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Curriculum Approaches in Language Teaching Essay

Language teaching curriculum development began with the notion of syllabus design, a specification of skills that will be practiced and taught during a course. However, when speaking about the sphere of language teaching, syllabus design has undergone some changes due to a variety of influences, such as learning targets, proposals in methodology, and syllabus issues. Therefore, there is a need to learn what links the aspects of language teaching, such as notional syllabuses and standards movement. To answer this question, it is important to differentiate among three curriculum approaches, such as forward, central, and backward designs. Differentiation and analysis of these three approaches to language teaching design will facilitate a better understanding of the “big picture” with regard to language teaching as well as the present or past trends of syllabus design.

Approaches to Curriculum Design

The notions of curriculum and syllabus have similarities in meaning; however, they should not be confused with one another. While curriculum refers to the overall established requirements demanded of a student for arriving at the measurement achievement tools, syllabus refers to the progression in a specific subject. When it comes to the approaches to curriculum development, forward, central, and backward designs are considered the most widespread. Forward design of curriculum development is grounded on the view that input, output, and process interact with each other in a linear manner (Richards, 2013). This approach was also called the “waterfall model,” in which the output on one stage of a process turns into an input on another stage that is following it (Tessmer & Wedman, 1990).

For example, in a forward model, the sequence of activities is the following: a teacher chooses a topic for the lesson, a resource, an instructional method, and the method of assessment (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006). In a central design model, the development of curriculum does not start with the input; rather, the selection of teaching activities and methods occurs first (Richards, 2001). According to Clark (1987), the central design model allows teachers and students to discuss various subjects and answer the question as proceeding with the lesson instead of following the “waterfall model,” where all components of the lesson have already been predetermined. Lastly, the backward model implies the predetermination of the learning outputs before the development of input and instructional processes. The backward approach to curriculum design is often conducted through the use of learning objectives as “planning units in instructional design” (Tyler, 1949, p. 45).

Forward curriculum design is considered traditional and is suitable for those learning contexts where the objective cannot be identified before the establishment of assessment methods or classroom tasks and activities. While forward design allows separate specialists to develop different stages of curriculum planning (Richards, 2013), it puts an emphasis on specific classroom activities and underestimates the importance of establishing learning outcomes of a course. Backward design is in contrast to forward design and is beneficial for secondary language learning when the outcomes have already been determined. However, the backward design does not pay enough attention to the actual process of learning. The central design may be considered a “medium” between the two other approaches because it focuses not on the outcome but rather on the actual process of learning (Richards, 2013).

The Context for Curriculum Development

According to David Nunan (2004), the development of different approaches to language learning stemmed from an opinion that language can be more effectively taught when placed in the role of a communication tool. There is no longer a need for teaching specific grammatical or phonological items for the mere reason that they are present in the language. The choice of a language teaching methodology relates to determining what activities and learning processes will enhance the opportunities exhibited by learners (Waters, 2009). Currently, language teaching offers significant flexibility, so the choice of the curriculum design approach should be made in agreement with the teaching context.

The context chosen for the evaluation is teaching Mexican nursing students English as a secondary language for moving to the United States for a job placement in a general hospital. Within this context, the backward approach to curriculum design will be the most appropriate because there is a clear objective of language acquisition – learning basic English in order to communicate with Americans. The approach of teaching separate grammatical or lexical items will be ineffective in second language learning; therefore, medical students should be taught English as a tool of communication. The backward design of curriculum development in the context of second language learning will help eliminate the gap between understanding and learning with the aid of establishing a clear framework of goals that should be achieved at the end of the English language learning course (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Then, a teacher should select a number of activities that will facilitate students’ achieving the set objectives with ease. In this model of curriculum design, the focus of the content delivery will be taken away from a teacher and transferred to students that are put in the center of their learning activities.

Backward Design for L2 Learning

Skill-Based Learning

Backward curriculum design implemented in the context of second-language learning can be considered the most appropriate solution because the learning goals and expected outcomes have already been determined. When it comes to the achievement of a positive learning outcome, educators involved in the teaching process must work in coordination to achieve coherence in the curriculum as well as a long-term gain of knowledge (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006). Within the presented context, backward curriculum design will facilitate the adoption of a skill-based syllabus, which implies the learning of certain abilities that will be instrumental in using the language (Mohsenifar, 2008).

The skill-based syllabus for learning English as a second language will group specific linguistic competencies, such as grammar or vocabulary, into generalised behaviour groups such as listening to spoken English language or giving presentations in oral form (Mahdi, Ehsan, & Javad, 2012). According to Richards (2001), a skill-based syllabus for language learning can be beneficial due to its focus on behaviour as well as skills that can be applied in many situations. Furthermore, skill-based learning will be useful for mastering specific uses of the English language, whether exclusively or related to a more general competency (Krahnke, 1987). On the other hand, skill-based syllabus design received some criticism for being limited in scope (Auerbach, 1986) or representing a list of skills that should be practiced by language learners (Willis & Skelton, 2005).

Importance of Learning English for Medical Practice

Before discussing why the backward design of curriculum development would work best in a given context, it is important to mention why English learning for medical students was chosen for the assessment. According to Jacobs, Sadowski, and Rathouz (2007), the language concordance between a patient and a physician has proven to reduce costs both for patients and healthcare facilities. Therefore, the acquisition of a foreign language by a healthcare professional can be regarded as a specific type of an intervention to improve the quality of provided services.

