T is for text-based curriculum

4 12 2011

Nigel Davies, who runs a school in El Prat de Llobregat, near Barcelona, wrote to me last week:

I’m doing an experimental kind of class here at the school, which, if you have time I would like to hear your thoughts on.

It’s a post CAE class mixed bag of wannabe one day proficiencies and other advanced students. I didn’t want to do an exam-based course, and couldn’t find a suitable high level general texbook, so someone suggested doing some Engl Lit, maybe one of the classics, which was a possibility, but not for a whole course, so I settled on one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Do you know his work? I chose ‘Outliers’ a study of how people become successful, as it has lots of stories of different people in different situations to back up his central thesis, and there was lots of extra material on internet, both spoken and written.

What we do is varied ( I hope). We do lots of vocab work on the text, some grammar, various approaches to text comprehension, and compare clips of or about the various people involved with the written text. The students have to read sections of the book ahead of time, so that the material is fresh for discussion, and for closer textual work on gram or voc, I have them use the text in class to find examples. […]

They’re finding the material very interesting, and are managing to keep up with the reading load.  Still, as there’s no external ‘help’, I have to create all the activities and do a lot of extra research, which is very time consuming, if at times personally rewarding!!  […]

It would be interesting to know if you’ve ever run a course like this or what your thoughts are on using this kind of authentic material over a long period of time…

A number of thoughts were triggered by Nigel’s account:

Years ago I had a DELTA trainee who was in a similar situation, with a  group of women who had completed the Cambridge FCE the year before and wanted a break from exam-driven classes. They decided they would all subscribe to a women’s magazine, the choice being agreed mutually, and that this would provide the course content, in much the way that Gladwell’s book does for Nigel’s class. The experiment was rated a great success.

The idea of basing a second language curriculum on a single text has a long history. I’m currently reading Jacques Rancière’s (1991) account of how, in 1818, the French schoolteacher Joseph Jacotot developed an innovative method of teaching Flemish (of which he spoke not a word) by basing the whole course on one (bilingual) text, Fenelon’s Télémaque (1699), although – as the translator notes (p. 2), ‘In terms of Jacotot’s adventure, the book could have been Télémaque or any other’.  For Jacotot, “all the power of language is in the totality of a book” (p. 26).

Click to expand

In similar style, I own an 1872 edition of a textbook by a certain T. Robertson that is based entirely on the study of a single text, spread over 20 units. The first unit of the first course starts with the first sentence of the text (apparently a story from the Arabian Nights).

The text is first translated, word by word, and phrase by phrase, and this forms the basis of exercises that involve translating the text back and forth.  The course continues, a sentence at a time, through the complete story.

What are the pros and cons of basing a course on a  single text?

Obviously, one disadvantage would be the possible boredom that might set in, as learners tire of the same text. This, of course, could be off-set if the text were one that had been mutually chosen, and/or one that was relevant to their lives, study or work, and/or one where there was built-in variety (as in the case of the women’s magazine).

Another problem might be the relatively narrow lexical focus. What kind of word coverage do you get from a novel, for example? At the same time, this could be seen as an advantage, in that ‘narrow reading’ allows a greater degree of turnover of the same vocabulary items, optimising the chances of these items being learned. Coursebooks, that jump from topic to topic, are notoriously poor at providing the number of repeated word encounters that are considered necessary for incidental learning to occur. A course based on a single text might lose out on lexical range but score highly in terms of lexical retention.

To me, a real advantage of such an approach is that it is essentially meaning-driven, and that the language that the learners have to engage with, in order to understand the text, has not been pre-selected and pre-graded, and hence is more representative of language in the real world. Moreover, by virtue of its being both self-selected and authentic, such a text may offer a more engaging stimulus (than coursebook texts customarily do) for other, ancillary activities, such as discussion and writing.

Has anyone else out there tried this kind of approach to course design?

References:

Rancière, J. 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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35 responses

4 12 2011
Mike

A really interesting post, Scott, thank you.

I can’t offer anything like an account of doing such a thing, but would like to respond with some questions, if I may.

To combat possible boredom that might come about using a single text, could you base a course or syllabus on a particular genre? Maybe adventure novels with teenage learners or chick lit if working with a group into that genre.

