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Focal Skills (or The Focal Skills Approach) refers to a specific non-traditional program design and assessment regime that purposely structures intensive foreign or second language instruction to align with student-centered, communicative language teaching that is skills-focused and content-based. When the principles and processes of the Focal Skills approach are used, the rate of student language acquisition is accelerated. This finding is particularly evident in the intermediate to advanced stages of acquisition—the stages of greatest concern when instructing a language for use in academic, business or other professional settings.
Focal Skills restructures program design by sequentially focusing attention on the development of one language skill area at a time until its mastery to a chosen threshold level is reached. Assessments in Listening, Reading, and Writing are used to determine whether the threshold level has been attained.
Teaching practices in Focal Skills programs are heavily influenced by the work of Stephen Krashen. There is an emphasis on comprehensible input using authentic materials. Activities that would raise a student's affective filter are generally avoided.
Created in 1988 by Ashley Hastings, Ph.D., the Focal Skills program design took into account research and developments in second language acquisition theory that questioned the efficacy of grammar-based language curricula and the traditional level-based program model developed when structuralist-influenced methodologies dominated the field of intensive second language teaching. In that traditional program model, placement involved determining a student’s level and then assigning the student to courses at that level in a number of skill areas (such as Level 4 Reading, Writing, Grammar and Oral Skills). In contrast, the Focal Skills program student is placed into a module of courses that all address the student’s weakest skill and focus three fourths of instruction on developing that one skill area. The remaining portion is spent in an elective class selected for that week by the student. The skill modules are sequenced as follows: first the Listening, next Reading, then Writing, and finally, Immersion—where emphasis is on oral skills development and on readying all skills for the specific language environments the student expects to encounter.
Upon entry into a Focal Skills program, the student is given a complete battery of Focal Skills assessments, including Listening, Reading, and Writing tests. These entry scores are used as a baseline for measuring student progress, but the student is immediately placed into the first module in the Focal Skills sequence for which the student has not attained the requisite threshold or pass-out score. If the student does not earn the needed score on the Listening Assessment, the student is placed into the Listening Module for instruction—no matter whether the student has already reached the requisite threshold score in other skill areas or not. After each month of instruction in that module, the student is tested again with an alternate form of the Listening Assessment. Once the listening skill is mastered to the requisite threshold as evidenced by attainment of the pass-out score, the student’s placement moves on to the next skill module in which the student is not currently scoring at or above the threshold level. Skills already developed in the previous modules of the sequence are then maintained and further developed while the skill area of the next module is receiving focused instruction. Thus, a student testing out of the Listening Module and scoring below threshold in Reading at intake testing is given a new form of the Reading Assessment. The results determine whether the student has also attained the threshold score in Reading or will need to spend the next month in Reading Module classes, where—while focusing on reading skills development—the instructional methods will exercise and, so, further develop the student’s listening skills as well. Students meeting the threshold on Listening and Reading, but not Writing, are placed into the Writing Module, where they will be exposed to methods that use and further practice their listening and reading skills while focusing on developing their writing skills.
The Focal Skills program model was first implemented at the Intensive English as a Second Language Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and later adopted, in whole or in part, at other intensive programs, including the English Language Programme at the United Nations. Adaptations of the program model have made it workable not only for relatively large programs, such as the ones at UW-Milwaukee, the University of Dallas, and Palo Alto College (San Antonio), but also for relatively small programs, like those at the Intensive English Institute, part of the University of Maine in Orono <http://www.umaine.edu/iei/coursesprograms/englishlanguage.htm>, Kilgore College (Texas), and Vincennes University (Indiana).
Hastings, A. J. (1995). “Chapter 3: The FOCAL SKILLS Approach: An Assessment.” Second Language Acquisition Theory and Pedagogy, ed. by F. R. Eckman, D. Highland, P. W. Lee, J. Mileham and R. Rutkowski Weber. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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