Here are ten questions that I believe – ideally – curriculum designers should be asking themselves in planning and evaluating a topic-based unit of work in the context of an eclectic instructional approach with a communicative focus where grammar is taught explicitly and whose ultimately aim is the acquisition of cognitive control over TL use. The reader should note that I have avoided any explicit reference to the expression ‘learning outcomes’ (although they are implicitly referred to throughout the below). This is because this term in my perception – and maybe only in my perception – evokes an excessive concern with the product of learning, whereas I advocate that the pedagogic focus shift onto the process of learning, that is, the acquisition of procedural linguistic ability, i.e. effective executive control over language reception and production.
1.What kind of language do I expect my learners to be able to understand (in reading and listening) and produce (speaking and writing) in terms of:
- Range and depth of vocabulary;
- Range of grammar structures;
- Range of tenses;
- Range of language functions?
2.How complex should teacher input and learner output be at different stages in the development of the unit of work? This is a very useful question as it usually results in the curriculum designer putting more thought and effort in the sequencing of activities based on the developmental needs of the learners. Teacher needs to have this issue in their focal awareness so as to agree on what constitutes comprehensible input and achievable output. The most challenging issue is possibly – as I discussed in my last post – deciding on what constitutes a complex grammar structure.
3. What levels of fluency do I expect the learners to have acquired at key points in the development of the unit of work? This issue is hugely important as it refers to the notion of automatization of language production. Sadly, in my experience, this is a dimension of proficiency which is usually neglected by curriculum designers – with disastrous consequences for language learning. Teachers must agree where they would like their students to be in terms of spontaneity of production at key stages in the unfolding of the unit of work.
4. What levels of accuracy in and (cognitive) control over the target language do I expect students to exhibit at key stages in the development of the unit? This is linked to the previous point but develops it a notch or two further in that it does not refer simply to the ability to be fluent and comprehensible, but also to perform accurately under real operating conditions. In other words, it refers to the extent to which grammar structures, the phonology system, etc. are not merely learnt declaratively but also procedurally;i.e. where on the declarative (explicit knowledge of the TL) to procedural (automatic application of grammar rules) continuum do we expect our learners to be?
5. Which ones of the following areas of competence am I going to focus and to what extent?
- Phonology (awareness of the TL sound system) and Phonetics (production of the TL system)
- Morphology (word formation)
- Syntax (word order)
- Language functions (e.g. compare and contrast, asking questions, predicting, agreeing and disagreeing, sequencing, summarizing)
- Communication skills (e.g. listenership) – this is a crucial, yet very neglected skill-set, especially in PBL;
- Learner strategies / Life-long learning skills – this is another neglected area in curriculum planning;
- Learner autonomy (the extent to which we promote and scaffold beyond the classroom independent learning) – also a very neglected area of competence;
- Cross-cultural competence
6. Which of the above should be prioritized? – This decision will be dictated by the stakeholders’ demands/needs as well by the espoused instructional methodology.
7. What would I like learners to do independently? – This does not include homework. It refers to what you would like students to do independently, without any teacher request, to enhance their own learning and how you would go about triggering this desire to learn out of the classroom.
8. How and how often am I going recycle the target language items, competences and skills/strategies throughout and beyond the present unit of work? – my regular readers would know how obsessed I am with short-/medium- and long-term recycling. I strongly believe this is the most crucial and most neglected area of teaching and learning.
9. How am I going to resource the teaching and learning of the target language items, competences and skills/strategies?
10. How and how often am I going to assess all of the above?- This is the most challenging question to answer. However, if one has answered the previous questions, it will be relatively straightforward. The issues which are most often neglected in assessment design are:
- Does the test actually measure what it purports to measure? (construct validity) – hence, if following the above framework, issues a to f must be taken into account here;
- Is the assessment going to have a positive wash-back effect on learning? – it should, really;
- Is the assessment fair? – Students must be prepared effectively for a test; hence, the test papers should be ready and piloted way before the teaching of a unit begins;
Moreover, several low-stakes assessments (not too many, obviously) should take place before the end-of-unit test(s) in order to be fair to our students and not base our evaluation of their performance over a term based on one snapshot at the end of it.
It is obvious that the answer to the above questions will be to a great extent influenced by the teaching and learning methodology espoused and/or adopted by the department as well as by the demands and needs of the stake-holders. MFL curriculum designers may find certain areas more or less relevant to their learning context or more or less worthy of an explicit focus. To expect busy teachers to do all of the above thoroughly and ‘perfectly’ would be unrealistic, especially in view of the time constraints.
However, there is one thing that every curriculum designers MUST definitely plan carefully for: how to foster and facilitate the process of automatization of every skill and language item they set out to teach. This includes extensive recycling and practice and will often require going beyond the textbook and the time normally allocated to curriculum delivery (the ‘two- chapters-or-topics-per-term syndrome’, as I call it). As I have often reiterated in my posts this is the most important, yet the most neglected dimension of language learning.