Choosing an English curriculum
Taipei Times
Oct. 18, 2007

By Dan Ritco
Thursday, Page 8
In my two previous articles ("Creating a better education system," Sept. 12, page 8, "What can Taiwan do about its education?", Oct. 1, page 8), I briefly addressed the issue of selecting or developing the most pedagogically sound ESL/EFL curriculum for Taiwanese learners. But many parents do not know the critical difference between a skill-based versus a content-based curriculum.
Parents need to be better informed about the major differences between these two types of curriculum so they can make the best choices for their children, regardless of whether they are in public schools or in "cram schools."
A skill-based curriculum is one that teaches the necessary skills to achieve fluency in another language. A useful analogy is a pyramid. The base of a pyramid must be very strong to support the rest of the structure. In practical terms, students first need to build a broad, solid vocabulary base.
As anyone who has ever studied foreign language knows, thousands of words must be memorized before fluency is possible. The next level of the pyramid is grammar (or the Eight Parts of Speech in the US).
Students need to be able to take the words they have learned and construct grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs of increasing complexity. Their writing skills must be simultaneously developed.
Students must be taught how to read effectively. We read for two reasons: for entertainment and education. In both cases comprehension is the key. At the top of the learning pyramid are effective listening and speaking skills.
Only after acquiring the proper language skills can a student go on to study academic subjects in English like history or science, most which have their own specialized vocabulary.
Since English is comprised of over a million words (60 percent of which are of Greek and Latin origin), students do not only need a large vocabulary base but must also have an understanding of logic (such as inductive and deductive reasoning) to determine correct word usage in their proper context. These are the tools they can obtain through an effective skill-based curriculum.
Curricula of both types must never be dull or boring. They have to be brought to life and made meaningful to learners by experienced and qualified educators. Advanced students should be challenged by their teacher in areas the students have an interest in. In an ESL "cram school," this means teaching content-based material.
However, the core skill-based curriculum is never compromised during this process, while the content-based subject matter is always supplementary.
All teachers need to be thorough and follow time-tested educational procedures to effectively implement any kind of curriculum.
Each lesson has to be pedagogically structured to offer a proper review of the previous lesson. Only then can new concepts, grammar and vocabulary be introduced.
Teachers must also employ a wide variety of assessment methods -- not merely testing -- to ensure that what they set out to teach is actually understood by their students.
Finally, teachers must use various review techniques to aid memorization while making references to previously covered material.
At the heart of this entire process remains a clearly defined curriculum.
Dan Ritco is a certified teacher from British Columbia, Canada.