Designing an Oral English Course

Designing an oral English course

Introduction: Context

Defining context is necessary for developing any course plan because the students, stakeholders and setting of the course have a large impact on all that is taught and learned. The very concepts of teaching and learning are culturally dependent and therefore care must be taken to match student and stakeholder expectations. Or in some cases it may appropriate to gently push the boundaries of what is acceptable and in so doing reveal a new way of learning and thinking. A cursory knowledge of the context is often not enough to push such boundaries. “The more information you have about the context the more able you will be to make decisions and to plan an effective course” (Graves 2000, p 18).

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This oral English course will take place at Leshan Teachers College in the mid-sized city of Leshan, in Sichuan province, China. This institution could be considered a 3rd tier college which grants bachelor’s and associate’s degrees to students headed for careers as secondary and elementary teachers. A minority of these English majors will go on to careers in translation, business or tour guiding. A minority will also go on for further study in various graduate fields. The institution offers no guidelines for the course except that the textbook titled Challenge to Speak by Wilson, Olson, Li, Chen and Yao (2005) be used as a text. The teacher is required to develop their own test for use in the course.

The 1st year students enrolled in this course come directly from high school and the majority of them are from rural areas of Sichuan province. Many of their families work in agriculture or serve as migrant workers in factories or on construction projects in the eastern provinces. Students are often disappointed at being assigned to study at Leshan Teachers College. Many had hoped to attend somewhere with more prestige, but in spite of some initial disappointment, most are willing to study hard to improve their English.

Previous to having this class, many of the students have not had a foreign teacher. Though they have studied English for at least 6 years in elementary and high school, they generally don’t see English as a way to build relationships. Most of their focus in their English studies had been on reading and writing with the goal of doing well on the college entrance exams. Most of them lack the oral ability or confidence to consider beginning a conversation with the foreigners that they may occasionally see in their daily life.

Though educational philosophies are gradually changing throughout China, the college entrance exam still dictates that much rote learning take place. In foreign language teaching, theories of grammar-translation and audio-lingualism predominate. Generally, students are not taught to question their textbooks, their teachers or their learning methods. Students typically follow their teachers’ recommendations and assignments very closely and rarely initiate studies on their own. That being said, their powers of memorization and grammar knowledge are usually quite good in comparison to their ability to speak extemporaneously in conversation.

The course meets one time per week for two 45 minute periods. Due to a late arrival on campus and a week of military training, the 1st year students’ semester lasts only 12 weeks. With the distractions that come with adapting to life in new surroundings, the 1st semester of the 1st year typically features a lighter academic load. Many of these students have not been away from their parents before and this obviously affects students in different ways; some embrace their new-found independence while some long for home.

I. Teacher Beliefs

Though a course or a language program is set in a specific locale, and may try to incorporate the desires and needs of many students and stakeholders, ultimately the composition of the course or program flows from one source: the beliefs and identity of the teacher. Successful teaching requires knowledge beyond just the subject being taught; only through self-knowledge can a teacher fully inhabit the combined public and private persona that a teacher must assume (Palmer, 1998). The beliefs of a teacher regarding the subject being taught and nature of teaching and learning will have significant implications in the design of a course; however, a teacher’s worldview may impact his or her teaching approach in ways that are just as significant, but perhaps less apparent.

Since language teaching often involves cultural differences between teachers and students, teachers may need to adjust some of their beliefs when or if they significantly violate the cultural norms of students (Graves, 2000; Lingenfelter & Lingenfelter, 2003). While Johnson (1998, as cited in Graves, 2000) points out that many of a teacher’s beliefs can be difficult to articulate or can hide under the surface of his or her teaching, my experiences with the cross-cultural frictions found in language classrooms have often raised to my consciousness beliefs and values that would have remained hidden in monocultural classrooms. As teachers engage with different student populations, study language acquisition theory or perform action research, they may alter some aspects of their beliefs. This is only natural. The possibility of change ought to propel a teacher toward constant reevaluation of their beliefs because only an intimate acquaintance with one’s beliefs allows a teacher to articulate why a particular lesson was effective or ineffective (Graves, 2000).

