A number of different levels of planning and development are involed in developing a course or set of instructional materials based on the aims and objectives that have been estabilished for a language program. In this chapter we will examine the following dimensions of course development:
  • Developing a course rationale
  • Describing entry and exit levels
  • Choosing course content
  • Sequencing course content
  • Planning the course content (syllabus and instructional bloks)
  • Preparing the scope and sequence plan
These processes do not necessarily occur in a linear order. Some may take place simultaneousy and many aspects of a course are subject to ongoing revision each time the course is taught. The types of decision making that we will examine in this chapter are also involved in developing instructional materials and many of the example discussed apply to both course planning and materials design.

The course rationale

A starting point in course development is a description of the course rationale. This is a brief written description of the reasons for the course and the nature of it. The course rationale seeks to answer the following questions:
Who is this course for ?
What is the course about ?
What kind of teaching and learning will take place in the course ?

The course rationale answers these questions by describing the beliefs, values and goal that underlie the course. It would normally be a two-or there paragraph statement that has been developed by those involved in planning and teaching a course and that servers to provide the justification for the type of teaching and learning that will take place in the course. It provides a succinct statement of the course philosophy for anyone who may need such information, including students, teachers, and potential clients. Developing a rationale also helps provide focus and direction to some of the deliberations involed in course planning. The rationale thus serves the purposes of:
  • Guiding the planning of the various components of the course
  • Emphasizing the kinds of teaching and learning the course should exemplity
  • Providing a check on the consistency of the various course components in terms of the course values and goals
(posner and Rudnitsky 1986)

The following is an example of a course rational :

This course is designed for working adults who wish to improve their communication skills in English in order to improve their employment prospects. It teaches the basic communication skills needed to communicate in a varienty of different work settings. The course seeks to enable participants to recognize their strength and needs in language learning and to give them the confidence to use English more effectively to achieve their own goals. It also seeks to develop the participants skills in independent learning outside of the classroom.

In order to develop a course rationale, the course planners need to give careful consideration to the goals of the course, the kind of teaching and learning they want the course to exemplity, the roles of teachers of  teacher and learners in the course, and the beliefs and principle the course will reflect.

Describing the entry and exit level

In order to plan a language course, it is necessary to know the level at which the program will start and the level learners may be expected to reach at the end of the course. Language programs and commercial materials typically distinguish between elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels, but these categories are too broad for the kind of detailed planning the program and materials development involves. For these purpose, more detailed descriptions are needed of students proficiency levels before they enter a program and targedted proficiency levels at the end of it. Information may be available on studenst’ entry level from their result on international proficiency tests such as TOEFL or IELTS. Or specially designed tests may be needed to determine the level of students’ language skills. Information from proficiency test will enable the target level of the program to be assessed and may require adjustment of the program’s objectives if they appear to be aimed at too high or too low a level.
An approach that has been widely used in language program planning is to identify different levels of performance or proficiency in the form of band levels or points on a proficiency scale. These describe what a student is able to do at different stages in a language program. An example of the use of proficiency descriptions in large-scale program planning was the approach used in the Australian Migrant Education On-Arrival Program.

In order to ensure that a language program is coherent and systematically moves learners along the path towards that level of proficiency they require, some overall perspective of the development path is required. This resulted … in the development of the Australian Second Languange Proficiency as nine (ASLPR). The ASLPR defines levels of second language proficiency as nine (potentially 12) points along the path from zero to native-like proficiency. The definitions provide detailed descriptions of language behavior on all four macroskill and allow the syllabus developer to perceive how a course at any levels fits into the total pattern of proficiency development. (Ingram 1982,66).

Similarly, in 1982 the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages published proficiency guidelines in the from of “(a) series of descriptions of proficiency levels for speaking, listening, reading, writing, and culture in a foreign language. These guidelines represent a graduated sequence of proficiency levels for speaking, listening, reading, writing, and culture in a foreign language. These guidelines represent a graduated sequence of steps that can be used to structure a foreign language program” (Liskin-Gasparro 1984, 11). The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (see Appendix 1) have been widely promoted as a framework for organizing curriculum and as basis for assessment of foreign language ability, though they have also attracted controversy because they are not research-based (e.g., see Lowe 1986). Band descriptors such as those used in the IELTS examinations or the URCLES/RSA Certificate in Communicative Skills in English (Weir 1990, 149-179) can be similarly used as a basis for planning learner entry and exit levels in a program. (see Appendix 2 for an example of performance levels in writing, and Appendix 3 for band descriptors for “oral interaction”).

