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Teaching the modular way?

A few notes on modularity in language teaching

 

Modules are increasingly being used in many countries as a way of organising a language curriculum. As a consequence, many coursebooks are now structured on the basis of “modules” rather than “units”, and most teachers, when faced with this innovation, wonder whether this is really a new development, opening up new paths for learning and teaching, or whether it might not just be “old wine in new bottles”.

 

What are modules?

The concept of “module” is strictly linked to the idea of a flexible language curriculum, which should provide all those concerned with education (primarily learners and teachers, but also parents and administrators, as well as society at large) with a framework to establish clear and realistic language learning objectives. The work of the Council of Europe has been seminal in this respect: its Common European Framework of Reference (available at http://culture.coe.fr/lang) sets out guidelines to develop language curricula to increase both mobility and intercultural understanding throughout Europe.

Such curricula can’t be fixed once and forever – rather, they should be so flexible as to allow different language needs to be met at different ages and school levels. This, in turn, implies describing language objectives so that they are recognisable, comparable across educational systems, and clearly amenable to assessment and evaluation.

 

 

 

  • A “module” is a portion of such a curriculum:
  • It is a relatively autonomous portion, since it is based on a limited number of objectives which the learner is expected to achieve and the school is expected to be able to assess and certify. This certification can be used as part of a unit-credit system, so that at each stage of the curriculum (at school, as well as after school) one should be able to demonstrate what sort of language competence she/he has actually achieved.
  • Modules are relatively autonomous, because, especially in the early stages of language learning, one cannot give up the ideas of a sequence of learning steps and of a spiral , recursive approach to language. So it is legitimate to talk about the integration of basic, intermediate, and advanced modules. However, the basic idea of modularity is that at all levels there should be the opportunity to choose and combine modules in different ways according to the context of each particular teaching situation.
  • Modules are not limited to the “core” language syllabus. It is possible to envisage and implement, for example, cross-curricular modules (involving several school subjects), project modules (aimed at carrying out a particular project) as well as remedial or development modules.

 

 

 

What’s the difference, then, between a “module” and a “unit”?
  • A module aims at developing a clearly identifiable and certifiable portion of the curriculum, expressed in terms of competence objectives.
  • These objectives should be achieved within a clear and realistic time limit (language modules usually range between 20 and 30 hours). This time limit is an important feature of the modular organisation, since the whole curriculum is built around the idea that time and human and material resources should be spent to achieve foreseeable results. This, of course, may introduce an element of rigidity – this is why a modular organisation implies constant monitoring and feedback to ensure that learning is really work-in-progress.
  • Units, too, are generally based on clearly defined objectives (often described in terms of grammar, vocabulary, functions, skills, etc.). Modules, however, seem to be aiming higher – to enable learners to achieve a level of competence which should be described in terms other than just grammar, vocabulary or functions. Units often remain a sub-division of modules (although they may also be called in different ways: stages, steps, etc.), but the focus of modules – their overall organising principle - should be of a different kind.

 

 

 

So what should modules focus on?

Many alternatives are possible  - here are just a few. Modules could be focussed on

  •  …spheres of experience : the family … jobs … school life …
  • macrofunctions : describing … narrating … discussing …
  • communicative activities : reading … oral interaction … mediating (e.g. interpreting, translating …)
  • topics : racism … advertising … new technologies …
  • vocational competences : giving instructions … talking on the phone … using the Internet …
  • textual genres : novels … plays … poetry …
  • areas of linguistic investigation : lexis … syntax … verbal vs non-verbal language …
  • or any combination of the above .

 

 

 

The point to make here is that purely linguistic choices (e.g. in terms of grammar, vocabulary, microfunctions like “asking for advice”) should come as a consequence of having chosen a particular focus – not as the starting point.

 

What should we assess in a module?

This is perhaps where one of the distinctive features of modules vs units comes into play. If at the end of each “unit” within a module we can test learners on discrete items (though not necessarily limiting ourselves to structures and vocabulary …), at the end of a module learners should be put in a position to demonstrate their overall competence, as defined in the module objectives. This also means that unit tests belong to the formative area of evaluation (let’s see what I can do so that I can take steps to improve …), while module tests belong to the summative area (let’s see if I have achieved what I set out to achieve…). It goes without saying that even at the end of a module learners who have not achieved the module objectives should have the opportunity to “balance out” their weaknesses through the provision of appropriate remedial work.

This indeed is the greatest challenge that faces schools: how to set certifiable standards and, at the same time, how to care for all those who happen to find themselves either below or above the average standard.

 

   

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