Nature of Language

Just as language is constantly evolving and adding new words from a multiplicity of sources, so my beliefs about the nature of language continue to evolve. Originally, I had viewed language as primarily driven by the lexicon. Through performing action research on form-focused approaches, I have come to realize that grammar plays a role that is nearly as important as vocabulary (Eberly, 2008).

But, language goes beyond mundane concerns such as conditional forms or definitions extracted from dictionaries; when forms and words are artfully rendered into literature, the result is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Language is capable of exquisite beauty, but it is not only in its ability to represent the physical world where this beauty is apparent. Its ability to capture the minute inner-workings of the self is peerless among the fine arts, at least in my view. As a literature major in my undergraduate years, I may be biased, yet I’ve found the habit of reading literature and writing a journal to be the best means of understanding myself.

Language is not only something one engages in alone, it is also a means to develop relationships. Though meanings occasionally get obscured in our speech with others, language is what separates us from animals and allows us to work together as villages, countries and with people from around the world to achieve mutually beneficial objectives. Love, as a supreme human experience, would be incomplete or impossible without language as a means of expressing that love.

Language Learning

My beliefs on language learning grow out of my view of language and out of my awareness of myself as a learner. The relational nature of languages and my level of connection to native speakers have played a large role in my success in learning Chinese and Korean, and my comparative failure in learning Spanish in high school and as an undergraduate. Coming from a largely monocultural area of Ohio limited my exposure to native Spanish speakers. So, during my high school and undergraduate days, I saw Spanish as book-bound and irrelevant to daily life – perhaps akin to how some of my students feel toward English today.

Yet living in Korea and China while I have studied those respective languages has allowed me to know the people that are connected with the languages. It has been my relationships to those native-speaking people – friends, colleagues, students and above all teachers – that have energized my studies and made me successful. This is very much in line with Vygotsky (1978) who first noted the crucial role that sympathetic interlocutors play in forming L1 competence in children (as cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006). Brown (2001) carried this into the L2 arena with his interactive approach which in essence declared that it is through meaningful interaction that learning occurs most effectively. Curran also recycles some of these relational ideas in his Community Language Learning approach (Brown, 2001).

World View

Not only do my beliefs on this issue arise out of my experiences as a language learner, they are also rooted in my spiritual understanding of my relationship to God. The Bible is a record of mankind’s relationship with God and according to the Bible, humans were created for the express purpose of being in relationship with God. The arrival of Jesus on earth heralded the willingness of God to send and sacrifice his only Son so that believers might relate to more than just a book or a set of laws; through Jesus, an intimacy with God is possible. My life has been a gradual discovering of just how fulfilling this relationship can be. But though Jesus calls everyone into relationship with Him, He does not force anyone into a relationship they may not desire. This freedom of choice is an important element in any relationship and endues the weaker party with an agency, or freedom of choice, which is a necessary element in establishing an inquiry-based educational environment (Freire, 1996).

Language Teaching

This type of mutually respectful relationship causes not only an increase in knowledge about the other with whom one is in relationship, it also forces a reevaluation of the self as the two mutually define and refine each other. Language teaching approaches that do not in some way promote learner introspection run the risk of creating automaton learners, who, when left to their own devices, lack the ability to carry on with their learning. Undoubtedly, some implicit learner reflection on teaching and learning philosophies is inevitable when the teacher is from another culture. Yet, deliberate activities and assignments which nudge students toward greater reflection of their learning processes and preferences have been shown to lead to greater student proficiency over the long term (Snow, 1996; Brown, 2001). A host of surveys and inventories like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learners (SILL) have frequently been incorporated into lessons as a way to make learners more self-aware (Brown, 2001).

However, the simple insertion of these surveys into a lesson does not a reflective learner make, as I have found in the past. The teaching approach itself must be designed to give students some experiential knowledge of whatever declarative knowledge such surveys may inculcate. By introducing learner-reflective strands into an approach, a teacher can foster one of the paradoxes which Palmer claims must be present in a successful classroom; the space of the classroom “should honor the ‘little’ stories of the student and the ‘big’ stories of the disciplines and tradition” (Palmer, 1998, p. 74).

