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Charting the Course: Planning a New Program From Start To Finish

by Christina Smolder

Odds are that as a language teacher, you have already had a hand in several aspects of curriculum design. Every time you write a lesson plan or create your own materials you are faced with several key curriculum questions like What do I want my students to learn? What materials am I going to use to teach the given skills or points? and How will I check to see if the students have learnt what it is I am trying to teach?

Over the years, I have done my fair share of unofficial curriculum work, particularly in the ELT industry where the textbook is quite often the only specified syllabus. As I am sure you are already aware, teachers are expected to know and do quite a lot, regardless of their level of expertise or experience. So, even though you may never want to create an entire program from scratch, I hope you find this article to be a helpful guide in understanding what curriculum is. In it, I cover some of the basics of curriculum design and take you through the steps I followed in creating my school’s Customer Service Course.

Curriculum fundamentals

Setting aside for the moment the seemingly infinite number of different theories about the nature of language and how it is learnt, the basic principles of curriculum design are actually quite simple. Curriculum development can be said to consist of three major parts—one, the careful formulation of statements about what it is you want your students to know/achieve/be able to do by the end of the course (objectives), two, the selection of content and materials that are to be used to help the students meet these objectives (content), and three, the creation of tools which measure the extent to which the objectives have been achieved (assessment). Most critical to the process of developing curriculum are its objectives—these are the very purpose of your course and, as such, should be the foremost consideration at each stage of its design.

There are several ways to conceptualize the content of a syllabus—there are grammatical syllabuses which are organized and graded according to grammatical principles such as verb tense (these are quite commonly found in general English courses), functional syllabuses which are organized according to communicative purpose (e.g. apologizing, disagreeing, etc.), and situational syllabuses which are organized according to context or situation.

The program discussed here was designed to provide students with the language necessary to work in the tourism/hospitality industry in Cairns, Australia. It is best described as an ESP (English for Specific Purposes) course and was, therefore, particularly well-suited to a situational design—that is, it took as its starting point situations like ‘taking orders in a restaurant’ or ‘using the telephone to make an appointment.’ While the basic elements of curriculum design mentioned at the beginning of this section, objectives, content and assessment, will be the same for most types of syllabus, you may find that the methods described in Step two, below, for deriving the content of the Customer Service Course will be different from that of courses with grammatical and functional types of syllabuses.

The remainder of this article outlines the steps that my colleagues and I took in the development of our Customer Service Course.

Step one: Determine your audience

Think about who your students are and why they might be taking the course. This will include characteristics such as age, nationality, level of English, gender, social, academic and/or career goals, etc. and the range of these qualities that you expect to find within a given class.

As I have already mentioned, the school I work for is based in Cairns, Australia—less than one hour away from the Great Barrier Reef (birthplace of Nemo). Cairns thrives on tourism, and so there are quite a lot of hotels, cafés, pubs and adventurous things to do here. Our course was being promoted as a way to boost the confidence and credentials of students wanting to work within the local tourism industry, so quite naturally, we expected this to be in line with the goals of our prospective enrollments. We had also decided to allow only pre-intermediate and intermediate level students into the program, as we felt these would be the ones who stood the most to gain from it. Finally, because the great majority of the pre-intermediate/intermediate level students at our school tended to be young men and women from Korea or Japan, we were fairly certain of who our average student was going to be.

Step two: Determine the linguistic needs of your audience based on the information gathered in step one

One of the most important steps for designing any course is to determine its objectives. This involves the analysis of the goals of the students taking the program, the language that the students need in order to successfully achieve these goals, and where the majority of the students already stand with regard to these needs.

The starting point for our course involved looking at the kinds of situations our students might hope to find themselves in. As waitpersons, baristas, bartenders, hosts/hostesses, tour guides and receptionists they would probably be expected to function within the following contexts:

From there, we were able to imagine the kinds of situations which we would need to prepare the students for, like taking orders in a restaurant or responding to requests from a supervisor. Our objectives were stated in terms of what we hoped the students would be able to do by the end of the course—for example, in ‘applying for a job’ we stated that the students would be able to:

Of course, later on these would have to be broken down even further, as we shall see in Step three.

At this stage it was time to take a look at some of the materials that we had available to help us reach these objectives.

Step three: Gather the materials to be used for the course

For many, this involves finding a textbook that was written to meet the objectives for courses like the one you are planning. This is fine, provided that you have done your research and the book actually teaches what it is you hope to teach in your course. Our Customer Service Course was only going to be four weeks long and we had very specific ideas of what we wanted to cover. We knew that we were not going to be able to get our entire program from one textbook, and so this part of the process was a little more involved than it might have been for other programs.

