You are on page 1of 9

An empirical look at the integration and separation of skills in ELT Larry Selinker and Russell S.

Tom/in
Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

By considering a particular problem area in ELT researchthe integration/ separation of the four skills'we argue that an increased concern for empirical methodology will necessarily bring ELT theory into closer conjunction with teaching practice. In this article we report five case studies which all aim to show that an empirically grounded and insightful ELT theory is indeed possible. In so doing, we uncover several hypotheses which control pedagogical decision-making, but which do not appear to be explicitly stated, and for which substantial evidence is lacking. One unfortunate result is that other potentially useful strategies for teaching remain ignored. We argue that increasing the rigour of observations ofskill integration/separation opens the way for more systematic exploration of the principles which underlie the material presented in these case studies. Finally, we note that in these studies, important decisions affecting students' time and learning are not grounded in fact or in principles that pedagogical decision makers consciously consider. Nor apparently is the raising of such questions even contemplated. We note the three types of non-empirical rationale for current decision-making in the area of skill integration/separation. We contend that the best pedagogical decisions for students can be made only by taking into serious account systematic observations of student performance in specific learning situations in which differing integration/separation schemes are used.

Introduction

Our general motivation in writing this article stemsfromour concern with two fundamental questions within English language teaching (ELT) which seem to invite a great deal of discussion among practitioners: 1 What is the relation to be between pedagogical principles in ELT theory and the activities occurring within daily teaching? 2 What is the nature of the research and evidence needed to develop an empirically-grounded and practice-directed set of pedagogical principles for ELT? These questions are important because we see in the literature, at professional meetings, and in informal discussion, continued division between the concerns of so-called 'theorists' (whose pedagogical prescriptions are regularly criticized as being divorced from the immediate needs of practising ELT teachers) and the concerns of ELT teachers (whose
ELT Journal Volumt 4013 July 1986 Oxford University Press 1986 227

pedagogical prescriptions are regularly criticized as unfounded and dependent on anecodotal evidence). We feel that this division is mainly due to implicit and differing sets of assumptions about the nature of theory and evidence in research, and their relation to ELT practice. In this article we are interested in 'ELT theory'. What we mean by this is a theory of ELT practice. We are especially interested in trying to be explicit about the principled bases for pedagogical decision making. In this paper, wefirstreport on some case studies in ELT. Our intention is to show that an empirically grounded ELT theory is possible, i.e. a theory that comes from practice and adds to our understanding of practice. We consider some concrete and practical cases in ELT of one traditional and important theoretical hypothesis, an hypothesis upon which countless pedagogical decisions have been based: the 'four-skills hypothesis'. This has two parts: a that there exist four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking; b that these skills should be separated in teaching practice. Part (b) as stated is a particularly strong form of the hypothesis.
Soma prmilmlnmry In this section, we consider some descriptive data on the integration and separation of the four 'basic' language skills. Clearly, these four traforth* hypottfalm

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

ditionally recognized skills have been used as the fundamental organizing principle for many ELT syllabuses and curricula. We wish to ask: under what circumstances and to what extent is it useful for the four traditional language skills to be separated, and under what circumstances and to what extent is it useful for such skills to be integrated? While it is perhaps premature to begin experimental studies of skill integration/separation, this should not deter us from conducting careful empirical studies which will permit us to build an observational base for ELT theory. Much of the data which we describe in this section is drawn from two of the graduate student studies (by Hargreaves et al. and Johnston et at.) on this topic which we jointly supervised at the University of Oregon in the Spring of 1982. Table 1, takenfromJohnston etal. (1982), shows the relation between ESL level and skill separation at one particular ELT institute. This table was derived from conversation between the investigators and two administrators at the institute. What can be seen from it is that the lower the level, the more likely it is that skills will be integrated; and the higher the level, the more likely it is that they will be separated. But until this was expressed in the form of a diagram, the teachers did not seem to realize that this was the case.
Tahiti
1 2 3 4 5 6 Grammar/writing Grammar/writing Oral bate Reading/vocabulary Reading/vocabulary Oral Oral Oral Word tudy Word itudy Oral Oral TOEFL TOEFL American culture American culture

