Text Based ESL

In recen years, there has, it seems, been a trend in ESL instruction toward concentrating on speaking and listening skills. As a result, the “text-based” skills—reading and writing—have been de-emphasized. Perhaps there are good reasons for this. After all, most ESL students are studying English because they want to use it—to make their way as immigrants in a new country, to improve their career prospects, or take advantage of educational opportunities.

For students in all those categories, listening and speaking are more important than reading and writing. (It is true that these skills are important for ESL students who are preparing to study in English, but they are not perhaps so crucial as they were in the past: it seems there has recently been another trend in English-medium universities and colleges, one that has led us away from expecting non-native-speaking students to have reading and writing abilities that approach those of natve speakers.)

This trend away from reading and writing may be understandable, but, for several reasons, it is also worrisome: In the first place, although the text-based skills do not in themselves have as much practical value as listening and speaking, if their development is neglected, the development of the other skills is bound to suffer. Once they have acquired a basic vocabulary, ESL students who are not reading systematically will learn fewer and fewer words. And the habitual grammatical errors of ESL students who are not writing regularly, and having their writing carefully corrected, will fossilize.

Moreover, if adequate attention is not paid to text-based skills, the learning experience of ESL students will tend to be constrained by the attitudes and abilities of the teachers they happen to have and by the contents of the textbooks they happen to be assigned. If the textual and the non-textual skills are in balance, however, through reading and writing work, students will acquire linguistic information from beyond the confines of a syllabus.

Finally, even if the great majority of ESL students are practically motivated, there will be some who are drawn to English, not for practical reasons but out of pure interest. Such students will certainly not be satisfied with a progamme that downplays reading and writing skills.

- fl, June, 2009