Syllabus, Materials and Task Design for Chinese Young Learners
Yanxin Chang (Alison)
In this paper, a language-learning coursebook, which is named as ‘Bright star’ has been chosen for evaluation and revise. The target students are language learners in China who are aged from 6 to 8 years old. Considering the language teaching context and language learners in China, this coursebook will be evaluated and adapted with teachers’ own beliefs and teaching goals. Overall, the evaluation designed by Cunningsworth (1995) was used as a reference for evaluating this whole coursebook. To be more specific, there are four criterions from different perspectives are listed to be discussed for details, such as teaching aims, recycling parts and teaching approach. Following that, a specific unit (unit 19) in this coursebook was taken as an example to be adapted and supplemented. Through using multiple adapting methods, such as deleting, adding, modifying and reordering, enhancing this coursebook to be more suitable and reliable for the target students.
Keywords: language learning, syllabus, materials, task design, young learners, coursebook.
To introduce my language teaching context, I will give some basic information of my target students. My target learners are primary school students in Shanghai, China, who are in grade 1 and aged from 6 to 8 years old. Therefore, their mother tongue is Mandarin, and most of them are in their first year to learn English, which means they are at the very beginning of learning English as a foreign language. The normal size of each classroom for a primary school in Shanghai, China, is approximately 35 to 40 students. English is set as a curriculum for students in primary school in China, especially in the cities which are economically developed (like Shanghai), students are required to learn English as early as possible. Thus, children in Shanghai start learning English in grade 1 in primary school, even though some may start earlier (in their kindergarten).
In the following part of this paper, firstly, the chosen coursebook ‘Bright star’ for my target students will be introduced and evaluated according to the reference checklist. Then, taking my own beliefs and the context of my students into consideration, a specific unit in this coursebook will be taken as an example to be adapted and supplemented.
The coursebook I have chosen for my target students is named as ‘Bright star’. It is a series of books with 6 different levels. The series of Bright Star coursebooks were designed by Sue Mohamed and first published by Oxford University Press in 2004. For my students in grade 1, the book of leve1 1 was selected since they are at the very beginning of learning English. In total, there are 20 units which cover different topics.
When talking about the language learning materials, most people will associate it with coursebooks because that has been their main experience of using materials to learn a language (Tomlinson, 2011). As Tsiplakides (2011) said, the coursebook lies at the heart of any language teaching situation. Chinese students will particularly agree with this statement when considering their learning context. As their mother tongue is Mandarin, they have fewer opportunities to get access to English materials and use English out of the classroom. Therefore, coursebooks play a vital role during their process of learning English. However, as Grant (1987, p.118) points out, ‘the perfect textbook does not exist; but the best book available for you and your students certainly does’. As a consequence, teachers are required to carry out an evaluation of their selected materials in order to fulfill their teaching purposes and be suitable to their target students (Ellis, 1997).
A large number of evaluating criteria has been given since 1970, which help to evaluate the teaching materials for teachers. For the coursebook I have chosen, the evaluating checklist (see appendix 1) designed by Cunningsworth (1995) was decided to be used as a reference. Some of the main criteria have been listed below for further discussion on evaluating the coursebook I chose for my target students.
Criterion 1: Do the aims of the coursebook correspond closely with the aims of the teaching program and with the needs of the learners?
As mentioned before, the target students for this coursebook are at the very beginning of learning English and aged from 6 to 8 years old. Comparing with the traditional credo of ‘learning English to use it’, ‘using English to learn it’ is preferable for young learners to achieve a communicative purpose (Kersten & Rohde, 2013). Overall looking, this coursebook contains 16 different topics. As can be seen in appendix 2, all the topics are basic and close-to-life. For example, unit 1 is talking about names, unit 6 is related to family, unit 10 is about rooms in their home and unit 15 for food. All of these topics are close to target students’ real life, which may give enhance them to communicate with English in daily life, such as to introduce themselves and their family. In other words, this coursebook can help to improve their communicative abilities to use English.