I remember watching a video of Richard Day talking about extensive reading. How about basing a course on a range of books? Jez Uden has done something like this with his coffee shop reading clubs. See his blog http://jezuden.edublogs.org.

Is this something that would most likely work best with higher level learners? Graded literature at lower levels is usually shortened, so might not provide enough meat for a course.

Apologies for responding with just questions, but I look forward to reading others comments and your responses.

Cheers,

Mike

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Mike, yes, I think it would be perfectly legitimate to base a course around a series of (notionally related) texts, and I think this is how many literature courses are structured, although these – as you say – tend to target fairly advanced learners.

4 12 2011
Wes

Love the idea of a text-based curriculum, especially one where the text (or texts) are chosen by the learners themselves.

It occurs to me that a text-based curriculum has great potential as a starting-point for emergent language teaching too. If the text or texts are ones that the students genuinely want to read, and are ones that are naturally rich in ideas, then this is going to provide a really nice basis for genuine, meaningful dialogue in the classroom. In this way, the potential drawback that a text may only provide a “narrow lexical focus” is not really a drawback at all as students will generate their own language in response to the text anyway. I feel that any text-based curriculum should make room to focus on this too, alongside the language contained in the text itself.

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Wes – well spotted! I.e. the link between a text-based course and emergence, and hence the link between the former and dogme. And I think you’re right (or I hope you are) – that the language that the texts generate will compensate for their relatively narrow lexical focus. A text-based dogme-type course would seem to be the best of both worlds, in fact.

4 12 2011
bordeauxsl

Hi Scott,

I’m running out of adjectives to describe these posts.I really don’t know how you do it but hats off to you.

So, yes, I think I ran a couple of similar courses a bit back. The first was a weekly 2 hour Harvard case study class where students had to read a case of between 4-15 pages before class. In the lesson I provided different activities and focus on the main theme with some language help/support if/when it was needed but as a content-based class students expected business stuff. Therefore, we did meetings, discussions, negotiations and presentations which built on the theme. Actually, it was often the case that the initial ‘talk in your groups about the case’ spread into longer and fascinating class discussions which I encouraged. For all involved this was a great class for advanced students but lower lower levels also got a lot out of it too.

The second was an adv writing class based on a collection of old book extracts.The book followed them up with mundane gist and detailed questions. After weeks of pulling my hair out I decided to update things and let them read the extracts at home and then we focussed on the main topic of the text but made it modern by watching a short related film clip. This helped bring the topic to life and provided excellent material for comparison and development. Then I set different writing tasks like creating a movie scene, drafting a short play, writing a diary entry, doing a storyboard for a short film etc. The students really enjoyed it, me too.

These courses definitely showed me that reading is useful and classes were even better when students chose the texts.

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil, for those course descriptions, which would seem to vindicate a text-based approach, even if reinforced by supplementary material in the form of video etc. Really, when you think of it, there is a lot of cross-over here between content-based teaching, ESP and text-based teaching.

4 12 2011
Jason Renshaw

I’ve done the text-based curriculum on a number of occasions, and it’s been great.

For children, I had courses based around ‘The Magic Treehouse’ and ‘Secrets of Droon’ — worked out great because the learners all liked the adventures and the books were relatively short and manageable according to a syllabus. The huge plus here was that these books came in extensive series, so not only could we go on with new books and curriculums but the learners also went out and bought other books in the series and read them independently, out of sheer personal interest.

I also used some of the Harry Potter books for more advanced classes of teens. Worked well (based on the support in the form of L1 versions of the books and movies) but was a bit too exhausting in terms of length, and not all that conducive to an ongoing syllabus.

The work I recently produced myself (World Adventure Kids) was specifically designed to be a book that might work as an all-inclusive syllabus for children aged 8-11. In addition to some careful treatment of language, it has a swag of CLIL outcomes addressed and two very different storylines (one in the Amazon, one in Egypt’s The Valley of the Kings) to cater to different interests and cross-curricular aspects. Major publishers loved the look and idea of WAK, but ultimately rejected it because it wasn’t coursebookish enough🙂

WAK is a free a download and there is already a fair collection of supporting resources there, so hope you won’t mind the plug here, Scott:

http://www.englishraven.com/wak.html

All in all, I’m very much in favour of the text-based curriculum. The keys are collective interest of the learning group and manageability in terms of length and scope.

