Thinking big, making small changes

My bedtime reading for the past couple of weeks has been Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku. In between revealing to me that people have actually teleported stuff,  the book is a reasonably easy introduction to quantum mechanics. To my rather squishy brain, these steely-minded scientists attempt to figure out the very small (subatomic particles) and the very large (the universe(s)) and the connections between them. Not much room for the inbetweeners (us humans) in there you might think, but actually the role of consciousness is an important factor in quantum theory, and provides one resolution for Schrödinger’s cat.

To draw a heavy-handed parallel between stuff that I don’t really understand (quantum physics), and stuff that I like to think I understand (teaching), recently I’ve been able to change some of the small things that I do by consciously examining the much bigger picture. I mentioned in my moan a few weeks ago that I was studying curriculum design for my previous module and that it had helped me a lot to see approaches and methods in terms of the bigger picture of a course. I’ve realized now it’s also made me think on a wider scale about where a course might fit into a person’s language learning over a lifetime, and so what small changes a teacher/course designer (often the same person) can make at the micro level in order to best influence this.

For a lot of Korean learners English will be a lifelong pursuit, and not always one that that they desire to undertake, beginning in elementary school or even before and extending well into their career where proficiency test scores mean better career opportunities. At the moment at least, most of the high-stakes achievement testing (and therefore the teaching) is based on reading and vocabulary memorization, well past the tertiary education stage. All of this is not news to people working here. It does however mean that we can make some useful generalizations about our learners in the process of designing courses, like they will probably be incredibly sick of memorizing lists of vocabulary.

A question that I have asked myself as a less experienced teacher is “How can I teach this student English?” In asking this question I was making a few assumptions. Firstly that students learning path was linear and straight. Secondly, that my job was to teach English as a whole, with no thought to the interaction of the content with past learning or current learning in other situations. Thirdly, I naively assumed that I could teach students’ English this way when a lot of other teachers had already tried with not great results. Writing that third point was incredibly uncomfortable, as it really highlights the arrogance of that viewpoint. Hopefully I have learned a little since then, and I have adjusted my question so that it is now more like “How can I best make a contribution to the learners’ overall English development?”

It was not just an inexperienced I that made these assumptions though. The same assumptions seem to underpin most coursebooks, most of which are attempting to be the sole source of language learning for learners, and whose courses assume a fairly linear progression in every area of language learning, from vocabulary to speaking. This seems a necessary assumption in order to try to meet the needs of a world of paying customers, but also one based on an outmoded paradigm where the book and the teacher actually were the only access to the language. In the internet age this is no longer really valid, as the language learning world is much smaller in terms of accessing the language, and much larger in terms of the amount that there is to access. I also feel like this assumption rather devalues the role of school education, especially of the kind found in Asian cultures. It is this kind of assumption that leads to Long’s (2005:3) claim that “general English courses almost always try to teach too much”.

In Language Curriculum Design, Nation and Macalister (2009) provide a useful suggestion for making sure that a course is providing a good balance of activities. They call this the “four stands” of curriculum design, and suggest that learners should have an equal balance of meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output,  language-based instruction and fluency development. I think this is a nice way to impose some checks and balances if you’re designing a complete language course from beginner to advanced, but not of much use to me in deciding what to teach in about 40 hours of contact time.

Where it is useful, however, is applied to the learning lives of students as a whole, and when I examine them I find that there has been a surfeit of language-based instruction and a fair bit of meaning-focused input (mostly as a vehicle for more language instruction). It’s no surprise that most of the level one students that pitch up in my classes struggle to put a spoken sentence together but readily identify almost any word that I write on the board. In Widdowsonian/Hymesian terms, there’s a lot of knowledge about use and not a whole lot of ability for use.

While these insights are not exactly revelatory for anyone with experience of Korea, studying curriculum design has allowed me to develop them into a much clearer framework in my own mind, and has given me the confidence to make some small (and not so small) changes to what I do. This semester I’m attempting not to teach too much in the way of new language, giving one day out of three entirely over to meaning and fluency based work (with almost no teacher interference), and where I am focusing on language it will mostly be in the form of trying to automaticize some chunks, do some rudimentary pronunciation work, and do a lot more text-level work like dictogloss and reconstructing texts. I’m hoping that the students will learn a bit more implicitly and not so much explicitly, and I’m working on some tricks to try to encourage this.

