Language Curriculum Design

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Parts of the Curriculum Design Process

Curriculum design can be seen as a kind of writing activity and as such it can usefully be studied as a process. The typical sub-processes of the writing process (gathering ideas, ordering ideas, ideas to text, reviewing, editing) can be applied to curriculum design, but it makes it easier to draw on current curriculum design theory and practice if a different set of parts is used.  The outer circles (principles, environment, needs)
involve practical and theoretical considerations that will have a major effect in guiding the actual process of course production. There is a wide range of factors to consider when designing a course. These include the learners’ present knowledge and lacks, the resources available including time, the skill of the teachers, the curriculum designer’s strengths and limitations, and principles of teaching and learning. If factors such as these are not considered then the course may be unsuited to the situation and learners for which it is used, and may be ineffective and inefficient as a means of encouraging learning. In the curriculum design process these factors are considered in
three sub-processes, environment analysis, needs analysis and the application of principles. The result of environment analysis is a ranked list of factors and a consideration of the effects of these factors on the design. The result of needs analysis is a realistic list of language, ideas or skill items, as a result of considering the present proficiency, future needs and wants of the learners.
Some curriculum designers distinguish curriculum from syllabus. In the model, both the outer circles and the inner circle make up the curriculum. The inner circle represents the syllabus.
The inner circle has goals as its center. This is meant to reflect the importance of having clear general goals for a course. The content and sequencing part of the inner circle represents the items to learn in a course, and the order in which they occur, plus the ideas content if this is used as a vehicle for the items and not as a goal in itself.
The format and presentation part of the inner circle represents the format of the lessons or units of the course, including the techniques and types of activities that will be used to help learning. This is the part of the course that the learners are most aware of. It is important that it is guided by the best available principles of teaching and learning.
The monitoring and assessment part of the inner circle represents the need to give attention to observing learning, testing the results of learning, and providing feedback to the learners about their progress. It is often not a part of commercially designed courses. It provides information that can lead to changes at most of the other parts of the curriculum design process.
It is possible to imagine a large circle drawn completely around the whole model. This large outer circle represents evaluation. Evaluation can involve looking at every aspect of a course to judge if the course is adequate and where it needs improvement. It is generally a neglected aspect of curriculum design.

Considering the Environment

Environment analysis involves considering the factors of the situation in which the course will be used and determining how the course should take account of them. One way of approaching environment analysis is to work from a list of questions which focus on the nature of the learners, the teachers and the teaching situation.
To show the value of doing this, here are some of the top factors decided on by several teachers designing different courses for different learners.
  1. One teacher decided that the learners’ lack of interest in learning English should be the major factor influencing curriculum design. The learners were obliged to do an English course as part of their degree but received no credit for it. This meant that the teacher’s goal of making the course as interesting and motivating as possible guided the design of the course, particularly the format and presentation of lessons.
  2. One teacher decided that the learners’ plan to move on to academic study in university or technical institute courses should have the greatest effect on design of the English course. This had a far-reaching effect on the language items and the language skills focused on, and the type of learning activity.
  3. One teacher decided that the externally designed and administered test at the end of the course should be the major factor. This meant that the course book always had to make it obvious to the learners that the work they were doing was directly related to the test.
Here is a short list of some of the other factors that teachers considered most important.
  1. The small amount of time available for the course.
  2. The large size of the classes.
  3. The wide range of proficiency in the class.
  4. The immediate survival needs of the learners.
  5. The lack of appropriate reading materials.
  6. The teachers’ lack of experience and training.
  7. The learners’ use of the first language in the classroom.
  8. The need for the learners to be more autonomous.
There are many examples of unsuccessful curriculum design where the background questions were not considered. Here are some examples.
  1. The communicatively based course which was deserted by its Vietnamese learners because they were not getting the grammar teaching that they expected. They set up their own grammar-based course.
  2. The course for Agricultural students which had a simplified version of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins as its main reading text. Some of the learners produced their own translation of it which they copied and sold to other learners. They saw no value in coming to grips with its content through English.
  3. The adult conversation course which began with the game “Simon Says”. Half the students stopped attending after the first lesson. There is no conversation in “Simon Says”.
Each important factor needs to be accompanied by one or more effects. For example, the factor “the large size of the class” could have the following effects on the curriculum design.
  1. A large amount of group work.
  2. Use of special large class techniques like oral reproduction, blackboard reproduction, the pyramid procedure involving the individual–pair– group–class sequence (Nation and Newton, 2009).
  3. Independent work or individualised tasks. The importance of environment analysis is that it makes sure that the course will really be suitable, practical and realistic.

Discovering Needs     

Necessities, lacks and wants may all involve some kind of comparison or reference to lists of items which can act as the learning goals of the course. An exception to this is to base the course on what the learners request. In this case the lists are created by the learners. This is effective if the learners have very clear purposes for learning English which they are aware of. For example, a course for immigrants who have been in the country a few months could very effectively be based on a list of things that they suggest they want to be able to do in English.

Following Principles

The principles derived from this research include principles on the importance of repetition and thoughtful processing of material, on the importance of taking account of individual differences and learning style, and on learner attitudes and motivation.
It is very important that curriculum design makes the connection between the research and theory of language learning and the practice of designing lessons and courses. There is a tendency for this connection not to be made, with the result that curriculum design and therefore learners do not benefit from developments in knowledge gained from research.


