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?


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