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 MickanTITLE: Language Curriculum Design and SocialisationPUBLISHER: Multilingual MattersYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Jemma Prior, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano

SUMMARYAs a busy English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for SpecificPurposes (ESP) lecturer in an Italian university, I welcome any book thatstates 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 fewbooks published over the past decade or so. In Language Curriculum Design andSocialisation, published by Multilingual Matters, Peter Mickan states that anew approach to curriculum development is necessary for both pedagogical andpragmatic reasons: over the past years education systems have focused onfostering, “productive pedagogies” that, as the name implies, concentrate onlearning based on projects and problem solving or on task-based teaching, forexample. Consequently, curricula need to be developed that better reflect thistype of teaching and learning where learners are actively using the targetlanguage rather than “[acting] out artificial dialogues in simulatedexercises” (p. xiv). He also sees a pragmatic reason for curriculum renewaldue to the increasing demand on educational systems to be accountable andtransparent. Therefore, “a tangible curriculum model” (p. xiv) is needed sothat the evaluation of language programmes can be more easily undertaken andunderstood.

The new perspective that Mickan presents is the application of social theoryto language instruction and specifically how curriculum design can beconstructed “around social practices and their texts rather than presentinglanguage as grammatical and lexical objects” (p. xiii). Texts are thefoundation of Mickan’s proposed curriculum because they encompass dailylanguage use, they contextualise language used for social purposes, they arefamiliar to learners and they are readily available to teachers in allcontexts and situations.

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

Chapter 2 presents arguments for using social theory in language curriculumdesign and summarises the main developments in curriculum design over the last50 years. He provides a brief overview of the main aspects of each model ofcurriculum design, from grammar translation and situation language curriculato content-based curricula and those based on genre theory, but he mainlyconcentrates on problems linked to each type of curriculum. He states thatthere is a need for a “curriculum renewal” as curriculum designers in the pasthave never managed to provide a model which keeps the language to be taughtand learned within its natural context(s). Moreover, he comes to the veryreasonable conclusion that previous curriculum models must be inadequate insome way due frequent attempts over the years to present variations tocurricula. He builds on his argument for using social theory in curriculumdesign in this chapter by presenting some of the dichotomies he sees incurrent curriculum design, such as the separation of form from function or thesegmenting of language into separate skills, all of which cause curriculumdesigners to have to recontextualise language into artificial tasks andactivities. He points out that using texts, which by nature are alreadycohesive and contextualised, avoids the separation of language from socialpractices and allows language to be analysed as useful and authentic units ofmeaning.

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

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

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

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

In chapter 5 Mickan focuses, as promised in the introduction, on the practicalside of curriculum design and he guides the reader through the procedure ofplanning a curriculum based on social practices. He identifies seven stagesfrom identifying the target group to assisting “learners’ composing andconversing” (p. 58). Although he provides his own class-based examples ofsocial practices and texts, the procedure is extremely difficult to understandon a practical level for someone like me who has had many years’ experiencedesigning language syllabuses for many different purposes, so I imagine itwould be almost impossible for “students (coursework and research) of English”(p. xii), who Mickan identifies as a group of target readers of his book (eventhough I do not know what he means by “students (coursework and research) ofEnglish”). He provides little detail on how to identify and select resourcesthat might fit the aims and objectives and the examples he provides of socialpractice, such as a short dialogue of a teacher giving instructions to astudent in a science class, seem to have little practical use.

Chapter 6 moves on to teaching practices, where Mickan outlines his proposedteaching approach where the analysis of texts will enable learners to becomeaware of the function of the text and therefore the social practices in thetext. He provides eight proposals for teaching practices based on theexploitation of texts in the classroom, but at times his proposals seemcontradictory. When he comes to the selection of texts, he states “the aim isto target those texts directly related to the aims of the course and the levelof learners’ proficiency or expertise” and yet two lines further on he asserts“a wide selection of texts includes topical and newsworthy texts and fun textsso that students become confident in using a range of text types” (p. 78). Itis likely that teachers involved in planning and teaching ESP courses eitherfor professional or academic purposes, for example, would find it problematicto 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 arerelevant to the learners and “representative of community practices” (p. 78),there are many situations in which using texts from news sources or “funtexts”, whatever they may be, would be completely unjustified.