For me, this was by far the most time consuming part of the process. I started by making up a blank timetable and filling in possible points to cover in different time slots. Then I scoured every single book, website, menu, brochure, matchbook—whatever I could find on each of the content areas mentioned above. It was at this point that I was able to revise and refine my objectives even further. For example, in order to ‘understand a want ad from the hospitality/tourism industry’ students would need to understand words like ‘permanent’ and ‘casual.’ I wasn’t able to sort out these finer details until I had a chance to look at the available materials, including want ads from our local paper.

I continued to update and revise my drafted timetables, but soon it became necessary for me, personally, to photocopy and make a book of the materials that I wanted to use. Eventually I realized there were very large sections of our curriculum for which I would have to create my own lessons—especially with regard to coffee, alcohol, job adverts, cover letters and resumes (there is plenty out there about resumes, etc. I know, but nothing I could find that suited our particular situation). As the weeks passed my little program slowly began to take shape. In the end it included materials from up to 50 different sources.

Step four: Determine how you will assess student learning and the success of the program

There are two major types of assessment: formative and summative. Formative assessment includes quizzes, tests and/or other types of feedback such as student counseling where students are given the opportunity to see how well they are progressing in a course. It is, in short, another tool to help students in their learning. Summative assessment is that which gives a final statement of a student’s attainment, and can be in the form of a final grade, level of ability (e.g. ‘Pre-Intermediate’) or simple acknowledgement of successful completion of a course. In order to get our Customer Service program accredited, our school was required to show evidence of both formative and summative types of assessment.

Formative Assessment
As the Customer Service Course was only to be four weeks long, we didn’t want to take up all of our time with formal tests. We felt that student counseling—regular, periodic meetings with individual students about their progress in (and satisfaction with) the course—would fulfill a large part of our formative assessment requirements. We also decided to include a formal test at the end of week two which could be checked and gone over in class. It is a written test because we wanted it to be easy to mark. However, we also wanted it to have a strong focus on verbal language and so it contains a great deal of dialogue completion exercises on each of the areas covered in the first half of the course. Both the student counseling sessions and the mid-course formative evaluation were put in place to help students while they are studying in the course, and have no impact on their final evaluation.

Summative Assessment
One of the first things to think about with summative assessment is what the students are to receive at the end of the program. For the Customer Service Course, students are given a certificate of successful completion which includes a statement of final level of ability (e.g. Intermediate), since this is the usual practice of our school. One problem that we saw with this was that the final assessment would not be a reflection of how well the students had achieved our course’s objectives—it is not a course of general English ability. One way around this would have been to point out that any student receiving a certificate would have completed the course’s objectives successfully, but we also thought it was important to show how and to what extent this success was achieved . Our solution to the problem was to create an accompanying report card listing the general objectives of the program (e.g. The ability to use English to take orders in a restaurant or pub) and would allow the teacher to assign marks for each of these on a five point scale.

The marks for the students’ final evaluation in the Customer Service Course are arrived at through two evaluation tasks—one of these is a formal speaking test to be taken in week three, where students take turns giving and receiving information about specific tourist destinations as travel agent and tourist. The second task occurs at the very end of the course. It involves the planning and running of a school café, and culminates in the serving light snacks and coffee to paying customers within the school. Of course, as the objectives for the Customer Service Course are language based, so too are the terms of their evaluation—we mark students on the language used to discuss menus and take orders, etc. and not on their ability to make a cup of coffee!

Step five: Make your program comprehensible to other teachers

Once you know exactly what your curriculum is going to consist of, it is important to write a rationale detailing the objectives of the course, and to ensure that there are clear instructions where instructions are needed—this may include lesson plans for any original materials as well as detailed instructions for assessment (marking sheets are helpful).

And finally…
Put instruments and procedures in place which will allow you to improve your program such as student and teacher feedback forms, records of the materials actually used in class, students’ test scores and final evaluations, and information gleaned by teachers during student counseling sessions. We use all of these!

The following are some common texts used for the teaching of matters related to curriculum in language teaching:

Graves, K. (2000). A framework of course development processes. In D. Hall (Ed.), Innovation in English Language Teaching: A reader (pp. 178-196). Florence: Routledge.
Hughes, H. (2002). Testing for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nunan, D. (1988). Syllabus Design. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Richards, J. & Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.
Van Ek, J. (1976). The Threshold Level for Modern Language Learning in Schools. London: Longman.
Yalden, J. (1987). Principles of Course Design for Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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