Furthermore, for students in grade 1 in China, they don’t have to face college entrance examination. Thus, one of the main purposes of teaching is to arouse students’ interests in learning English. As beginners, a boring or a difficult coursework may demotivate them for further study. Though the topics in this coursebook are quite simple, they match the level of my target students as beginners and are interesting enough to engage the students. Hence, it can be seen in the catalogue (appendix 2) that songs, stories or rhymes related to the topics are included in every unit. As Jolly (1975) said, the use of songs in language teaching can possess both the communicative aspect of language and the entertainment aspect of music. Moreover, songs and rhymes are also helpful to change the classroom into a pleasant and positive learning environment, especially for young learners (Paquette & Rieg, 2008). Besides songs rhymes and stories, plenty of colorful and authentic pictures are used in this coursebook to attract the target students visually. For instance, in unit 15 (appendix 3), a picture of kitchen is presented for the students to find food and drinks
Generally, this coursebook fulfills the aims of teachers to improve students’ communicative competence, and the needs of learners to be motivated and attractive.
Criterion 2: Is there adequate recycling and revision? Are there reference sections for grammar, etc? Is some of the material suitable for individual study?
Self-study or self-assessment for students has gained substantial attention from scholars due to it can both facilitate the learning process as well as serve as a measurement tool for teachers and learners (Boud, 1995). At the end of this coursebook, a grammar reference chapter is provided (see appendix 4). It provides students with opportunities to evaluate them in terms of the grammar. By doing this self-assessment, students can be more aware of their own learning process and performance, and in turn they can become more proficient in learning (Butler & Lee, 2010). However, considering the age of my target students, they may have difficulties in self-study. It is confirmed by Butler and Lee (2010) that learners younger than 7 years old are not capable of self-evaluating their own performance and self-regulating their own learning. To improve that, the remaining units in this coursebook are designed. As shown in appendix 2, the title of unit 4, unit 8, unit 12, unit 16 and unit 20 is ‘Let’s check’. When looking at the content in page 2 (appendix 5), it is apparent that these five units are designed for students to revise what they have learned after every four units. In addition, as the revision part has taken up a whole unit, the designers show their intention to require teachers’ attention. In other words, the revision parts present to be complete units for teachers to assist their learners in reviewing previous knowledge because the target learners are too young for self-revision. Therefore, this coursebook has provided adequate revision units and reference sections for grammar (appendix4). Besides, considering the age of target students, they are well-designed for young learners.
Criterion 3: Are all four skills adequately covered, bearing in mind your course aims and syllabus requirements?
For language learners, there are four basic skills to learn a language: reading, listening, writing and reading. Reading and listening belong to the receptive skills, and the other two belong to productive skills, which require the students to produce an output (Ivančić & Mandić, 2014). On the back cover of this coursebook (appendix 6), it says that all these four language skills are included in this coursebook, which seems to correspond my purpose of developing my learners’ both receptive and productive skills. The unit 10 (appendix 7) is taken an in-depth investigation, in order to look into their weighting for different skills. In this unit, activities related to the listening skills and reading skills appear 3 times and once respectively, speaking activities 3 times and writing activities 2 times. Though all the basic four skills are covered in this unit, but more attention is put to the tasks for vocabulary and grammar learning, which appear 6 times totally. Besides, in my opinions activities for the writing skills are too easy to improve their writing skills, so I will adapt it later. Generally, activities for four skills are provided as the author said on the back cover, but further adaptation is needed for my learners.
Criterion 4: What approach/approaches to language learning are taken by the coursebook? Is this appropriate to the learning/teaching situation?