II. Needs Assessment

Feeling that I know myself well after articulating my beliefs, there is a temptation for me to take some aspects of needs assessment for granted, especially since I have taught at the Leshan Teachers College (LSTC) for nearly 3 years. This is my 2nd year teaching freshman oral English and though I didn’t do extensive formal needs assessment last year, I feel very cued-in to student needs in terms of affect, pragmatics and pronunciation. Also, part of my action research (Eberly, 2008) involved significant assessments of the grammaticality of my students’ speech, so I feel especially familiar with struggles the students may face in this area. Through classroom activities and conversations outside of class, I have learned much about the future plans, hopes and dreams of many of my students. Yet, student populations are not monolithic and even though the collectivist nature of Chinese culture makes it tempting to paint different groups of students with the same pedagogical brush, there will undoubtedly be subtle and not-so-subtle differences from year to year or group to group.

The foregoing introduction has largely ignored what is potentially the biggest advantage, for experienced teachers in familiar environments, in incorporating well-planned needs assessment into their course: the effect on the learner. In addition to providing the teacher with information about how to structure the course initially or alter it as it progresses, needs assessment helps the learners to reflect on their learning, to identify their needs, and to gain a sense of ownership and control of their learning. It establishes learning as a dialogue between the teacher and the learners and among the learners. (Graves, 2008, p. 98)

The dialogic nature of assessing needs is one way in which students can be “heard to speech,” a process which Palmer (1998) describes as necessary not only for the development of interpretive and analytic skills, but also as an affirmation of the humanity of the student. My hunch is that needs assessment rarely takes on a dialogic quality in traditional Chinese classrooms, which tend to be teacher-fronted or hierarchical (Hu, 2002; Pratt, 2007). Yet the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks that may stem from students’ initial confusion or discomfort when facing the task of assessing their own needs.

Pre-course Needs Assessment

Dialogue often is thought to occur between two parties, yet there are other interlocutors who contribute to the process of analyzing needs. Though they may not participate directly in the classroom, they nevertheless have important contributions to make to the direction of the course. The overarching goal of oral English classes in the view of the administration of the LSTC is to prepare students for the TEM4 oral English exam during their sophomore year. For this reason, the foreign teachers at LSTC rarely teach courses to students beyond their sophomore year. For teachers who are unfamiliar with their setting, a discussion or interview with the dean or other departmental leader would be necessary as an initial needs assessment to help establish the criteria for the course.

Though I have not spoken to many parents of my students during my time here, my hunch is that they would see test preparation as the main objective of any oral English course, or any other course for that matter. A secondary concern for administrators and parents alike is the oral English requirements for any post-graduation job that the student may deign to pursue. As future elementary and secondary teachers, the students will likely need good facility with pronunciation, but fluency will not be as important. This is slowly changing though, and more and more top secondary schools are demanding teachers who can teach in English. For students who opt for other careers involving English, including business, tour guiding and interpretation, all facets of their oral English will need to be well-developed.

I see the value of washback from the TEM4, which is scored on the basis of student competence in pronunciation, grammatical accuracy and fluency through the modalities of an impromptu speech, dialogue and story retelling (Wen, Zhao & Wang, 2001). Yet I would seek to augment the criteria of the TEM4 with several of my own. As a firm believer in the value of relationships, I would argue that pragmatic, cultural and confidence-building activities are necessary to promote relationships between the students and foreigners. Though students and other stakeholders may not see much need for these skills, the day of China’s full integration into the international community is fast dawning. I’ve seen almost exponential growth since my arrival here in opportunities for students and recent graduates to go abroad. Also, as China’s economic growth rate continues to outpace much of the rest of the world, foreigners flock here in increasing numbers to work, study and tour. Beyond these potential encounters with speakers of English, the students will have 3 or 4 other foreign teachers during their 4 years of study at LSTC and the ability to form relationships with these native speakers of English will to some degree determine a student’s success in those courses.

