integration inspires teachers to vary the learning activities and helps learners to use the language they learn freely, vividly and naturally. Such a condition develops the class dynamicity and the interaction of one learner to the others. This is clarified by Richard-Amato (1996) who found that the implementation of the integrated skills created a dynamic and exciting classroom environment. In addition, Bose (2003), Faydi (2003) and Hefferman (2006) indicated the skills integration presentation especially the integration of writing skills with other language skills such as reading, listening, speaking and pronunciation improved students’ achievement. Jing’s (2006) study showed that the skills integration presentation leads to a focus on realistic language. Tus, it can lead to the students’ communicative competence all-round development in English.
Communicative competence and the ability to use English to gain access to social, vocational, educational, or professional opportunities has been the most essential objectives of English learning due to the use of English as the major lingua franca and the main medium disseminating information and knowledge worldwide. To achieve the goal in EFL contexts, implementing integrated language skills instruction seems to be the best option. Different from the traditional segregated language skills approach which presented a language skill in isolation from the others skills, integrated language skills presents all language skills in conjunction with each other so that the learners do not only knows the language they are learning but also are able to use it natural communication. Current studies revealed that, if integrated skills’ teaching is implemented well, it is not only effective in improving students’ language skills and/or language components but also supports the students and teachers as well. However, to run an English program employing the integrated language skills teaching approach, it is necessary that the teachers have both competence and belief that the approach can really work effectively. Compared to teaching using the traditional segregated approach, the integrated skills approach requires a good understanding of discourse, the skills of using textbook flexibly and readiness to implement the student-centered learning approach. The institution should also provide full supports in terms of policy, infrastructures and learning materials and tools. In addition, the students should also realize the objective and importance of the integrated skills implementation so that they are committed to succeed the program.
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This article was presented UKI English Education Department Collegiate Forum, Friday, February 17, 2017 . Published in PROCEEDING English Education Department Collegiate Forum (EED CF) 2015-2018. UKI Press, Indonesia, Jakarta, pp. 147-159. ISBN 978 623 7256 25 0