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Course Planning - a process
by Emma Worrell
- 1

Introduction

The aim of this assignment was to plan, execute and evaluate a twenty hour course for a group of students. I chose a First Certificate Exam (FCE) class with nine students. The students are studying at a private language academy (Hyland Language Centre). They are following an extensive course which involves twice weekly, one and a half hour classes taught over 9 months (October to June). I have planned this course over fourteen classes (a total of seven weeks), which will finish just before Christmas 2003.


What is a Syllabus?

Hutchinson and Waters (1987) say that a syllabus breaks language down into manageable chunks; it reassures clients that their money is well-spent; students have a learning route; it gives a set of criteria for the selection of materials; it makes attempts at school standardisation possible and it provides a visible means for testing. However, it does not tell us what will actually be learned, nor does it express factors such as the students' personalities, moods and motivation. There are various types of syllabuses, including structural, functional/notional, communicative, task-based, content-based and multi-layered. In general Nunan (1988: 21) says that all syllabuses, including methodology and learner assessment and evaluation are "underpinned by beliefs about the nature of language and language learning".


What are the considerations when planning a course?

Graves (1996: 13) outlines seven elements that any course syllabus should include:

1) Needs Assessment: What the students need and how to assess and address those needs.

2) Determining Goals and Objectives: The purposes of the course and the expected outcomes.

3) Conceptualising Content: The main thread of what we teach and what should be included in the syllabus.

4) Selecting and Developing Materials and Activities: How the chosen materials will be used and the roles of the teacher and the student.

5) Organisation and Content of Activities: How the activities will be organised and the systems to be developed.

6) Evaluation: How the students and the effectiveness of the course will be assessed.

7) Consideration of Resources and Constraints: Assessing the resources available and other problems.

These criteria will, of course, depend on the context in which the course takes place. My chosen group are all planning to take the FCE and have a designated course book (First Certificate Gold) and schedule for which to complete various materials. This means that there will be slightly less freedom to plan the materials for the course (Stage 5 above).


Needs Assessment

The nine students in this class are all planning to take the FCE in June. They are between the ages of around twenty to thirty-five. Four of the students are university students and want to take the exam to help them find jobs after university. The other five students work and four of them use English in their jobs (mainly writing e-mails and on the telephone) and one student does not use English at work but wants to change their job. This student feels that having the FCE will help them achieve this. They have all studied English at school. Most of the students said they had Spanish teachers of English at school and that they now preferred to be taught by native speakers. Half of the students have already studied at this academy and have had very positive experiences which I hope to maintain.

Nunan (1988:20) describes how the trend has moved away from "mechanistic" approaches of needs' assessment, to a more humanistic approach. This is the belief that learners should have a direct influence on what they should be learning and how they should learn it. The emphasis is on the development of learner "autonomy" and addresses subjective or "affective issues. Yalden (1983 in Nunan 1988) says that a good needs analysis should identify the communication requirements, the personal needs, motivations, relevant characteristics and resources of our students. Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 55) say that, generally, students' answers to questions in needs analysis questionnaires often reflect very subjective needs which are usually different from any 'objective' assessment of what they really need. Even though all the students are preparing for the FCE exam not many of them considered exam preparation as a specific goal from the course . These are some of the concepts I have tried to consider when designing this syllabus.

The needs analysis used attempts to address the learners subjective needs. The needs analysis was conducted in class. The students discussed their answers in small groups and then as a whole class. During the first class with the students we discussed the learners' learning history, personal circumstances, and use of English. The students have been encouraged to copy the 'menu' (a list of things to be done in the class which I write on the board at the beginning of the class) at the end of the classes and to reflect on them, writing a short personal response to the activities, their usefulness, effectiveness and how the students felt about the activity (whether they enjoyed it or not). The students then discuss what they have written in small groups and then, when we have a spare five minutes at the end of a class, I ask for general feedback.

The results of the needs analysis showed that the students placed most emphasis on the need to be able to write well in English, to speak more fluently and to improve their listening skills. All of these needs reflect the requirements for their jobs (or future jobs). Grammar was given less priority maybe because they feel they have the necessary grammar to be able to communicate efficiently. Indeed, at this level most grammar structures have been presented to the students. However, as we progressed through some of the units and came across 'Use of English' exercises the students were beginning to realise that they needed training in this area. The students also gave low priority to pronunciation and reading maybe because the group copes well with the reading activities. However, I found that some of the students did not feel that pronunciation was important because they found it easy to communicate effectively and were usually understood. As I have been teaching in Spain for three years now I find that I have 'got used to' the Spanish accent and way of speaking and if we understand them we focus less on their pronunciation. This is something I have been trying to address in my classes more recently. Pronunciation can help the students understand as much as communicate effectively. The FCE book does not include much pronunciation work so I have taken this into consideration in my course planning.

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