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LINGUIST List 24.2818

Thu Jul 11 2013

Review: Applied Linguistics: Mickan (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>

Date: 30-May-2013
From: Jemma Prior <Jemma.Priorunibz.it>
Subject: Language Curriculum Design and Socialisation
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4975.html

AUTHOR: Peter Mickan
TITLE: Language Curriculum Design and Socialisation
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jemma Prior, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano

SUMMARY
As a busy English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Specific
Purposes (ESP) lecturer in an Italian university, I welcome any book that
states its purpose is “to provide a practical handbook on curriculum design”
(p. xi), particularly if it offers a new perspective on curriculum design,
which, as Tomlinson (2012) noted recently, is an area of SLA that has seen few
books published over the past decade or so. In Language Curriculum Design and
Socialisation, published by Multilingual Matters, Peter Mickan states that a
new approach to curriculum development is necessary for both pedagogical and
pragmatic reasons: over the past years education systems have focused on
fostering, “productive pedagogies” that, as the name implies, concentrate on
learning based on projects and problem solving or on task-based teaching, for
example. Consequently, curricula need to be developed that better reflect this
type of teaching and learning where learners are actively using the target
language rather than “[acting] out artificial dialogues in simulated
exercises” (p. xiv). He also sees a pragmatic reason for curriculum renewal
due to the increasing demand on educational systems to be accountable and
transparent. Therefore, “a tangible curriculum model” (p. xiv) is needed so
that the evaluation of language programmes can be more easily undertaken and
understood.

The new perspective that Mickan presents is the application of social theory
to language instruction and specifically how curriculum design can be
constructed “around social practices and their texts rather than presenting
language as grammatical and lexical objects” (p. xiii). Texts are the
foundation of Mickan’s proposed curriculum because they encompass daily
language use, they contextualise language used for social purposes, they are
familiar to learners and they are readily available to teachers in all
contexts and situations.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter 1 delves into the rationale
behind why texts should be the foundation of this approach to curriculum
design and presents the functions of different texts in and for different
social practices. Mickan’s argument is that because texts are an integral part
of our social practices and without them we would not be able to function on a
social level, our familiarity with texts should be exploited in language
curriculum design. Language learners understand the function of texts in
conveying meaning in everyday life for social purposes and so texts should
therefore play a central role in learning.

Chapter 2 presents arguments for using social theory in language curriculum
design and summarises the main developments in curriculum design over the last
50 years. He provides a brief overview of the main aspects of each model of
curriculum design, from grammar translation and situation language curricula
to content-based curricula and those based on genre theory, but he mainly
concentrates on problems linked to each type of curriculum. He states that
there is a need for a “curriculum renewal” as curriculum designers in the past
have never managed to provide a model which keeps the language to be taught
and learned within its natural context(s). Moreover, he comes to the very
reasonable conclusion that previous curriculum models must be inadequate in
some way due frequent attempts over the years to present variations to
curricula. He builds on his argument for using social theory in curriculum
design in this chapter by presenting some of the dichotomies he sees in
current curriculum design, such as the separation of form from function or the
segmenting of language into separate skills, all of which cause curriculum
designers to have to recontextualise language into artificial tasks and
activities. He points out that using texts, which by nature are already
cohesive and contextualised, avoids the separation of language from social
practices and allows language to be analysed as useful and authentic units of
meaning.

It is in chapter 3 where Mickan explicitly deals with social theory, what it
actually is and the role of texts in socialisation and human behaviour.
Consequently for readers who are less familiar with these issues, this chapter
is useful to gain a basic understanding of certain elements of social theory.
Mickan underlines the important role texts play in social practices and
discusses how texts can help with the study of grammar because they present
language as meaningful units that can be analysed, rather than, as he mentions
in chapter 2, language that tends to be reconstructed in other curriculum
models.

Chapter 4 deals with the main elements of curriculum design, and Mickan takes
a sequential approach identifying first the target learners, then the stating
of aims and objectives or outcomes in the syllabus, the selection of materials
to be used and how learners’ performances can be assessed at the end. He
focuses on text-based syllabuses that can be designed based on aims and
objectives, or on outcomes, and provides some useful examples of both types of
syllabus that have been put into practice. He acknowledges that there are many
different syllabuses and teachers have vastly differing levels of control as
to what is taught in class, yet when he discusses resources, he advocates that
according to social theory is it students who should “compose and use their
own texts as they gain expertise in community discourses” (p. 50). He goes on
to list various resources but it is not clear whether he is describing what
happens or giving advice about what should happen:

“Classes of students working in lessons comprise communities. Lessons are
settings managed naturally with texts. Work is largely conducted through
predictable discourses, which fulfil organisational functions such as
management, content teaching and social exchanges. Such language practices are
also common to many workplaces. Formal discourses include video-recordings
with transcriptions of students’ talk with teachers and with other students…”
(p. 50).

