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Intensive English Learning with Focal Skills

Research indicates that students in FOCAL SKILLS programs acquire English language proficiency faster than students in most other types of Intensive English Programs (IEP). A number of studies have found that FOCAL SKILLS students gain about 35% more English ability in a semester than other Intensive English Program students.
We attribute the FOCAL SKILLS advantage to a number of factors, which are discussed below.

Most researchers agree that comprehensible input is necessary (or at least highly desirable) if students are to acquire language proficiency. Following the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen, FOCAL SKILLS regards comprehensible input as essential. Comprehensible input is Job One for every FOCAL SKILLS teacher.

We have developed or adapted a number of key techniques that enable us to provide large amounts of high-quality comprehensible input to ESL students:

The FOCAL SKILLS Movie Technique uses authentic movies to bring an immense variety of meaning into the classroom. By narrating and paraphrasing at the appropriate level of complexity, the teacher can create a rich stream of comprehensible input that is directly related to what the students are seeing and hearing. This input is supported and reinforced by the coherence of the plot, the appeal of the characters, and the affective impact of the scenes. Every few minutes, the teacher stops the movie and paraphrases the action and dialogue, using language appropriate to the students’ level. The teacher then re-plays the scene. Most movies can be covered in this way in about 10 hours of classroom work.

In The Talk Show, two teachers converse and interact with the class while carrying out some project or purposeful activity. This may involve storytelling, how-to classes, cultural lessons, interviews, etc.

Interactive Reading is a group activity in which the class, guided by the teacher, explores an authentic text together. The teacher reads the text out loud first,… students circle words or concepts they don’t understand. The teacher then reviews the text a second time allowing students to ask questions. Finally the text is read again by the teacher. Authentic texts are always used (children’s books, newspapers, etc.).

Personal Reading is an application of Krashen’s “Free Voluntary Reading,” with a teacher serving as resource person. Each student selects a book from the library and reads freely on their own. Comic books, simplified novels, teen romance novels, and the like are all excellent examples for intermediate level students. Students can approach the teacher one at a time to get help or clarification on what they are reading.

In Free Writing, students write individually on topics of interest and importance to them. The teacher consults with the student and responds in the form of a Focused Rewrite, in which selected portions of the student’s work are rewritten in clear, standard English. This technique provides highly focused, personalized comprehensible input, because the rewritten material expresses the student’s own thoughts, while the language elements modeled in this way are likely to contain a hefty sample of the student’s personal language ability.

A Mini-Course is a short “how-to” or academic course on any reasonable topic: with workshops, readings, media materials, discussions, presentations, and other standard activities. This approach is excellent for high-intermediate level students. The focus of these classes is on the topic, rather than on the language.

Since all classes in our intensive ESL environments are conducted in English, the ability to understand spoken English is fundamental for the development of reading, writing, and speaking. Reading ability is essential to the growth of writing ability. Speaking skills are built gradually on the foundation of the other skills, especially listening. All four skills contribute to academic performance.

These considerations lead to the following principles:

Students should have good listening comprehension before working on reading, writing, and academic skills.
Students should have good reading comprehension before working on writing and academic skills.
Students should have good writing ability before working on academic skills.

*Focal Skills copyright Dr. Ashley Hastings

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