An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design

An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design

The following article is a tentative presentation of a few ideas for an alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design that incorporate the rapidly evolving technologies and social norms of the 21st century. The ideas I’m presenting here are by no means new or my own. My intention is to share my thoughts and hopefully stimulate some discussion and constructive criticism about them.

On EFL and ESL course books

Currently, the majority of EFL and ESL courses at private language academies, public colleges and universities rely on course books, from such publishers as Oxford and Cambridge University Press’, Longman Pearson and MacMillan, to provide the syllabus and curriculum for learning English. If we want to provide alternative approaches to learning and teaching, we need to re-evaluate the role of books and other resources both in and out of the classroom.

The current learning and teaching paradigm

The majority of EFL and ESL programmes at schools, colleges, universities and language academies around the world emphasise a single learning and teaching approach as prescribed by the Cambridge CELTA, DELTA and Trinity RSA (EFL and ESL teaching certificates and diplomas), and defined in Communicative Language Teaching Today (Jack C. Richards 2006). The most commonly found EFL and ESL course books are also based on this teaching approach. They use, without exception, explicit focus on forms, strongly behaviorist/cognitivist approaches to learning and teaching, i.e. a list of grammatical structures and lexical sets of vocabulary and expressions that learners study, memorise and apply in a regular, paced, linear progression.

No course books!?

Focus on form, necessarily, makes up a proportion of any EFL/ESL programme but, from the course books I’ve seen over the past 11 years, the coverage of language patterns, vocabulary and grammar leaves a lot to be desired and is usually inadequate for learners’ needs, especially in learner-led programmes. It’s hardly surprising, since course books try to provide comprehensive vocabulary and grammar references, guided lessons, reading, writing, listening and conversation materials, exercises and even tests for 9 month programmes in only 100-300 pages.

Instead, if we regard books as simply another resource, learners would be required to obtain their own copies of dictionaries, grammar references and, in the case of exam preparation, practice tests. These may be print or digital copies from whichever publisher and vendor they prefer or even online resources. An increasing number of learners now use their mobile phones to access dictionaries. Teachers and academic directors could provide some assistance with recommending a range of appropriate choices according to learners’ specific needs, e.g. academic, medical or engineering dictionaries.

  • Dictionaries are based on systematic studies of corpuses and usage frequency lists, give concise definitions and examples of correct use in a variety of the most common contexts. Bilingual dictionaries also have comparisons of accurately translated example sentences. Picture dictionaries are an option for lower levels of language proficiency.
  • Grammar references give concise and comprehensive definitions and examples of language patterns, and cover the language in use in a variety of contexts.
  • Practice tests provide authentic, realistic examples of what learners can expect and prepare for in official exams, for example Cambridge University Press’ ESOL practice test books and free downloadable sample exams. They’re usually guaranteed to be consistent and at the correct level of difficulty and test the same language points as the official exams.

Any focus on form would be initiated and driven by learners’ curiosity and interest, as and when it is useful and appropriate. From this perspective, the brief vocabulary and grammar references provided by EFL and ESL course books would, in most cases, be insufficient to meet learners’ needs.

Input

According to Stephen Krashen, Rod Ellis, et al, one of the most important factors in second language acquisition (SLA) is comprehensible input, i.e. reading, watching and listening to authentic, meaningful English. They also inform us that the input must be relevant and interesting to learners and that they should feel relaxed and receptive (low affective filters) in order to gain the maximum benefit from it.

From media impoverished to media rich

One of the major differences between the 20th and 21st centuries is how we access information and media. In the 20th century, learners went to schools, colleges, universities and libraries to access high quality information and media, and there were very few alternatives. We lived in a media impoverished world where media distribution networks, to a great extent, decided what we could and couldn’t have access to. In the 21st century, all this has changed. People with internet access now have a world of information and media at their finger tips. As Diana Laufenberg among others informs us, this has profound implications on how we organise the ways in which we learn. In particular, EFL learners have access to enormous quantities and a staggering range of media for input that they can read, watch and listen to at a low cost and in the comfort of their own homes, at work and now even while they’re on the move. This means that learners can now search for and collate their own input based on their own particular needs instead of their teachers teaching them vocabulary and grammar related to parts of a wheelbarrow or sewage farms (Laser B1, MacMillan) or out of date film and pop stars to teenagers from course books.

