BTR-TESOL Unit 6E - Multiple Skills in One Class

by Mandi Malaman



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

select your theme

make a schedule

comprehensive questions

choose your objectives

structure your lessons

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



As many other units in this program indicate, many language classes focus on only one or two skills. For instance, one class may focus only on speaking (unit 6B), another class may focus only on listening (6A), or one class may focus on two closely related skills such as listening and speaking or reading and writing. It is common, however, for one language class to work on developing all four language skills together. This unit will explain how to teach four language skills in one class.

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multipleskills1Jon has been assigned to teach “English” in Brazil. Before he left for Brazil, he wondered what teaching “English” means. When he met with his boss he had some ideas of what to teach, but they were not extensive. He asked his boss what he should be teaching and was told that he needed to teach grammar, listening, speaking, reading and writing. His supervisor, Jim, also suggested that he use a theme-based approach to teaching and gave him a textbook to use. He wondered how he could teach all four skills in one class. Should he spend a few minutes teaching one skill and then move on to another skill, or should he teach all the skills at once.

  • What is a theme-based approach? What are some themes that you could use in your class? 
  • How would you teach using all of the four skills without making the class unorganized?

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Objectives of this unit

After you have worked through this unit, you will be able to:

  1. Identify what theme based teaching is
  2. Teach integrated or multiple skills successfully
  3. Plan how you might apply the ideas presented in this unit in your own class
  4. Use themes to organize an integrated skills class

In sum, you will be better able to help your students learn in an integrated skills or theme based class.

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The least you should know

Teaching multiple skills in one class is a challenge, but it is a fun challenge. It involves teaching multiple skills in English such as writing skills, listening skills, speaking skills, and reading skills, as well as culture and grammar. This may seem like a lot to manage in one class, but if you follow some of the suggestions in this unit you will be able to handle teaching all of these skills in one class. There are many ways of teaching multiple skills in each class. However, a theme-based approach is one of the most common ways of teaching multiple skills.

Theme-based teaching may seem hard to a new teacher. This may be because it is different from the way you learned in high school. Think back to your high school English class. Did your teacher integrate different skills? Or did you only work on writing and then on reading separately? Did your teacher separate the class into units such as persuasive writing, debate skills, and classic novels?  Your teacher may have been using themes and even integrated skills and you weren’t even aware of it. While you may have had experience with these types of first language instruction, you may not have taken a second language course. Or perhaps the second language course you took only focused on grammar. Whatever your experience may be, it can still be somewhat frightening to be responsible for 4 skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening). Don’t allow yourself to be intimidated, once you get some basics down, teaching multiple skills in one class can be rather fun. You may also find that it can help the teacher stay motivated, because you are not teaching only one skill (such as reading). This variety will excite you as well as your students.

One important distinction needs to be made. Teaching Multiple Skills in a theme-based class is similar to teaching content-based courses (see unit 6F). However, they are different in some important ways. First theme-based teaching is used in a variety of contexts from elementary schools, to after school English programs to Adult ESL classes. It is very versatile and can be used at any age or ability level. Another aspect is that theme-based teaching is in fact a “weaker” form of content-based teaching, so in many ways they are both similar. They both use themes and integrated skills to teach language. However, the sophistication of the themes may differ from theme based to content based (content-based being more sophisticated). In addition, content-based instruction is often used when students are being tested not only on language but on content knowledge as well. While a theme-based approach often times does not have content exams associated with the course.

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1. Select Your Theme

When teaching multiple skills in one class it is helpful to use a theme based approach. A theme is a topic that you can use as a base for your lessons. Remember back to your high school English class, did your teacher use themes such as romantic literature, Shakespearean literature, American novels, etc. These are all example of themes that are common in a first language English class. Themes in an ESL class are sometimes different and selecting these themes can be fun and easy. In order to choose themes, if they have not already been chosen for you, you will need to consider the following:

Student Needs

First, you will need to know what your students need to learn. This means that you need to think of what they would like to do with their English. All students learn English for a variety of reasons. Some learn to be able to travel in English speaking countries. Others learn because they are required to as part of their school education. While others may learn to be able to get a job speaking English in an International company. It is important to know why they want to learn English, so that you can adapt your class to meet their needs. For example, if you are teaching students who all want to work as telemarketers, your themes may revolve around business, telephone etiquette and vocabulary. If you have students who are learning English to travel, then your themes may include survival or travel English such as English for airports, hotels and restaurants.

Student Interests

If your students are learning English because it is a hobby maybe their other interests and hobbies could help you choose your themes. For example, if your students love American movies maybe you could do a unit or theme on movies. If your students like music you could have a theme on music.