However, arguably the vast majority of teachers are not privileged enough to
be able to make decisions as to syllabus content and they have to abide by
syllabuses imposed by external authorities, whether these be national, local
or school. Mickan’s argument that language curricula should be based on texts
that students themselves have selected which reflect relevant social practices
is therefore somewhat undermined here.

In chapter 5 Mickan focuses, as promised in the introduction, on the practical
side of curriculum design and he guides the reader through the procedure of
planning a curriculum based on social practices. He identifies seven stages
from identifying the target group to assisting “learners’ composing and
conversing” (p. 58). Although he provides his own class-based examples of
social practices and texts, the procedure is extremely difficult to understand
on a practical level for someone like me who has had many years’ experience
designing language syllabuses for many different purposes, so I imagine it
would be almost impossible for “students (coursework and research) of English”
(p. xii), who Mickan identifies as a group of target readers of his book (even
though I do not know what he means by “students (coursework and research) of
English”). He provides little detail on how to identify and select resources
that might fit the aims and objectives and the examples he provides of social
practice, such as a short dialogue of a teacher giving instructions to a
student in a science class, seem to have little practical use.

Chapter 6 moves on to teaching practices, where Mickan outlines his proposed
teaching approach where the analysis of texts will enable learners to become
aware of the function of the text and therefore the social practices in the
text. He provides eight proposals for teaching practices based on the
exploitation of texts in the classroom, but at times his proposals seem
contradictory. When he comes to the selection of texts, he states “the aim is
to target those texts directly related to the aims of the course and the level
of learners’ proficiency or expertise” and yet two lines further on he asserts
“a wide selection of texts includes topical and newsworthy texts and fun texts
so that students become confident in using a range of text types” (p. 78). It
is likely that teachers involved in planning and teaching ESP courses either
for professional or academic purposes, for example, would find it problematic
to cover all of these text types, given the specific nature of their courses,
but surely if the aim of Mickan’s approach is to select texts that are
relevant to the learners and “representative of community practices” (p. 78),
there are many situations in which using texts from news sources or “fun
texts”, whatever they may be, would be completely unjustified.

It is perhaps chapter 7 that comes closest to Mickan’s claim that his book is
a “practical handbook” for designing curricula as it is this chapter that
presents various examples of curricula that have been used, from a pure
language curriculum such as a bilingual Italian programme to content-based
instruction with the example of a science curriculum. He also describes other
research undertaken where existing programmes in Korea and Australia were
adapted to incorporate a greater focus on authentic texts and these examples,
accompanied with tables and other illustrative information, could be useful
for other language practitioners who might find themselves in similar
situations.

Chapter 8 deals exclusively with curriculum design in higher education. Mickan
highlights the increasing need for higher education establishments to provide
high quality teaching and to be more accountable due to the intensifying
international competition for students and the focus on rankings and
reputation. He believes that a text-based approach to curriculum design “makes
explicit for students the practices and the discourses integral to the
development of subject-specific expertise” (p. 111) and thus is an efficient
means to plan curricula in higher education as “language competence is a
significant factor in students’ success in tertiary studies” (p. 111). Mickan
makes the point that because discourses of specific disciplines require
different discipline practices, the different texts used in these disciplines
should then be used. He provides an example of a curriculum for Geographical
and Environmental Studies, so not a language subject, and although he
identifies the five learning outcomes of the course, which map closely the
five “social functions that university assessment serves” identified by Nesi
and Gardner (2012: 27), the texts that he exemplifies as a means to achieve
these outcomes are rather skills or functions, such as “review of literature;
reading textbooks and articles; selecting relevant information” (p. 115).
Consequently as a practising ESP/EAP teacher who was looking for a book about
language curriculum design, I did not find this kind of example particularly
useful.

Furthermore, in this chapter, Mickan makes no effort to distinguish between
the genres of texts that university students have to understand and the genres
that they have to produce, which of course can be very different, particularly
at the undergraduate level where many students will never have to write a
journal article or abstract, for example, but will be expected to be able to
deal with these types of texts when reading. He does say that “an
understanding of subject-specific practices and associated discourses is a way
into teaching academic content and skills” (p. 118) and it is true that this
can be a way to introduce learners to the subject and to help them understand
the content. He does also identify that learners should be able to recognise
discourse patterns in text types but again provides no practical advice as to
how to do this nor does he attempt to demonstrate why his text-based approach
is such a different approach to curriculum design than one based on genre
analysis.

