A Discrete Approach to Teaching ESL – What Does it Mean?

A human figure stands behind a warning sign with one hand raised
image source: www.bigstockphoto.com

I have been thinking about my past experience teaching discrete ESL. It is one of those experiences that I wish I could forget – erase out of my head, but the more I try, the more I think about it. Well, I read that the best way to deal with bad memories is to either talk or write about them– so here it is:

You should not ask students to read aloud! You are only to focus on reading – when they read aloud they are speaking, which is not the focus of the lesson,” said the person in charge.

No! A cloze exercise will not work for the listening group because you will be asking them to read and write…” said another teacher during a lesson planning meeting.

Why are you asking students to discuss their ideas with each other? They are supposed to be writing – not talking!” said the person in charge.

We chose this approach because we want to place students according to their skill level, and they all have different skill levels. If they are level 3 in speaking, they should go to level 3, and if they are level 5 in writing, then they should go to level 5. That way we avoid multi-level groups, which are too difficult to teach,” said another, while trying to explain why the school adopted this (crazy) approach to teaching adult ESL.

Banking is the theme for this week. Students should only be writing about banking! Why are you teaching them to read graphs?” asked the person in charge.

I tried to explain that ‘discrete’ does not mean isolated. ‘Discrete’ means the focus is on one skill, without completely getting rid of the others. Well! Who said I could speak when I was only to listen! Pfft… Now you know why it is an experience I wish I could forget. I feel better already.

Oxford (2001)[1] explains that discrete teaching is one of those ESL approaches that is not conducive to communicative competence. In an adult ESL context, where the aim is to provide learners with authentic experiences, a discrete approach is counterproductive. Although it might work well for students seeking to hone a particular skill, or for programs offering skill training (business writing, for example), it is an antiquated approach. In real life (not nightmares!), we go about our days interchanging skills as we interact, socialize, and set goals. Maybe multilevel is not as bad as some might make it to be. Think about opportunities for collaboration and cooperation, building from each other’s strengths, and learning from our mistakes. Hey! That just sounds just like life itself.

Have you had experience teaching multi-level classes? Please share a favourite strategy!

[1]Oxford, R. (2001). Integrated skills in the ESL/EFL classroom. ERIC Digest. http://www.ericdigests.org/2002-2/esl.htm

Hi, my name is Cecilia. I love taking part in good brain awakening discussions. Blogging, I find, lends itself for that. I also believe in sharing my skills through scholarly practice, which is why I write regularly and have presented at several conferences, including TESL Ontario, TESL Toronto, CALL, and at Seneca College. My M.A. in applied linguistics along with my skills and experience have led me to my current position at Centennial College, where I teach English and ESL in the School of Advancement. I'm truly passionate about what I do: teaching, writing, creative expression, and helping my students (both L1 and L2) gain agency and take control of their own learning. Thank you for your readership and I look forward to reading and answering your comments. You can find me on Twitter @capontedehanna


13 thoughts on “A Discrete Approach to Teaching ESL – What Does it Mean?”

  1. It seems to me that isolating skills is only pertinent when we want to test one skill without penalizing the learner for being weak in another skill. So, for example, a reading test would have written instructions and a listening test would have spoken instructions. You get the picture.

    I certainly feel your frustration! I could not handle the scenarios you described.

    Both my classes–LINC Seniors and ESL Literacy–are multi-level. I am developing a whole toolbox full of strategies that help me deal with the multi-level nature of the groups. When all else fails, base an activity around a powerful picture. Pictures elicit language at all levels, allowing all students to contribute and challenge themselves. Peer scaffolding kicks in beautifully, too.

    1. I like your response, Kelly. You can’t take the single skill approach far, even in testing, with distorting language. A reading test requires some response and even if you manage to avoid writing or speaking responses (i.e. purposeful responses) by using true/false or multiple choice questions (and who ever reads to answer true/false or mc questions?), you are using two texts – the original test text followed by questions. Already you are testing ‘text comprehension’ and ‘question comprehension.’ Skills don’t exist in isolation. Trying to do ‘make’ them discrete is senseless and is as far from authentic as can be.

      Cecilia, you’re trapped in a one-dimensional, non-sensical comic box. Good luck!

      1. Trapped no more Carolyn! This experience has come to pass. Many misconceptions could be avoided if all ESL practitioners in our midst were knowledgeable of both theory and practice.

    2. A toolbox of strategies for working with multi-levels – what a useful idea. I haven’t seen anything like that for a long time. There’s a book or an on-going blog somewhere in that toolbox. And pictures/photos – still the best tool out there. Everyone gets to contribute at their own level and learn from others.

  2. If you are teaching multi-level you will need volunteers. You can co-ordinate them for certain days. You’ll have to be prepared to give them the material you want to cover but it will allow you to concentrate on one group while the other is with the volunteer.

    Just be prepared for the times when the volunteer doesn’t show up due to illness or an emergency.
    They will become your most valuable asset.

    Good luck.

    1. I’ve have seen a mighty many classes ove the past 30 years and I’ve never seen one that isn’t multi-level. Even if, by some miracle, you started with a group of students who were at exactly the same level in their ability to comprehend and communicate, they would all differ in someway tomorrow, and the next day and exponentially until the class was at the same multi-level status as all classes are.

      As a TESOL Trainer, I hammer at this. I believe every TESOL graduate needs to be prepared to dance to the multi-level tune.

      1. Love your dance metaphor. Like you, I believe many misconceptions could be avoided if all ESL practitioners in our mist were knowledgeable of both theory and practice. TESL training is important; ongoing professional development is also indispensable.

  3. Frankly, I cannot imagine any ‘person in charge’ making any one of those comments. A skill focussed class does not exclude speaking in a writing lesson or a cloze activity in a listening class. Interchanging skills using real-life tasks based on our learners diverse needs and goals should be at the core of all ESL classrooms whether they are discrete or multi-level.

Comments are closed.