The following table consists of stakeholder data collection procedures and descriptions. The procedures contained therein do more than just provide the teacher with a means to assess the needs of students, they also seek to enable students to self-assess. Though student self-assessment is not a significant facet in Chinese pedagogy, I feel these assignments will benefit them in their future language studies and in their life in general.

Table 1: Stakeholder Data Collection Procedures


What data?


By whom?

From whom?



1. Guidelines from department

Interview dean or other leader


Dean or other leader

-Learn how course is situated in curriculum


1. Initial needs analysis survey (appendix A)

2.  Recording and transcription of student speech sample

Assign as homework on day one

Students bring MP3’s to class


Students, Teacher



-Learn of students’ competencies and hopes

-Ss attempt to articulate their own short-comings, T examines weak areas in pronunciation, grammar


1. On-going needs analysis survey

2. In-class audio recording

3.  Interviews

Distribute and collect in weeks 4, 7, and 10

Record during weeks 4, 7, 10

Interview during weeks 4, 7, 10




All students

Students from one section

3 students

-Gather a wide range of Ss’ opinions

-Gain objective pronunciation data, observe small-group dynamics

-Gain in-depth information on student opinions


1.  Recording and transcription of student speech sample

2.  Post-course anonymous survey (see appendix C)

Students bring MP3’s to class

Students complete in class in final period

Students, Teacher

Students, teacher



-Ss attempt to articulate their own short-comings, T examines weak areas in pronunciation, grammar and notes Ss improvement in self-awareness

-Ss reflect on what they have learned and what they still need to work on, T gathers data on successful and unsuccessful course elements

Pre-field needs assessment

Since my course is a mere 14 hours of total class time not counting the test, incorporating student input into my needs assessment will have to be done as efficiently as possible.  As a way to collect basic initial information, a survey questionnaire will be distributed on the first day of class and assigned for completion as homework. (see appendix A)  Assigning the survey as homework will allow students to use their dictionaries and work at their own pace.  The questionnaire has 2 main foci in addition to basic information needed for classroom administrative purposes.  One focus is students’ self-perceived weaknesses and strengths in relating to native English speakers.  Another focus is pronunciation; in what ways have students learned pronunciation, successfully or unsuccessfully, in the past?

Because the Challenge to Speak 1 textbook by Wilson E., C. Olson, H-Y. Li, X-N. Chen & B-H. Yao (2005) will be used in the course, the initial survey includes a list of the language functions included in this text and students are asked to rank their top three preferences in terms of functions to study during the semester as well as designate any of the functions they already feel comfortable performing.  In addition, a significant portion of the initial pronunciation needs assessment will occur in the second week with a recording and transcription project that will test students’ self-awareness of their pronunciation and spoken grammar.

Field needs assessment

In conjunction with an action research project on pronunciation, much of the on-going needs assessment will be performed concurrently with end-of-cycle data collection.  These attempts to gauge students’ feelings on both pronunciation and wider classroom issues will have to be done delicately to avoid overwhelming students who may have difficulty seeing the purpose behind providing the teacher so much subjective feedback.  Each of these short end-of-cycle questionnaires will feature 2 questions requiring written answers and 5 Likert survey items as well as opportunities for students to write further questions or comments about the course.  The initial 2 questions about pronunciation are likely to change from cycle to cycle; however, the Likert statements will remain the same.  Interviews with 3 students will be performed at the conclusion of each cycle, with the intention of gaining deeper insights into some of the issues raised in the surveys.

Objective feedback will be obtained through the use of in-class recordings.  Though checking pronunciation will be the overarching goal of this technique, secondary information will be gleaned about the students’ ability to stay on task, interest in the activity, comprehension of directions, etc… Recordings will be made in both small-group and whole-class settings.

Post-field needs assessment

My hope is that a large portion of the assessment and analysis at the conclusion of the course can be accomplished through a repeat of the initial recording and transcription project assigned during the second week of class.  By having students record and transcribe a passage which incorporates the gamut of English phonology as well as respond to several prompted questions, I hope to gauge their pronunciation and awareness of themselves as speakers.  If they produce fewer errors overall and are better able to articulate their pronunciation and grammar errors the second time through, I will consider them successful learners who have completed a successful course.