Case One: The skills organization of a particular curriculum at an intensive institute

Grammar/writing Reading Grammar/writing Reading Grammar/writing Reading

228

Larry Stlinkrr andRusstll Tomlin

After seeing Table 1, there was some conflict among the teachers over whether the diagram actually reflected what went on at the institute at the time. We are willing to grant that it may not reflect it, since the empirical result we are interested in is based on the opinions, and the underlying belief systems, of the two administrators as described in conversation. We feel that this is a good starting point for exploring the situation. This raises the further question of how decisions of the sort reflected in Table 1 are made, quite apart from whether or not they seem to be good ones. In this case, important decisions seem to have been made on the basis of a curriculum plan that was not clearly articulated: the issue of skill separation versus skill integration was never actually faced. Examination of the curriculum plan in Table 1 suggests several hypotheses about integration-separation of skills in ELT. First, it suggests (at least for practitioners in this ESL context) that skill integration is more important to learning at earlier stages than at later ones. Second, it implies that skill separation becomes more useful or important at later stages of learning, especially where students are preparing for academic work (as they are in this particular institute). There is not, of course, any evidence available to us that will address such hypotheses. But our main points then become dearer: 1 ELT pedagogical decisions do entail adoption of some hypotheses or points of view about skill integration and skill separation, whether they are explicidy stated or not. 2 The lack of substantial evidence to underpin such pedagogical decisions makes them seem unprincipled. S Studies such as Johnston et al. (1982), in which pedagogical decisions are investigated by considering the beliefs of the decision makers, begin to make explicit the underlying hypotheses and putative principles, rendering them available for more explicit investigation later. Cose Two: We present below an extract from an interview with an Institute director 'Focus'an informal and a curriculum developer, reported by Johnston etal. (1982). In the technical term course of the interview they used the term 'focus' to describe their attempts to integrate skills in a separated curriculum. (I = Investigator; D = Director; C = Curriculum Developer.) I: . . . Do you help teachers integrate the four skills? D: To suggest that one could allow teachers to integrate one skill area with another is looking at it sort of backwards. Language itself is not [separate]; it's hard to separate it. You realize it's virtually impossible to really separate i t . . . so you don't allow teachers to integrate things. Language is integrated among all these skill areas. It's like dividing water it flows back together again. You have these separate little islands for the sake of convenience, but we're not separating. We focus, you might say. That's a catchword this term. It allows us to concentrate on one area. But you can't separate: it's impossible. You don't go into a listening classroom and only listen; you can't go into an oral conversation classroom and only speak; you can't go into a reading classroom and only read; that's impossible. You can't pull one piece of water here and one piece of water there; itflowsback together again. But we can focus on different areas in different classrooms. I find it
Thi integration and separation ofskills 229