I’m calling these small changes as they are things that I have been trying to do before, but the key factor this semester is that I feel a bit like I am working with my institution rather than against it. Having been uncharacteristically vocal at a few of our planning meetings this year, and finding that my similarly quiet colleagues felt mostly the same way, we successfully lobbied for a change to the exams. We now have a 50% speaking examination, and the written section is a free choice of questions. No longer will I have to write disastrous grammar questions that all the students get wrong, nor include reading passages well below their level that they all get right.

All in all then, I’m feeling pretty cosmic about this semester. I’m a lot more secure in what I’m doing, and where I fit with my students and my institution. This has made me feel a lot more confident in the classroom too. While I recognize that institutions need a degree of control, giving teachers their head is important. Those small changes that they make might just lead to big differences.




Long, M. H. (2005) Second Language Needs Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I. S. P. & Macalister, J. (2009) Language Curriculum Design. New York: Routledge.


14 responses to “Thinking big, making small changes

  1. Another very clear, thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Pingback: Thinking big, making small changes | The Breathy Vowel | David's ESOL Blog

  3. All the quotes you can think of regarding small stesp lead to meaningful changes are relevant here.
    wondering if we can completely escape the linear issue though. students and teachers need some sequencing of things to teach / when to teach.
    Keep us updated on how the changes play out.

    • Hi Naomi,

      Thanks as ever for your interest and your comments. I’ll certainly keep you updated.

      I think in a lot of courses the linear issue is unavoidable, and in most cases we shouldn’t be trying to avoid it. However, most of the sequencing of courses seems to be done by either vocabulary or structures. I guess what I’m trying to do is take a longer view of sequencing, and what springs to mind is the fact that students have already been exposed, probably multiple times, to most of the vocabulary and structures that you could hope to sequence a course by. Given that I have about 10 weeks of teaching tops with each group, I think that sequencing is less of an issue. In effect, what I’m trying to do is something like Brumfit’s “syllabus with holes” which had space for fluency practice and suchlike. I might see my course as the “hole” at the end of about 10 years of lecture style lexis and grammar teaching.


  4. In reference to your words in the Hymes paragraph, there’d been a lot of instruction and correspondingly minimal acquisition… Well done on changing the exams. Would that you were on the National committee for such things and could a) push the arrival of and b) revise more usefully the NEAT.
    Your earlier paragraphs helped me that I’ve mostly never been about teaching English, wanting instead my learners to notice their already acquired processes for meaning-making, and simply use them the same way with a new code… Maybe it sounds a little haughty-taughty or esoteric, but it’s really quite a practical approach. I’ve had to totally rethink the approach in this particular location…

    • Grt thinking on coursebooks and the language lifetime of learners, have been thinking recently on how classbooks could be more flexible, e.g. Sts have concordance type access to book texts and audio transcripts; the prospects of ebooks becoming more customisable by sts holds some promise.
      I agr that it is diff to see Wood for the trees in class.

      • Thanks for the comment Mura. You’re preaching to the choir a bit here, but I’d love to see a coursebook that wasn’t quite so sequenced, and allowed people a bit more room to adapt. I really want to write one based around real conversations that I record, but I think that this is just an indie dream.

    • Tom, thank you for the comment. I have several of your posts saved that I hope to get around to commenting on in return.

      Yes, I agree that it’s difficult to get students here to trust themselves with meaning-making. I’d suggest Korean learners have a rather low tolerance for ambiguity (as do I come to think of it). However, I think that students do in general recognize that the methods of instruction here need to change. I hear a lot of criticism of the KSAT in my classes anyway. I think though, that if you’re using exploratory methods you need to give your students a lot more guidance and frameworks than you would in other situations.


  5. Pingback: ‘Thinking big, making small changes’ | English Teaching Daily

  6. Pingback: #KELTchat preview: 17 March, 2013 | #KELTChat

  7. Hear hear! I’m all for teachers who make small adjustments to their own instruction while working within institutionally-imposed constraints, but who also can lobby to have those changes, however incremental, impact the institution’s approach.
    Power to the teacher! (in a quantum particle kind of way, that little power is HUGE!)

    • Thanks for the reply Sue. I was actually really surprised at how receptive my institution was to the changes. It’s certainly nice to know that you’re listened to. Hooray for small changes – one universe theory suggests that pre-big bang all the forces in the universe cancelled each other out, until one tiny imperfection caused an imbalance and BOOM! 🙂

  8. Pingback: Experiments We’re Trying: KELTchat Summary (March 17, 2013) | #KELTChat

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