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Review of  Language Curriculum Design and Socialisation

Reviewer: Jemma Prior
Book Title: Language Curriculum Design and Socialisation
Book Author: Peter Mickan
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.2818

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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.

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.

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

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.
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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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781847698308
Pages: 152
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Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781847698292
Pages: 152
Prices: U.S. $ 29.95