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Designing a twenty-hour course
by Scott Shelton

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Introduction

The following document outlines a twenty-hour course designed for an identified group of advanced learners who are preparing to sit the examination for the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English at the end of the term. It is divided into two parts. The first provides a rationale for the course, the process by which the course content has been selected and sequenced, as well as a brief examination of the principles of syllabus planning and how these were applied when planning the course. How this course reflects the learning needs of this particular group is also addressed, as well as how these needs were determined. The second part consists of a course outline (appendix A) and a detailed timetable of the course plan. (appendix B)

The duration of the course was fifteen one and a half hour lessons, over the course of eight weeks, and is representative of the larger, eight month long syllabus which most of this group has been taking part in. This portion of the larger syllabus begins just after returning from Christmas break, and runs through into the end of February. The class consists of eight students, many of whom are young professionals, who meet twice a week. Their initial level was determined by a written entrance exam, which is standard at International House, where I teach, and additionally by an oral interview with a trained teacher.

Course rationale

This syllabus, as mentioned, was designed to prepare and train students to pass the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English, and places particular emphasis on the skills they will need and the topics they will likely encounter in this exam. The CAE was introduced in December 1991 and is designed to offer a high-level qualification to those wishing to use English for professional or study purposes.

The examination consists of five papers: Reading, Writing, English in Use, Listening and Speaking.

The Cambridge CAE handbook (2001:7) breaks down the necessary skills and expectations for each section, and are as follows:

Reading
Learners at this level are expected to be able to read and understand text taken from a wide range of authentic sources. They should demonstrate a variety of reading skills including skimming, scanning, deduction of meaning from context and selection of relevant information to complete the given task.

Writing
Learners are expected to complete non-specialist writing tasks in response to the stimuli provided (input text and task descriptions). The input texts are taken from a wide range of authentic sources. Both audience and purpose are made clear in the task descriptions.

English in Use
Learners are expected to demonstrate the ability to apply their knowledge of the language system by completing tasks based on authentic passages. The tasks include: cloze exercise types, gap filling, proof-reading exercises, word formation exercises and text completion.

Listening
Learners are expected to understand each text as a whole, gain detailed understanding and appreciate gist and the attitude of the speaker. They must also be able to identify and interpret the context. Texts take the form of announcements, speeches, radio broadcasts, etc.

Speaking
Learners must be able to demonstrate a range of oral skills: interactional, social, transactional, negotiation and collaboration.

Due to the amount and breadth of reading and writing involved in this exam, this syllabus places an emphasis on the skills required to succeed in these areas. Specific training in how to approach these tasks is given and ample exposure to a wide range of authentic texts is provided for as well.

Listening and speaking skills are also practiced regularly and are an integral part of this course as they are also tested in a variety of ways.

Building a sufficiently large active and passive vocabulary is a constant concern at this level and it is focused on continually throughout this course.

Although grammar is not overtly tested in CAE, this course provides ample opportunity to revise, and structural accuracy is a permanent focus of the tasks laid out in this course.

The units prepared are based on a theme containing likely topics to be found in the exam, and a continuous thread runs through each lesson as different aspects of the theme are explored.

The main aim of this syllabus is to give the students in this group ample training representative of all the exam tasks they will meet and at the same time taking into consideration their particular needs, strengths, weaknesses and interests.

Although passing the exam is obviously its main focus, this syllabus was designed to be relevant and interesting to the students at a personal level outside of the exam perimeter and relevant to their social needs as well.


Planning a course syllabus: Choosing and sequencing course content

As Richards points out in 'Curriculum Development in language teaching', (2001:148) a course, to be successful, must be developed to address a specific set of needs and to cover a given set of objectives. I concur that considerations of students' needs should play a part in planning a course as well as the objectives and proposed outcomes for the group. He signals that:

"The choice of a particular approach to content selection will depend on subject matter knowledge, the learners' proficiency levels, current views on second language learning and teaching, conventional wisdom, and convention."

Breen, (1987) in turn, suggests that:

Syllabus design is a decision-making process which has to be responsive to a range of requirements including its sensitivity to the curriculum, classroom, and educational contexts for which it is designed. In order to meet these requirements, the designer creates a syllabus on the basis of the four organizing principles of focus, selection, subdivision and sequencing. The particular way in which the designer applies these principles will never be neutral or objective but will reflect views on language, upon using language, and upon the teaching and learning of language which the designer shares with the wider community of specialists in language education.

In choosing the content and sequence of content in this twenty-hour course, the objectives of the group were taken into consideration (passing a specific exam), as well as their current proficiency level. Also taken into consideration were the task types they will meet in the exam, their learning styles and a certain amount of conventional wisdom based on my previous experience of having prepared other students for this exam, and through conferencing with other teacher who have done the same.

In order to assess the specific needs of the students in this group in relation to their exam preparation and their current rate of progress, I administered a combination retrospective and prospective needs analysis (appendix C). This was done in order to gain the insight needed to better understand how my students perceived the course they had been involved in up to then, their perception of their progress, and any adjustments that they felt were needed to better prepare them for the exam. This, as well as any special needs or problems that they might be having that I, as their teacher, was not aware of.

The results of the survey were largely positive as the majority of the class felt that their needs as learners, as well as their expectations of the course were being met. Many expressed interest in doing more practice examinations as part of their preparation but found the course book and supplementary materials relevant and interesting as well.

As expected, there were discernable discrepancies among the learners' own perceived strengths and weaknesses. The balance of skills and systems work selected for the course reflects an attempt to take into account this wide range of needs. Content was chosen with the learners' needs in mind although my experience, and the experience of colleagues who have prepared others for this exam, also played a part in the selection and sequence of the course material.

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