Content-based approaches. A cross-curricular approach. How are you liking these pages? Are you finding them useful? Do you discover new messages as you read them?
In this chapter we'll be focusing on topics that intend to integrate the setting of objectives, content selection, sequencing and evaluation. In general, there is a sharp demarcation line between syllabus design –what to teach– and methodology –or how to teach it.
David Nunan says that "such a separation has led in the past to such aberrations as the teaching of courses whose input was specified in alleged (supposed) communicative terms through an audiolingual methodology."
What does Nunan mean? That the contents might have read something like "Unit 1: Introducing oneself. Getting to know others." But then the methodology proposed involved repetition and substitution. That is to say, a mechanistic, ‘behaviouristic’, methodology.
Where was the communicative part? Were the learners learning how to communicate?
To avoid this type of separation –a dichotomy– we'll explore ways in which both aspects can be integrated. If they're all properly integrated, all of them will interact and influence each other. In what way? Objectives may be modified, expanded or simplified, in terms of learner needs during the development of the learning process.
As teachers, we make decisions on the spot, in real time, as our lessons unfold. It is a well known fact for us that not all we plan for our lessons can be developed as we had in principle thought. Often we must "negotiate" with the institutional requirements, the pre-specified objectives, the textbook, and the task, together with our learners' needs, interests and demands..., and our commonsense: we must also negotiate with our own beliefs, approach, and knowledge of what is feasible, possible and probable.
No easy task...
And this task becomes all the more complex if we want to promote acquisition in the classroom.
Several researchers have been experimenting with techniques to promote acquisition in the classroom. One key aspect is providing learners with varied and meaningful input, as we saw earlier on. But how can we determine that input is varied and meaningful?
The key to this question is information, relevant information. And 'relevance' is a notion that depends on age, and cultural and social background, among other variables, and which often has an unstable status with adolescents as we’ve seen before.
Activities in which two partners must share information to complete a task or solve a problem, are effective in stimulating the development of communication skills. In particular, such activities provide an environment for the development of fluency and the negotiation of meaning, essential for acquisition.
For example, as part of pair work, two partners must interview each other to fill in a grid to find out about each other’s favourite band. These grids can be discussed within the group, and finally there could be a rounding off class-as-a-whole with a profile of oneself as a good friend , with statement like, ‘What do I have to offer for the development of a good friendship?’, in which the most popular/boring band of the whole group is proclaimed, and the best friend can be appointed.
Due to its nature, this type of activity will generate a number of different mini tasks involving different strategies of group dynamics, a bit of research into different musical bands, their musical production; in turn, this will allow learners to come into contact with different discourse types, participate in debates, thus learning to argue for and against, and the list could go on in definitely. Ideally, as the topic is interesting, learners will be trying to express their ideas, and hopefully using English to express them.
If there is 'communicative stress' –the only kind of stress that can be said to be positive– that is, if there's interest and motivation, there will be stimulation of learner linguistic and communicative resources, and their linguistic knowledge will be "squeezed" to the limit.
Another important factor that stimulates interest and hence acquisition is the degree to which tasks reflect the world outside, so to speak. The lesson should include valuable information that will help the learner get to know about other peoples, ways of life, cultures and traditions. Luckily colourless 'Johns' and 'Marys' have been replaced by real life characters.
This does not definitely mean that there should not be fiction. Access to literary discourse, comic cartoons, legends, myths and the like stimulate the learner’s imagination. A good "companion" is a cassette, with stories retold against a musical background akin to the text type.
Fact and fiction should thus be clearly demarcated. Learners should be able to access true, updated information. Discourse types should reflect this as well, together with the accompanying imaging. A Maori legend on tape, with aesthetic but functional illustrations to guide the listener, could serve to trigger not only the structure of the legend as a text but the meaning of the legend in the context of the source culture. In turn, this broadens learners’ conception of diversity and expands the confines of their minds.
What kind of methodological sequence should follow from these assumptions?
Rather than choosing the linguistic contents to teach and then adapt the thematic contents to that sequence, the priority is the choice of thematic contents in accordance with learner interests and cognitive, affective and social needs. This done, the linguistic and pragmatic contents will manifest the themes chosen. And it is here that selection and gradation -sequencing-play an essential role in the promotion of acquisition and learning.
Next comes the choice of a final task. The final task is the culmination of a number of mini tasks all conducive to the gradual development of skills and subskills necessary to launch the final task. For example, if the final task consists in designing a dossier of a group’s favourite musical band, throughout the development of the project there should’ve been enough instances of exposure to discourse types such as biographical data, advertisements, cassette or CD labels, recital promotions, newspaper articles, reviews of musical albums and the like.
Another possibility might be for learners to design a brochure of a tourist resort in their local area. This will entail the inclusion of local maps, photos, typical costumes and traditional music, a short history of the place, an invitation to visit the area, a description of the main sites, entertainments and interviews with the locals, to mention just a few possibilities.
The path towards the final task does involve language work, and manipulative practice, and process writing and listening comprehension. We’ re not dischaptering that. On the contra r y, the aim is to allow learners to rehearse tasks and develop enabling skills needed for communicating outside the classroom.
What do we mean? That there will be repetition to practice new words, correction of errors, systematisations on the blackboard, crossword puzzles to practise past tense forms, fill-in-the-blank exercises, comprehension questions, the design of personal word banks to recycle vocabulary, and many more manipulative activities that you must be familiar with.
This type of methodology, says David Nunan, brings together proven aspects from classroom acquisition research and principles of learner-centred curriculum design.
As you see, in this chapter we’ve tried to bring together thematic and linguistic contents, knitting a series of lesson strategies that take account of learner needs. This is what is normally referred to as a task-based content-based approach.
It would be ideal if you brought together some of the concepts discussed in this chapter and bring them down to your classroom situation.
Some of the following questions might help you:What topics are your learners learning in the other curricular subjects? Can you ask your colleagues? What aspects could be learnt in English? Do you know of any materials that might help develop your task? Why? What common decisions have you arrived at with your colleages?
Nunan, David. The Learner Centred Curriculum. OUP. Curriculum Development and TBL, Oxford, 1997.