A TESOL curriculum approach for an English for specific purposes course

There is often a requirement to include a paper of some sort when presenting in Korea (even at a very small conference). Sometimes my cynical nature (along with time considerations and whatever else) prevents me from doing my absolute best on these papers.  Another factor is my expectation on just how many people will read the paper (hint: not many to my view).At first I was hesitant to share this (as I am not very proud of it) but decided it could be of some value to someone. So I share it here with the warning it is not my best work. The intended audience of the talk itself was a mix of interpreting experts and students (including my students who took the course I described).


Introduction

In what Kathleen Graves calls a “systems approach” for course design, in her book, Designing Language Courses: A guide for teachers, she suggests teachers work through a framework of eight steps in order to develop curricula. (Graves 4) These steps include defining the context, articulating beliefs, conceptualizing the course, formulating the goals and objectives, assessing needs, organizing the course, developing materials, and designing an assessment plan. 

In this short paper, I will share selected thoughts about each of these steps, or components, in connection with my “English Clinic” course for first year students in the Advanced Interpretation and Training Program at Chung-Ang University. In summer 2015 I stepped back to deeply consider each of these components of the course and how they impacted my teaching and student learning in previous incarnations of the course. Some of my insights and results of this process are below. They are offered more as food for thought than outright recommendations for translation and interpretation instructors and course designers. It is hoped this framework can help others find insights of their own and aid in identifying potential decisions as well and challenges and opportunities.

Conceptualizing the course

I think the clinic metaphor is a powerful one and it’s something that has impacted my decisions since I first started teaching the course in spring 2013. The aspects of a medical clinic, in particular, that appeal to me are the outpatient nature of clinics. Patients might get the treatment they need immediately but for longer term treatment they might need to seek out more regular or life-altering treatment. As a result, I envision the course as something of a series of one-time chances to deal with specific problems. The course, like any other, is not a panacea but I believe it does offer solutions to certain lingering linguistic issues students might face.

Defining the Context

Graves suggests considering various factors when defining the context. This includes the people (including students and other stakeholders), the physical setting, the nature of the course and institution, the teaching resources, and the time. She also suggests thinking about constraints and challenges as well as potential resources. (Graves 16) This type of thinking might help identify solutions or strategies at an early stage. Below I share some of the more interesting and important insights that my thinking about the context provided me.

Students

Generally speaking the students are ideal or close to ideal students. They are ready to work hard. They are self-motivated. They are receptive to feedback. They are both knowledgeable and curious. They defy the stereotype that Korean students are afraid to ask questions. They are supportive of each other. They have already reached an extremely high level of English proficiency but know they have work to do. They are friendly and polite. They are academically oriented but they have their own personalities and like to express these and have fun in class. All these factors about the students can change the way we organize and teach a course.

The students have a range of life experiences and backgrounds. Over the past few years roughly 40% of the students have worked for 5-10 years in a non-translation/interpretation industry.  Media, law, media, business, medicine, education, and other fields have been represented in recent years. Another roughly 50% (though there is some crossover) have spent more than 2 years in English speaking countries. . Some students attended high school and university abroad and some of these attended international schools in non-English speaking countries.

There are usually 10-16 students per section of the English Clinic I teach while a colleague teaches the other half of the first year students.  In the past I divided my students into two groups (mostly roughly organized by which students were more interested in improving speaking, listening, general fluency and those who were more interested in vocabulary and grammar) and students were expected to come every other week for around 2 hours, one of which was a more traditional lesson and one of which was comprised of individual meetings with 1-2 students and myself. This term I made a somewhat dramatic shift and told students in order to earn a Pass they must come and participate actively in five of the ten topic-centered lessons which would last around 2 hours (which means no individual meetings). This gives students the option to choose which lessons they’d like to attend.

