Ruminations on curriculum development

advice in regards to developing your own curriculum

What I wanted to offer here this month is some advice in regards to developing your own curriculum. The first thing I should point out being that this is something that I am only just getting into, or something that I have only just started to seriously read up on, as previously it has always been the case that I’ve been teaching established curricula – I mean, I’ve never come across the one that doesn’t require the teacher to put substantial effort into the development of lesson material, and into the invention of ways to liven it up, but it’s really only in the last couple of years that I’ve been faced with the situation where I have to develop an entire curriculum from scratch. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, in other words, that anything that follows here comes from a terribly well-informed perspective, or that people who are representative of such a perspective won’t be shaking their heads as they read it; for people in the situation, however, that has prompted the evolution of this procedure, there might be something at least here that they are going to find useful. Consider it, if you will, at this stage merely something I’m chucking onto the table; I’d be pleased to hear back from others what they reckon and, when I do finish reading the stack of books about it I’ve just ordered, I have every intention of, if necessary, returning to these thoughts with a suitable re-appraisal.

And who do I think might find what follows here of some use? Well, basically, people who are experiencing the same situation I did when I first started ESL teaching, and that I kept coming across in many of the places I went. Here’s how it unfolds. You finally take the big plunge to decide to go somewhere; you tender your CV, you score a job, you get there, and this is what you discover. If you’re lucky, there’s at least a broad plan outlining some topics that you have to cover with the students in class; maybe, even, there are a couple of battered old texts, minus the teacher’s guides and workbooks, that have been there since the nuns left in 1965. Maybe there’s a computer too; chances are, however, that if it’s running a language you can use, there’ll be such intense competition for it from the other teachers in the institute, from the office staff, and from the boss’s kids, that you’re unlikely to be able to use it as your principal point of reference. Which is not to mention either that you, yourself, might be a recent graduate from a field that is nothing to do with either languages, education or culture, let alone that you might not have any specific qualification whatsoever in the field of ESL; even then, because when I first started teaching it was on the back of a humanities degree that had at least covered languages and Asian studies, and because I had at least done a Grad. Cert. in TESOL, you’re still likely to be sweating it out immensely. Yes ladies and gentlemen, I am quite happy to admit that, when it came to my first few months on the job, even with all the best preparation that in short notice I was able to come up with, I didn’t have a clue; it’s not something to be embarrassed about, because you won’t have to look too far through any teacher literature to see that, as with any job, you can’t really develop professionally until you’re confronted first hand with the situation you have to deal with.

With that, I wouldn’t mind adding a quick thought here either on the debate around qualifications vs. experience, and furthermore whether said qualifications are more beneficial if they are practically rather than theoretically oriented; this is what I reckon. Nobody has much of a clue to begin with. However, the more knowledgeable you are about ESL related things, the more potential resources you have upon which to draw to inform your actions; nobody could argue, I mean, that you don’t have a lot more to work with in this situation, and are thus better equipped. One very good way to become knowledgeable about the field of ESL is to obtain qualifications within the field. On the flipside of this, qualifications are a much better indication to an employer that you have some sort of a suitable knowledge base to draw upon than your word for it; you can provide the same sort of indication as qualifications to an employer, if you obtained your knowledge in other ways, using other means such as a portfolio, the publication of articles in the teaching journals or on websites, an annotated bibliography of the material you have read, and/or the inclusion of a theoretically astute teaching philosophy in your CV. Or, get your previous bosses to write you references that specifically demonstrate you are knowledgeable in the field, and in what ways, rather than just saying you were a good bloke (or woman, ’scuse the sexist language) who worked hard and who kept the students happy; it doesn’t take much to do these things, and for all future employers know, you might have been mediocrely entertaining the kids with magic shows and word searches for x hundred years without taking a single step in the direction of becoming a genuinely productive teacher.