Cheers,

Mr. Raven

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason – especiallly for raising the kids connection – using illustrated stories seems the only way to go, really – not least because that’s the way they have gained their first language literacy skills. And thanks for making the point that “the keys are collective interest of the learning group and manageability in terms of length and scope”. Nicely put.

4 12 2011
Jason Renshaw

Sorry Scott, just to add…

Some of the things I really enjoyed using with the text-based curriculum:

– Building up really extensive vocab books with the learners (they seem to pick up — and want to pick up — so many more words compared to the regular coursebook approach)

– Using dialogue in the stories to use for roleplays and to explore very natural language

– Drawing on pattern grammar exercises (taking sentences from the book and having learners adapt them to talk about themselves, or other situations or times)

– Developing mini-projects and webquests along the way as the plot progresses

– Using sections of the books for Dictogloss activities

– Using sections of the books for targeted pronunciation practice

In essence, there is so much you can do for a well-rounded curriculum out of a main narrative-oriented text!

Thanks,

– JR

4 12 2011
Willy C Cardoso

I “tried to try” it once! … as a learner of French, on a 1-to-1 course, and how did it not work out? The teacher couldn’t cope. She thought I was not ‘ready’ to understand a subjunctive, which happened to be in the first chapter of the Sartre play I’d chosen, before I knew the basic A1 grammar. I said BS, and discontinued the course.

So while I’m in favor of a text-based curriculum because it can be highly engaging if the learner chooses the text, the teachers can be a hindrance if they don’t buy in.

Oh, and another example was when a student at my school in Sao Paulo wanted to read a book by Hilary Clinton with the teacher, actually what she wanted was to read the book on her own, and in class to retell the story to the teacher who would check for pronunciation. grammar, coherence, etc. and then they could talk about Hilary… well, it didn’t work for the same reason, the teacher was not interested and saw no point in doing that, i.e. the teacher thought that was not really “teaching”… so what is anyway?

5 12 2011
Cyndi

Both teachers you mentioned seemed to have completely failed to appreciate one of the most important variables in language acquisition, learner motivation! Too bad the one in SP didn’t think that a good teacher might actually read the book and make questions and activities to help the student if retelling didn’t feel like enough.

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Willy, yes, I have to confess I have had very negative experiences of text-based instruction. I took a Catalan class in which the teacher decided (unilaterally) to base a good deal of the lesson content around a translation of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Her approach involved us each taking turns to real aloud (painfully) a paragraph or so, whereupon we would ‘discuss’ it. No attempt was made to paint in the background to the events described, nor to deal with vocabulary in any other way apart from answering questions as they arose (and they certainly arose!). After two or three weeks of this excruciatingly dull process I abandoned ship.

So, what seems to be sorely needed here is some kind of methodological advice to support such an approach – advice of the type that Jason generously offers above.

4 12 2011
kalinagoenglish

I used Microtrends, a book by Mark Penn with a group of business students over a six month period a few years back.

It was an exciting text to read because not only was it really topical, looking at life issues from a business perspective, it is also broken down into sections like “Food” “Work/Life” “Race/Religion” “Health and Wellness” etc (15 sections).

The variety in the texts and the fact that we didn’t have to move in a linear way through the book also enabled me to set lots of different tasks maximizing reading strategies and in class, have different approaches to reviewing what was read in the classroom. Most sections have 5+ different articles which can be read independently, set to pairs of students, or as sections clumped together. Week by week I could vary up activities so that the students could choose what they wanted to read or I could set passages/part of articles of more than one article to be discussed in smaller groups in the next session.

It pretty much meant that despite the fact the book is some 400 pages, none of my students had to read the whole thing but could all benefit from the whole thing.

