In Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching, McGrath asks the question ‘how would you define ‘course’ in relation to the language courses that you teach?’ (McGrath 2002:57). Considering my response to this question highlighted the need for teacher flexibility, not only in the classroom but also in course planning/programming.
The majority of my current teaching at ELC is on General English (GE) courses (especially as the diploma timetable prevents me from being able to do as much Business English (BE) teaching as usual). Our GE courses operate on a system of continual enrolment, and students stay anywhere between two weeks and a year, or longer. We timetable these courses in weekly blocks, and each class has a coursebook, but teachers are given license to adapt or supplement as much or as little as they deem appropriate to the class. There are weeks when I use the coursebook very little, if at all.
My course planning very rarely extends beyond a two week period, and more frequently I plan for a week or even day-to-day, starting with a list of objectives based on needs analyses and content negotiation with learners.
With BE clients however, my course planning is more thorough, and for these courses I put together a provisional course programme. This is something I prepare before the first day of the course, and is based on pre-course questionnaires we receive from the clients. The content on these questionnaires varies considerably. During the Monday morning break, after a needs analysis with the client, I adapt this course programme, and then discuss it with the client in the second or third session, stressing that it is only provisional, is always flexible, and is subject to change as the course progresses (according to the client’s needs). Invariably, the client wants to change very little on the programme.
I find BE courses far easier to plan for than GE courses, largely because the clients have more predictable and identifiable needs, but also because smaller class sizes afford me the opportunity to be meet more of the clients’ individual needs. (Our GE classes have a maximum of 12 students, whereas our Executive Mini Group (EMG) courses have a maximum of four).
My BE courses are never based on a coursebook. Instead I use my own and other sourced materials. I frequently utilise materials from Mark Powell’s In Company, along with texts I can obtain about the client’s company and/or area of expertise (where appropriate).
With GE planning I tend not to use the coursebook as a starting point or syllabus, except with elementary classes. Instead, I usually start with a topic identified or selected by the learners, or a language point (or area) based on the learners’ needs, lack and wants (Nation & Macalister, 2010:24).
In answer to McGrath’s question, ‘should the emphasis be on what actually happens. i.e. on course as experience, rather than on what is planned?’, my immediate, instinctive response is yes, absolutely. I believe that the experience of a lesson and/or course is paramount to successful learning.
Looking back on my own language learning experiences, there’s a direct correlation between my enjoyment of the learning experience and my success in learning the language. (I recognise that correlation does not imply causation, but in the cases I’m about to describe, experience played such a large part that I feel it cannot be ignored.)
I studied French as a foreign language to GCSE level at secondary school. I found the lessons extraordinarily dull and uninspiring. They were entirely coursebook-based (if not coursebook-taught), very teacher-centred, and if my memory serves me well, there was very little communicative focus. I was bored, and frequently bunked off my French lessons to go to the CDT (Craft; Design; Technology) studio and do something more interesting, or just hang out in town. In the exam I scraped a pass, but now, I can recall barely more than a few sentences in French.
Conversely, taking beginner German classes in the UK in my early 30s, was far more enjoyable. Although we had a coursebook, we barely used it in the class. Activities were communicative and varied, the teacher and other learners were engaging and interesting. I worked hard and never missed a class. My success in learning the language was far better than when learning French. Of course, of course there are multiple other factors at play: motivation and investment in the language; age; the harmony/discord between teaching/learning styles and approaches. But these factors, I believe, contribute to the language learning experience as much as course planning.
This is not to say that what is planned is of little importance and should be disregarded at the drop of a hat (especially if what is planned is truly learner-centred in that it is based on meeting objectives that are necessary and relevant to the learners). As Gary said following my last lesson observation, ‘a plan is not a formalised prediction; it is a resource, a sequence of choices, options or alternatives’ (Gary Hicks 2016). This operates on a level beyond planning for individual lessons. A course programme can, and should, remain flexible if we are to even come close to meeting the needs of our learners. In BE teaching I revisit and reconsider the course programme with the client at several stages throughout the course.
What all of this reveals, then, is that coursebook-based teaching is far from the norm in my own practice. I’m confident that this is an appropriate choice for short courses and small groups such as in BE. But… sometimes I wonder whether my GE teaching might benefit from more extensive pre-planning, to ensure cohesion between lessons and consistency with a syllabus. I do think that to a certain extent I achieve these in other ways – through review and recycling, and weekly goal-setting with learners – but I worry that at times I might lose sight of a bigger picture and am in danger of missing things. This is an area I intend to be more conscious of in my teaching.
- Nation, I.S.P & Macalister, J. (2010) Language Curriculum Design. New York & London: Routledge.
- McGrath, I. (2002) Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University pp57-58.