Course Planning - a process by Emma Worrell


The aim of this assignment was to plan, execute and evaluate a twenty hour course for a group of students. I chose a First Certificate Exam (FCE) class with nine students. The students are studying at a private language academy (Hyland Language Centre). They are following an extensive course which involves twice weekly, one and a half hour classes taught over 9 months (October to June). I have planned this course over fourteen classes (a total of seven weeks), which will finish just before Christmas 2003.

What is a Syllabus?

Hutchinson and Waters (1987) say that a syllabus breaks language down into manageable chunks; it reassures clients that their money is well-spent; students have a learning route; it gives a set of criteria for the selection of materials; it makes attempts at school standardisation possible and it provides a visible means for testing. However, it does not tell us what will actually be learned, nor does it express factors such as the students' personalities, moods and motivation. There are various types of syllabuses, including structural, functional/notional, communicative, task-based, content-based and multi-layered. In general Nunan (1988: 21) says that all syllabuses, including methodology and learner assessment and evaluation are "underpinned by beliefs about the nature of language and language learning".

What are the considerations when planning a course?

Graves (1996: 13) outlines seven elements that any course syllabus should include:

1) Needs Assessment: What the students need and how to assess and address those needs.

2) Determining Goals and Objectives: The purposes of the course and the expected outcomes.

3) Conceptualising Content: The main thread of what we teach and what should be included in the syllabus.

4) Selecting and Developing Materials and Activities: How the chosen materials will be used and the roles of the teacher and the student.

5) Organisation and Content of Activities: How the activities will be organised and the systems to be developed.

6) Evaluation: How the students and the effectiveness of the course will be assessed.

7) Consideration of Resources and Constraints: Assessing the resources available and other problems.

These criteria will, of course, depend on the context in which the course takes place. My chosen group are all planning to take the FCE and have a designated course book (First Certificate Gold) and schedule for which to complete various materials. This means that there will be slightly less freedom to plan the materials for the course (Stage 5 above).

Needs Assessment

The nine students in this class are all planning to take the FCE in June. They are between the ages of around twenty to thirty-five. Four of the students are university students and want to take the exam to help them find jobs after university. The other five students work and four of them use English in their jobs (mainly writing e-mails and on the telephone) and one student does not use English at work but wants to change their job. This student feels that having the FCE will help them achieve this. They have all studied English at school. Most of the students said they had Spanish teachers of English at school and that they now preferred to be taught by native speakers. Half of the students have already studied at this academy and have had very positive experiences which I hope to maintain.

Nunan (1988:20) describes how the trend has moved away from "mechanistic" approaches of needs' assessment, to a more humanistic approach. This is the belief that learners should have a direct influence on what they should be learning and how they should learn it. The emphasis is on the development of learner "autonomy" and addresses subjective or "affective issues. Yalden (1983 in Nunan 1988) says that a good needs analysis should identify the communication requirements, the personal needs, motivations, relevant characteristics and resources of our students. Hutchinson and Waters (1987: 55) say that, generally, students' answers to questions in needs analysis questionnaires often reflect very subjective needs which are usually different from any 'objective' assessment of what they really need. Even though all the students are preparing for the FCE exam not many of them considered exam preparation as a specific goal from the course . These are some of the concepts I have tried to consider when designing this syllabus.

The needs analysis used attempts to address the learners subjective needs. The needs analysis was conducted in class. The students discussed their answers in small groups and then as a whole class. During the first class with the students we discussed the learners' learning history, personal circumstances, and use of English. The students have been encouraged to copy the 'menu' (a list of things to be done in the class which I write on the board at the beginning of the class) at the end of the classes and to reflect on them, writing a short personal response to the activities, their usefulness, effectiveness and how the students felt about the activity (whether they enjoyed it or not). The students then discuss what they have written in small groups and then, when we have a spare five minutes at the end of a class, I ask for general feedback.