I remember doing things like assigning different roles to the readers (something I got from a strategy aimed at teen readers – the Oxford Bookworms Reading Circles – e.g. someone as discussion leader, summarizer, connector, word master, passage person, culture collector.” (A strategy I’ve used time and time again with different texts and different groups); creating debates; role-playing activities; mind-mapping; story-telling; presentations; meetings discussing differing perspectives. The list goes on… but I don’t want to take up too much space.

Hope it’s useful,
Karenne

p.s. Nigel, I loved Outliers(!) haven’t used that in class but with one marketing group I used “Tipping Point” – great stuff, very interesting conversations.

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Great, Karenne – that’s exactly the kind of comment I was hoping to net! It does seem that ESP/EAP/BE type classes lend themselves to this approach. I could imagine using the biography of Steve Jobs, for example, alongside that of Bill Gates, as a useful focus for a course – and I imagine that between the two a fairly wide variety of themes would eb covered (business, computing, health, charity, etc etc).

4 12 2011
Rob

It’s been interesting to read accounts of text-based curricula. Thank you, Scott, for sparking another interesting discussion. As you know, I prefer dogmetic curriculum design, hence my suggestion (on your last blog entry?) that Dogme be driven by text in general rather than by conversation (oral text) only. I’ve used books that students are required to read in other classes, eg Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Book (Fleming, 2001). The primary advantages were that the students remained engaged and motivated by the material for extrinsic (they wanted to do well in the Maps class) and intrinsic (they are generally interested in maps and orienteering as part of their field of study) reasons. Because I’m with the same group(s) of learners for a year, we use different texts throughout as catalysts for conversations, presentations, writing assignments, games, etc. The most meaningful and relevant examples of text-based learning I’ve known with these students have been when they individually choose texts that are appropriate to their personal interests and vocabulary range. The challenge is always how to incorporate so many different texts into a coherent and cohesive curriculum for the group. Fortunately, the groups are small (9-12) and we manage relatively well, especially when texts overlap, which usually happens with ‘small words’, ie the grammary stuff. The larger units of text more often come out through exposition activities such as presentations. I commonly ask students to quiz their classmates on these presentations or I create some sort of language focus to recycle vocabulary and intensify the encounter with new language.

Rob

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment Rob – yes, I had your previous comments (about text-based teaching) at the back of mind when I wrote this post. I felt I might have been a little out of order, dismissing your endorsement of text-based teaching so cursorily (i.e. that it encouraged a teacher-fronted ‘explication de texte’ pedagogy). What you describe, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of a teacher-fronted approach, and makes perfect sense.

4 12 2011
dogmelter

Hi Scott,

When I was about 8, Mr. Pring had us sit around him in a horseshoe and listen as he read weekly instalments from Philippa Pearce’s, ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’. The characters from the book and Mr. Pring’s mellifluous tones are welcome phantoms that pleasantly haunt me to this day.

A few years, ago when I didn’t even know my dogme from my elbow, I found myself negotiating a 2-month, plan of action with 6 (seasoned) pre-intermediate students at the Chamber of Commerce here in Italy as part of some morale-boosting incentive. Someone suggested a children’s book. I thought it was a marvellous idea and thought of Tom’s Midnight Garden…

I had them read a photocopied page a week for homework and do as much prep as necessary in terms of vocab and then write some questions which they would whittle down in groups to ask other groups. The lexical range was above them, the course was only 2-months, some students frequently missed lessons because of work obligations…but the desire to find out what would happen next carried them along. This, I guess, is what learner-centeredness is all about.

At the end of the course, they wanted a photocopy of the whole book.

adam

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that experience, Adam. I too have fond memories of my Form 1 (= grade 6?) teacher reading us Three Men in a Boat, among other things. That’s something that hasn’t been mentioned so far – the vaue of having the stories read aloud (I don’t mean the students reading them aloud – which was what made my Catalan experience so excruciating) but listening to the teacher read them aloud, with all the help that this gives in terms of chunking the text into meaningful units.

5 12 2011
Cyndi

Content-based, text-based courses are the only type I’ve taught for years, testing the theory that students who read are students who learn. Definitely agree that it works best when content is meaningful; having learners select their own books is wonderful but teacher enthusiasm is also essential. The times when it didn’t work as well for me were when I chose a book that was at the wrong level (too high for most students) or just not interesting enough, even to me. Using the audio version along with the text version has been almost always welcome, as have related movies, video clips and field trips.

