Planning - a process by Emma Worrell
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.
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".
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).
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.
Determining goals and objectives
Nunan (1988: 61) describes goals as general statements about the long term purposes of a course. These can be achieved by asking the students why they are learning the language. Objectives are more short term, concrete ideas of how we can achieve the goals. These can be achieved the syllabus designer "through a process of introspecting on the sorts of communicative purposes for which language is used" (Nunan 1988: 79) Breen (1987: 167) describes the process syllabus as involving "teachers and learners in a cycle of decision-making through which their own preferred ways of working, their own on-going content syllabus, and their choices of appropriate activities and tasks are realised in the classroom". The main objective for this course is to describe the goals (as objectives are connected to what happens in class). The goals I propose are meant only as the purpose of the planned short term course. However, they will be extended as the students' course progresses until June.
Nunan (1988: 25) describes four areas of necessary goals:
I have tried to incorporate all of these concepts in my syllabus design. it should be noted that most of these are incorporated in the FCE book as exercises but there is little information aimed at teachers in the teacher's book on how to achieve these concepts which means that the teacher has to be careful to train the students systematically and not overload them with to many techniques from the beginning.
It is important
to remember that, as the course book limits flexibility with the choice
of materials (not so much the sequencing of materials), a course of this
kind needs a good balance between work on exam practice and strategies
and more general work on developing communicative competence and other
general learning strategies. Also, we must consider students preferred
requests over material they want to cover and material which is less popular
but still necessary. Finally, a comprehensive syllabus should contain
a balance between "product" and "process" (Nunan 1988:
71). 'Product' means "what learners will be able to do as a result
of instruction" ("the ends") or what students will be able
to do at the end of the course which they could not do before. 'Process'
means " activities designed to develop the skills needed to carry
out the product objectives" ("the means") or the way learning
is organised (Nunan 1988: 70-71). With this course the processes can be
seen as the content of the course book, subject to modification, the use
of extra, authentic materials and covering areas such as pronunciation,
and includes the atmosphere of the class which will help achieve many
of the goals. The product can be seen as the students goal to sit the
exam and pass the five papers required ( see appendix 7). However, we
must remember that there is a limit to the extent the syllabus can achieve
its goals. Breen (1987: 159) says
While Breen's process based syllabus, where the content and methodology are negotiated, is prohibited by the final goals of the course (the exam) certain elements can be incorporated. The learners' lesson comments facilitated negotiation by enabling the students to reflect on what was really necessary for them to study and to decide the weight needed for the activities (this was further enhanced by peer correction and group activities where students could compare and learn from each others' work).
Selecting and developing materials
The FCE Gold course book was inevitably the main source of content, an attempt was made to include other materials, such as writing exercises from other sources, authentic listenings such as radio news reports, and speaking activities from conversation files related to topics and themes in the course book to keep student interest and maintain motivation.
Organisation and content of activities
Although the students were aware of the importance of exam practice, it was not a central theme to all the activities we did in an attempt to make some of the activities more fun. Students also requested homework after every class which was useful for consolidating class work and students were assured that any extra homework they wished to do (particularly with regards to writing) would be corrected. . The sequencing was adapted to provide variety or connection between themes, for example, the writing exercise in the first unit which was based on informal letter writing was contrasted by a formal letter writing exercise which was from one of the last units of the course book. This was to provide students with the relevant training from early on ( to develop 'good' habits). The book includes various recycling methods but I included more lexis recycling, especially of phrasal verbs, and each class myself or the students recorded new vocabulary from the board onto vocabulary cards which were used frequently, for example, for fast finishers or warmers.
Students at the academy are given formal tutorials as part of their extensive course. These are given individually and are seen as more important for those students taking the FCE.. The week after the course plan finished, the students were asked for feedback on the course syllabus in the form of group and class discussions. Feedback, in general, was very positive and students expressed their perceived progress as especially good in writing and listening (perhaps two of the things that are difficult for the students to pass in the exam). Some students commented that, in general, they had not found the course as boring as they had anticipated an exam course would be!
Consideration of resources and constraints
I have already
briefly discussed the constraints of using a an exam course book. However,
I have tried to incorporate other materials with which to practise exam
strategies. Some of the materials in the book could be considered as fairly
'dry' and I felt it more appropriate, at times to use other, more stimulating
materials from other sources. There is obviously pressure to complete
certain parts of the book (e.g. the grammar revisions) and this hindered
the progress of any process based timetable. In my, and other teachers'
experience, it is very difficult to finish the course book in the extensive
course. The students are also aware that after the mock exams in February
the weighting of the course content will change significantly with the
need to practise more exam techniques and progress to more challenging
listenings (the listenings in the book have often been said to be too
easy compared to those listenings in the exam practice books and, indeed,
in the actual exam). Most of the students' attendance was good with just
two of the students missing a fair amount of classes due to work commitments
which made it difficult to plan follow-up and sequence activities.
1996 First Certificate Gold Course Book, Longman