The results of the needs analysis showed that the students placed most emphasis on the need to be able to write well in English, to speak more fluently and to improve their listening skills. All of these needs reflect the requirements for their jobs (or future jobs). Grammar was given less priority maybe because they feel they have the necessary grammar to be able to communicate efficiently. Indeed, at this level most grammar structures have been presented to the students. However, as we progressed through some of the units and came across 'Use of English' exercises the students were beginning to realise that they needed training in this area. The students also gave low priority to pronunciation and reading maybe because the group copes well with the reading activities. However, I found that some of the students did not feel that pronunciation was important because they found it easy to communicate effectively and were usually understood. As I have been teaching in Spain for three years now I find that I have 'got used to' the Spanish accent and way of speaking and if we understand them we focus less on their pronunciation. This is something I have been trying to address in my classes more recently. Pronunciation can help the students understand as much as communicate effectively. The FCE book does not include much pronunciation work so I have taken this into consideration in my course planning.

Determining goals and objectives

Nunan (1988: 61) describes goals as general statements about the long term purposes of a course. These can be achieved by asking the students why they are learning the language. Objectives are more short term, concrete ideas of how we can achieve the goals. These can be achieved the syllabus designer "through a process of introspecting on the sorts of communicative purposes for which language is used" (Nunan 1988: 79) Breen (1987: 167) describes the process syllabus as involving "teachers and learners in a cycle of decision-making through which their own preferred ways of working, their own on-going content syllabus, and their choices of appropriate activities and tasks are realised in the classroom". The main objective for this course is to describe the goals (as objectives are connected to what happens in class). The goals I propose are meant only as the purpose of the planned short term course. However, they will be extended as the students' course progresses until June.

Nunan (1988: 25) describes four areas of necessary goals:

Affective goals:
Encouraging learners to develop confidence in using the target language by; maintaining their motivation and interest; ensuring that the students feel that they are making progress; creating a supportive and comfortable atmosphere in the class.

Learning goals:
Developing the ability to assess their learning styles. Training the students in skill areas, learning lexis and recording new lexis, grammar concepts and phrasal verbs. Developing strategies for the FCE. Developing students' ability to notice discourse features and later apply them to their work. Introducing peer correction activities in the class to encourage reflection of their work.

Communicative goals:
Establishing and maintaining relationships through exchanging information, ideas, opinions, attitudes, feelings, experiences, and plans by; giving students the opportunity to develop their oral fluency and accuracy; giving plenty of listening practice; developing students' writing competence.

Cognitive goals:
Developing skills in monitoring performance in spoken language by; making the students aware of their interlanguage and the reformulation of fossilised language; expanding the students' lexical knowledge (especially with colloquial language).

I have tried to incorporate all of these concepts in my syllabus design. it should be noted that most of these are incorporated in the FCE book as exercises but there is little information aimed at teachers in the teacher's book on how to achieve these concepts which means that the teacher has to be careful to train the students systematically and not overload them with to many techniques from the beginning.

Conceptualising Content

It is important to remember that, as the course book limits flexibility with the choice of materials (not so much the sequencing of materials), a course of this kind needs a good balance between work on exam practice and strategies and more general work on developing communicative competence and other general learning strategies. Also, we must consider students preferred requests over material they want to cover and material which is less popular but still necessary. Finally, a comprehensive syllabus should contain a balance between "product" and "process" (Nunan 1988: 71). 'Product' means "what learners will be able to do as a result of instruction" ("the ends") or what students will be able to do at the end of the course which they could not do before. 'Process' means " activities designed to develop the skills needed to carry out the product objectives" ("the means") or the way learning is organised (Nunan 1988: 70-71). With this course the processes can be seen as the content of the course book, subject to modification, the use of extra, authentic materials and covering areas such as pronunciation, and includes the atmosphere of the class which will help achieve many of the goals. The product can be seen as the students goal to sit the exam and pass the five papers required ( see appendix 7). However, we must remember that there is a limit to the extent the syllabus can achieve its goals. Breen (1987: 159) says

"A syllabus can only have, at best, an indirect influence upon actual
language learning. It is meditated by teaching and the encircling
classroom content within which instruction is only one element. And
it is further mediated by learners' participation in classroom work
and by their own interpretation of appropriate objectives and content
for language learning."

