10 common shortcomings of secondary curriculum design and textbooks in the UK

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net. Many thanks to Dylan Vinales of Garden International School, too, for the thought-provoking discussion we had on the topic prior to writing this.

Introduction

In this post I will concern myself with issues in typical secondary school MFL curriculum design as evidenced by the schemes of work – and the textbooks these are often based on – which in my view seriously undermine the effectiveness of foreign language instruction in many British secondary schools.

Effective curriculum design is as crucial to successful MFL instruction as effective classroom delivery is and must be based on sound pedagogy and skillful planning. As I intend to discuss in this post, much curriculum planning and textbook writing flouts some of the most fundamental tenets of sound foreign language pedagogy and neglects important dimensions of language acquisition. Although Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net – with whom I am currently writing ‘The MFL teacher handbook’ – noted in his blog that the new editions of some British textbooks are actually addressing some of the issues I am about to discuss, there is still much scope for improvement.

Issue n 1 – Coverage vs Time available

Schemes of work are typically over-ambitious as they often reflect the structure of the textbook adopted; they usually aim to cover a given topic (i.e. a chapter / module in the textbook) in 6-7 weeks. This does not allow the students to truly acquire the target material, especially when it comes to grammar structures. As I have showed in a number of previous posts, the acquisition of grammar structures which involve ending manipulations/agreement and differ substantially from their L1 equivalent may take months to internalize. Another problem is that schemes of work – when based on textbooks – often devote only one or two lessons to each of the five or six sub-topics that make up the unit-in-hand and then move on to the next sub-topic. This does often not allow for sufficient recycling.

Solution – obvious: teach less but in greater depth; recycle more.

Issue n 2 – Fluency: the neglected objective

In previous blogs I pointed out how effective foreign language teaching ought to aim at developing fluency across all four skills and especially into areas where speed of processing is paramount to be an effective communicator: oral interaction and interpersonal writing (e.g. instant messaging). Fluency was defined in previous post as the ability to produce intelligible oral or written speech in response to a stimulus at high speed. This is a crucial skill for students to develop if we want to enable them to use the target language in the real world, especially in the workplace. Yet, fluency rarely – if ever- features expicitly as a goal in UK MFL departments’ schemes of work. Hence, teachers neither plan for fluency development nor are allocated adequate resources and training to teach fluency. Nor do they formally assess fluency.

Moreover, the issue highlighted in the previous paragraph often works against the attainment of fluency as rushing through a unit entails neglecting horizontal progression. Without sufficient horizontal progression fluency cannot be obtained.

Solution – Plan for the attainment of fluency. Include activities to develop speech automatization and opportunities for its assessment.

Issue n 3 – Topic compartmentalization / Lack of recycling

Schemes of work – even those that are not based on textbooks – rarely recycle adequately. Many colleagues – obviously not language teachers – ask me why I have uploaded over 1,600 teaching resources in two years on http://www.tes.com  and why I created a whole website devoted mainly to vocabulary teaching (www.language-gym.com). The answer is that textbooks and schemes of work usually compartmentalize teaching; term 1a one teaches topic X, term 1b topic Y, term 2a topic Z etc. Each time a topic or structure is covered, it is rarely consciously and systematically recycled in later units. I have had to produce my own worksheets and online resources to guarantee the necessary recycling; it has paid off, but teachers, as overloaded with work as they already are, should not have to do this.

Solution: include in the schemes of work a section in each unit headed ‘recycling opportunities’ and include activities aiming at consolidating old material. Also, make sure that each end of unit assessment tests students on material covered in previous units – or even previous years.

Issue 4 – What about communicative functions?

Most UK textbooks and MFL departments more or less explicitly adopt a weak communicative notional/functional syllabus with a variable focus (i.e. functions/notions + grammar). However, they usually patently neglect to focus adequately on important communicative functions. A glance at Finocchiaro and Brumfit’s (1983) classification of communicative functions (at http://www.carla.umn.edu/articulation/polia/pdf_files/communicative_functions.pdf ) will clarify what I mean. Much typical British secondary school teaching focuses mainly on Referential communicative functions and on only a few interpersonal functions. However, many Interpersonal and Imaginative functions are hardly touched on. Moreover, many important Personal functions are grossly neglected, too – although, I am sure you will agree,  they are crucial in daily life.

In PBL-based schemes of work this issue is worsened by the nature of the approach adopted which focuses on the attainment of a product rather than interpersonal communication.

Communicative functions are pivotal to effective target language proficiency. They are way more important than many other things textbooks teach.