The syllabus of this coursebook is not a single one but multi-syllabus because it is organized on a topic-based, skill-based, functional and structural basis (Breen, 1987). It can be seen from appendix 5, it provides a clear outline of the knowledge in each unit, such as vocabulary, structures, reading and writing skills. For example, in unit 17, learners are expected to be introduced to vocabulary about fruit and vegetables. In addition, for the grammar, they are expected to learn the present simple, present continuous and articles, and then they are expected to develop their writing and speaking skills. Topics related to real life are allocated to each unit, such as food, family, clothing, which helps to improve students’ communicative abilities. It is supported by the author, the back cover (appendix 6) says that ‘a systematical approach to grammar, functions, and vocabulary’ was adopted. Furthermore, the author himself/herself introduces that a story-telling approach was adopted, in order to encourage children to use English a memorable way. Taking unit 9 as an example (appendix 8), the learners are required to tell a story by using the pictures, which is also related to their speaking skills. It is a good approach for learners to use the learnt structure (e.g. ‘It’s lunch time’ and ‘Its time for…) in lesson 1 (appendix 9) and revise the learnt vocabulary (e.g. ‘banana’ and ‘egg’) in lesson 2 (appendix 10) while they are telling a story. For my target students, this story-telling approach seems to be more attractive since they are aged from 6 to 8 years old.
Coursebook Adaption and Supplement
Adapting the coursebook is almost inevitable for teaching in a language learning classroom because it is not designed for a particular classroom of students. To cater to our own target students, it is an essential skill for teachers to adapt or supplement their coursebook. During the process of adapting the coursebook with teachers’ own beliefs, different types of adaptation may be adopted, such as modification, addition or deletion and reorganization or reordering (Tsiplakides, 2011). For my target students, all these adaptation methods will be used for my chosen coursebook, the unit 19 (appendix 11) will be taken as an example for further discussion.
In this unit, totally 5 lessons are designed for talking about clothing. The first lesson (appendix 11, p.96) is to teach words, second one (appendix 11, p.97) intends to require students to make something and sing a song, the third one (appendix 11, p.98) covers the skills of reading, listening and speaking, the fourth one (appendix 11, p.100) gives a revision, and lesson 5 (appendix 11, p.101) gives opportunities to improve speaking and writing skills. Obviously, it is not practical for me to teach a unit for 5 lessons because in China the length of a lesson for grade 1 is normally around 40 minutes. In addition, I don’t think it is necessary to teach this unit for 5 lessons, so it is apparent that I will delete many tasks in this unit for adaptation. Instead, I decided to divide this unit into 2 lessons in case students may feel boring for the same topic in 5 lessons, and each lesson for 40 minutes. In these 2 lessons, receptive skills (listening and reading), productive (speaking and writing), vocabulary and grammar are all intended to be covered.
The topic of unit 19 is about clothing, which is a close-to-life and simple topic for my students in grade 1. The language aims of this unit are to a) learn vocabulary on clothing, b) learn present simple grammar (negatives) (don’t / doesn’t + verb), and the main purpose for me as a teacher is to improve their communicative competence. During the process of teaching, skills and integrated skills will be covered in the activities or tasks. For my first lesson, the first task in lesson 1 of the coursebook (appendix 11, p. 96) will be retained. These two tasks are designed for learners to learn new vocabulary on clothing. In the first task, colorful pictures of clothing are given, students can easily match the pictures to the vocabulary. In addition, grammar structures learned (It’s… + singular nouns and They’re… + plural nouns) are required to be used, because the learners need to group them into two groups. According to the content of this coursebook (appendix 5), it can be found that the grammar structure is taught in unit 3 and unit 5. Therefore, the first task also gives the opportunities to revise previous knowledge of grammar. Then following the second task, a recording will be played (which is provided by this coursebook package). During the process of listening, new vocabulary shown in task 1 will appear, students have to repeat the vocabulary and check their answers for task 1. It is a task to consolidate the knowledge of new vocabulary through listening and speaking, pronunciation can also be checked in this task. These two tasks take about 20 minutes in total in my first lesson.
