Wednesday, 9 September 2009

First steps in course design

One of the biggest dangers in ESP, and indeed any courses where you don’t have a course book, is DRIFT. The teacher plans from lesson to lesson: an interesting text here, a bit of work on present perfect there, some useful phrases for emails over there … but where is it all leading? Are the students actually making any progress towards a goal? How can that be measured? Is that even the right goal for them?

Don’t get me wrong, lesson-by-lesson planning is fine up to a point, and I’ve recently found myself slipping into it quite often, but I always get the uneasy feeling that I should be doing more to structure the lessons. In other words, to turn a string of lessons into a coherent course.

But where do you start?

Well, the first step is obviously some sort of needs analysis, but I don’t really want to get into that in this post. I mentioned it here, and I’ll certainly come back to it in future posts. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume we have a good idea of what our students need from their course.

Where I teach, at the British Council, we have semesters of 31 lessons of 90 minutes each, so I’ll use that as my model. It could be, of course, that you don’t have semesters at all in your teaching situation – lessons start when the client signs the contract, and finish when you’re undercut by a rival language school (or one with better marketing), or the next financial crisis causes your client to put those expensive English lessons on hold. If that’s the case, consider imposing your own pseudo-semesters. How many lessons are there between now and Christmas? 18? OK, that could be your semester.

Coming back to my 31-lesson semester, the first thing to do is to break the course down into units (or modules, if you prefer to call them that). So I’ll give myself 6 units of 5 lessons each (with an extra lesson at the end for something Christmassy, or a test, or whatever). So now instead of worrying about 31 ‘things’, now I only have 6 things to worry about – a big psychological improvement.

Those 6 things should be topics or broad scenarios. If our course is for factory managers, for example, we could have a unit about factories, one on production lines, one on staff management, one on health and safety, one on technical problems and one on machines. For example. These are just off the top of my head ideas, and of course I’d base a real course on needs analysis. But let’s go with these six units.

Now the next step is to sketch out a grid to help you plan your units. Let’s create a table with the unit titles down the first column, and along the top row we’ll have the following titles: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, Grammar, Vocab and Functions. (I could have added Pronunciation here, but that’s something I tend neglect, for reasons I’ll explain one day).

I can now start filling in the spaces in the grid with the info I picked up in the needs analysis. What are their priorities in terms of grammar? Perhaps I can get some reading texts from their company websites, or the website of the governmental body that regulates their part of industry, or the UK equivalent of that agency. What writing situations did they say they needed to work on? What functional language would support them in each of those situations? What about speaking – what role-plays can I set up which will practise those situations well? What functional language will support them in those role-plays? Can I find listening / video materials to serve as models? And so on.

Each of the boxes should generate approximately one lesson … well, actually, I only need five lessons per unit, so I’ll aim to get one out of the reading (with discussion and vocab), one out of the listening (again with discussion and vocab), a third out of a big role-play (with functional language input) and a fourth out of a writing task (with a model to read and some functional language input). That leaves the fifth lesson in each unit for odds and ends, like some grammar pulled out of the text and the listening, some vocab revision and recycling, perhaps some feedback on the writing, that sort of thing.

The table doesn’t actually need to be complete at this stage – a sketch is fine, because I’ll get many more ideas as I’m actually teaching the course. Course design is always something of a fiction – as soon as you get into the classroom you’ll see all sorts of holes in your current plan and all sorts of opportunities to fill those holes.

So I’d aim to get the first two units planned in great detail, and leave the others as sketches. I’ll then actually write the first unit – easier said than done, but I guess that’s something for a later post too. And we’re ready to go.

Well, almost.

I’m terrible at planning timing. An activity that I plan as a 10-minute warmer sometimes takes off and sees me through two whole lessons. Other times, a big showpiece 5-page extravaganza can be sailed through in a matter of minutes, if the students don’t share my own enthusiasm for it.

So … you’ve got to have a stash or warmers, fillers, uppers, downers and shame-faced time-wasters up you sleeve. Again, I’ll save my ideas on these for a later post, but you’ll find some of my favourites in my two teacher’s books (available from all good bookshops).

And that’s it. A homemade course with a beginning and an end. When you finish, your students will have a neat stack of six attractive and chunky handouts to remind them of what they’ve achieved, rather than the random pile of dog-eared one-pagers that they usually accumulate during lessons. And you can use that stack of handouts as the basis of your end-of-course test, to see if they've actually made any progress towards those meeting needs that you analysed so painstakingly at the beginning.

As always, feedback is very welcome. Do you use these or similar techniques? Is it as easy as I’ve made it out to be, or are there more traps we need to look out for? Looking forward to seeing your ideas.


  1. Wow! Great post. I'm just starting to read your blog after getting the links from Claire Hart. Really, excellent work and I'm nodding my head as I'm reading. You may want to check my recent presentation at the BESIG conference in Stuttgart. I think it may look familiar to what you are talking about in this post.

  2. Congratulations, you`ve made my life much easier. You have developed a model that will bring value to teacher`s careers as well as the students`.

    I have many private students and I will try this. It sounds to me like a winner.


    I really see value in this strategy.