Prep is reduced when a book truly captivates learners and sparks all kinds of discussion on its own, as others have already noted. Simple prep that takes a bit of teacher time and thought but pays off well includes:

– making prediction guides (e.g. a few true/false statements learners can discuss before reading, based on guesswork and background knowledge, and then verify with evidence from the text after reading)

– giving learners question stems so they can easily write their own questions for each other (What does the author mean by ____? Who is affected by ____? What happened after ____? What questions would you ask of ____? What are some of the problems of _____? etc.)

– asking learners to choose an intriguing/important quote from a chapter and then explaining why they choose it

Lower levels are definitely harder to find appealing books for. There are several on a colleague’s blog with short book reviews for students in the U.S.:

http://eslbookclub.wordpress.com/

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Cyndi – the practical tips are really valuable, and help answer my concern above, i.e. that there isn’t enough written to guide teachers in not to adopt and optimise a text-based methodology. Although, having said that, I’m ignoring the considerable methodological literature on extensive reading.

5 12 2011
samuelshep

I attended a seminar this year where a teacher described how she used a series of three very short films (2-3 mins each of young refugees coming to the UK) and a newspaper article as the jumping off point for a whole term’s worth of part time classes (so 60 hours?) where the learners used the texts to develop their own texts on similar themes, hold discussions around them, retell the stories of the videos, and generally creating their own language out of their shared experiences of the same. The teacher brough with her some of the work by the students, and the course was incredibly productive, and yet based on a very limited initial resource. she worked on the idea of working out what the learners want to say then helping them develop the resources with which to say it.

5 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Sam – I love the idea of these minimal means producing maximum results, and this suggests, too, that – if a course is to be based around texts – the texts needn’t be book-length. The key factors would seem to be relevance and interest.

5 12 2011
Declan Cooley

Another example: a colleague of mine who works at an Educational Institute has used this type of course for years (with c1 and above level learners).

What might be a bit different from examples given above is that:
– at the start of semester: students choose articles/texts from on-line sources (reformatting them into a standardised Word format)
– they also create comprehension tasks and word lists for their article/text
– all articles/texts, tasks and lists are collected, sorted by area of interest or topic into loosely themed units, printed, copied and bound into a 2-inch thick “coursebook” which every student receives. Interleaved between texts are templates and frames for capturing language and noting questions etc.
– through the year students do comprehension tasks at home before lessons while classroom time is devoted to vocab and speaking
– home follow-up tasks include precis writing (different from summarising, AFAIK, in that the original style and tone is preserved – quite a skill to develop).

The classes practically run themselves (as we say) and the students have invariably given glowing feedback. He has recently done something similar with Youtube and as seen from above-mentioned examples – these two types of “text” can be combined with synergistic effects.

5 12 2011
Rob

Declan, what you’ve described reads a bit like what some have called the ‘Dogme coursebook’. Tell me, has anything similar been done with ‘lower’ levels that you know of?

Rob

6 12 2011
Declan Cooley

the only thing I heard was from another fellow teacher who exploited a range of graded readers for lower levels – I think he based the whole course on it – that was a quite a few years ago now.

5 12 2011
Sue Livingston

How about taking these ideas one step further? Let’s say that instead of the goal being to get better at learning English, we make the goal to become better thinkers, readers and writers. Let’s make the evidence of this a well-written essay/reponse on the topic(s) read with required use of the reading(s) integrated into the writing. How about we “work” this essay/response until it is clear and correct? In these ways, we capitalize on the yin and yang of reading and writing processes and witness written English developing as a byproduct of text that has been worked.

6 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sue – yes, it would seem important to ensure that a text-based curriculum wasn’t just a ‘book club’ – i.e. reading and discussion, but that there was a good balance of other skills work (including writing), as well as a regular focus on language issues.

8 12 2011
Sarah

Depending on what you mean by ‘text’, I used to run Young Learners summer courses in Thailand that was based around some classic children’s films. The course books were reserved for the term-time courses.
Don’t tell Disney – but I’ve seen ‘Dumbo’ about a hundred times!