Solution: use Finocchiaro and Brumfit’s taxonomy to fill the gaps in this area that you will identify in your schemes of work. Make sure that you recycle functions over and over again throughout the year.

Issue 5 – The 2 neglected word-classes

Textbooks, schemes of work and specialized websites focus mainly on nouns and –tragically – neglect verbs and adjectives – and hence adverbs from which adjectives are obtained. Verbs, as I pointed out in previous blogs, are essential in order to acquire a high level of autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk). One of the reasons for this neglect, I suspect, is that state-school English learners are notoriously bad at conjugating verbs; hence, textbooks dumb down their comprehensible input and target vocabulary by including only few essential and often more ‘learnable’ verbs.

Solution: include lists of target verbs in the schemes of work. Using quizlet or memrise to create your own online activities to drill them in (in the infinitive). You could use my verb trainer at www.language-gym.com – the pictures help the students learn the verb meaning as they conjugate – or my Work-outs.

Issue 6 – How about improvisation?

Schemes of work are usually planned around specific topics, which, in England, repeat themselves every year – how boring! However, autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk) is about being able to talk ‘across topics’ so to speak; to be able to have a ‘natural’ conversation with a speaker of the target language which is not bound to a specific topic or sub-topic but touches different aspects of human life and experiences. MFL departments – at least to my knowledge – never really plan for this. Yet, nearly everyone these days states that spontaneous talk is high on their agenda.

Solution: plan for one or two lessons every now and then – maybe in between half-terms? – which are entirely dedicated to talking, reading, listening and writing in the target language without being tied down to a specific topic. A very easy-to-set-up task is a general conversation task where the students ask each other a wide variety of questions covering several topics, including some that have never been covered before – but that the students possess the linguistic tools to talk about.

Issue 7 – Grammar, the ‘poor sister’

This point is so obvious that I will not dwell too long over it. British textbooks devote a ridiculously small amount of space to grammar and to its recycling. Teachers have to toil on a daily basis to resource grammar teaching.

Solution: teach more grammar and recycle it to death (see my previous post: 16 tips for effective grammar teaching’.

Issue 8 – Intercultural competence

Textbooks and schemes of work often include sections about ‘La Francophonie’ or other facts about the target language civilization. However, one very important dimension of cultural awareness is nearly always missing: how to avoid culture shock or other ‘faux pas’ and, more generally, how to train students to deal with target language native speakers in a way which is culture-sensitive and can foster effective integration. In an era where the labour market is so globalized, intercultural competence has become an important lifelong learning skill which our students need to be equipped with.

Solutions: Cultural awareness teaching should be more about the (cross-cultural) skills than the facts.

Issue 9 – Variety of topics

Every year, from year 6/7 to year 11, English teenagers keep learning about the same blocked topics, often relearning the same words. Here again, textbooks play an important role. As I tweeted earlier on today, most English textbooks seem to replicate the Metro textbook blueprint.

Solution: try new topics or combinations of topics. Prioritize topics teenagers are really interested in like relationships, entertainment, gadgets, social media, fashion, etc, rather than house chores or pets…

Issue 10 – Teaching sequences

The ‘Metro textbook blueprint’ is evident in all its successors not only in terms of the topics which receive more emphasis, but also in the way they sequence grammar structures. In a future post Steve and I will propose how we believe grammar structures should be sequenced and the rationale for it. There are many things we believe textbook writers and curriculum designers in the UK should change. One thing that springs to mind, for instance is modal verbs (e.g. Vouloir, Pouvoir, Devoir in French). One wonders why they are always introduced quite late when they are so important in everyday communication and have very high surrender value. Imagine how ‘handy’ they can be to a beginner learner, before they even start conjugating verb, followed as they are by infinitives. Moreover, their acquisition earlier on would partly address issue 5 by enabling the students to use many verbs at will quite easily.

Solution: Consider the surrender value and learnability of the target grammar structures. Would learning them earlier or later facilitate acquisition in your opinion? If so, don’t wait for the textbook sequence to teach them.

Conclusion

Some of the shortcomings in the typical secondary school MFL curriculum and course-book design I have just discussed are much more important than others. My pet hates are the lack of recycling, the insufficient focus on oral fluency, the neglect of verbs and adjectives and the sketchy and superficial approach to grammar. The reader should note that I have deliberately not dealt with the teaching of lifelong learning skills as I do believe that MFL teacher contact time being so limited, most of them are best taught explicitly as separate from the foreign language curriculum – unless, of course they overlap with the aims of the course (e.g. independent enquiry skills, problem solving, intercultural communication, effective communication, empathy, resilience).