This is because it is essential to decide why a course is being taught and what the learners need to get from it. Goals can be expressed in general terms and be given more detail when considering the content of the course. Here are some examples of goals that have been set for language courses.
  1. The aim of communicative teaching is to encourage students to exploit all the elements of the language that they know in order to make their meanings clear. Students cannot be expected to master every aspect of the language before they are allowed to use it for communicative purposes. (Orbit, Harrison and Menzies, 1986)
  2. Trio aims to (a) encourage students to communicate in a wide range of everyday situations. (b) sustain interest and motivation . (c) help students understand and formulate the grammatical rules of English. (d) develop students’ receptive skills beyond those of their productive skills. (e) give students insights into daily life in Britain. (f) develop specific skills, including skills required for examination purposes. (g) contribute to the students’ personal, social and educational development. (Trio, Radley and Sharley, 1987)
  3. Passages extends students’ communicative competence by developing their ability to: (a) expand the range of topics they can discuss and comprehend in English. (b) speak English fluently (express a wide range of ideas without unnecessary pauses or breakdowns in communication). (c) speak English accurately (use an acceptable standard of pronunciation and grammar when communicating). (Passages, Richards and Sandy, 1998).
  4. Students continue to develop speaking and listening skills necessary for participating in classroom discussions with an introduction to oral presentation and critical listening skills. (College Oral Communication, Roemer, 2006)

Content and Sequencing

The content of language courses consists of the language items, ideas, skills and strategies that meet the goals of the course. it is important for the curriculum designer to keep some check on vocabulary, grammar and discourse to make sure that important items are being covered and repeated. Working from lists makes sure that what should be covered is covered and is not left to chance.
Typical lists include:
  1. Frequency-based vocabulary lists. These consist of lists of words with indicators of their frequency of occurrence.
  2. Frequency lists of verb forms and verb groups. These contain items such as simple past, present continuous, verb + to + stem (where the stem is dominant) going to + stem, and can + stem (ability) along with information about their frequency of occurrence, mainly in written text.
  3. Lists of functions and topics. These lists are not frequency-based and as a result selection of items must be based on perceived need which is less reliable than frequency evidence.
  4. Lists of subskills and strategies. These include the subskills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, and language coping and learning strategies.
  5. There are lists of tasks, topics and themes that curriculum designers can refer to.

Finding a Format and Presenting Material

The material in a course needs to be presented to learners in a form that will help learning. This presentation will involve the use of suitable teaching techniques and procedures, and these need to be put together in lessons.
There are several advantages to having a set format for lessons. Firstly, the lessons are easier to make because each one does not have to be planned separately. It also makes the course easier to monitor, to check if all that should be included is there and that accepted principles are being followed. Finally, it makes the lessons easier to learn from because the learners can predict what will occur and are soon familiar with the learning procedures required by different parts of the lesson.
The sources of the material used as a basis for the lessons will have decisive effects on the ease of making the lessons and of the possibility of future distribution or publication of the course. A shortcut here is simply to take suitable material from other courses, adapting it as required.
It can be argued that the first presentation of an item is not as important as the later repetitions of that item. This is often neglected in courses, but it is crucial to learning. It is through repeated meetings that items are enriched and established.

Monitoring and Assessing

Assessing generally involves the use of tests. An important distinction in testing is between proficiency tests which measure what a learner knows of the language, and achievement tests which measure what has been learned from a particular course. Proficiency tests may be used to measure a learner’s level of language knowledge before entering a course and after a course is completed and has been assessed. Achievement tests are closely related to a course and the items in the tests are based on the content of the course and the learning goals of the course. Short-term achievement tests are tests that occur at the end of each lesson or at the end of a group of lessons.
Larger achievement tests can occur at the end of a course and perhaps halfway through the course. The information gained from such tests can be useful in evaluating the course.
Other kinds of tests include placement tests (to see if the course is suitable for a prospective learner or to see where in the course the learner should begin) and diagnostic tests (to see if learners have particular gaps in their knowledge).

Evaluating a Course

The range of meanings that can be attached to “good” determines the range of sources of information for carrying out an evaluation. A “good” course could be one that:
  1. attracts a lot of students.
  2. makes a lot of money.
  3. satisfies the learners.
  4. satisfies the teachers.
  5. satisfies the sponsors.
  6. helps learners gain high scores in an external test.
  7. results in a lot of learning.
  8. applies state-of-the-art knowledge about language teaching and learning.
  9. is held in high regard by the local or international community.
  10. follows accepted principles of curriculum design.
An evaluation of a course can have many purposes, the main ones being to continue or discontinue the course, or to bring about improvements in the course. Responsible curriculum design includes ongoing evaluation of the course.

Summary of the Steps

  1. Examine the environment.
  2. Assess needs.
  3. Decide on principles.
  4. Set goals, and choose and sequence content.
  5. Design the lesson format.
  6. Include assessment procedures.
  7. Evaluate the course.
Nation, I.S.P.  and John Macalister. (2010). Language Curriculum Design. New York and London: Routledge.

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