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

funny to talk about the four skills anyway, because it's a convenience and a way of categorizingbut certainly nobody believes they are actually ever separated. C: Yeah, and I think there's kind of a historical development there, because, when I was in graduate school in the late 1960s, I think you could honestly say that the four skill areas were [divided]at least, there was an attempt to completely divide them; in the sense that you went into a listening comprehension class and you only listened. You did exercises to tapes, you filled out little things, and you honestly only listened. D: But you had to listen to something. C: What I'm saying was that at that time there was more of an attempt to deliberately compartmentalize these things, to split the jello. And I don't thinkwell, of course, I'm speaking locallymy guess would be that that has changed a great deal throughout the country. I don't know about language schools overseas, whether it has changed as much there as it has here. But I would say that in this country surely it has changed a good deal.1 A point worth noting here involves the two metaphors used by the administrators in this conversation: 'dividing water' versus 'split the jello'. These metaphors, used here as arguments, but without empirical grounding, are indicative of the strong view that absolute separation of skills is a pedagogical artifact. The curriculum developer notes the historical truth that in the 1960s 'there was an attempt to completely divide them'. This speaker correctly observes that the separation of skills in the 1960s was more than a slogan: it was a belief about the way language is organized. Here, that belief is explicitly denied, with important consequences for the curriculum involved. A key theoretical term, 'focus' is introduced to explain the administrators' decisions, but it is left undefined, paving the way for misunderstandings in the daily teaching situation. It is apparent that these two administrators have wrestled with a rather tricky pedagogical problem. On the one hand, they seem not to believe that skills are in principle separable (lines 35). On the other hand, they seem also to believe that their curriculum demands compartmentalization of some sort (presumably for administrative reasons, though this is not spelt out). The term 'focus' is created, therefore, to provide a reasonable explanation to resolve the implicit conflict caused by the clash between two largely unexplored areas. It may be that the idea of 'focus' in skill separation or skill integration, is a valuable one, but it needs careful definition and evaluation in settings such as this one if it is to be more than a plausible rationale for resolving administrative/pedagogical conflict. Case three: Time gaps in lecture comprehension Figure 1 shows the activities that a typical student engaged in each day while attending a course. Each evening students would read material in anticipation of a lecture. The following day they would attend the lecture, and that evening review and revise dieir notes. This raises the issue of the 'time gaps', as Johnston et al. call them, between the various activities. Unlike many ELT classroom activities, the regular academic efforts of these students were distributed over two days, with many hours intervening between reading, listening, and writing. On Larry Selinktr and Russell Tomlin
Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

230

Before class: reading chapter

L - Interpreting - W

During class After class: re-reading for missed details, filling missed notes

Key: R=reading; L = listening; 1= interpreting; W=writing

Figm 1
Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

the surface, then, this gives the appearance that these language skills are separated, for surely they are not used simultaneously here. On the other hand, consider thii set of activities: a reading the evening paper; b watching a science programme on television the next morning; c writing a personal letter in the evening. The students' 'time gaps' seem quite different from these. Unlike this random set of activities, the students use different skills to solve a single communication problem: understanding a lecture in a particular course on a given day. We would define this as 'integration', and, because the skill uses are consecutive, it is 'serial integration'. This is important because it provides a way of distinguishing this sort of situation from more random series of language-using behaviours. This case also raises the issue of skill definition. Johnston et al. (1982:5) also consider skill integration at each stage in the two days of academic activities. During class, students write as they listen; after class, they write as they read. The authors contend that listening and writing are more intimately integrated in such cases than are reading and writing. This is because listening and writing are carried out almost simultaneously under the 'communicative stress' of lecture comprehension. This sort of case forces one to consider more carefully what the skill of writing entails, for the writing of notes in each setting appears to be a vasdy different kind of interaction.

Case Four: Hargreavcs et al. (1982) present a detailed discussion of the U3e of one set of Skill integration In ESL materials in a particular class of migrant workers. The students were materials use required to answer the following question:
What day of the week dots Mrs Nelson usually go to the supermarket? What day did she go to the supermarket last ivtek? What day will she goto the supermarket next week?

Hargreaves first presents a fragment of talk to illustrate the ideal flow of conversation, based on die coursebook in use in the classroom: The integration and separation of skills
231

Teacher

Student

(Boundary exchange) Aha, good. Pedro, do number 3. (Reads question from text)
What day does Mrs Nelson go to the supermarket?

(Answers question from text) Mrs Nelson goes to the supermarket on Tuesday. (Boundary exchange) Very good. Viviano, try number 4. This is contrasted with afragmentof an actual communicative transaction.
Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

Teacher

Student

OK . . . Oscar, why don't you read the first question, number 1. Le leo? (Should I read it?) And use, use, your name, use somebody else's name, like Viviano.
What day of the week does Mr Vioiano usually go to the supermarket?

Ah.