Your greatest priority as a curriculum designer – and every teacher to a certain extent is one – should definitely be the systematic recycling of the target vocabulary, grammar and communicative functions and the allocation of sufficient time for deep encoding to occur. This will entail doing away with the one chapter per half-term approach, a tragic legacy of the Metro-based Schemes of Work.

Foreign language instructors’ most frequent pitfall and implications for teaching and learning

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net 

As already discussed in previous posts, my instructional approach to foreign language teaching is rooted in Cognitive theories of L2 acquisition and, more specifically, in Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000). Hence, my teaching is based on two main assumptions: (1) for any macro-skill to be fully acquired each and every micro-skill that that macro-skill can be broken down into must be fully acquired, too; (2) certain linguistic features are less teachable than others based on the cognitive challenges they pose to the learner, not on innate mechanisms (e.g. you would not ask a child who has not learnt the multiplication tables to solve a complex equation); many of the cognitive challenges will be of course posed by L1 negative transfer.

In twenty-five years of professional practice Steve and I have seen many language instructors frequently flout the above principles, often due to the pace and content dictated by ‘sketchy’ schemes of work or to the typical British MFL textbook structure. The new PBL trend further exacerbates the issue by neglecting the skill-building dimension of language learning.

This post concerns itself with a phenomenon which most teachers observe day-in day-out in their classroom with novice to intermediate learners: recurrent learner errors in the execution of the following micro-skills, which refer to the execution of high frequency and quite important linguistic features in most of the languages taught in the UK (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin etc.)

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

Teachers complain about the recurrence of student errors in these areas on a daily basis. What is most worrying is that many of these errors occur in written output, when, that is, an L2 writer has potentially more time to monitor and, consequently, to self-correct. This can only mean two things: (1) either the student lacks declarative knowledge of the grammar structure to deploy or (2) s/he has failed to apply the grammar rule due to cognitive overload. Both scenarios indicate that the to-be-applied structure is far from being routinized. Why?

The answer: for any skill to be routinized, the brain must create what Skill-theorists call a Production. A Production is like a program embedded in our Brain’s operating system which is triggered by a cue. Skill-theorist call this cue the ‘IF-condition’ of a production and the brain’s response to that cue the ‘THEN condition’. For instance, in the case of Noun-adjective agreement,

IF an adjective qualifies a noun (in French)

THEN that adjective’s ending must agree in gender and number with the noun

 IF the noun is feminine 

 THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ to the ending, unless it is irregular or ends in ‘-e’ already

This Production is – at least in theory – easy to create at declarative level (i.e. as a rule). The problem is that an English-speaking novice/intermediate student’s first language will work against its application at the early stages of internalizing the rule, because of negative transfer (in English you do not change adjectival endings in this context); this is especially the case when a student is working under time constraints or communicative pressure and is not asked to focus explicitly on agreement. Hence, two, three or even four lessons on adjectival agreement will never be sufficient, like many teachers seem to presume. They are often satisfied that their students seem to get adjectival agreement right during the lessons explicitly devoted to that grammar structure and they move on to another topic or skill.

The problem is that after two, three or even ten lessons that Production is only at the very early stages of its routinization. It will take many instances of application and positive feedback on its deployment for that Production to be automatized (i.e. applied quickly and effortlessly) as the brain is very cautious before ‘deciding’ to create any new permanent cognitive structure. Hence the fundamental micro-skills listed above must be practised as extensively as possible whether in class or through homework – ideally in every single lesson – before one can assume they have been mastered.

Although I am sure that most teachers would agree with most of the above, I wonder how many MFL classroom practitioners actually focus consistently and extensively enough on ensuring that they are effectively routinized. Yet, unless we do not care about accuracy, lack of routinization of the above micro-skills can undermine the subsequent learning of important complex structures and, consequently, progression along the L2 acquisition continuum. Here is an example. Think about the first three items in the micro-skills list above:

  1. Manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number

A few years ago I observed a lesson where the instructor was teaching her students (French) reflexive verbs in the Perfect tense (e.g. je me suis habillée) where the Past Participle has to agree in gender and number with the subject. It was clear to me not only that the students had not at all routinized the three micro-skills above but that they had not received much practice in verb-ending manipulation at all – a fundamental skill to master when learning a Latin language. Their processing ability was poor and this hindered their progression throughout the lesson. They were clumsy and slow in manipulating verbs and this impacted their accuracy and fluency.