From the outset, learners should be informed that an integral part of their courses will be reading, watching and listening to authentic English language media. Learners will be required to read, watch and listen to a minimum number of words/pages/hours of language each week. Input media could include:

  • Reading - Novels, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers and news websites, blogs and non-fiction
  • Watching - Films, soap operas, sitcoms, documentaries, news programmes, lectures and presentations
  • Listening - Radio programmes, podcasts, music and audio books

Perhaps the first text, video, listening or two could  be prescribed by their teacher so that learners can get to grips with what they are required to do on their courses (rubric) and make informed decisions. However, in order to make the input interesting and relevant to learners, they should be encouraged to find and choose their own. This also opens up the possibility of learners reviewing books, films, programmes, etc. and making recommendations to each other, thereby making communicative and collaborative activities that are realistic, meaningful and functional. Timothy Bell did some interesting research on student led reading programmes at Kuwait University. This approach to resources should dramatically increase the overall number of hours of study since much of the input will take place at home, at work or in the library. Learners would also have the option to organise study sessions together for themselves such as book clubs, film nights, etc.

As I stated earlier, each individual learner can easily satisfy his or her own particular tastes and preferences and access high quality, authentic text, audio and video quickly, conveniently and cheaply. Internet book, music and video shops (mail order), desktops, laptops, media centres, tablets, smartphones and eReaders all offer convenient ways for learners to consume media.

Processing

Learners will be encouraged to process input in various ways by sharing, reflecting, discovering, discussing, problem solving, advising, etc. They can share and compare their understanding of input either verbally or in writing and the focus is kept mainly on meaning so that language acquisition and awareness occurs implicitly. The collaborative or group approach to learning lends itself well to this kind of processing and gives ample scope for learners to develop their communicative skills and to negotiate meaning. Also, learners will develop practical skills that are useful in real world situations when working on projects and on teams in their professional and social lives.

Process writing

We can help learners to learn the skills they need to be more expressive, dramatic and convincing writers, learning how to create suspense, mystery, dynamism to keep readers engaged, to organise compositions into coherent wholes with their salient points emphasised and expanded as opposed to a list of sentences strung together.

Peer review

Learners can develop their analytical and critical thinking skills by assessing their own and each others’ written and spoken production. It would also help learners enormously and give them great satisfaction to know that the hard work that they put into writing and giving presentations would be appreciated by more people. Additionally, learners can read, watch or hear alternative interpretations of assignments by their peers which could inspire further ideas of their own.

Discussing and debating

Learners can research and prepare presentations for discussions and debates, and develop their discourse management and reasoning skills in both face-to-face spoken debate and on online chat and forums. They can also learn how to share and contrast different points of view without creating conflict and thereby learn more about their peers’ and their own world views which, in my opinion, is the main objective of discussion and debate.

Interpreting and appreciating

Groups of learners can read, watch and listen to media and give their own personal interpretations and opinions. They can reflect on what they understand about it, develop their own ideas and share and contrast them with their group.

Recommending and encouraging

In reading programmes, many researchers have noted that recommendations made by learners’ peers had significantly more influence on their choices of books than those from their teachers.

Concept mapping and illustrating

Concept mapping is a way for learners to interpret and process what they understand and how they think about complex ideas and concepts. Learners’ concept maps tend to be personal and idiosyncratic and, when used correctly, can help facilitate their linguistic skills to express themselves more concisely and allusively.

An alternative view of teacher intervention and error correction

We, as educators, need to cultivate an atmosphere of responsibility, mutual understanding, support and shared purpose. Mistakes/Errors should not be seen as failures but rather as a necessary and integral part of the learning process. If learners aren’t making mistakes, they probably aren’t learning as much as they could. It is my belief that intervention on the part of teachers to correct errors will, in most situations, be counter productive since they interrupt learning activities and inhibit the free flow of thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, while negotiating meaning during communication, some learners tend to correct each other helpfully or, when negotiation of meaning fails, seek help from other learners or a teacher. In this case, when seeking help, the focus on form is initiated by learners and their desire to “get it right” at a point when it is most useful, relevant and memorable to them.

Output

Processing input often inspires learners to create works of their own. In many cases, it seems like the natural and logical ‘next step’ since they may be inspired by the language input, their peers’ ideas or their own, and want to participate in some creative output activities.  For example:

  • Writing - Emails, letters, short stories, plays, dialogues, reviews, essays, reports, letters of reference, etc.
  • Speaking - Telling anecdotes, telling jokes, giving presentations, dramatic performances, comedy performances, etc.

Learners can produce language output for summative and formative assessment which contributes to a “body of work” or portfolio. This is especially useful for participants in the European Commission’s Europass (C.V. and portfolio) project. Assessment can take many forms and be organised in many ways. In some cases, the process may be the main aim, e.g. learner created tests or peer assessment, in others the aim may be to indicate increases in competencies and/or overall language proficiency.