While Breen's process based syllabus, where the content and methodology are negotiated, is prohibited by the final goals of the course (the exam) certain elements can be incorporated. The learners' lesson comments facilitated negotiation by enabling the students to reflect on what was really necessary for them to study and to decide the weight needed for the activities (this was further enhanced by peer correction and group activities where students could compare and learn from each others' work).

Selecting and developing materials

The FCE Gold course book was inevitably the main source of content, an attempt was made to include other materials, such as writing exercises from other sources, authentic listenings such as radio news reports, and speaking activities from conversation files related to topics and themes in the course book to keep student interest and maintain motivation.

Organisation and content of activities

The content of the course was taught, as far as possible, to a process based syllabus. For example, providing opportunities for the students to have extended speaking activities in pairs and small groups, comparing answers and discussing the successes of various strategies. An attempt was also made to provide students with activities in noticing various discourse features of texts, for example, by analysing tape scripts.

Although the students were aware of the importance of exam practice, it was not a central theme to all the activities we did in an attempt to make some of the activities more fun. Students also requested homework after every class which was useful for consolidating class work and students were assured that any extra homework they wished to do (particularly with regards to writing) would be corrected. . The sequencing was adapted to provide variety or connection between themes, for example, the writing exercise in the first unit which was based on informal letter writing was contrasted by a formal letter writing exercise which was from one of the last units of the course book. This was to provide students with the relevant training from early on ( to develop 'good' habits). The book includes various recycling methods but I included more lexis recycling, especially of phrasal verbs, and each class myself or the students recorded new vocabulary from the board onto vocabulary cards which were used frequently, for example, for fast finishers or warmers.


Students at the academy are given formal tutorials as part of their extensive course. These are given individually and are seen as more important for those students taking the FCE.. The week after the course plan finished, the students were asked for feedback on the course syllabus in the form of group and class discussions. Feedback, in general, was very positive and students expressed their perceived progress as especially good in writing and listening (perhaps two of the things that are difficult for the students to pass in the exam). Some students commented that, in general, they had not found the course as boring as they had anticipated an exam course would be!

Consideration of resources and constraints

I have already briefly discussed the constraints of using a an exam course book. However, I have tried to incorporate other materials with which to practise exam strategies. Some of the materials in the book could be considered as fairly 'dry' and I felt it more appropriate, at times to use other, more stimulating materials from other sources. There is obviously pressure to complete certain parts of the book (e.g. the grammar revisions) and this hindered the progress of any process based timetable. In my, and other teachers' experience, it is very difficult to finish the course book in the extensive course. The students are also aware that after the mock exams in February the weighting of the course content will change significantly with the need to practise more exam techniques and progress to more challenging listenings (the listenings in the book have often been said to be too easy compared to those listenings in the exam practice books and, indeed, in the actual exam). Most of the students' attendance was good with just two of the students missing a fair amount of classes due to work commitments which made it difficult to plan follow-up and sequence activities.


Ackham/Burgess 1996 First Certificate Gold Course Book, Longman
Breen M.P. 1987 Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design Part 2
Dubin & Olshtain 1986 Course Design CUP
Graves K. 1996 Teachers as Course Developers, CUP
Hutchinson T. and Waters A. 1987 English For Specific Purposes, CUP
Munby J. 1978 Communicative Syllabus Design CUP
Nunan D. 1988 Syllabus Design OUP

Appendix 1: Course Outline
Comparing and contrasting
Advice and suggestions
Advantages and disadvantages
Present tense review
Comparatives and superlatives
Discourse features:
Register and format
Linkers (sequencing, concession, contrast, addition, generalisation)
Cohesion (reference words- anaphoric and cataphoric, lexical)
Word stress (compound adjectives)
Syllable stress
Intonation (question tags, sounding interested)
Phonemic chart revision
Weak forms
Word building: prefixes, suffixes
Work and employment
Job titles
Sports (equipment, rules)
Phrasal verbs
Describing people: compound adjectives- character, attitude.
Speaking: comparing and contrasting, advice and suggestions, agreeing and disagreeing, advantages and disadvantages.
Listening: for gist, for specific information, for detailed information, inferring attitude.
Reading: for global understanding, for specific information, inferring attitude
Writing: Transactional letter, informal letter, magazine article.
Learner Training
Exam strategies: Paper 1, part 1, 3 and 4; Paper 2, part 1; Paper 3, part 5 and part 4.
Error correction (teacher and peer correction of written work).
Vocabulary: Expanding and recording lexical groups, effective translation, word building.
Reading: inferring meaning from context, examining parts of speech, activating students' schemata, using visual clues, anaphoric and cataphoric referenences

