What to teach? Making a plan of action

One of the first problems I came across as a budding early ESL teacher was the question: what do I teach? Of course, I needed to teach them numbers, colors, food, animals, and classroom vocabulary, but – what exactly did these children need to know? What was going to be the curriculum?

I decided that there would be a dual basis for the curriculum. Of course, the children needed a lexicon: words, words, and more words. Equally important, however, was what the children could do with those words. So I needed a wholistic means of looking at the children’s learning and of focusing my teaching to their zone of proximal development.


It was time to look around with the help of my favorite search engine and (practically) best friend: google. Search terms like “language development,” “ESL curriculum”, and “wholistic ESL” crossed the screen until I finally found a language proficiency handbook, written by the Illinois State Board of Education. Finding this handbook was one of my first Eureka-moments: herein was a clearly described continuum of development for ESL learners, outlining exactly how a speaker of a foreign language would develop, which I immediately adopted as a basis for my curriculum.

The stages of language acquisition easily lent themselves to a checklist format. Once I decided how far each child had developed along this continuum – and in the early days that was more of a “touch wind” method than I really care to admit – I then had a clearer idea of where I could lead the class towards.

For instance, if I noticed that some children were able to focus on the main idea of things – “Point to the picture, very good” – then I could cue the other (by now quite lost) children in: “Look, Johnny is pointing. Very good.” I also knew that at this level, it woud be appropriate to get children to repeat simple words. Two- and three-word phrases would come later. Conversely, if a child could already express himself in short phrases, I knew I no longer needed to accept simply pointing to an object as an answer to a question. I could expect that child to answer a question verbally.

I also used – and still use – this continuum to inform my own language use in teaching. If children only understand the main point, I avoid complicated sentences. I keep my own speech limited to their zone of proximal development. If children understand one word at a time, my own speech is therefore usually sentences of 3 or 4 words, accompanied by supportive body language. As the children’s language develops, I drop the body cues and lengthen my own sentences appropriately.

There are, of course, pros and cons to working with a wholistic scale of development. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter what kinds of words the children learn, as wholistic development is applicable to any theme. On the other hand, it’s far more difficult to develop a standardized test for this, as the content of any test will be dependent on the vocabulary and grammar that was taught previously.

As the years passed, I spent time developing an adaptive assessment that allowed for this, as well as a system of recording this. I won’t go into it this time around, but in the near future, the topic of assessment will certainly be addressed.

I wonder how others have attacked the problem of curriculum building?

A link for the aformentioned language policy handbook can be found here.

And a link for more information about the zone of proximal development can be found here



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