Additionally, when learners generate a substantial body of work during their studies, it gives them and their teachers an overview and it is more representative and reflective of their language proficency and progress towards their goals. As a teacher, I prefer using learners’ portfolios to decide when they’re ready to move up a level, rather than using high-stakes, standardised testing methods, which only assess a very narrow set of skills and knowledge, at the end of a semester or academic year.

To sum up…

It is my ambition to come up with some coherent, comprehensive form of an alternative approach to EFL and ESL course design that focuses on the following points:

  • Creating communities of learning and teaching.
  • Make exchanges between learners as natural, functional and meaningful as possible (socialising is a function).
  • Acquiring language and developing language awareness and skills occurs naturally as part of learning activities.
  • Allow and support learners in choosing their own input to meet their own particular learning needs.
  • Learners review and recommend input to each other.
  • Focus on form (grammar and vocabulary patterns) is initiated and driven by learners’ needs, curiosity and interest.
  • Learners process input and share their understanding of it in writing or spoken (classroom, online or blended learning).
  • Processing is doing meaningful, engaging real world tasks with the input.
  • Learners create “bodies of work”, i.e. portfolios, both individually and collaboratively.
  • Learners assess their own work and each others’ to develop their higher order thinking skills (Analysing and Evaluating).
  • Formative assessment plays a central role in learning, i.e. learners give each other constructive criticism as well as getting teacher feedback.
  • Mistakes/Errors are seen as points of learning, not as failures, on the path to language development.
  • The emphasis is on experimentation and play, i.e. discovery through trial and error and negotiation of meaning.

I await your constructive criticisms and comments!

Further reading

8 thoughts on “An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design

  1. Don Hinkelman

    Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the article. Was looking for your background in EFL–sounds like you are a teacher, as I am. I agree with everything you wrote about, except some of the titles (Input, Processing, Output). A lot of theory out there now discredits SLA in favor of socio-cultural theories, communities of practice/participation, and second language socialization. All of these support the points you are making. Cheers and hope to see your comments on “Moodle for Language Teaching” community site, and our soon-to-open repository.
    Cheers,
    Don

  2. Don Hinkelman

    Another site to mention is moodlereader.org which is a fascinating extensive reading program with over 1500 book quizzes to check student reading of graded level readers. A good example of commercial content and open-source activities meshing together.

  3. Sulabha Sidhaye

    I find some echoes of my own teaching experiences in your article. Would love to share/discuss classroom observations and outcomes of this evolutionary approach to language teaching.

  4. Guido Gautsch

    To me this sounds like techno dogme. I like the sound of it a lot. I learnt English mostly though submersion (moving to Australia) which was a tough experience. I extended my knowledge of the language through extensive reading (many lonely hours in the high school library..) and later extensive social interaction. No EFL coursebooks, instructor-led language classes or other similar institutionilised form-focused learning.

    My learners now come form a very teacher-centric educational background and expect firm guidance and constantly look towards the person in the front. Any ideas on how to break that old habit?

  5. Matt

    Hi Guido, I think this book, by Barbara Gross Davis, is helpful as it gives an overview of learning, teaching, curriculum development and administration on an integrated perspective. She has some helpful insights to encouraging learners to be more independent and how to get institutional support for learner centred teaching approaches: http://www.amazon.com/Tools-Teaching-Barbara-Gross-Davis/dp/0787965677

    Some of the old version is available online: http://teaching.berkeley.edu/bgd/collaborative.html

    I hope this helps! :)

  6. Guido Gautsch

    Matt,
    That does help, thank you. My teaching knowledge is more based on experience than theory (apart from an MA in App. Linguistics), so this may be very useful.

    Cheers,

    Guido

  7. Kim

    I think this assumes a certain level of language capability. I have students who could not manage a Google search in English. Likewise, I have been terribly frustrated trying to find +meaningful| (i.e., understandable) input in Korean and Mongolian. I have tried Korean kiddies’ books, but found that texts include a high proportion of words that aren’t in bilingual dictionaries and aren’t clear to me as a non-baby and non-Korean. Searching online is extremely difficult: everything is too far above me. Mongolian is not so bad, but still I feel frustrated trying to find material that I can build on (other than expensive grammar MFL books).

  8. Matt Post author

    Hi Kim,
    Yes, I agree that it is difficult to find suitable materials for very low levels and learners need a lot of comprehensible input. In some cases it may be more appropriate to do a certain amount of teaching in the learners’ L1 in a way which makes the input more comprehensible, i.e. not translation but more like background/contextual information. For example, researchers have reported that learners who read up on a topic in their L1 before studying it in L2 often find the L2 more comprehensible.