It is important to pick something that is of interest to your students and something that they can use. Once you have asked them what they are interested in and why they are learning English, pick some common themes. If your students don’t give a lot of information, then pick some common themes that you feel would be helpful. There are hundreds of themes that you could pick and they can be as simple as introductions, family, and pets or as complex as biology, physics, and history (for more academic themes see unit 6F Content Based Language Courses).

Common theme suggestions

Family, introductions, ways to say hello, furniture and household objects, rooms in the house, shopping (grocery store, clothing store), clothing, body parts, art, music (types of music, musical instruments, music history), types of literature, and health (doctor’s visits, illness, and symptoms).

If you need help with finding themes there are many online ESL sites that separate their teaching ideas by theme or skill. These are a great resource if you have a hard time thinking of a good theme. Also, most low level ESL textbooks are already divided into themes for you.

Time limit on each theme

These themes may last any length of time that you wish depending on the needs of your class and the amount of time you have for teaching them. A week or two is often enough (if meeting daily) to cover all of the language skills and to get in some solid practice with the vocabulary. For other themes, a day or two may be enough, especially if your class meets for hours at a time. Don’t be afraid to repeat inside of the theme, just because you already introduced the theme family and have taught all of the vocabulary doesn’t mean you should move to another theme, you can review, play games, sing songs, read stories or write stories about the family, you can teach about the verb to have and practice making sentences about your family. Don’t feel like once you’ve introduced something you need to move on, repetition is good and in integrated skills you can teach a theme using different skills and from different angles.


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2. Make a Schedule

Planning, planning, and more planning are very important when teaching multiple skills. Planning for each day could be somewhat frustrating, as you know you need to teach speaking, listening, reading, and writing. One of the best ways to make sure that you cover everything is to come up with a plan or schedule that you follow each day/week. Here are some common schedules for integrated skills teaching.

Daily time allotment

Some teachers enjoy practicing all of the skills each day and scheduling a different amount of time to each skill. For example: 15 minutes for each of the skills. So they follow the same schedule on a daily basis but only spend 15 minutes on each skill. If you are teaching 4 skills, than this would make up a 60 minute lesson.

Separate day for each skill

Other teachers like to have one day that they focus on one specific skill, they may use the other skills, but the focus will be on one specific skill. It is helpful to make a rotation calendar and to stick with it.

Mix it up
Other teachers like to have a more relaxed schedule. Teachers know that they need to touch on each of the skills a certain number of times in a unit and they keep a record of how many times they have used the skill. This method is more flexible, but it is much easier to forget to practice a skill

Match like skills together
Sometimes certain skills are easier to practice together such as reading and writing, and listening and speaking. Teachers will often chose which skills they believe go well together and plan their lessons accordingly.

There is no right or wrong way to plan an integrated skills class, as long as you are touching on all of the necessary skills than your plan is working. Pick the plan that fits your teaching style and personality and it should work out.


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Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  1. What might be some advantages (and disadvantages) of trying to plan your teaching    schedule according to skills?
  2. Think of a schedule you would like to use in your class and write it down.

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3. Choose Your Objectives

Objectives are always so important. Once you have your themes and schedule ready you will need to make sure each activity has an objective. An objective is a goal that you would like your students to achieve by the end of the lesson. Objectives help to focus your lesson as well as to ensure that each portion of the lesson is helping your students learn. In a theme based class, language focused objectives are important as well as theme objectives. (For more information on lesson planning see Unit 2C).

Language objectives
Your language objectives need to be included in each class. Language objectives are ones that focus on the language being learned. Here are some examples

Write a thesis statement
Write supporting points
Write a 5 sentence paragraph
Spell words correctly

Read at a speed of 100 words per minute
Read and understand basic ideas in the text
Identify main ideas
Summarize what you have read.

Hold a simple conversation
Give a 1 minute presentation
Ask questions
Use rising pitch on questions

Comprehend lectures or short conversations
Listen for specific words
Identify tone of voice
Identify sarcasm

As you can see there are many language objectives and it is so important that all of our lessons use language objectives to focus our teaching and help out students to actively learn.

Theme objectives
As you will be teaching using themes, sometimes it is easy to get carried away with the theme and only focus on the vocabulary or discussions of the theme. To focus your class more, come up with some objectives that will keep you focused on your goals. Sometimes it is helpful to have specific tasks or accomplishments that you would like your students to be able to do once they have finished the unit. For example, if you have a theme on the family the following objectives might be useful in your classroom.

Identify family members
Describe your family
Introduce others to your family
Describe each family member’s role


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4. Structure Your Lessons

Good language classes employ good lesson planning and this is especially true of multiple skills classes. It is so easy to get into a class and just hold discussions or to teach vocabulary and to do nothing else. While these activities are good, there is a better way to ensure that your lesson is planned out and that students understand your lesson. Use the before, during and after model. What this means is that you will emphasize different skills at different points in the lesson. Here is an example, perhaps in your lesson your main focus will be on reading, so to introduce the topic for the day you would need to do a speaking activity, then you would have your reading activity, followed by a writing activity.

