Choosing and Using Focus Skills
Recently, I wrote about the importance of having a strong learning objective when you plan a lesson. The learning objective that I described was built upon three pillars, knowledge, skills and context. In this article I would like to write a little more about how we choose and use focus skills.
When teaching a language, there are four main skills, referred to here as macro skills. They are speaking, listening, reading and writing. These are standard for almost all languages that are taught formally around the world, with a few exceptions. Perhaps the most obvious exception would be sign languages, such as American Sign Language, which do not include speaking or listening. There also remains a handful of languages around the world that are unwritten, passed on verbally from generation to generation, but these are generally used only amongst very small communities.
Within each of these Macro Skills exists a set of Micro Skills; more specific functions that a user of the language might employ. Examples of these are public speaking for the speaking skill, analytic reading for the reading skill, academic writing for the writing skill and active listening for the listening skill. There are many micro skills, and no list of them would be official nor exhaustive, they are simply ways of describing the things people do with language.
In this article,t he main focus here will be on macro skills, though with some examples of micro skills.
What is a Focus Skill?
In every standard lesson, all four macro skills will be used in various ways. Every lesson will involve instruction and demonstration from the teacher that the students must pay attention to. Every lesson will require students to speak in order to give answers or to speak in paired and grouped activities with their classmates. Every lesson will have activities where students need to write answers or make notes and every lesson will provide text of some sort that students need to read, whether it’s reading materials from a textbook or a worksheet or just the teacher’s notes on the whiteboard.
These are incidental uses of language for the learning process. They are modes of communication used by the teacher and students to deliver new learning materials and to conduct activities and exercises. However, each lesson should also focus on one or more skills not only as a mode of learning, but as a skill to be specifically developed by the lesson. The skill or skills you choose specifically to develop are your focus skills.
The focus skill will be a part of your learning objective and your lesson plan will be designed in such a way as to ensure that it is developed. Every activity should therefore aim to develop the focus skill or skills. This means that by the end of the lesson, you should be able to say, for example, “today, my students have improved their speaking skill.”
Choosing Focus Skills
The focus skill for each lesson is an integral part of the learning objective you decide on. Therefore, the focus skill should be directly related to the structure or vocabulary that you are teaching and the context that it is being used in. For example, if you want to teach polite language for business situations, a valuable skill to attach to it could be speaking or writing. These are relevant because a person might use polite language when meeting a client, which would be a spoken interaction, or perhaps when sending an email, which would be written correspondence.
Furthermore, it is particularly important to focus on the speaking or writing skills, even though listening and reading respectively would be used in those scenarios, because if a person hears or reads polite language without learning them, they are likely to still be able to understand the message being sent. However, if one tries to send a message in a business context and does not know how to use polite language, then they might potentially commit a faux pas or even cause offence. Of course, practising speaking and writing with polite language will naturally lead to better recognition of the same when reading and also listening a.
For another example, if you wanted to teach vocabulary for describing places in the context of holidays, then appropriate skills might be writing, e.g. for postcards or holiday reviews, speaking, for sharing holiday stories with friends, or maybe reading, for checking holiday reviews online to plan a holiday. When choosing a focus skill, it is necessary that we ask ourselves, “when and how are my students likely to use this language in their real lives?”
Application of Language Skills
It is much easier to choose appropriate focus skills when you have a strong understanding of how language is used and how people apply these skills in their lives outside of the classroom.
One activity which I get participants on my training programme to do, encourages teachers to think about this in depth and come up with a broad set of applications for each of the language skills.
I start by creating four groups, and I give each group a piece of paper with one of the macro skills—reading, writing, speaking or listening—written in the centre. I then ask them to think of all of the ways they use this language skill in their own life, either through their first language or through foreign languages, and write them onto the paper. After a short while, each group passes their paper to another group and in turn receives a different paper with a different skill. Once the activity is finished, we have four sheets of paper that look something like this:
These sheets become incredibly useful resources, acting as references whenever teachers are planning their lesson. A quick look over these papers gives some great ideas about how to apply the language being learned through the appropriate skill. Should it be a listening lesson about listening to news reports, or should it be a writing lesson about writing diary entries? You could even start by picking a micro skill and then deciding what target language fits.
I have written before about the importance of having a clear, singular learning objective for every lesson you plan. Is it necessary then that there be only one focus skill in every lesson? Not quite. It is important that the focus from the start to the end of the lesson is consistent, but that focus can be on more than one skill, provided they are combined effectively.
The reality is that in real-life language use, we rarely use singular skills in isolation from the others. When we speak, we probably also need to listen to the responses we receive. We might read an interesting article and then tell our friends about what we have learned. We might take notes while listening to a lecture. There are many ways that skills are combined in practice and it is valuable to incorporate these real-life experiences into our learning objectives.
This chart shows some of the relationships between the four macro skills. Here, we can see that there are two main ways to group the skills, either by the mode of communication or by the orientation of communication.
Here, mode of communication refers to whether the language being used is textual or verbal. Textual communication makes use of the writing and reading skills, while verbal communication makes use of the speaking and listening skills.
Orientation of communication refers to whether the person is producing the language or receiving it. Speaking and writing are productive skills because they involve output from the individual, while reading and listening are receptive skills because they require input from another party.
It’s very natural to pair skills by their mode of communication, because we often respond in kind. If we receive a written message, we are most likely to respond in writing—think emails, text messages, letters, even Facebook comments. Likewise, when we speak to someone, we expect to hear a spoken response from him, whether it’s in person or over the phone.
It’s also important to understand the relationship between receptive and productive skills, because in the natural process of acquiring language, it is our receptive skills that provide the input we need in order to develop our productive skills. This is why, for example, young children have a long silent period before they start speaking: they are listening to the language around them first.
With this in mind, if you choose a productive skill as your focus, understand that you will need to spend some time using receptive skills early in the lesson for the students to first absorb and actually learn the new material. Later, they will demonstrate what they have learned through the productive skill.
Similarly, if you choose to focus on a receptive skill, at some point towards the end of the lesson, you will need the students to use a productive skill to demonstrate that they are in fact applying the receptive skill effectively. That is to say, I cannot know that my students have read and understood something successfully unless they demonstrate that understanding. (It is worth noting that such a demonstration could be done non-verbally, for example by reading or listening to instructions and then following those instructions.)
Practising Your Focus Skills
Once you have decided on your focus skill, you then need to make sure that your lesson is very precisely designed to maximise students’ opportunity to practise the skill. If your focus skill is writing, then you should aim to have the students writing the target language in as many stages of the lesson as possible. This can be from writing single words in a fill-the-gap type activity, sentences in a semi-controlled activity or full paragraphs or texts in a practical activity towards the end of the lesson. At each stage, the students should be using the language being learned through the focus skill.
For a receptive skill, such as reading, you might ask the students to start by reading some material and identifying within it a new piece of language, either lexical or structural. Then, once they have processed and understood the target language, they might read some sample sentences and identify where the target language is used correctly or incorrectly, perhaps correcting the errors to show their technical accuracy. Then, they could read a short paragraph and answer some comprehension questions to prove that they understand. And finally, perhaps they would read an online article that uses the target language and then write a response, also using the target language, to post in the comments.
This way, students do not only learn the technical aspect of a new piece of target language, they also learn how effectively to use the target language for communication, and practise doing so within the classroom.
Can you think of any interesting ways to combine the skills into a multi-skill focus that applies to real life? Add your ideas, opinions or questions in the comments below.