As a basic-level writing teacher, I work primarily with students who aren’t pleased to be in my class. Most have received low scores on their Accuplacer tests and come to the first day of class angry at the system that failed them and resentful toward the college that requires a course which, in some cases, won’t even reward them with credits. Many of these students have already labeled themselves as “underachievers” and are resigned to being in low-level courses that teach by rote and never require active engagement. Some have been diagnosed with learning challenges; others simply learned that the bare minimum was the academic path of least resistance. Many of these students were taught English skills using a “segregated-skill” approach, in which the mastering of language skills is separate from that of content learning. This is especially true of ESL students, who may have learned many rules but are unable to understand and express more complex thoughts in a cohesive manner when reading and writing.
It is for these reasons that I have begun using a more integrative approach in my classroom. In its simplest form, a course bearing a single-skill title such as “Basic Writing” would actually involve multiple, integrated skills. For example, I might give oral instruction on a writing assignment, requiring students to use their listening abilities to understand the lesson. Then we might discuss the many ways the assignment could be developed, thus employing speaking and listening skills, as well as group interaction and peer review skills. Finally, I might require students to continue the lesson at home, not only by creating a map, outline, and/or first draft of their writing assignment, but by generating a list of questions the initial assignment has conjured for them. Now the students need to use organizational, analytical, and creative skills to complete the assignment, while the list of questions encourages them to think outside the box, applying metacognition (the act of thinking about thinking) to their writing process.
Some say that all learning is integrative because each new idea must be connected to prior ideas, but when integrative learning becomes the focus of one’s teaching style, it requires larger leaps of imagination. Integrative learning is about linking ideas and concepts that are not easily or typically connected. In content-based instruction, students practice writing skills using the theme-based model (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992). The theme-based model integrates learning into the study of a theme, such as violence in video games, social justice, recycling, the current political climate, or any topic the students find interesting and engaging. The topic must allow a wide variety of skills to be practiced and clearly stick to the idea of communicating about the theme. One simple example of theme-based learning that I’ve successfully used supported an introduction to the school’s library, online research, and citation formats. In an all-female basic composition class, I gave the students a topic: “Women in the 21st Century: Still Paid Less Than Men.” Students were to find one legitimate source to support the topic, quote or paraphrase from the source, and correctly cite their work. The task generated much enthusiasm, encouraged communication and peer interactions, and students learned essential research and writing skills.
The other method of skills integration—task-based learning—is only now beginning to influence the measurement of learning strategies in higher education. (Kavaliauskien, 2005) One of the fundamentals of task-based instruction is group or pair work, which is utilized to increase student interaction and collaboration. At the beginning level, students might introduce and share a particular item of interest learned about each other, or write and edit a class newsletter. More advanced students might bring in another element of integrative learning to their task—civic engagement—by taking a public opinion poll at school or creating a digital film short to promote a service, idea, or political stance. I have had some very positive results with task-based learning using civic engagement. During the 2008 presidential election, as part of their lesson on the rhetorical mode of persuasion, my students worked in groups of four to create multimedia presentations to encourage voter registration. Not only did we achieve near-perfect attendance and participation during those weeks, but registration of first-time voters among my students climbed from a paltry one-third to one hundred percent.
In addition to civic engagement, service-learning is another task-based integrative learning technique that is capable of creating enthusiasm in students and instructors alike. Service-learning links meaningful community service to academic course content, enriching the learning experience while teaching civic responsibility and strengthening community. In a foundational writing course, students can learn how language gets things done in the world by undertaking a community-based writing project. A class might decide to adopt a non-profit such as a local homeless shelter, and write or edit any flyers or brochures needed. Alternately, students could elect to write a series of articles promoting public land use for a community garden space to support the local food bank. Reserving class time for reflection, however, is critical to the success of service-learning. If students are unable to differentiate between service-learning and volunteerism, they may not understand how they will benefit from the exchange. I have had students initially balk at the idea that they would be “doing something for free.” Reminding them that service-learning combines “service” and “learning” in intentional ways—by integrating community service with classroom learning—helps them to appreciate this approach to academic enrichment.
Integrative learning isn’t just for the best-prepared or most-accelerated students. Indeed, it is particularly important for those who are under-prepared for college-level learning, because it helps them to link basic skills with meaningful experiences, both within the course and across disciplines. In a world that is at once interconnected yet fragmented, integrative learning serves to heal this dichotomy by making real-life connections and creating authentic experiences. Even in remedial classes, students will be able to link their coursework to the rest of their lives.
Scarcella, R., & Oxford, R. (1992). The tapestry of language learning: The individual in the communicative classroom. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Hsiao, T., & Oxford, R. (2003). Comparing theories of language learning strategies: A confirmatory factor analysis. The Modern Language Journal, 86 (3), 368-383.
Published: Innovation Abstracts. National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD). 31(3). 2009.