What Is A Language Curriculum?

Modern and classical language teachers alike have been using big name textbooks for decades, yet there’s been an emerging counter culture known broadly as “untextbooking.” This movement is a response to a) the lack of proficiency, b) dropping interest/enrollment, and c) the kind of exclusivity that form-based textbook teaching has an affect on. Instead, preference within the “untextbooking” movement is given to meaning-based teaching that results in greater proficiency, higher enrollment, and a removal of obstacles, making language programs more inclusive. For years now, I’ve heard things like “there’s not enough culture,” or “this lacks curriculum support,” or some other complaint suggesting that textbooks have something necessary to offer that not-textbooks don’t. It’s been shown that textbooks can overload learners with too much vocab, grammar rules, and target-culture details (in English). However, I’m more interested in the role of proficiency. That is, for all the supplements textbooks might bring to the curriculum, what do they really do for language proficiency? Where does proficiency come into play in a curriculum?

Language proficiency generally refers to one’s unrehearsed ability to communicate (e.g. listening, reading, seeking clarification, replying, sharing ideas, asking questions, etc.). Humans can’t plan to communicate genuinely (e.g. “ready, communicate!”). It’s just something that happens when there’s a reason to do so. The following curricular questions keep language proficiency in mind (vs. studying about languages, or cultures, or memorizing vocab, which requires little to no proficiency)…

Grammar
If a language curriculum is based on how a language works—primarily via grammar rules—proficiency is rarely, if ever, truly developed. Got a counter example? Bring it. Come at me with all your research that includes delayed testing, but leave the personal anecdotes at home. There are more personal anecdotes to support the claim that studying grammar does *not* result in any functional language proficiency. In fact, ask *nearly* every Latin student who did so, as well as the honest Latin teachers who recognize major deficiencies in their proficiency, and they’ll confirm this.

Exercises
If based on common “practice” activities, a curriculum would lack purpose to interpreting, negotiating, and expressing meaning (i.e. communicating). Exercises are often separate from genuine communication entirely, with the idea that a student needs to prepare before communicating (e.g. practice translating perfect tense verbs so you can read and understand perfect tense verbs). However, language practice for its own sake lacks purpose. A lack of purpose decreases the likelihood that proficiency will develop.

Culture
If based on facts about the/a target language-speaking culture, this kind of curricular content could be in English/native (L1), especially at more comprehensive levels of exploration. Thus, developing any proficiency doesn’t stand a chance. If culture exploration happens to be in the target language (L2), though, the level of detail must be limited, commensurate with the language development of the learner. However, this tends to prove difficult the more specialized the topic, as well as the depth of its exploration (i.e. certain topics are so specific that they lead to vocab overload just to explore at a basic level). Therefore, if either too much of the curriculum is in English, or too many specialized cultural topics are explored deeply in L2, proficiency is less likely to develop.

Speaking
If based on paired speaking activities, role-play tasks, and dialogues, proficiency is also unlikely to be developed beyond the script. For example, I can greet a French speaker with “ça va?” but will almost immediately be left in the dust with whatever they say back to me after they repeat that. So much for those “common greetings” lessons, eh? These classroom activities tend to result in language-like behavior, giving the impression students develop proficiency when really, they haven’t. Instead, these students perform in a way that’s satisfactory. However, when put in an unrehearsed situation, that lack of proficiency is exposed. Like the myth that students need to practice and prepare before communicating, so too is the myth that students first must perform before developing proficiency. To date, there is no convincing evidence (or even unconvincing evidence) that performance leads to proficiency.

Are you as worried or confused as Quintus at this point?

Perhaps the most obvious curriculum would be one that includes a little bit of everything above, right? Of course, that’d be too easy. Nature isn’t so kind. When it comes to proficiency, there’s no reason to assume equal value be placed on everything across the board. In fact, that would be similar to eclectic approaches to language teaching, like Skill-Building. They sound nice in theory. Unfortunately, many teachers end up choosing the least effective parts of many different ideas, and mix them all together. So, what’s the basis of a language curriculum, really, if no single thing or combination of things above is adequate to increase proficiency?

Purpose.

If there’s a reason to communicate, anything and everything can be curricular content. Let me state that again. Anything and everything that has a purpose can serve as curricular content. As of right now, there are three communicative purposes that exist in the classroom context: entertainment, learning, and creating. Establishing a curriculum with these in mind is probably the most effective thing out there. After all, vocab will be needed, and it will contain grammar, so without expressly focusing on those two, they’ll still be a part of the curriculum.

Entertainment is generally a home run. Who doesn’t want to have a good time, right? This is one of the easiest ways to increase the likelihood of students developing proficiency. If they enjoy a discussion, a book, an activity, or whatever, you’re good to go. Don’t take this so far as to think you need to constantly perform circus acts for your students, though. However, to ignore a student’s classroom experience is a noob error.

It might very well be that learning about the/a target culture is compelling. If so, that allows culture to be more a part of the curriculum, though with all the caveats mentioned above, mainly, keeping topics appropriate to the level of students, which for the most part is going to be not too deep, as well as keeping an eye on vocabulary. However, if students are not interested in learning about the target culture, and you haven’t connected it to their lives in any meaningful way, there’s very little point to having it constitute much of the curriculum at all. So, keep the exploration at a surface level (until proficiency develops), maintain comprehensibility, and be sure to connect to students’ lives.

Creating something in L2 typically has the benefit of also being entertaining. This is probably why collaborative storytelling methods are so effective, but you don’t need to create funny stories to accomplish this purpose. Even writing the events of the school day or week together as a class is enough of a purpose.

Planning & Developing a Curriculum
Since anything with a communicative purpose can serve as curricular content, very little specific planning needs to be done. Let me state that again. We don’t need to plan for much at all because anything with a communicative purpose can be, or can become our content. That means we can just set the conditions for there to eventually be purpose, and curricular content will generate itself. Perhaps the simplest way to envision this is with the Talk & Read daily plan.

Of course, to ignore culture altogether would be too extreme, yet to just hope it comes up by chance is unnecessarily careless. Therefore, a general map, outline, or even just list of potential topics to be explored will suffice. That will allow for the most flexibility and personalization. In fact, the first Google hit for “curriculum” is “the subjects comprising a course of study.” That sounds like a list of topics to me. Maybe check out the Universal Language Curriculum (ULC) for how to put that together, as well as starting with a basic set of vocab you might want to keep in mind.

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