Blended Learning and the 4 Skills

I'm writing this in reply to this post concerning teaching the 4 skills in a blended learning environment.

The 4 Skills in my context
As a teacher of young learners, I tend to focus more on speaking and listening. This is partly because an opportunity to develop speaking skills should be taken at this age (my current students are aged 9) before the inevitable shift to the exam driven courses they will take at an older age where English becomes a lesson for them rather than a language and also partly because the coursebooks we use and the syllabus we follow are geared heavily towards speaking and listening. There are many pairwork activities and 'games' featured in our programme in which the students have to communicate (albeit in a controlled way) in order to complete the task. Listening features heavily as new vocab is modelled on CD, comic strip stories and reading texts have parallel tapescripts and there are many listening exercises requiring the students to extract information to complete a chart/picture/sentence etc.

Reading and writing tend to be kept simple. The reading texts featured in the coursebook are very short (and backed up by an audio version as stated above) and the writing tasks never demand more than a few sentences or a short paragraph. I would like to develop my students' reading and writing skills more but time is a major constraint. We used to use readers and story books but they were dropped a few years ago as the publishers selling coursebooks started to push their 'complete packages', with stories included within the pages of the main book. I also try to do projects on the topics that really interest my students, both collaboratively and individually, but again, time limits what can be done.

Problems and Paradoxes
While I enjoy the high focus on speaking and oral communication, there are problems with the way the 4 skills are taught in my setting. First of all, despite the focus on listening and speaking activities, neither of these skills are tested when it comes to assessment time! The exams are paper-based and containing grammar, vocab and reading comprehension questions along with short writing tasks. Projects and portfolios are also assessed but these are almost exclusively written pieces of work. I often ask my self why we assess them in this way when we spend so little of the time in class working on these skills.

There is also an assessment issue over separation of the skills i.e. a writing question should only test writing, a reading question should only test reading etc. And so, in the reading sections, students are directed to answer with just yes/no, a/b/c/d or a tick/cross and yet in the grammar and writing sections they are marked down for answers which are too short! In my view, the whole idea of separating the skills out into individual, contained sections is a fallacy. Language does not work like that. Everyday, we engage in multiple tasks that require different combinations of the skills and our teaching (and testing!) needs to reflect that.

Using technology for the 4 skills
At present, the use of technology in my context is very limited. One computer and a projector is present in each class and that's about it. For that reason, I feel a webspace which can be accessed from home and in class would provide an ideal opportunity to develop their language skills and writing in particular. At present, we are preparing for an end of year class show in which the students will perform sketches and make presentations based on topics covered in class (they also produce a poster to go with it). The sketches are straightforward as they are scripted and it's just a matter of learning the parts and rehearsing. In past years however, the presentation part has proved problematic as students often state they don't know what to say beyond a few sentences or they write something and then read it out, paper held in front of face.

In answer to this, I'm currently working on a webspace using Moodle in which the students will be asked to write their ideas for their individual presentation. I will set up an OUwiki for each student to write in, allowing them to edit and expand their ideas over time. This will address an issue that occurs when they are writing in that they never return to their work and re-read or re-draft it. Through use of the wiki, they can do this easily from home and we can discuss how to improve their writing in class as well. The text produced in the wiki could also be used for the poster they will produce, which will adorn the hallway (as a bonus, computer printed texts will stop the complaint from the head teacher of 'scruffy' writing being on display ;)).

Not forgetting that the ultimate goal is to orally present their given topic, I will utilise the nangong voice recorder, which can be embedded into the wiki/moodle page for them to record their talk at home, playback, reflect and practice. The recordings will also allow me to keep track of their work and offer suggestions etc for improvements/changes etc.

Anyway, I should get on with designing it - there's a lot to be done! I'll update here once the site is viewable.