The Focal Skills Approach

The Focal Skills Approach

The Focal Skills Approach is a special syllabus design for “communicative language teaching that is skills-focused and content-based” © Wikipedia.

This program design was created in 1988 by Ashley Hastings. It’s based on the research of second language acquisition theory. The teaching methods are influenced by the work of Stephen Krashen. This approach has a focus on enhancing one language skill at a time until complete knowledge to a certain level of this skill is acquired. Listening, Reading and Writing assessments are used regularly to check if the level is reached. The structure of the course: Listening, Reading, Writing, Advanced modules and an Elective hour.

How does it work?

Firstly, the students are assessed on 3 skills (Listening, Reading, Writing) using the tests. The scores are a starting point for checking the progress. Then, the student is placed into the module of a certain level for which they haven’t reached a needed score.  The sequence of modules is: Listening, Reading, Writing, Advanced (immersion and preparation for the language environment the student is about to face with). If they haven’t reached an appropriate threshold in Listening, they stay on this Module, if they have, they take a Reading test, the procedure repeats. If they have reached a level in Reading, they move onto Writing and so on. Listening is a foundation for the later modules and Reading is important for improving writing.

When a student is placed on an appropriate module, they are given a set of courses that are aimed at developing the student’s weakest skill. Three-fourths of this course is focused on improving this skill and one-fourth is an elective lesson chosen by the student. The student is tested each month. Once the learner masters their Listening skills to the required level, they move onto the Reading module to reach this level. Then, onto the Writing module and after that, onto the Advanced Module. 

However, skills from the previous modules are maintained as well. For example, if the student reaches a certain level on Listening, but not Reading, they are placed into the Reading section, where they still practise their listening skills while focusing more on reading skills.

Main principles 

There are four principles which this approach is based on:

  1. Progressive functional skill integration

“It’s a logical, systematic integration of the skills in accordance with their potential uses in the classroom” © Effective teaching tips.  Students have good listening comprehension before they move onto reading. Then they improve reading skills before moving onto writing. Then, they develop writing skills before moving onto Advanced module (academic skills). Speaking is developed throughout the process. The idea of this method is that a certain sequence increases the efficiency of language acquisition as students work on weak skills using their strong and fully developed skills.

  1. Comprehensible input

It’s a language input that is understood by students when they do not understand all the words. It means that a teacher gives the material that is one level above of the learners. According to Krashen, this kind of input helps students learn the language naturally and not consciously. 

  1. Low affective filter

An affective filter is psychological factors that impede the process of language acquisition. These factors can be annoyance, boredom, anxiety, etc. In Focal skills approach, this filter is lowered. For example, students are not tested on the material, they are not to perform if they are not ready. Moreover, exercises, drills or artificial tasks that have no sensible purpose other than language practice are not used. Materials include language about people, places, ideas, stories, and so on. Such activities do not become annoying; they are based on real types of human interaction.

  1. Authentic materials

Listening: The main part of the Listening module is Movie Talk. The teacher shows authentic movies, describes scenes and actions, and paraphrases dialogues if necessary to help students understand the story. Students’ task is only to watch and listen. 

Reading: The most common activity is Interactive reading when the teacher reads aloud, students then take part in discussions. Personal Reading is used as well: students read for pleasure, the teacher works as a facilitator.

Writing: The Co-author technique is used. Students read some texts and have a writing project. The teacher discusses the piece of writing and rewrites it correcting mistakes. The student reads the correct work and asks questions.

Advanced module: This module includes activities that correlate with the student’s future objectives (work, educational, etc.). A common activity is a MiniCourse. It’s a short course on any topic including presentations, tests, lectures, assignments, etc. Students learn something outside the programme as well.

Elective Hour: It’s not connected with the Modules. Students can choose any activity they are into or they want to develop (grammar, vocabulary, etc.)

The advantages of this approach is that all four skills are developed simultaneously, not separately while focusing on improving the weakest skill. 

Try out this approach in your lessons!

Наринэ Егорова

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