Choosing course content

The question of course content is probably the most basic issue in course design. Given that a course has to be developed to address a specific set of need and to cover a given set objectives, what will the content of the course look like? Decisions about course content reflect the planners’ assumptions about the nature of language, language use, and language learning, what the most essential elements or units of language are, and how these can be organized as an efficient basis for second language learning. For example, a writing course could potentially be planned around any of the following types of content:
  • Grammar (e.g., using the present tense in descriptions)
  • Functions (e.g., describing likes and dislikes)
  • Topics (e.g., wiriting about world issues)
  • Skills (e.g., developing topic sentences )
  • Processes (e.g., using prewriting strategies)
  • Texts (e.g., writing a business letter)

Similarly a speaking course could be organized around:
  • Functions (expressing opinions)
  • Interaction skills (opening and closing conversations, turn taking)
  • Topics (current affairs, business topics)

The choice of a particular approach to content selection will depend on subject-matter knowledge, the learners’ proficiency levels, current views on second language learning and teaching, conventional wisdom, and convenience. Information gathered during needs analysis contributes to the planning of course content, as do additional ideas from the following sources:
  • Available literature on the topic
  • Published materials on the topic
  • Review of similar courses offered elsewhere
  • Review of tests or exams in the area
  • Analysis of students’ problem
  • Consultation with teachers familiar with the topic
  • Consultation with specialists in the are

Rough initial ideas are noted down as a basis for planning and added to though group brainstorming. A list of possible topics, units, skills, and other units of course organization is then generated. One person suggests something that should go into the course, others add their ideas, and these are compared with other sources of information until cleaner ideas about the content of the course are agreed on. Throughout this process the statements of aims and objectives are continually referred to and both course content suggestions and the aims and objectives themselves are revised and fine tuned as the course content is planned. For example, a group of teachers listed the following initial ideas about what they would include in course on listening and speaking skills for a group of intermediate-level learners:
  • Asking questions
  • Opening and closing conversations
  • Expressing opinions
  • Dealing with misunderstandings
  • Describing experiences
  • Social talk
  • Telephone skills
  • Situation-specific language, such as at a bank
  • Describing daily routines
  • Recognizing sound contrasts
  • Using communication strategies

These topics then have to be carefully reviewed and refined and the following questions asked about them:

Are all the sugguested topics necessary?
Have any important topics been omitted?
Is there sufficient time to cover them ?
Has sufficient priority been given to the most important areas ?
Has enough emphasis been put in the different aspects of the areas identified?

Will the areas covered enable students to attain the learning outcomes?

Developing initial ideas for course content often takes place simultaneously with syllabus planning, because the content of a course will often depend on the type of syllabus framework that will be used as the basis for the course (discussed later in this chapter)

Determining the scope sequence

Decisions about course content also need to address the distribution of content throughout the course. This is known as planning the scope and sequence of the course. Scope is concerned with the breadth and depth of coverage of items in the course, that is, with the following questions:

What range of content will covered?
To what extent should each topic be studied?

For example, In relation to the course on listening and speaking skills referred to in the preceding section, one area of potential content identified was “describing experiences.” But how much will be included in relation to this topic? And should two, or six class periods be devoted to it? The swquencing of content in the course also needs to be determined. This involves deciding which content is needed early in the course and which provides a basis for things that will be learned later. Sequencing may be based on the following criteria.

Simple to complex

One of the commonest ways of sequencing material is by difficulty level. Content presented earlier is thought to be simpler than later items. This is typically seen in relation to grammar content, but any type of course content can be grade in terms of difficulty. For example, in a reading course reading text may be simplified at the beginning of the course and unsimplified at later levels. Or simple skills such as “literal comprehension” may be required early on, and more complex skill such as “inferencing” taught at a later stage.


Content may be sequenced according to the order in which evensts occur in the real world. For example, in a writing course the organization might be based on the sequence writers are assumed to employ when composing: (1) brainstorming: (2) drafing: (3)revising: (4) editing. In a proficiency course, mally acquired: (1) listening: (2) speaking: (3) reading: (4) writing.


Content may be sequenced according to when learners are more likely to need it outside of the classroom. For example, the rationale for the sequencing of content in a social survival curriculum is given as follos:

The topics and cross-topics in the curriculum are sequenced “in order of importance to students’ lives, ease of contextualization and their relationship to other topics and cross-topics”. The sequence is:
  1. Basic literacy skills
  2. Personal identification
  3. Money
  4. Shopping
  5. Time and dates
  6. Telephone
  7. Health emergencies
  8. Directions
  9. Transportation
  10. Housing
  11. Post office
  12. Banking/bills
  13. Social language
  14. Clarification

(Mrowicki 1986, xi)

Prerequisite learning

The sequence of content may reflect what is necessary at one point as a foundation for the next step in the learning process. For example, a certain set of grammar items may be taught as a prerequisite to paragraph writing. Or, in a reading course, word attack skills may be taught early on as a perquisite to reading unsimplified texts at later stages of the course.

Whole to part or part to whole

In some cases, material at the beginning of a course may focus on the overall structure or organization of a topic before considering the individual components that make it up. Alternatively, the course might focus on practicing the parts before the whole. For example, students might read short stories and react to them as whole texts before going on to consider what the elements are that constitute an effective short story. Or, students might study how to write paragraphs before going on to practice putting paragraphs together to make an essay.

Spiral sequencing
This approach involves the recycling of items to ensure that learners have repeated opportunities to learn them.

Planning the course structure

The next stage in course development involves mapping the course structure into a from and sequence that provide a suitable basis for teaching. Some of the premliminary planning involved will have occurred while ideas for course content were being generated. Two aspects of this process, however, require more detailed planning: selecting a syllabus framework and developing instructional bloks. These issue are closely related and some times inseparable but also involve different kinds of decisions.


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