Appendix: 2
Course timetable (Each class is 1.5 hours)
Page numbers refer to FCE Gold (unless otherwise indicated)
Abbreviations Max = FCE Gold Maximiser, IGB = Instant Grammar Book, T = Teacher, Stds = students, Hwk = Homework

Tuesday 21st October
Theme: A Sense of Adventure U.1

Warmer: Review Hwk

Exam Focus: Reading.

System: Discourse
Ordering the sentences of an informal letter using discourse markers to help.(Instant Grammar Lessons)

Skill: Writing
Find the grammar mistakes, letter questions.Letter plan (Hwk preparation).(p.12)

Hwk:Letter (p.12, ex. 3)

Thursday 23rd October

Warmer: Brainstorm ways to travel.

Skill: Listening
Sub-skill: prediction questions,noting figures, True/False questions. (p.14)

Skill: Speaking
Sub-skill: Giving opinions(p.14)

System: Lexis
Prefixes/suffixes (p. 14)

Hwk:Max. (p.17)

Tuesday 28th NovemberTheme: Work and Play U.2

Warmer:Systems: Phonology.
Review of vowel sounds.

Skill: Speaking
Sub-skill: Agreeing/disagreeing(p16).

Exam Practice: Paper 5, part 3; Collaborative speaking task- Photo prompts (job photos). Discuss pay, desirability.

System: Lexis
Jobs/responsibilities + relative clauses; "is a person who..."

Skill: Speaking
Game 'Guess my job'

Hwk: U.1 Review (p.15)

Thursday 30th November

Warmer: Hwk check
Team game. T gives description of job, stds guess name of job.

Skill: Listening
Sub-skill: prediction/gistUnpopular jobs (p.17)

Exam Practice: Paper 4, part 3(multiple matching. p.17)

System: Lexis
Phrasal verbs (p.17)

Exam Strategies: Writing.
Stds read and discuss criteria for letter writing. Stds peer correct each others' letters in accordance with criteria.

Hwk: Present tense review (p.17 ex. 1)


Tuesday 4th NovemberTheme: Work and Play U.2

Warmer: Speaking. present continuous review (p. 17)

System: Grammar
Review/practise present tenses (p.18).

System: Lexis
Employment vocabulary (p.18)

Skill: Speaking
Exam strategy: Comparing British employment laws with Spanish employment laws (p.18)

Hwk: Exam Focus, Paper 3, part 5

Thursday 6th November

Warmer:Exam Focus check.
Analysis of discourse- how stds came to conclusions about answers. (p.19)

Skill: Listening
Sub-skill: prediction of song content, ordering sentences (p.20).

Skill: Writing
Transactional letter (p.21)

Exam Strategies: analysing task requirements.

System: Discourse
Register/format/linkers for formal letter.

Hwk: Letter (p.21, ex 3)

Tuesday 11th November

Warmer: Reading race (authentic material).Matching questions to job adverts

Skill: Speaking
Dangerous jobs

Skill: Reading
Sub-skill: Gist/comprehensionquestions.

System: DiscourseAnaphoric/cataphoric references.

Exam Strategy: Paper 1, part 3- gapped text

Skill: Speaking
Affective response to article

Hwk: Max. (p.19)

Thursday 13th November

Warmer: Brainstorm sports.

System: Lexis/phonology.
Sports vocabulary- syllable stress.

Skill: Speaking
Exam Strategy: Comparing and contrasting pairs of sports. (Paper 5, part 2).

