English Teaching Professional, 76, September 2011.
Richard Ostick – SQM and Director of Studies, Kingsway English Centre, Worcester
Richard Ostick considers how to construct a cohesive course.
The system of continuous enrolment, whereby students can join and leave courses at any time, presents a particular challenge to language teaching organisations that are keen to run a cohesive programme and ensure that all the students receive the same learning experience.
A doll’s house view
If we took an average language teaching organisation (LTO) and could open it up like an ornate doll’s house, on a typical day we would see a variety of different things going on at any one time. Every class might appear to be doing different things. Some classrooms would be noisy and some quiet. Some teachers might appear to be loud and energetic and some more docile and laid-back. Some rooms would be filled with laughter and joy and others could appear much more serious and studious.
Taken at face value, we would assume that what was happening in each classroom was totally different and it would seem that each learner was actually receiving a different learning experience, depending on the classroom they were in and the teacher that was standing in front of them.
To add to the mix and confusion, imagine that every Monday there are new students joining the existing classes. These students are from different backgrounds, carry different cultural baggage and are learning English for different reasons. All have different motivations, goals and expectations for the English course on which they are about to embark. Some stay for only a week, others four and some twelve. Some have group courses, others one-to-one teaching and some a combination of the two.
There may be a core of full-time teachers working in the school who are reliable, willing to go that extra mile and familiar with all the systems and expectations of the institution. However, perhaps over the summer months the school is filled out with a glut of supply teachers, who may be unfamiliar with everything.
From a ‘doll’s house view’, any LTO on any day, with all these factors in the mix, may appear quite incohesive and perhaps even chaotic. However, these are not the words we want to see in our end-of-course evaluations from our learners!
So how can we create some sense of cohesion? How do we get across to the learners that the courses we are offering are thought-out, thoroughly planned and academically sound? How can we make the method in the madness more obvious?
If you work in an institution where you have a system of continuous enrolment (new people joining existing classes on a regular basis), even if this is combined with a system of fixed entry dates, there are systems and procedures that need to be built into the academic blueprint to ensure that courses run successfully and in an organised and cohesive way.
In this article I intend to lay out some guidelines to consider when running courses in this way. These guidelines will help to ensure that all your teachers are working towards a common goal and that your learners will walk away with the feeling that the course was well organised and addressed their needs.
Weaving a tapestry
Reading recently about the planning of lessons and courses, I have come across the notion of ‘threads’: the idea that, as Jeremy Harmer puts it, there should be on any course ‘a varied connection of themes, language, activities and skills which weave through the sequence (of lessons) like pieces of multi-coloured thread … so that some kind of loose pattern emerges’. He goes on to point out that planning a sequence of lessons is ‘somewhat like creating a tapestry’.
I intend to build upon this, and, to continue the metaphor, will look at the fabric upon which the tapestry is created and what it needs to consist of.
1. An academic philosophy
Every institution needs some kind of statement that spells out its core beliefs and aims. Does your school sell itself on ensuring exam excellence? Do all your teachers believe that accuracy is a high priority? What skills or balance of skills does your institution believe to be paramount?
Your company philosophy needs to be short and something the students can understand. It doesn’t have to be philosophy as such, but just an idea of what you think is important in your school and what the teachers who work there believe to be important in every lesson. Here are some examples from language schools in the UK:
We believe that, for the majority of people, speaking and listening are the most important language skills – the ones most in need of practice and certainly the skills which are best improved by a course in England. For this reason, all our courses give priority to speaking and listening, although lessons do also include reading, writing and grammar.
We know that confidence is the key to success in speaking a foreign language so we build students’ confidence through emphasising effective communication rather than accurate communication. Once the fear of making mistakes goes, then students can make real progress in their speaking skills.
Some students come to us on a quest for perfect grammar, thinking that this is the answer to speaking perfect English. In fact, speaking English well involves choosing the most natural combination of words and pronouncing them well. This is where our teachers focus their efforts, although grammar is not ignored.
All our teachers encourage the use of English-English dictionaries during lessons and for homework as this is an excellent way of building vocabulary. We also help students develop their study skills so that they can continue their learning after their course has finished.
However, after browsing a number of websites of English language schools in the UK, it is surprising to see that very few dedicate any space to spelling out what is behind the teaching and the learning that occurs every day in their classrooms. From a learner’s perspective, I would have thought this would be quite an important aspect to consider when choosing a language course!
2. A syllabus
A syllabus seems an obvious thing to include in any educational course but, in our industry, who is it that sets the syllabus? Is it the coursebook? Should it be the teacher? Or should it be the management of the LTO?
It is extremely difficult and unfair to use a coursebook as a syllabus when working within a system of continuous enrolment. How can a student come in for one week when the rest of the class is on Unit 6? Does that student have to buy the book, too? Most coursebooks are designed to be used over a long period of time. Using a single book with short courses on continuous enrolment is a complete mismatch.
Using a coursebook is also not effective on short courses as we need to consider what the learners’ immediate needs are and match them to lesson content. Coursebooks are written with general and generic audiences in mind and your learners may not fit this mould. Moreover, the coursebook does not know your students’ needs like you do. Being free from the coursebook means you can prepare lessons for exactly what the learners need, rather than what Unit 6 says they need.