Furthermore, predominantly theory-based qualifications get a good bashing around the traps – yes, it’s highly likely that the professors who devise educational courses in Western universities are really stupid people (I know sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, and I know history shows a real necessity for critical thinking, but I mean come on). I think the distinction to make, though, or the impetus behind the design of predominantly theory based teaching courses, is this. If you learn how to do practical activities, you can co-ordinate those activities very well, and even modify them in a few different directions. If you learn theory, however, you’re equipped with the means to generate yourself an infinite number of learning activities, or with a far more boundless practical imagination for the task. In view of the need for beginner teachers to have something to go on with, therefore, or something to give them a positive sense of direction, some training in the practicalities of teaching is in any good tertiary ESL course provided; however, the real emphasis is put on theory, because the returns in terms of eventual teaching productivity and the positive effect that tertiary education has on the aspirations of the profession have proven to be eventually so much greater. Or so I reason it to be, at any rate.

Anyway, to get back to the main thrust of what it is I want to say this month, how can you develop a curriculum from scratch, with no materials to draw on whatsoever, if you don’t, to borrow an apt colloquialism, ‘know shit’? Here’s one way, having been in this position myself, I might be able to help you out. The first decision you have to make, if you want to do a bit of action research on the Matt Smith model, is what sort of language it is you are going to have to teach your students. Most times, you’ll be hired at a school as a conversation instructor, so you’re going to need to teach them to be able to speak and listen. And, because in the past students would spend years studying the English language and still not be able to say anything intelligible, and because the emphasis these days is therefore on ‘communicative language teaching’ (which we can simplify to mean teaching that provides them with the ability to enter an English speaking environment and actually be able to some degree participate in that environment by being able to express themselves, and by being able to understand what’s going on around them), you’re going to need to teach them to speak and listen to things that, in the sort of English speaking environments your students might feasibly one day head off to, are going to serve them in that context. So, to arrive at a map of the sort of language that is going to form the overall content of your curriculum, this is what you might do; grab your pen and paper, sit down, and imagine if you were in that environment what sort of communication it would be that you would be likely to engage in. Thinking about spending one day in that environment, from when you enter it until you leave, if you methodically put yourself in the shoes of the non-native speaker is going to generate for you enough material to keep you going for months.

Then, once you’ve arrived at this map of your curriculum, you need to categorise things into topics; there’s any number of reasonable ways to do this, and I’m sure you can figure it out for yourself (i.e. as you see in the texts, ‘greetings’, ‘directions’, ‘office slave commands’ and so forth – please don’t be limited by these examples, there are endless permutations). What should you start with? My own guidelines are to start with the stuff that’s easiest, that most frequently comes up, and that provides the broadest knowledge base for the range of topics that you’ve arrived at. Following which, or once you’ve arrived at some sort of hierarchy, it might be sensible to do the following; do a little bit of testing of your students to see what on your language map they are au fait with, or at what point the real education is going to have to begin. Don’t forget to explain to them somehow the rationale behind what you’re doing; students stick to the mission, as you yourself might reason by imagining yourself in their place, far better if they can follow the logos of the operation.

The idea being, of course, or what I’m proposing here is what you’re trying to accomplish, that you need to end up with a set, divided into suitable categories, of things that you want your students to, at the end of your instruction, actually be able to speak and listen to with some proficiency – just as examples, you might want them to be able to ask and respond to the question of ‘What did you do on the weekend?’, or to be able to describe their favourite food. You need to firmly arrive at, in other words, if you want to give this method a try, some target language, or some outcomes for your curriculum, that form the schema for the topics it’s going to teach. Again, you’re going to need to map out these topics; if, for example, you wanted to do the ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ one, you would sit down and write out as many (or at least a decent sample thereof) responses to this question that you, yourself, might come up with. This is to allow you to identify patterns in the language; the next stage of the process, and it’s really easy, is to see that there are definite regularities the ways in which we go about saying things, and in the content of our language.