III. Developing Learning Outcomes

The challenge in developing learning outcomes is to balance the learning space between an authoritarian approach in which the teacher is constantly forcing their goals upon the students and an anarchist approach in which each student pursues their own agenda.  Undoubtedly needs assessment plays a role in giving the students a voice in planning the outcomes of a course.  Yet I have found in my particular locale in China that students accustomed to a teacher-centered approach may have difficulty in articulating what they hope to learn in a course.  Thus in attempting to maintain a space that is both “bounded and open,” in the words of Palmer, (1998, p. 74) I have often erred in the bounded direction.  I hope in this course, through dialogic needs analysis and attempting to articulate that which my students may find difficult, to be “open to the many paths down which discovery may take us, to the surprises that always come with real learning” (Palmer, 1998, p. 75).

Of course this is not to say that the teacher should approach every course with a blank mindset and allow the students to do all the leading.  Taking into account the context of the course and the beliefs of the teacher will start a teacher down the road of formulating goals for a course.  But it is important to follow up on this start and define the course goals as precisely as possible.  A course “will be effective to the extent that its goals are sound and clearly stated” (Richards, 2001, p. 112).  The better able the teacher is to articulate the goals, the more succinctly they will be able to inform their students of the direction of the course – an important consideration for a course with less than 14 hours of class time.

While there are a plethora of philosophies and frameworks to draw on when establishing goals,  I find myself most adherent to theories of cultural pluralism as defined by Richards (2001) and the framework of ATASK formulated by David Thomson (as cited in Graves, 2000).  Obviously, there are pieces from each of the 5 philosophies described by Richards that I find attractive, yet my setting and beliefs make cultural pluralism the most relevant and accessible to me and my students.  I think the inclusion of a teacher parameter in the ATASK (Awareness, Teacher, Attitude, Skills, Knowledge) acronym allows me to articulate learning goals that I may have for a particular course.  Though social reconstructivists or critical pedagogues may wish to explode the teacher/student dichotomy, I don’t think we can throw all power structure out the window.  The ATASK framework allows me to view myself as a learner and my students as teachers, which is something likely to be beneficial to both of us.

The following table briefly outlines my goals and objectives according the to ATASK framework.  The pre-course portion of my needs assessment informs some of these goals and objectives.  Table 2:


Goal:  Students will recognize specific phonemes or intonation patterns that may cause communication breakdowns with native-speaking interlocutors and self-correct these elements if they lead to breakdowns.

Objective: swbat divide sentences into intonation segments

Objective: swbat apply sentence prominence to the appropriate word

Objective: swbat correctly pronounce the /l/ and /n/ phonemes

Objective: swbat correctly pronounce the /δ/, /θ/ and the /s/ and /z/

Goal:  Students will notice differences in proximics, occulesics, kinesics or pragmatics between themselves and foreign speakers of English.

Objective: Ss will have a short conversation with a foreign English speaker other than the teacher

Objective:  swbat recite examples of openings, closings, ways of stating opinions, discussing the future and encouraging

Objective: swbat define Chinese tendencies in areas of proximics, occulesics, kinesics and pragmatics


Goal:  The teacher will discover which methods of teaching pronunciation and intonation are effective.

Objective: the teacher will record and analyze portions of student talk in the classroom

Objective:  the teacher will obtain subjective feedback on pronunciation through surveys

Objective: the teacher will obtain objective and subjective feedback from student interviews

Objective:  the teacher will write up a 10 page summary of the results of this action research

Goal: The teacher will spend at least 10 hours beyond class time with students each week.

Objective: the teacher will eat with each student at least once during the semester

Objective: the teacher will maintain at least 4 hours of office time each week

Objective: The teacher will spend at least 2 hours at English corner each Thursday evening


Goal:  Students will increase interest in and confidence toward meeting foreign speakers of English.