Skill: Speaking
Discuss favourite sports.

Skill: Writing

System: Discourse
Noticing sequencers in written text (p.24)

Skill: Speaking
Using sequencers to describe routine.

Hwk: Max. (p.20 )


Tuesday 18th NovemberTheme: Nearest and Dearest

Warmer: Stds discuss photo of twins (p.26).

System: Phonology
Stds complete poem with rhyming words (p.26).

Skill: Listening
Stds check poem (p26).

System: Phonology
Stds practice rhythm and stress of poem (p.26).

Skill: Speaking
Advantages/disadvantages of brothers/sisters (p.26 ex 2).

Skill: Reading
Sub-skill: Matching title to article

System: Lexis
Game: "Call My Bluff"- vocab.(p.27 ex.3).

Hwk: True/False (p.27 ex. 2).

Thursday 20th November

Warmer: Check homework.

System: Lexis
Phrasal verbs.

Skill: Listening
Sub-skill: Inferring meaning of phrasal verbs from context of listening exercise.

Skill: Listening
Sub-skills: Gist/comprehension questions. Authentic material- BBC World News.

Skill: Speaking
Discussion of world news Exam Strategy: Giving opinions/advice.

System: Grammar
Comparatives/superlatives review.(p.28 ex.1).

Hwk: Exam Focus (p.28)

Tuesday 25th November

Warmer: Vocabulary recycling. Stds test each other on vocab cards from previous units.

System: Grammar
Comparatives/superlatives. Describing people (p.29 ex. 2)

Exam Strategy: Use of English Paper 3, part 2 (p.29 ex.3).Skill: Listening

Sub-skill: Listening for gist 'Selling' (p.29).

Skill: Speaking
Selling a product.Sub-skill/function: language for persuasion/comparing/contrasting.

Hwk: Letter (Max p. 24-25)

Thursday 27th November

Warmer: Peer correction of hwk letter (using exam criteria).

System: Phonology(p.30)

System: Lexis
Family members/describing people. Matching vocabulary to description.

Skill: Speaking
Using new vocab to describe family members.Function/phonology: Responding/intonation/sounding interested.

Hwk: U. 2 Review (p.25).


Appendix 3 - FCE Course Overview

Paper 1 Reading:

Part 1 = Multiple matching
Matching headings or summary sentences to each paragraph of a text.

Part 2 = Multiple Choice
Choose between four alternatives to answer questions or complete statements about a text.

Part 3 = Gapped text
Put the removed sentences from the text into the correct spaces.

Part 4 = Multiple Matching
Read a text divided into sections and answer specific questions about each one.

Paper 2 Writing:

Part 1 = Compulsory Transactional letter.
Write a transactional letter based on information and prompts.

Part 2 = Choice of writing task.
Choose a writing task from a choice of the following:
A letter
An article
A report
A discursive composition
A descriptive composition
A short story
A composition, article, report or letter on one of the background reading texts.
(note students in this academy do not do background reading texts).

Paper 3 Use of English:

Part 1 = Multiple choice cloze test.

Part 2 = Open cloze test

Part 3 = 10 Key word transformations

Part 4 = Error correction test

Part 5 = Word formation exercise

Paper 4 Listening:

Part 1 = 8 short extracts (unrelated). Answer multiple choice question about each one

Part 2 = 3minute monolgue or conversation. Take notes or fill in the blanks to complete the missing information.

Part 3 = A series of short related extracts from monologues or conversations. Multiple matching, to match the speakers to the prompts.

Part 4 = 3 minute monolugue or conversation. Answer True/False, Yes/No etc, Multiple choice etc.

Paper 5 Speaking:

Part 1 = Candidates speak a little about themselves. 3 minutes.

Part 2 = Candidates compare and contrast 2 photos. 4 minutes.

Part 3 = Candidates carry out a task (problem solving decision making, prioritising etc)
Based on visual prompts. 3 minutes.

Part 4 = Interlocutor develops the topic covered in part 3. Candidates discuss and give opinions. 4 minutes.

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