His final chapter again makes the case for curriculum renewal through the use
of a text-based model that focuses on units of meaning because, in his view,
language programmes that purport to develop communicative skills but instead
separate grammar from the texts are inadequate in meeting the developing needs
of twenty-first century language learners. He refers to communicative language
teaching programmes that had communicative goals but were assessed through
grammar tests, and although examples of these certainly existed and probably
still do exist, language teaching has moved on and modern language proficiency
tests administered by various international testing centres, amongst others,
have most definitely modified their exams and tests so that language skills
and competence are tested in as authentic a context as possible. Therefore,
although I sympathise with Mickan and his claim that curriculum design does
need a renewal, the particular reasons he gives are rather unconvincing in
this day and age.

EVALUATION
So does Mickan provide a practical handbook, as he claims in the preface? He
concludes each chapter with a useful summary of the main issues dealt with in
the chapter, as well as a section containing notes and suggestions for further
reading and a list of tasks that can be completed and it is in this part of
each chapter that the reader, both more or less experienced, can gain the most
helpful input as some of the references for further reading are certainly most
useful. The tasks can also be valuable as some do make the reader think
carefully about the implications of using texts in the classroom, but to get
the most out of these tasks, you would probably have to be in a situation
where you were studying the book together with others or you were being
followed by an expert. If you pick up the book to find ideas for integrating
more text-based activities into your teaching, you will probably find the
tasks too time-consuming to be wholly useful.

As far as the timeliness of the book is concerned, Mickan’s work is certainly
an opportune addition to the literature on curriculum design and its use of
tasks at the end of each chapter, although not innovative, does allow the
reader to engage more fully with the ideas. Further, although Mickan makes the
case that his book is necessary due to recent innovations in education, the
book is not always up to date; only three of the books listed in the
references published in the last decade are actually books about curriculum
design, and surprisingly Mickan does not make reference to some important
contributions to curriculum design, such as Breen (1988) or Graves (1996,
2008) and he only refers to Nunan’s two works (1988a, 1988b) in the “Notes and
readings” section of chapter 2.

As mentioned previously, the target readers are stated as being “teachers and
students (coursework and research) of English and other languages” (p. xii)
and I myself am a teacher of English and have been for almost two decades. The
way the book is written, however, makes it somewhat inaccessible at times due
to an overuse of short sentences with little cohesion between them and few
concrete examples to illustrate the points he wants to make. Mickan generally
maintains consistency when using specific terminology and although I disliked
his use of the terms “text” and “text type instead of “genre”, which felt a
little misleading at times given the discussions about the terms over the
years (Biber 1988; Paltridge 1996; Bruce 2008), at least he states this at the
beginning. There are also quite a lot of specific references to his context in
Australia, which at times left me a little confused due to my unfamiliarity
with this context.

Language Curriculum Design and Socialisation is most definitely a welcome
addition to the literature in curriculum design and some of the tasks and
examples provided can benefit experienced teachers who are in the position of
being able to design their own curriculum or are able to influence curriculum
design. However, the book really cannot be classified “a practical handbook on
curriculum design”; Mickan’s style of writing and presentation often make the
book heavy going and the dearth of concrete, functional and relevant examples
may frustrate busy teachers who are looking for a practical guide to
curriculum design.

REFERENCES
Biber, D. 1988. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Breen, M.P. 1987. Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I. Language
Teaching, 20(1), pp. 81-92.

Breen, M.P. 1987. Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part 2. Language
Teaching, 20(2), pp. 157-174.

Bruce, I. 2008 Academic Writing and Genre: A Systematic Analysis. London:
Continuum.

Graves, K., 1996. Teachers as course developers. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Graves, K. 2008. The Language Curriculum: A Social Contextual Perspective.
Language Teaching: Surveys and Studies, 41(2), pp. 147-181.

Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. 2012. Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in
higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunan, D. 1988a. Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. 1988b. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Paltridge, B. 1996. Genre, text type, and, and the language classroom. ELT
Journal, 50(3): 237-243.

Tomlinson, B. 2012. Language Curriculum Design. ELT Journal, 66(2): 263-268.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jemma Prior is an EAP and ESP lecturer at the multilingual Free University of
Bozen/Bolzano in Italy. Her research interests include syllabus design,
teaching English for specific purposes and English academic writing.
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