Objective: Ss will meet and converse with at least one foreigner other than the teacher

Objective: Ss will view speaking mistakes as a chance to learn something, rather than an embarrassment

Objective: swbat list at least 3 topics that interest foreigners and could be used to initiate conversations

Goal:  Students will feel comfortable speaking in class.

Objective: at least 30% of each class period will be spent in small groups so students may practice with the pressure of the whole class listening

Objective: the teacher will use a rotating name list when calling on students so that each student has equal opportunity


Goal: The student will be able to maintain a short conversation with a foreigner who is accustomed to speaking with non-native speakers on simple topics related to travel, food, hobbies and/or studies.

Objective: swbat repair conversational breakdowns

Objective: swbat define basic vocabulary in each of the above categories

Objective: swbat initiate a conversation using contextual information

Objective: swbat recognize signs of disinterest or interest in a foreign interlocutor

Objective: swbat recognize and define common reductions or blends in the speech of native speakers

Goal:  The student will be able to note major pronunciation inadequacies in their own recorded speech or the speech of their classmates.

Objective:  Ss will record and transcribe a 3 minute portion of their own speech twice during the course

Objective: swbat distinguish flat sentences vs. one with proper prominence, as well as phonemes /n/, /l/, /θ/, /z/, /δ/ and /s/


Goal: Students will be able to describe 3 fundamental ways in which western culture differs from Chinese culture.

Objective: Ss will be exposed to illustrations from and explicit definitions of cultural parameters developed by Hofstede (1980, as cited in Davis, 1999)

Objective: Ss will read and analyze various critical incidents in inter-cultural communication as found in Davis (1999) and Snow (2004)

Goal: Students will be able to list internet sites where they can work on pronunciation or meet foreign speakers of English.

Objective: Ss will spend at least 1 hour perusing at least 4 websites that focus on English pronunciation

Objective: Ss will complete sign-up procedures for at least one language exchange web site

Though it is tempting to articulate more than two goals in some of these categories, I must keep in mind the short duration (9 weeks plus 2 weeks for testing) of this course. Also, the new surroundings and classmates as well as lack of nearby family may cause some initial distraction among the incoming first year students. Undoubtedly the freshness of the surroundings will also create a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for learning and trying new things. This excitement, coupled with a relatively light academic load during their first semester, allows me to create goals that are a bit loftier than I would ordinarily undertake.

Overall, my goal this semester is to get my students to see English as something beyond just an academic subject. Of course their studies of English will still necessitate textbooks, dictionaries and all the paraphernalia of academia, yet for them to glimpse the real people who speak this language and to begin to shift from learning the language to using the language to learn will be of inestimable value to them as students and as individuals.

IV. Designing the Syllabus

Knowing the destination at which I hope to have my students arrive is only part of designing a course. Crafting a syllabus is a lot like map reading. When a teacher’s goals are to bushwhack into uncharted territory of making foreigners accessible to his or her rural Chinese students, one must decide which mountains to climb and which to skirt, where to ford the rivers and how far any student can progress toward such a destination within 14 hours of class time. The map reading metaphor also holds for various other continua along which I hope to see my students progress. The syllabus provides the day-by-day and step-by-step route along which students must travel in order to reach their destination.

Graves (2000) lists 3 things to remember when organizing a course. First, she mentions that despite the plethora of options that are possible when designing a syllabus, the teacher must “make choices, because you can’t do everything” (p. 124). Next, the teacher should be cognizant that there is no perfect way to organize and sequence a course. It’s likely that courses organized in radically different ways can produce similar competency increases in students. Finally, though there is no best way to organize a course, the teacher should be able to articulate the reasons for arranging it in the way he or she does.

One of the main considerations in sequencing the lessons should be the difficulty of the material. The easiest material should naturally come first and the more difficult material saved for the later parts of a course. In this way the easier material builds a base to support the later material, which is very likely inaccessible to students without some scaffolding. Another consideration in the words of Richards, (2001) is “spiral sequencing… [which] …involves the recycling of items to ensure that learners have repeated opportunities to learn them” (p. 151).