Challenges and constraints

The course is worth two credits and is pass/fail. It is taken in addition to what is a very full schedule for the students (most students have 24 hours of class a week) in an intense and intensive program. My suspicion is that the pass/fail nature of the course is something of a double-edged sword in that students are not overly worried about their scores but this also means they might not consider the course as serious as their other courses. This presents something of a dilemma for the teacher/designer. One way might be to emphasize how important the course is and give students a sincere fear they might not pass the course. Another path, which I favor, is to try to ensure each session is worthwhile and valuable for the students. A key to this is again aligning the course to their struggles with English and providing chances and input to help them improve in key areas.

Each lesson is a discrete unit without much review or building. This is both a constraint and an opportunity. It is a chance to start fresh and each class is something of an event but there are potential losses in terms of cohesion and building. Another potential challenge is that students’ learning could be varied and unbalance. Also, with such flexible attendance, students’ takeaways will be unbalanced. That said, the idea of offering flexibility and agency and ensuring that students are learning about what they have decided is valuable is also incredibly important to me and is worth some tradeoffs. The final class of the term also involves some review and sharing of key learnings. An additional measure I took to share the learning was to create a Google Doc where the key language and potential takeaways of each lesson are scored and students, whether present or absent can check these whenever they have time. It is of course not the same thing as attending class but can at least fill in some of the gaps

A key constraint is the limited amount of time I spend with the individual students. It is quite a challenge to assess needs only spending a few hours every other week. Rather than see this as a hopeless situation I was forced to try to think about the resources I have. One of the most important is the extensive contact I have with 2nd year students in the same program. I have two sections of a seminar in simultaneous interpretation and this provides extensive chances to listen to their interpreting performances. This is a great chance to consider the needs of the 1st year students, and this occurs on two main levels. The first is to use the 2nd year students as a benchmark with the thought of “next year these students should be able to do this, know this, and handle this in English.” The other side is identifying linguistic and other challenges and confusions the 2nd year students are still faced with and choosing to address these in the first year. My work with 2nd year students also gives me a window into the types of texts and topics students need to be familiar with.

Articulating Beliefs

While this is probably the least likely or natural step for teachers or designers to do, I think it is one of the most important .According to Graves, articulating beliefs is a chance to state our views on language, the social context of language, learning and learners and view of teaching. (Graves 28) For me, the particular context of the teaching is incredibly important and my beliefs and teaching are very different than they might be for a more traditional English teaching context.

One example of a shift in beliefs is how in a general English course I might trend towards a very student-centered style and might try to refrain from too much of the dreaded “teacher talk time.” (Thornbury 225) For this particular course, however, I realized through the process of stating my beliefs before the course that should not be afraid to conduct class in a more “teacher-centered” manner. Since students have a great deal of time to practice and use English through their daily and weekly work in the program and I don’t feel like I am robbing them of opportunities to speak if I take the time to explain something in detail.

Another example of a shift in beliefs I encountered in this course is where I stand on the fluency and accuracy debate. In general English courses I tend to be much more focused on fluency with the hope  accuracy can come later. However, considering this population of students and their future careers I am much more of a stickler about seemingly minor errors and mistakes.

Along the same lines, I am much more comfortable making direct and immediate corrections in this course. I might usually favor holding off on corrections in order to not hurt students’ feelings but in these English Clinic classes I have learned to be quicker and more direct with corrections. Through these examples we can see how the student population and context can dramatically influence beliefs and thus course design and delivery. It is important for instructors and designers to know what their beliefs are and to decide when to act in in accordance with these beliefs.

Assessing Needs

Contrasting Needs Analysis in ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and general courses Jack Richards writes, “Rather than developing a course around an analysis of the language an ESP approach starts instead with an analysis of the learner’s needs” which in this case is the language needed to continue studying in the AITP program and beyond. (Richards 32) Richards also states, “In ESP, learner’s needs are often described in terms of performance, that is in terms of what the learner will be able to do with the language at the end of a course of study.” (Richards 33) This fits in very well with my vision of the English Clinic course.