So, without a coursebook, what is the syllabus? When creating a syllabus, the most important thing is to try to make sure all skills and systems are covered – and this will ensure variety. It is also important to make sure needs are met; this will ensure satisfaction and perhaps means your learners will return again!
A simple ‘skeleton timetable’ would serve as a suitable syllabus for a group course, ensuring all the skills are covered and perhaps making part of the timetable more flexible and based on the needs and wishes of your learners. For example:
The needs-based sessions should be negotiated with your learners, perhaps by offering some kind of ‘wish list’ in the Monday afternoon session. It is always difficult to please everyone all of the time, especially on a group course. However, with this type of syllabus, it is easier to address the immediate needs of your learners more attentively and ensure variety and interest.
With this kind of syllabus, much is left to the teacher. The topics, activities and language focus are chosen by the teacher, but based on the needs and interests of the learners. Using this type of system is not easy for newly-qualified teachers, however. Creating lessons based on needs takes experience and insight. Novice teachers need ongoing support when working without coursebooks.
The LTO must also be very wellresourced, with a wide variety of published and in-house produced materials. These are the tools that the teachers use to create lessons, so they should be plentiful and updated regularly.
3. A core programme
The teachers are now armed with a philosophy and some kind of structure. But what actually happens in the classroom to convey to the learner that we are all moving in the same direction and paying attention to those threads that make up the tapestry?
We are aiming to ensure that the learner/customer gets a ‘one-stop shop’ experience on their English course, rather than a mish-mash of different lessons with no interlinking connection.
A core programme is a set of key areas that the teacher will focus on in every lesson, and thus bring the philosophy of the school to life.
Here is an example core programme:
• Pronunciation – every lesson a pronunciation lesson! All our teachers use the IPA as a teaching tool.
• Features of fast and near-native speech – highlighting weak forms, stress, rhythm, linking and assimilation.
• Polite language – not only the language of being polite but also the intonation.
• Paraphrasing and classroom language – how to manage when you don’t know the word for something.
• Study skills – exploiting dictionaries, especially English-English dictionaries. How to store vocabulary. Learner independence, revision, continuation of learning, etc.
• Cultural awareness – especially living in Britain: food, drink, times of doing things. Also culture related to business situations, including time keeping, general business etiquette, meeting and greeting, etc.
Although I have not gone into detail here about the different facets of the core programme, the main aim of having some defined focus areas for teachers to consider in every lesson is to ensure that the essence of each course is broadly similar.
We want teachers to have their own personal style; we don’t want them to be carbon-copies of one another. We should, therefore, aim to keep teachers’ individual styles – but within a school approach.
It is vital on any continuous enrolment course that there is some element of continuity with teachers. Different schools work in different ways, but it is important that whoever is allocating teachers to individual students or groups considers continuity in their planning. Having a new teacher or teachers every week could fragment the course for the learner and give a ‘three steps forward, one step back’ feel to the programme.
In my experience, some learners would prefer to have the same teachers for six weeks, others would prefer to change on a weekly basis, just for variety. Learners do have preferences and we need to meet them halfway. In my institution we suggest a continuity of two to three weeks for teachers and learners. This is not always possible, due to logistics, illness or holidays, but should be a high priority when timetabling.
5. Liaising and record keeping
Given that teachers are not using one coursebook and have a wealth of resources at their fingertips, it is crucial that those who are sharing students liaise on a daily basis to go over what has been covered in class.
Written records are also vital. Every lesson needs to be carefully logged, with clear lesson objectives, skills covered and materials used. This will allow all the teachers to follow exactly what has been done at any point during the course.
6. Induction programme
An intensive induction programme for all new teachers to your organisation, involving observation and peer observation, will allow the management to check that these common threads are evident in the classroom.
However, a good induction programme is more than just a series of observations. It should involve the teacher in the whole ethos of the LTO and should include such things as the following:
• participation in student introduction;
• question and answer session on local amenities;
• session on getting to know the resources available to them in the organisation;
• session with the owners to talk about the history of the organisation;
• training on the use of the interactive whiteboard, photocopier, drinks machine, etc.
All these areas should form part of the checklist that will be signed and dated by a teaching manager when completed. They should also be scheduled out over a number of weeks or months, to give new teachers time to find their feet. There is a lot to think about and absorb when coming to work for a new LTO.
Throughout the induction programme the philosophy and academic policies of the LTO can be reflected upon and developed.
All the above factors play an important role when running courses within a system of continuous enrolment. Paying attention to these areas both from a teaching and a management perspective will help towards making more cohesive and structured courses for our learners.
It is not big things that make a difference in quality, but actually attention to the small details. Investing time and effort in creating solid foundations for a course will mean that learners leave satisfied, and it will also make it easier to induct new teachers into the ways of your LTO.
Richard Ostick has worked in ELT for over 15 years in the Czech Republic, Spain and the UK. He works at the Kingsway English Centre in Worcester as Director of Studies/SQM and believes that pronunciation, a focus on lexis and learner training should be vital components of any language course.
This article first appeared in English Teaching professional, Issue 76, September 2011