Saturday, September 19, 2009

Skill Integration and Alignment: A Response to Program Director’s Dilemma

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

An IEP director in Kuwait wrote with a dilemma: She feels the IEP curriculum is grammar-heavy and that the emphasis is impeding student progress.

First, some background. Students come into the IEP after having been exposed to English grammar instruction in their regular schools. The IEP instructors also put a lot of emphasis on grammar, but this work doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on reading and writing scores. The director feels that the amount of grammar in the program, and more specifically, the way it is largely being addressed (“300 plus pages of fill-in-the-blank practices”) is not the most effective way to teach English.

Do Course Outcomes Support One Another?

One of the challenges of discrete skill programs (a class for reading, a class for writing, for speaking, for grammar, etc.) is that we instructors sometimes get territorial and forget the bigger picture–how all these elements need to fit together in a “complete communication” package. I wonder if the instructors at the IEP ever look at their program curriculum across a level, rather than up and down a skill? In other words, how do the outcomes or standards for Reading 4, Writing 4, Speaking/Listening 4, and Grammar 4 complement each other and reinforce each other? Or is each skill truly in isolation within the level?

When instructors in the program where I teach started to discuss this, we found ways we could support each other’s curriculum. The first thing we did was exchange our course outcomes. We then spent time brainstorming ways we could support another instructor’s outcome in our class. We did this informally; however we recognized the benefit of mutual curricular support. We each started by just trying to approach a single objective of another course from the perspective our own skill class.

For example, one of our Reading 4 outcomes states “Student will understand sentence connectors and signal words that aid in their comprehension of a text.” As a Grammar 4 instructor, I saw a way I could complement that outcome. Instead of teaching coordinating and subordinating conjunctions at a sentence level (i.e. sticking with the book exercises alone), I searched for an interesting paragraph that students would not only enjoy reading and discussing, but that also contained the target grammar. We then studied the grammar with the context of the reading.

It’s even easier to go the other way, meaning the writing and speaking instructors can easily support the outcomes of the grammar course. When our level 4 Speaking instructor uses a rubric that includes accuracy, she pays particular attention to errors in the grammar structures being taught in Grammar 4 and also to structures students should have learned in Grammar 3.

Holding the students to a level of cross-skill competency emphasizes the importance of learning grammar for actual use as opposed to learning it for book completion or test success. (Have you ever had a student complain “But why did you mark me down for spelling in my answers? This isn’t writing class–this is reading class!” Viva cross-skill competency! )

In addition to skill integration, formal or informal, I would suggest to the IEP Director that she examine how well the program’s textbooks support the course objectives. (“The reading and writing courses use a grammar correction text and the listening and speaking use either the black, red, or blue Azar.”)Work backwards from the course objectives. Does the exit test for the course directly test those objectives? Does the course textbook or other learning material directly address both the test and the course objectives? For example, if a program were grammar-heavy, would Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Azar work best as the speaking/listening text or as the grammar text?

Do Texts Support the Course Objectives?

Also, are the course objectives independent of the textbooks? Or is the curriculum simply “what is in the book”? The latter would certainly lead to instructors feeling like they had to cover every exercise in the text book. (“Some of the instructors hold fast to the notion they must complete every grammar exercise in the book in order for the students to acquire and learn English language.”) Our program also uses the Azar series, but our grammar curriculum at each level is not an exact match to the content of the Azar books. There are some chapters or charts we omit and some grammar we include that is not in the book. However, our course objectives are our guiding light, not our textbook.

It’s hard to get objectives, exits, curriculum and textbooks aligned. It’s a multi-semester, multi-person project, but it is oh-so-wonderful when these elements click into place. Teacher frustration lessens, there are fewer student complaints all around, and best of all, there’s a general improvement in exit results.

While I agree with the IEP director’s wish not to micro-manage, I would suggest that curriculum development and alignment of course objectives, tests, and textbooks isn’t micro-management at all, but basic program structure and development, which rightly comes top-down. But as Barbara Matthies said, getting faculty ownership of changes is the key to making it happen (and may I add–without a revolt.)

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