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

Chapter 8 deals exclusively with curriculum design in higher education. Mickanhighlights the increasing need for higher education establishments to providehigh quality teaching and to be more accountable due to the intensifyinginternational competition for students and the focus on rankings andreputation. He believes that a text-based approach to curriculum design “makesexplicit for students the practices and the discourses integral to thedevelopment of subject-specific expertise” (p. 111) and thus is an efficientmeans to plan curricula in higher education as “language competence is asignificant factor in students’ success in tertiary studies” (p. 111). Mickanmakes the point that because discourses of specific disciplines requiredifferent discipline practices, the different texts used in these disciplinesshould then be used. He provides an example of a curriculum for Geographicaland Environmental Studies, so not a language subject, and although heidentifies the five learning outcomes of the course, which map closely thefive “social functions that university assessment serves” identified by Nesiand Gardner (2012: 27), the texts that he exemplifies as a means to achievethese 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 aboutlanguage curriculum design, I did not find this kind of example particularlyuseful.

Furthermore, in this chapter, Mickan makes no effort to distinguish betweenthe genres of texts that university students have to understand and the genresthat they have to produce, which of course can be very different, particularlyat the undergraduate level where many students will never have to write ajournal article or abstract, for example, but will be expected to be able todeal with these types of texts when reading. He does say that “anunderstanding of subject-specific practices and associated discourses is a wayinto teaching academic content and skills” (p. 118) and it is true that thiscan be a way to introduce learners to the subject and to help them understandthe content. He does also identify that learners should be able to recognisediscourse patterns in text types but again provides no practical advice as tohow to do this nor does he attempt to demonstrate why his text-based approachis such a different approach to curriculum design than one based on genreanalysis.

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

EVALUATIONSo does Mickan provide a practical handbook, as he claims in the preface? Heconcludes each chapter with a useful summary of the main issues dealt with inthe chapter, as well as a section containing notes and suggestions for furtherreading and a list of tasks that can be completed and it is in this part ofeach chapter that the reader, both more or less experienced, can gain the mosthelpful input as some of the references for further reading are certainly mostuseful. The tasks can also be valuable as some do make the reader thinkcarefully about the implications of using texts in the classroom, but to getthe most out of these tasks, you would probably have to be in a situationwhere you were studying the book together with others or you were beingfollowed by an expert. If you pick up the book to find ideas for integratingmore text-based activities into your teaching, you will probably find thetasks too time-consuming to be wholly useful.

As far as the timeliness of the book is concerned, Mickan’s work is certainlyan opportune addition to the literature on curriculum design and its use oftasks at the end of each chapter, although not innovative, does allow thereader to engage more fully with the ideas. Further, although Mickan makes thecase that his book is necessary due to recent innovations in education, thebook is not always up to date; only three of the books listed in thereferences published in the last decade are actually books about curriculumdesign, and surprisingly Mickan does not make reference to some importantcontributions 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 andreadings” section of chapter 2.

As mentioned previously, the target readers are stated as being “teachers andstudents (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. Theway the book is written, however, makes it somewhat inaccessible at times dueto an overuse of short sentences with little cohesion between them and fewconcrete examples to illustrate the points he wants to make. Mickan generallymaintains consistency when using specific terminology and although I dislikedhis use of the terms “text” and “text type instead of “genre”, which felt alittle misleading at times given the discussions about the terms over theyears (Biber 1988; Paltridge 1996; Bruce 2008), at least he states this at thebeginning. There are also quite a lot of specific references to his context inAustralia, which at times left me a little confused due to my unfamiliaritywith this context.

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

REFERENCESBiber, D. 1988. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

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

Breen, M.P. 1987. Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part 2. LanguageTeaching, 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: CambridgeUniversity 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 inhigher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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

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

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

Page Updated: 11-Jul-2013