OK, wait a minute Just, just the first sen . . . the first question, mm ..., can you answer that question . . . What day
of the week does Viviano go to the supermarket?

What day did she go to the supermarket last week? What day will...

What day of the week does Mr Viviano go to the supermarket?

Ah, answer the question . . . can you answer it? La sigo leyendo? Le digo la contestaci6n? (Should I keep on reading? Should I tell you the answer?) Just, just make something up. Yes. Whatever you want to say . .. Like, ... OK, OK, I'll do the first one for example. For example you say, What day of the
week does Viviano usually go to the

supermarket? And then you say, Viviano usually goes to the supermarket on Friday. OK, so you just make up an answer, anything you want to say. There is no correct answer. So, let's see, try... There is clearly a big difference between what we believe the materials
232 Larry Selinktr and RusstU Tomlin

writer intended as ideal classroom performance when constructing these exercises, and what actually happened in this ESL classroom. The materials writer had in mind an idealized interaction, suggested in the introduction to the textbook, in which the student will read each individual question and then give an appropriate but complete oral answer to that question. This would represent an instance of 'serial integration': the student engages first in a reading activity and then shifts his or her attention to oral production. However, when transcripts of a recording of a particular class using these materials are examined, one sees activity that is much more complicated in terms of skill integration than the materials writer intended. (See Hargreaves et al. 1982: Appendix for additional fragments.) The classroom conversation is very much alive, and contains talk about the particular situation being imagined, and rich 'meta-discussion', sometimes in Spanish, of the learning activity itself. In all of this, listening and speaking skills are in parallel integration, with reading taking a distinctly secondary role. Hargreaves etal. contend that learning for these students seems to occur more in this discussion, which is not based on the materials, than in response to the exercise itself. They conclude this not so much from empirical observation of the learning that has occurred, as from the premise that better communicative activity offers better learning opportunities. The integration question perhaps provides some support for that premise, for perhaps parallel integration in conversation is the best example of the kind of communication that students require for learning. The crucial point is that if we increase the rigour of observation of skill separation and integration, we will open the way for more systematic exploration of the principles which underlie the judgements of Hargreaves etal. concerning these materials. Case Five: Resolving conflict about skill separation! integration The following is another fragment from the interview with the institute director and curriculum planner reported in Johnston etal. (1982). In this instance, the curriculum planner considers direcdy die investigator's quesdon about how skills are integrated in the institute's curriculum. And also one thing we've run intothere's always debate among teachers as to how these should be divided. Should it be reading and writing, should it be grammar and writing, should it be grammar all by itself, should it be grammar with oral skills? So there's always conflict among the teachers, and we have taken the position, no matter what die conflict is, that we are not going to isolate anything completely . . . There are two fundamental points to be made here. First, the pedagogical decision about how to integrate or separate certain skills in this curriculum was made without any apparent recourse to empirical observation. That is, important decisions affecting students' time and learning potential are not based on facts and principles which these administrators consciously consider. Nor is the raising of such questions apparendy even contemplated. Second, while diere appears to be no principled resolution to this problem, there is none die less a resolution. It is to take a middle-of-die-road position, accommodating the various opinions of individual teachers in an ad hoc manner. This has the positive effect of promoting temporary harmony among staff, but it does not ensure that die best pedagogical decision has been made for die students. We contend diat die best pedagogical decisions for diese students can be made only by taking into serious account die
The integration and separation ofskills 233