9 12 2011
Almagro

Picking up on Scott’s remark that text-based instruction should surpass the book club scenario, I would suggest anchoring our ‘texts’ to the four basic principles of Cooperative Learning: Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Equal Participation, and Simultaneous Interaction (PIES).

I’ve tried it with EFL Intermediate and Advanced students; lots of work across skills and systems, lots of L2 emergence and, ultimately, an amelioriating sense of L2 ownership that is not present in most reading-based assignments.

16 12 2011
eshalvorsen

Reblogged this on IheartELT and commented:
On his blog, Scott Thornbury recently wrote about a very interesting approach to language teaching, “text-based curriculums”: curriculums based around one book, one magazine or series of books. In my experience, this approach is especially appropriate for ESP courses.

In fact, in my English for Telecommunications course I take a similar approach. Every class my students and I watch part of a webinar from Telecoms.com about an important trend or topic in the telecom business. While it is not a ‘text’ per se, it is similar to a text-based’ curriculum in that we are focusing one form of communication (i.e.powerpoint presentations) about one field (i.e. telecommunications).

We only spend about 30mins a week doing this, but it allows us to study key telecom language while also learning language for presentations.
So, while text-based learning should be used in good measure and only when context permits, it can be great way to enhance an ESP curriculum.

23 12 2011
Simon Williams

I believe that real texts have a strong place in the classroom. However, a single text can be quite long and challenging for a lot of students. Especially if they are not familiar with certain written or narrative styles. I am a big fan of the brit-lit series which can be access on the British council’s site. There is a big selection of short stories which students can engage with as they don’t see them as being as daunting as a complete novel. Good for students who aren’t comfortable reading bigger texts and students who want something light but very effective.

23 12 2011
Sue Livingston

Hi Simon,

Do you happen to have a Web site for the British Council? The stories sound enticing.

15 02 2012
eflshorts

Hi Scott,

I too am persuaded of the value of text-based curricula. When I worked in London as a self-employed tutor in 1998, I was dissatisfied with the sort of reading material available for young, ‘weak’ readers and began to create my own stories with their own activities instead. Week by week, I wrote the stories (sometimes shamelessly incorporating ideas from the students about what they thought was going to happen next!) and I thoroughly enjoyed the response the approach got. The idea of using readers/texts/reading as the mainstay of a program of study stayed with me. Recently, I began serializing short, original graded readers suitable for low-level EFL learners. It’s early days yet, but I hope to be able to eventually offer an extensive selection of readers and activities. I appreciate that these stories are not necessarily in keeping with the focus on ‘real/authentic’ texts that has emerged from the discussion above; but if anyone is interested, the website/blog is: eflshorts.com.

13 03 2012
Paul Smith

I have very fond memories of my primary school teacher reading Roald Dahl’s The Witches aloud to the class. And I look forward to reading his books to my own daughter as part of her language education (secondary to plain having fun, I suspect).

In fact, I think his books are marvelous for intermediate students and often recommend them in class.

If you remember, there is one that actually features a character who is entirely self taught in English from one book. Inspiring, you might think! But I learned not to suggest this book when one student came to me after class and asked me to explain what the giant meant when he said “We is having an interesting babblement about the taste of the human bean.” I honestly didn’t know where to begin!

On second thoughts, I should have asked her to read it again correcting the BFG’s mistakes. The book could also provide a wonderful exercise in guessing meaning through context as Dahl invents so many words. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this is a great classroom text.

5 11 2012
David

This post and thread have been really helpful to me! I’ve been working with a group of upper-intermediate young learners who couldn’t be more bored by the textbook we’ve been assigned. Early on I decided to base the course around films and books selected by the students. We’ve done ‘Nanny McPhee’ (film), George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl and ‘Porco Rosso’ (film). I’ve used a lot of task-based teaching where the modelling and input comes from the text or is simply tacked onto tasks. The students are engaged and motivated and I question what the advantages of a textbook are to both teacher and student. As long as the text is within shooting distance of the learners’ level, why not base more syllabus’s around texts? As long as they’re adapted they can suit skills needs, grammar, lexis, tasks, anything!

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