Before (Speaking)

If you are going to be reading an article on family member responsibilities, you will first need to introduce the topic. Maybe as your before activity, you want to hold a group discussion on students families, introduce a grammatical structure common in the reading, or practice vocabulary they will see. If you do a before activity students will understand your lesson better than if you just throw them into the activity and it gives you the chance to us

During (Reading)

As in the above example, you are reading about family member responsibilities. Students can read the story but should be actively doing something while they are reading. Maybe they are looking for important words, trying to increase their reading speed, or underlining the main ideas. Each activity should have a purpose and a goal to be completed.

After (Writing)

It is a good idea to use the during section as input or an example of what you would like the students to do in the after section. If students first talked about family responsibilities and then read about them, in the after portion they can write about their families. Following this pattern, you will have successfully used three different language skills in one classroom and will have used the reading portion as an example or model of what you would like the students to do.

Using this three part model can be used in any language classroom, but works especially well in a multiple skills classroom.  It will allow you to use multiple language skills within one class in an organized way, and will give you greater flexibility in your teaching as you will be able to mix and match skills at different points in the lesson. The above example is not a set schedule. You could use any of the skills in either the before, during and after schedule.


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Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  1. What is an objective? Why do we need objectives in multiple skills classes?
  2. How can one separate the class into 3 parts? Are there any advantages you can see to doing so? Disadvantages?
  3. Try to think of some different activities that would work well as a before, during or after activity and write them down.

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Video examples

Please view the video of an American Culture Course taught in a thematic manner from China. Pay attention to things that the teachers does that we have discussed in this unit.

Click here  


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Reflection and Responses

That is all. That is the “least you should know” about conducting multiple skills classes. There is more that you can learn in the where to go to learn more section.

As you view this video clip of an EFL conversation class, think about each of the following questions.

  1. What was especially good about this class?  (What did the teachers and students do right?)
  2. What teaching principles/techniques discussed earlier in this unit did you notice in this clip?
  3. What adaptations could you make for the situation you are (will be) teaching in?
  4. What other things might you do differently to make your lessons even better? 
  5. Did you notice theme objectives? Language objectives? What were they?
  6. What language skills did the teacher teach?

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Where to go to learn more

Connections to other units in this program

Here are some other units in this program that relate to topics we have addressed in this unit.

  1. Unit 6F, Content Based Language Courses
  2. Unit 2C Planning Effective and Efficient Lessons
  3. Units 6A-6D on Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing

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Online and other electronic resources

 eslpartyland - This site has information for students as well as teachers on a variety of subjects. If you follow this link you will see some example themes with corresponding activities in all four language skills. Use this sight if you need ideas for themes or if you already have a theme but need an idea for a language activity using that theme.

eslgold - ESL Gold is a sight that has a lot of helpful information on a variety of subjects. It also has ideas separated by skill area. This sight may be helpful if you are having a hard time coming up with activities in certain skill areas.  

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Print and paper-based resources

Here are some published books that have proven to be helpful resources for teaching multiple skills classes.

harmer This general reference textbook is great for those who want to learn more about a variety of subjects for ESL Teachers from planning a lesson to how to assess students. There is a complete chapter on methods for integrating skills where you will find information on theme based courses.
Title: The Practice of English Language Teaching
Author: Harmer, Jeremy
Publisher: Pearson Longman ELT
ISBN-10: 1405853115
ISBN-13: 978-1405853118

oxfordThis is a teacher resource book that explains learning strategies and styles, theme and task-based instruction, and the four skills. The author uses the example of a tapestry to explain the importance of integrating the skills. Teachers will find theoretical knowledge as well as some practical ideas for the classroom.
Title: The Tapestry of Language Learning: The individual in the communicative classroom
Author: Scarcella and Oxford.
Publisher: Heinle ELT
ISBN10: 0838423590
ISBN-13: 978-0838423592

brown This textbook is often used in ESL Education programs around the world. It surveys widely accepted language teaching methodologies and accepted principles of language teaching. It provides students with a chance to interact with the text with end of chapter exercises and suggested readings from other sources.
Title: Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy
Author: Douglas Brown.
Publisher: Pearson ESL
ISBN-10: 0136127118
ISBN-13: 978-0136127116

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Additional References

Oxford, R. (2001). Integrated skills in the esl/efl classroom. Eric Digest, ED456670

Scarcella, R. C. & Oxford, R. L. (1992). The tapestry of language learning: The individual in the communicative classroom.  Boston: Heinle and Heinle Publishers. 

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