Much of the cognitive overload that hinders language acquisition in French, Spanish, Italian and German learning is due to the insufficient practice students receive across those micro-skills. The Anglo-Saxon brain being not wired for and not used to manipulating verb and adjectival endings, a great amount of effort must be put on a daily basis by teachers on practising this specific set of micro-skills consistently  and systematically since the very early stages of learning. As I intend to show below, it is easy, not very time consuming and it pays enormous dividends. In my case, with CIE as an examination board, getting my student to be 100% correct in verb and tenses formation is a must, since the written exams assessment scheme requires high levels of accuracy (e.g. the written piece must feature the accurate use of 18 different verbs).

The same applies to any of the other micro-skills on that list. Consider word order of adjectives. Taken in isolation, the rule/Production “IF an adjective qualifies the noun, THEN place the adjective after the noun” seems easy to grasp and acquire. And at the end of a single lesson on it, teachers usually feel confident that it has been learnt. However, the above Production, when combined with the other related productions “IF the adjective qualifies a noun it must agree in gender and number with that noun” and “IF the noun is feminine THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ becomes much less easy to handle effectively and efficiently in cognitive terms unless the other two Productions have been highly routinized. Processing of the above Productions becomes even more cumbersome with novice learners when it occurs in the context of the creation of a complex sentence where they are coping with several structures simultaneously (e.g. conjugating the verbs in the sentence, choosing the right preposition, retrieving the correct lexis).

If novice to intermediate learners are not provided sufficient practice in the above micro-skills the risk of L1 transfer impacting student output will always be present, especially when the learners are working under pressure in contexts where there is not much time for self-monitoring (e.g exams, oral performance). This may lead to the fossilization of erroneous forms (i.e. the permanent internalization of mistakes) even when the learners know the rule(s) relative to those forms. This is a widely documented phenomenon in English secondary schools.

In conclusion, curriculum designers and teachers must reconsider the way they go about progression, in my view, or at least allow for more practice of the above micro-skills and related structures. Teachers using Independent Inquiry / PBL must be particularly cautious as this aspect of L2 learning is often neglected in their instructional approach. Creative ways must be found to embed any of the activities below.

Implications for the classroom – curriculum design and minimumpreparation teaching strategies

  1. Systematic recycling in Schemes of Work: in the first two or even three years of instruction, schemes of work should make explicit reference to the above micro-skills and allow for constant recycling. Opportunities for regular formative assessment aimed at evaluating the routinization of the micro-skills should be included, too.
  1. Micro-skill tracking : As I already advocated in a previous post, the use of a tracking sheet where one logs all the instances of recycling of each micro-skill in lessons can be extremely handy in assisting recycling
  1. Grammaticality judgment quizzes (to be used only at initial stages): Write three phrases on the board of which only one is accurate: e.g. une belle femme – une beau femme – une bel femme
  1. Gap-fills with or without options (still for the initial stages only): there are plenty of free gap-fills activities online (e.g. www.language-gym.com; www.languagesonline.org.uk ). I have uploaded lots of free ones onto www.tes.co.uk. www.frenchteacher.net has loads, too.
  1. Online self-marking verb trainers (at any stage): I find verb-trainers very valuable to the point that I created my own (free at www.language-gym.com). I ask my students to go on it every day for five minutes purely as a habit formation tool. Do not presume that just because they get 100 % on a verb trainer module and they can conjugate verbs very fast they have routinized verb use, obviously. They need to demonstrate correct deployment of verbs under real operating conditions, first.
  1. Mini White board activities (novice to advance stage depending on complexity)

5a. Translations (my favourite);

5b. Verb training – give pronoun, verb and tense and ask students to conjugate on the spot;

5c. From sound to letter (decoding skills) – pronounce a sound (e.g. ‘uah’ – in French) and ask students to write the combination of letters it represents (e.g. oi) ;

5d. Short dictations – utter a word that you have never taught your students and ask them to guess its spelling based on their decoding-skills repertoire

5e. Picture task –  example: picture of a green car; students to write: una macchina verde (Italian) / une voiture verte (French)

 

  1. Oral translation (novice to advance stage depending on complexity) – This is another favourite of mine. Students are given cards with bullet points and need to translate them into the target language in real time. Each bullet point will elicit the execution of the target micro-skill (e.g. agreement; verb conjugation; word order). This can be done impromptu, if one wants to assess student level of fluency or after some preparation. Although they require a bit more preparation – not much, though – the cards can be used across languages.

Conclusion

Teachers often complain about their students’ mistakes in the execution of the following micro-skills:

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

However, the problem lies in the lack of extensive practice the students receive in the performance of those skills. At the early stages of instruction students must be given extensive practice as frequently as possible until there is evidence that they have automatized them and that their execution occupies only subsidiary awareness. Moving on to another topic or structure prematurely can have serious negative consequences for student learning.