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

systematic observation of student performance in specific learning contexts in which differing integration/separation schemes are used. Conclutlona Widdowson argues convincingly (1978, 1983) that there is no coherent theory which governs pedagogical decision-making in ELT. But he also argues that ELT decisions are inherently highly theoretical, in that 'teaching techniques and materials must ultimately be related to underlying principles' (1978:163). This holds true even when one adopts an eclectic perspective, for the principles underlying choices made in an eclectic approach must also be made explicit (cf. Widdowson 1984:89). One should attempt to make explicit the principles which underlie all pedagogical decisions and decision-making, for ultimately the learner, too, has only limited time and resources to devote to language learning, and must make most efficient use of those resources. In beginning empirical investigation of skills and how and when they should be separated or integrated, we find ourselves agreeing fully with Widdowson. But we believe more is needed. In our own experience, but more importantly in empirical evidence such as that provided above, we find that pedagogical decisions about skill integration or separation in ELT are currendy grounded in diree types of rationale. First, they are grounded in the practical extension of dieoretical prescriptions based on rationalistic premises about the nature of language and language learning. Second, tiiey are grounded in historical tradition, where die decisions of die past are promulgated in die present. And, diird, tiiey are grounded in practical constraints, wherein die immediate pressures of time and resources force decisions based on expedience. To conclude, twofinalpoints. First, in our view, die ELT discipline has at its disposal so littie carefully collected data about practice diat it is hard to be certain about anydiing. We feel diat we must work out research mediodologies and argumentation to help us gadier relevant data for studying practical, daily ELT situations. Second, our approach to ELT dieory, while intended to augment die approach of Widdowson, still remains different. Widdowson's approach can be fairly characterized as providing a rationalistic description of what appears to happen naturally in idealized native-speaker interactions, and conclusions from diis are applied to pedagogical decision making. While we believe diis kind of approach to be of great value to die profession, we are aware diat, widiout empirical grounding, die move from such idealized descriptions to specific pedagogical recommendations may require real leaps of faitii. Our recommendation is die careful collection of evidence from bodi native-speaker and native/non-native speaker discourse in actual ELT contexts. The diree rationales discussed abovedieoretical prescriptions, tradition, and practical constraintshave tiieir uses in making pedagogical decisions. But die development of an ELT dieory widiin a serious professional discipline must require an increased effort to create a genuine discipline. This, we feel, requires diat we take an increasingly data-orientated, empirical point of view on crucial pedagogical decisions. However, we are not calling for more laboratory experimentation, from which generalizations to ELT learning situations may be unclear. We are interested in a 'dieory of practice', and the primary relevant domain of inquiry is die range of practical situations diat we as teachers find ourselves in. By considering careful descriptions of what actually happens in two settingsdie pedLarry Selinktr and RusullTomlin

Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

234

agogical setting in which ELT teachers work, and die specific settings in which die learners are going to use their growing linguistic abilities in Englishwe believe die principles underlying pedagogical decision-making will be strengthened.
Received July 1935 Widdowson, H. G. 1978. Teaching Languagt as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Widdowson, H.G. 1983. Learning Purpose and Languagt

1 The conditions under which this conversation was recorded are described in Johnston et al. (1982). Hargreaves, D., M. Lamon, V. Ramsay, and D. Shane. 1982. 'Looking at One ESL Lesson in an HEP Program.' Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon: unpublished manuscript. Huclrin, T. and L. Olaen. 1984. 'On the use for informants: LSP discourse analysis' in Pugh and Ulijen Johnston, G., C Kobayathi, and M. Ohno. 1982. 'An Investigation of the Four-Skills Hypothesis Usingjapanese and American Informants.' Department of Linguistics, University of Oregon: unpublished manuscript. Selinker, L. 1979. 'On the use of informants in discourse analysis and "language for specialized purposes".' 1RAL XXVII:189-215.

Usi. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Widdowwm, H. G. 1984. 'The incentive value of theory in teacher education.' ELT Journal 38/3:8690.
Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/ at Nottingham Trent University on May 17, 2013

Thm muthor* (eds): ReadingforProfessional Purposts: Studits inNatioe Larry Selinker is Professor of Linguistics and former Director of the English Language Institute at the Uniand Foreign Languages. London: Heinemann.

versity of Michigan. His research interests are in ELT theory, language for specific purposes, discourse analysis, and second-language acquisition. Russell Tomlin is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Director of the American English Institute at the University of Oregon. His research interests are in discourse analysis, second-language acquisition and ELT theory.

The integration and separation ofskills

235