The primary basis of Needs Analysis for this course is a survey administered at the start of the term or year to see what students view as the most challenging and important gaps in their knowledge and skills. An additional source of assessing needs is in-class activities which provide chances to listen gauge students speaking and writing and knowledge.


Formulating Goals and Objectives

Quite honestly, this is probably one of the weakest areas of my current framework partially because I am never fully sure who will be coming to class and what their starting point is. Furthermore, without time to assess students’ abilities before the particular lesson starts this becomes even more challenging. I don’t view this as an insurmountable problem but rather just another interesting challenge in this complicated world of language teaching. While I might not know exactly who will be there on each day I do have a general sense of the students’ abilities and can plan and create objectives accordingly.

In what is perhaps related to the constraints mentioned throughout this paper, the objectives for each lesson (and thus the course itself) tend to be on the lower end of Bloom’s Taxonomy. (OUP Global) Verbs are focused on objectives related to knowledge and comprehension are more common than those focused on evaluation and synthesis which are associated with critical thinking.
Developing Materials

Materials for the course are developed on a week-to-week basis. I try to use a mix of authentic materials and more pedagogically focused ones. Occasionally the materials are not much more than a list or series of lists of key pieces or chunks of language and students are asked to work out the meanings and make attempts to contextualize the language as well as consider instances it could be used.  There tends to something of a discovery and problem solving focus with the materials. Sometimes student created materials are used.

I feel that the very specific nature of the course and the students’ particular levels (extremely advanced) as well as interests precludes much use of previously published language education materials. This also matches my beliefs regarding materials “light teaching” as advocated by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury who encourage teachers to teach “unplugged” and focus on engaging learners through focusing on emergent language and “teaching to the learners” rather than teaching to the curriculum.” (Meddings and Thornbury 16)

Designing an assessment plan

Assessments are conducted in class and are mostly related to comprehension or performance of specific skills. Through informal tasks with peers or the whole group students are evaluated on their comfort and skill. In what might be a good example of how these curricular components piece together, the grading system as well as organization of this course surely impact how decisions are made and carried out. From my perspective, the lack of an official score offers both positives and negatives. It allows for a more casual environment that encourages risk taking. There is, of course, potential for missed opportunities for review arising from a lack of a formal exam. Another important thought here is that these students have myriad chances to use English and the knowledge from the course in their other classes so from my perspective this helps formal assessment to take more of a backseat than it otherwise might as I can be sure that students will have many changes to put the knowledge to use.

Conclusion

Through this brief walkthrough of the course and the decisions and history behind it, I hope I have given readers some things to think about, especially if they are tasked with designing their own courses. My main takeaway from writing this was how beneficial it is for a teacher/designer to write these issues out because writing for a new audience clarifies issues and beliefs and helps identify strengths, weaknesses, challenges as well as room and resources for future improvements. Another key takeaway for me is the notion of one particular aspect of a course presenting both challenges and opportunities. It might be too easy to lament the less than perfect aspects of a course or context but perhaps if we give it due consideration we can identify positive aspects or at least ways to minimize problems. The same holds true for aspects that might appear at first glance to be solely positive. There are also potential downsides to nearly everything. A final thought, by way of conclusion, is that this is an extremely specific course in an extremely specific context this specificity permeates all the curricular decisions. We can see the components are all interrelated. All the aspects, from beliefs to assessment, stem from the context and the designer’s perceptions of this and the components clearly impact each other.

Works Cited

Graves, Kathleen. Designing Language Courses: A guide for teachers. Boston: Heinle &Heinle, 2000.

Meddings, Luke and Thornbury, Scott. Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Surrey, England: Delta Publishing, 2009.

Richards, Jack C. Curriculum Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Snow, Ann. “Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy in the Classroom.” Oxford University Press Global English Language Teaching Blog. Oxford University Press. Published: 27, September 2010.  Accessed 13, November, 2015. http://oupeltglobalblog.com/2010/09/27/applying-blooms-taxonomy-in-the-classroom/.

Thornbury, Scott. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan, 2006.

 

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