In the remaining 20 minutes of my first lesson, the third task in the coursebook of lesson 1 and lesson 2 will be adopted, which means other activities in lesson 1 and lesson 2 are deleted for my target students. The reasons for deleting them rely on the unclear instruction (e.g. task 4 in lesson 1) and repeated revision on previous knowledge (e.g. task 1 in lesson 2). I have reordered the activities as the task 3 in lesson 2 (appendix 11, p.97) will be followed by the task 3 in lesson 1 (appendix 11, p.96), while both need to be modified. Instead of listening to a song from the recording provided, a new song about clothing is replaced as a new online material. Furthermore, it is a video (available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFQxBCvgx70) so that students can learn the words through both audiolingual and visual abilities. In the research conducted by Wall and Smith (2005), they found that pupils most commonly agree that the combination of visual elements and verbal elements result in a more effective learning. The last minute of the video displays a task for speaking skills, which can be seen my modification on task 3 in lesson 1 (appendix 11, p.96). The instruction will be work in pairs and make a dialogue, which is the last task for my first lesson. An example will be presented for the children as ‘What are you wearing today? I’m wearing a shirt’. By presenting this example, I’m trying to link the language using within a real communicative context, where the real information is exchanged (Richards, 2005). The aim of the last task is to step into an activity which is more creative and requires more productive skills since vocabulary and receptive skill of listening have been learned and practiced.
The lesson 4 in this unit will be totally deleted, while tasks in the lesson 5 are all retained because I want to pay more attention to productive skills in my second lesson. As can be seen from the title of lesson 5 (appendix 11, p.101) ‘Speaking and Writing’, all the tasks provided are useful and helpful. However, before doing the activities in lesson 5, I will adopt the story in lesson 3 (appendix 11, p.98-99) to start my second lesson. As mentioned before, the story-telling approach is appropriate and attractive for my target learners. Through listening to the story, reading the story again and answering the provided questions in the coursebook, receptive skills (reading and listening) can be improved. To adapt the lesson 3, the task 3 (appendix 11, p. 99) will be reordered after finish all the tasks in lesson 5, and the instruction will be ‘Use the pictures and rewrite the story’ instead, which requires learners to practice their writing on the basis of their reading comprehension. Considering the complexity, it will be better for learners to learn some useful grammar before rewriting the story. Consequently, tasks 1 to 5 in lesson 5, which are related to the grammar (It’s… + singular nouns and They’re… + plural nouns), will be put before the rewriting task. Moreover, the rewriting task is set as a homework for my learners when considering the limit time of a lesson in China.
Regarding the chosen coursebook is not particularly designed for my learners, I have deleted unnecessary tasks, modified and reordered the retained tasks, and added new online material. In the two lessons of clothing, students are expected to learn new vocabulary, enhance listening and speaking skills in the first lesson, learn new grammar structure, produce a writing output in the second lesson. Generally, receptive skills and productive skills are both covered for developing my learners. Besides, the topic is decided to be close-to-life and online materials are adopted for my learners’ communicative competence. During the process of adaptation, my teaching purposes and needs of my learners are nearly to be fulfilled by making effective use of this coursebook.
To sum up, I have chosen the ‘Bright star’ level 1 coursebook for my target students, who are aged from 6 to 8 years old in China. Overall, according to the checklist provided by Cunningsworth (1995), it is evaluated as a good coursebook because it is attractive, clear designed and multi-syllabus. Nevertheless, to achieve the needs of my particular target students and my teaching goals, this coursebook still need to be adapted. For example, some tasks in the coursebook are deleted because their unclear instructions and repeated knowledge, other tasks are modified or reordered based on my own teaching plan. In addition, a new online material, the video is added for making the teaching material more attractive for beginners. Through the process of evaluation and supplement, the coursebook tends to be more suitable and reliable for my teaching purposes and specific target learners.
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*Yanxin Chang is currently a MA student in English Language Teaching at University of Warwick. She holds a BA degree in Applied English at a Sino-British university in China. She decided to be an English teacher in China and entered University of Warwick.