Similar to other clinical tools, teaching medical students a second language is expected positively to affect patients who will be receiving care by investing minimal amounts of resources (Clarridge, Fischer, Quintana, & Wagner, 2008). According to the qualitative study conducted by Milosavljevic (2008), learning English as a second language by medical professionals contributes to their satisfaction of social status, which is a beneficial outcome within the chosen context. Because medical students are planning to travel to the United States and practice in local hospitals and clinics, not only do they have to learn basic English to communicate better with patients, but also be able to interact with the medical personnel on location.

Why Choose Backward Curriculum Design?

According to Lu (2010), educational authorities who develop curriculum guidelines for meeting students’ social needs should “impose them on practice” (p. 171). Students’ curriculum should be developed in such a way that will benefit their learning of the English language on the basis of social needs and skills they are supposed to gain upon finishing the learning course. This is important in the context of backward curriculum design because the focus is turned away from the instructor and put on students who have a specific learning objective. In backward curriculum design, a teacher should be a role-model of language performance, and organise and plan learning experiences. The backward design of curriculum development in the chosen context will work best because:

  • Students will be more likely to understand the point of learning different topics related to the English language overall, instead of being immersed in factual detail (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005);
  • English-learning instruction will be focused on the overall understanding of various subjects as well as learning the language as a communication tool; daily class activities will be designed with a vision of a specific goal;
  • Assessment of students’ success will be designed before the stage of lesson planning, so English-language learners will know exactly what they need to know at the end of a course (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Lastly, it is crucial to be aware of the disadvantages of backward curriculum design for effective design implementation. First, the role of the teacher is diminished significantly, so there is a need in making sure that a teacher participates in the lesson and presents examples of the outcomes learners have to achieve. Second, there is a lack of specification with regard to instructions, so sometimes learners may lose focus when learning certain subjects.

Curriculum Design Implementation – Three Stages

Backward curriculum design is a “product versus process” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) approach, which puts an emphasis on the result of the learning course rather than the process itself. When it comes to the development of the backward curriculum for Mexican medical students, it is implemented in three separate stages targeted at achieving beneficial learning outcomes once the course has been completed. The first stage of backward curriculum design is associated with the identification of the desired learning outcome (ASCD, 2012). Key questions an educator should answer at this stage include “What should students be able to understand?” or “What skills should they acquire?” (ASCD, 2012, p. 4). With regard to medical students’ learning English as secondary language, the key skills to be acquired at the end of a learning course will include listening and comprehension skills, basic vocabulary acquisition, as well as basic writing skills.

The second stage of backward curriculum design is determining the way in which students’ achievement will be assessed. At this stage, an educator should distinguish between performance tasks and other evidence. Performance tasks are especially important because they imply asking students to apply the newly acquired skills in specific situations (ASCD, 2012). With regard to English-language learning by medical students, they will be assessed through oral assignments (e.g. “elicited imitation task”) (Wood Bowden, 2016), vocabulary acquisition tests (e.g. Vocabulary Recognition Tasks) (Stahl & Bravo, 2010), and grammar-related assignments. The third and last stage of backward curriculum design is associated with planning actual lessons that will facilitate the acquisition of English as a second language. At this stage of curriculum planning, an educator should answer a question of “What resources, processes, and activities will be the most appropriate for helping students achieve a positive learning outcome?” (ASCD, 2012).

Because the outcome of the course is already known to an educator, it will be the most beneficial to work in a “backward” direction toward the development of actual assignments and lessons that will facilitate the achievement of a positive learning outcome (Cho & Trent, 2005). This model of language learning curriculum design will bring benefit to the learning process because it is standards-oriented; a teacher will start with identifying what students should achieve after each lesson instead of determining what materials are needed (Daugherty, 2006).

Concluding Remarks

It can be concluded that backward curriculum design implies the combination of two basic approaches toward learning. First, curriculum developers must identify specific learning outcomes students have to achieve at the end of the course. Second, they must evaluate the most appropriate teaching processes and classroom activities for achieving the set goals.

Among the three types of curriculum design – forward, central, and backward – the latter type of design has been chosen for implementation in a specific context. The context of the curriculum design implementation is medical students from Mexico learning English as the secondary language in order to practice in U.S. healthcare institutions. Because learning a new language to interact better with patients is considered an important activity within the medical practice, this context for curriculum design planning appears appropriate.

Because the context already included a clearly determined learning outcome, the backward approach to curriculum design was chosen as the most beneficial. The outcomes of the learning course included acquiring basic English vocabulary, the development of informal communication skills, as well as listening and comprehension skills. The assessment of students’ success will be implemented via oral assignments, vocabulary acquisition tests, and grammar-related assignments. Because the focus of the course is put on listening and speaking skills, classroom activities will be predominantly related to these outcomes. For example, students will work in groups, compile dialogues, and tell stories, while others will listen and retell them.

The backward curriculum approach was chosen for implementation in the given context due to its focus on the outcome rather than the process. This will allow for an increased flexibility during assessment and class activities planning. By identifying the learning outcomes at the beginning of curriculum development, an educator will have a better understanding about where the learning process is going as well as be able to modify the assessment techniques or classroom activities during the course.


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