If, in other words, you write out some responses to the question of ‘What did you do on the weekend?’, you’ll soon notice that there are some categorisable ways in which we can answer this question; we might, for example, burst out with the one really exciting thing we did on the weekend. Or, we might list, with reference to the times at which things happened, a number of activities in which we participated. In regards to content, by looking at the mini-corpora you’ve produced, you’ll soon see that, in the latter case, students will need to know about times and, therefore, numbers, and about how verbs in English change into the ‘ed’ tense when we talk about the past (and that this happens in certain situations, and so on - you don’t have to be a grammar expert to be accomplished in this method, but it will certainly, through ‘reverse engineering’, with a bit of application make you one); in both cases, they need some adjectives to describe their experiences, some nouns that commonly recur in this type of conversation for them, and suchlike. When I say that the target language forms the schema for your topic, in other words, this is what you’re doing; you’re identifying the constituent bits, or subtopics, that you’ll need to teach in isolation from one another so as to be able to provide the students with a genuine capacity to be later able to bring it all together in competent communication. I’m not suggesting, of course, that you teach these out of context, or as disjointed bits of language, because this wouldn’t be the go at all; again, as it definitely seems more effective (if not logical), you’ll need to introduce your topics to students in ways that allow them to visualise very clearly the relationship of the subtopics to them.

What you will end up with at this stage being the content of actual lessons; ‘today, students, we’ll work on adjectives that overall describe our weekend’, or ‘today, students, we’re going to do a bit of work on verbs’. The next step, quite naturally, being to transform this content into lessons; I’m not going to go too far into that here (although I might pick it up another time), other than to say when you want to do your activities and play your games, you’ve arrived at what they should be designed to teach. Little bits are easy to transform into interesting activities; once these little bits are learnt, you can develop in very interesting ways the more complex activities that bring them all together. What I observe in other teacher’s practice (and what I used to do myself) is that they often choose an interesting activity or topic as the focus for students’ engagement, but that the language learnt, because ‘topic’ or ‘activity’ rather than ‘target language within a holistic framework’ is the principal determinant of lessons, lacks integration; with this method, the topics are still just as interesting and relevant, albeit somewhat better structured, the interest value of games can still be the focus of engagement for students, albeit that the language that they teach has somewhat more of a point and is perhaps more thoughtfully sequenced, and at the end of the day the students can take pride in actually having accomplished something concrete in the way of skills. Furthermore, at the end of the day, the teacher is able to methodically cross off that topic, and all that it entails, as being definite skills that have been systematically added into the students’ repertoire. Take me with a grain of salt, though; who do you know, especially in the world of Western males (the method of cooking on a barbecue being an archetypal example), that doesn’t point out the advantages of the way that they, themselves, do things!

I don’t mean to be like this, though; as I mentioned previously, I just want to chuck out a few things on the table for the consideration of my peers, and that might be of some assistance to those who are stressing because they’ve just started out in the profession. Especially if you don’t have any materials or references; the only thing you need to go through the procedure I’ve been talking about here is a pen, some paper, and the resources of your own English-speaking brain. Just to clarify things, here’s that procedure once again; in a series of steps, this is what you have to do.

Step One

By putting yourself in your students’ shoes, map out the type of communication in which they’ll have to engage in the type of English speaking environment they might reasonably head off to.

Step Two

Divide this into topics. Order your topics in terms of frequency, complexity, and the generalisability of the language they employ.

Step Three

Test your students to see which topics they know, and to what degree.

Step Four

Map out how the language in each topic you’ve chosen to teach unfolds.

Step Five

Identify the features of the language sample thus created.

Step Six

Devise lessons that teach these features in a logical sequence.

Step Seven

Devise some lessons that bring it all together.

Step Eight

Bob’s your uncle!

Oh, and as a language learner myself, I cannot understate the importance of making sure that the features of the target language you’re teaching are taught in exceptionally small increments, and are revised with great regularity in subsequent lessons; this allows you to take them on board, and for them to solidify in your brain. Hope it brings you some luck!


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