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More on curriculum planning in MFL

Lots of schools seem to be involved in curriculum planning initiatives, most likely in response to Ofsted's latest inspection emphasis. On the one hand it's regrettable that schools are responding in this knee-jerk fashion to Ofsted, on the other it must surely be desirable that subject departments evaluate what they are teaching and why.

With that in mind, I have been reading a book entitled Language Curriculum Design by Paul Nation and John Macalister (2010). I am going to summarise the main points of Chapter 1, which is an overview of how to engage with curriculum design. This may give you food for thought if you want to evaluate your curriculum or set up a new course.

Bear in mind that these are general curriculum planning issues I am referring to here, not the detailed planning of, say, a unit of work, but these broad principles are important to keep in mind.

Their overall model of curriculum design is summarised in the figure below.

The outer circles (environment, needs and principles) have a great influence on the central core of syllabus design - the scheme of work/learning. They may seem peripheral in another sense, but do form the background to curriculum planning.


A number of factors can be taken into account with respect to what Nation and Macalister refer to as 'environment'. They mention the following:
  • Students' interest in the subject
  • Students' future intentions, e.g. going to university
  • Time available for the course
  • Class size
  • The proficiency range of classes
  • The immediate survival needs of students
  • Availability of teaching materials
  • Teachers' experience and training
  • The learners' use of their first language
  • The need for learner autonomy
I would note that, from the point of view of an MFL teacher in the UK, particular factors to bear in mind would be the limited classroom contact time (often limited and infrequent), class size (often large), the mixed ability of learners and the influence of the mother tongue, usually English, which has a powerful negative effect on motivation.


For learners of English in the UK it can be relatively easy to identify learners' needs, for example they may be immigrants who need to acquire the language for survival, educational or employment needs. For MFL learners in a school setting, the immediate needs are less obvious, but could include the requirement to pass exams or learn a language for future study or use on holiday or in employment.


The authors point out that research on second language acquisition should be used to guide discussion on curriculum design. In addition, research on learning in general should be kept in mind. These principles include the importance of repetition and thoughtful processing of material, individual differences, including preferred learning styles (note: in 2010 learning style theory was more in vogue than today, when it has been largely discredited), learner attitudes and motivation.

One example of where research should influence practice concerns the presentation of vocabulary in thematic lists. A growing body of research suggests that when you present themed lists of words, some of these words may interfere with each other, causing confusion and poorer retention. In addition, presenting words as antonyms (opposites) may cause the same confusion.

What principles do Nation and Macalister put forward? At this point I need to jump to Chapter 4 of the book for their list of 20 principles, which I list below in an abbreviated form. these principles are obviously a vital part of curriculum planning.

a)  Content and sequencing

1. Frequency: teach high frequency language which provides the best return on learning effort.
2. Strategies and autonomy: train learners in how to be more aware of how they are learning and to become more independent.
3. Spaced retrieval: provide spaced, repeated opportunities to engage with language in varying contexts.
4. Language system: put the focus on generalisable features of the language.
5. Keep moving forward: include progression in the curriculum.
6. Teachability: sequence items appropriately bearing in mind when learners are ready to learn new items.
7.  Learning burden: help learners make good ue of previous learning.
8.  Interference: sequence items so they have the best effect on each other for learning.

b) Format and presentation

1.  Motivation: make the learning interesting, exciting and of value.
2.  Four strands: include a roughly even balance of meaning-focused input, language-focused learning, meaning-focused output and fluency tasks.
3.  Comprehensible input: provide lots of comprehensible interesting listening and reading. (Elsewhere nation suggest a minimum of 95% comprehensible language for reading).
4.  Fluency: provide activities which build fluency of comprehension and production of already known language.
5.  Output: include pushed output activities (making students speak and write).
6.  Deliberate learning: include learning about the sound system, spelling, vocabulary and grammar.
7.  Time on task: maximise the time spent using the target language.
8.  Depth of processing: input should be processed as deeply and thoughtfully as possible.
9.  Integrative motivation: encourage positive attitudes to the target language culture.
10. Learning style: learners should have chances to work with material in the way they prefer. (This is now, of course, considered controversial at best.)

c)  Montoring and assessment

1. Ongoing needs and environmental analysis: selection, ordering, presentation and so on should match the needs of the learners. (This clearly includes the syllabus requirements.)
2.  Feedback: learners should receive feedback which can help them improve.

To return to Chapter 1, the authors go on to write about monitoring and assessment next.

Monitoring and assessment

Short term achievement tests are an important part of the plan, at the end of lesons or groups of lessons ("unit tests"). These provide feedback for the teacher and motivation for the learner. larger achievement tests are also useful to check if the curriculum is working (e.g. end of course or end of year exams). Other types of tests, e.g. proficiency tests or placement tests may be useful in terms of placing learners in the right class. Diagnostic tests can reveal what gaps in know;edge need to be filled. (This is also ascertained from achievement tests.) There are other ways of monitoring if the curriculum is functioning as it should, e.g. observing and monitoring using checklists, homework, collecting samples of student work and getting learners to talk about their learning (e.g. in focus groups). Best curriculum design needs to include opportunities for all the above.

Evaluating a course

This can be done using a range of criteria;
  • Does it attract a lot of students (if it's optional)?
  • Does it make money (not so relevant for MFL teachers!)
  • Does it satisfy learners?
  • Does it satisfy sponsors (or in out case the school or academy chain leadership and governors)?
  • Do learners get high scores in external exams?
  • Does it result in lots of learning?
  • Does it apply up to date knowledge about language learning and teaching?
  • Is it held in high regard by the wider community (for us that could mean parents)?
  • Does it follow accepted principles of curriculum design?
Concluding remarks

When you have an existing curriculum in place, I would suggest that the questions above are a decent place to start. You might then address what you see as any issues arising before considering how these might be addressed. For this you can then look at the principles referred to earlier. You might find this earlier blog on curriculum planning from my own perspective useful.

Perhaps when you evaluate your course you may conclude that it is running very successfully and needs little, if any, tweaking. If that's the case I would avoid adding to your already heavy workload and continue to do what you are doing!


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