Evaluation of the Focal Skills Pilot ESL Program
 at Golden West College, 1993-94
ERIC# ED372815

A Research Report for
WATESOL NEWS February 1997

Brenda Murphy, Ph.D.
Shenandoah University

    The study done by Steven Isonio at Golden West College (Huntington Beach, CA) in the Fall 1993 and Spring 1994 semesters represents some of the first comparative work involving the Focal Skills approach and a traditional ESL program.  As a relatively new program design, begun only in the summer of 1988, Focal Skills has not yet been tested in a wide field and so there is not yet a body of evidence to support its claims. Since the study at Golden West is one of the first, the results are not yet as meaningful as they may become when further studies are performed.

    In his report on the study, the author begins with an introduction containing some of the background of the ESL program at Golden West as well as some of the history of the Focal Skills approach, the theory behind it, and the way in which it was implemented at Golden West College. Citing the work of Dr. Ashley Hastings et al. in the development of the Focal Skills approach at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, he outlines the linear design of Focal Skills -- sequential modules in Listening, Reading, Writing, and Immersion -- and the way in which the program functions in isolating the specific skills for development. Each module of the program is explained, and the author goes into some detail when discussing classroom methodology and materials. Assessment is done by means of a placement test which is administered before and after each module. This serves two functions: it measures the student's gains in proficiency, and it places him in the appropriate module.

    What follows is what makes this a flawed study for the purpose of testing the efficacy of the Focal Skills approach. Essential to the philosophy and policy of Focal Skills is the placement of the student in the right skill module at the right time so that he is at the right level of comprehensible input (i.e. that Krashen's "i + 1" is available to him). In addition to placing the student in the appropriate module by means of initial testing, the original program design calls for a semester which is divided into four parts, each three to four weeks in length, and where the end of each "mini-term" is marked by the use of the placement instrument which is given again to determine progress and to advance the student as required. In other words, the student advances (at three- to four-week intervals, if he is ready) at his own pace, without having to wait for a longer period or even the end of a semester. The Golden West study modified that time frame to fit their semester, so that a nine-week Listening module was followed by a nine-week Reading module for the Fall semester, with a similar set-up for Writing and Immersion in the Spring semester. Not only were the modules longer than those of the original Focal Skills design, but a student who completed a module but perhaps was not ready to go on was advanced anyway. Similarly, students who perhaps were ready to go forward after three or four weeks had to wait until the end of the nine-week period to do so.  This completely changes the character of the program design and dilutes the results, as so much weight (in the theory of the Focal Skills approach) is given to appropriate time/ability/placement in the seminal program. Thus, unfortunately, the Golden West study is not valid for testing the proposed strengths of the Focal Skills approach.

    The study utilized a comparison group involved in the program at Golden West College, which is a typical integrated design with six multi-skilled levels. The pilot group (Focal Skills) and comparison group (Golden West) each employed two class sections for the purpose of the study. Both groups were tested according to their own testing instruments before beginning classwork. For the pilot group this was the Focal Skills placement instrument and for the comparison group it was the Combined English Language Skills Assessment test (CELSA), the primary instrument used at Golden West College. Classroom materials and instructors were coordinated so that a variety of input was provided for the pilot group as well as the traditional input for the comparison group. At the end of nine weeks (mid-semester) the relative tests were administered again and progress was measured.

    Results of the testing at the midpoint of the Fall semester (i.e. after the Listening module) showed, interestingly, that the pilot group made some significant gains in listening relative to the comparison group. (Tables of these statistics and those for the other testing periods are included at the end of the report.) Testing after the Reading module at the end of the semester didn't show much differential gain, nor did testing of Writing after the first part of the Spring semester. However, the testing done at the end of the Spring semester, when the "full battery" (p. 10) of testing instruments for Focal Skills was used, showed significant gains made by the pilot group in listening over the entire two semesters of study.

     The above results of testing cannot be adequately verified since two different and distinct testing instruments were used. Some of the students in the pilot group who took the Focal Skills placement test had also taken the CELSA, so some correlation could be made. Even so, the final results did not show a marked difference in progress for the two groups.

    In his report, Isonio continues with a discussion of the effectiveness and appropriateness of the Focal Skills testing. He acknowledges that although it may have fit the purposes of the program designers at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the test may not be adequate to measure proficiency within the Golden West program. As the placement instrument of the Focal Skills approach is the "backbone," the heart, of the FS theory, and is thus responsible for the projected success of the program, this is a serious criticism. But the subtext of his observation may be that the author is distrustful of the Focal Skills placement instrument because of its relative newness and its lack of accreditation. (The CELSA  is approved for use as a placement test by the California Community Colleges.) Theoretically, however, the Focal Skills placement test should be able to measure accurately the language level of anyone who takes it, regardless of the program of study.

    Another concern raised by the author is the procedure used in conducting a comparative test of this sort. Practical factors may interfere with the validity of the process. These may include lack of motivation on the part of teachers and/or students, the validity of the measurements (tests), lack of familiarity with the new instructional material on the part of the instructors, and the perceived encroachment on class time made by the demands of additional frequent testing. Moreover, students who know they are part of a pilot program may behave differently than they normally would in an established course at the university. Any of the above factors could (and perhaps did) skew the results or bias them toward the program of the host institution.

    The author concludes his study by stating that although the Focal Skills approach shows some promise, the results of testing and the statistics generated do not warrant changing over to the Focal Skills program design at Golden West College at present. However, he does suggest that further, more carefully planned and standardized studies be carried out in order to test the relative success of Focal Skills in practice. A second year of testing at Golden West was projected.

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    The study at Golden West College is interesting as a partial assessment of the Focal Skills success in practical use, but in no way gives a clear picture of the real potential for this method. It was NOT a valid strategy for comparison, since the original and essential elements of appropriate placement at the appropriate time in the appropriate skill module were corrupted by the modifications made by those who designed the study. Given the paucity of material available which would give real evidence for the efficacy of this innovative and progressive program, immediate further research, comparative study, and publication of findings should be planned. Not enough educators are familiar with the method and the positive effects it could have on future ESL programs.