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.

3 thoughts on “10 common shortcomings of secondary curriculum design and textbooks in the UK

  1. Really like your comments, particularly about the deepening and varying of the program. Something that since I have moved to the MYP has become much more possible.
    I do have one question though. I have found that the academic year does have a natural rhythm to it, often defined by our holidays. Do you agree, and if so how might that effect your curriculum design?

  2. Thanks again for this thoughtful post. (Sorry for the lengthy reply.) In the US the struggle with textbooks has become more complex as books have tried to accommodate high school learners and college (university) level learners for basic courses. Vocabulary refers to “dorm” life and the activities of college students and needs to be triaged and supplemented for middle and high school users. We continually are trying to check our scope and sequence to build skills and keep this separate from textbooks and content but teachers who teach content and by the book struggle. Our first semester exams need to be carefully checked for sequencing issues as some books start all over ( recycling grammar as opposed to a review) meaning that a more advanced level textbook starts all over with the present tense whereas the previous level covered all the advanced tenses.You cannot have a level IV (1st semester) exam with only present tense and passé composé tenses if level III finished with the subjunctive. I also create my own units and vocab. lists based on my students’ needs and interests, taking into account the bigger issues. With food at a basic level we can use devoir to talk about waste/ recycling at home and in the school cafeteria. Recycling and building towards more advanced levels and topics is the constant struggle of the ML teacher. Teachers need to know curriculum from beginning to end to feel comfortable about going beyond or stepping out of the book.

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