Topical course format

My decision to sculpt my course into a topical format stems as much from lack of other viable opportunities as it does from any particular attraction to the topical arrangement. (see appendix B for syllabus) My plan is to have 3 mini units of 2 weeks each. Each unit will be based upon a set of cultural parameters in which China and the West (or at least America) differ in significant ways. Two of these parameters (individualism and collectivism, power distance) were first defined by Hofstede (1980, as cited in Davis, 1999). The third parameter, included in Davis’ and Snow’s (2004) text is high and low context communication. My plan is that each of these units will include a specific definition of the cultural traits of these different parameters, at least one case study of how these cultural differences may lead to miscommunication or misunderstanding and a look at several graphic depictions of the differences in cultures by Liu (2007). My hope is that through examining these cultural differences in several different ways with the students, I will be appealing to different learning styles which can make the information accessible to the maximum number of students (Brown, 2001; Lightbown & Spada, 2006).

The most delicate task in designing my syllabus will be the insertion of materials from the textbook. The 3 most popular chapters from Wilson, Olsen, Li, Chen and Yao (2005) as chosen by students in the initial needs assessment survey were on the functions of encouragement and surprise, views and opinions, and plans and intentions. These chapters will be inserted into each of the units according to what functions they cover and their relative synthesis with the particular cultural topic in each unit. By focusing primarily on the dialogue sections in each chapter from the textbook and having the students memorize and recite some of the dialogues, the students may be comforted by a pedagogically familiar approach to learning oral English. Attempting to accommodate myself to local pedagogical norms is an important part of my beliefs and has been shown to increase the perceived effectiveness of the teacher (Graves, 2000; Lingenfelter & Lingenfelter, 2003).

Pronunciation strand

Another major axis along which I hope to move my students is pronunciation. The course will be bracketed on both ends by recording and transcription assignments which are designed to increase their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses of their pronunciation. In view of researchers and theorists (i.e. Celce-Murcia, Brinton & Goodwin, 1996; Derwing & Munro, 2005; Firth, 1992) who recommend a suprasegmental focus for beginning and intermediate learners, I will direct the majority of my pronunciation instruction to helping students identify intonation segments, apply appropriate prominence within each segment and adjust volume, pitch and length of vowel sound appropriately for each point of prominence. I also plan to spend two weeks near the end of the semester on phonemic contrasts including /l/ and /n/, /?/ and /s/, and /?/ and /z/, which were identified by students in the pre-course survey as their most troublesome phonemes.

Grammar strand

Based on action research performed last semester, (Eberly, 2008) I can affirm that an approach which focuses on form does bring benefits to the grammar of students’ speech. Though the time devoted to this strand will be considerably less than the time spent on pronunciation, I still believe it will lead to improvements. Since they will have grammar-specific classes during their time at Leshan Teachers College, (LSTC) I don’t feel as much burden to work on this strand. Through a combination of positive and negative evidence, I hope to get students to hear their own mistakes – mistakes which they are likely to catch in a grammar class or intensive reading class.

The recording and transcription exercises performed at the beginning and end of the course will contain grammar elements. I will expect students to note any grammar mistakes that they transcribe. Hopefully, they will make fewer mistakes and note a higher percentage of the mistakes they do make in the targeted areas on the post-course transcription. Where applicable, the syllabus follows acquisition sequencing guidelines established by Krashen (1977) for inflections and for questions by Pienemann, Johnston and Brindley (1988, both as cited in Lightbown & Spada, 2006). The syllabus includes foci of irregular and regular past inflections, 3rd person singular -s inflections, stage 4 yes or no questions, stage 5 w- fronted questions, future constructions and conditionals. Many of these elements are fairly simple, yet in my experience, students frequently neglect or make mistakes in these constructions during extemporaneous speech.

Relational/pragmatic strand

For students to recognize the value of relationships with foreigners, I must first establish myself as someone who is interesting to and interested in them – someone with whom it is beneficial for them to establish a relationship. With all the language and content goals I have this semester, it would be tempting to rush into all of that while neglecting the personalities of both myself and my students. My syllabus devotes most of the first period to introductions of the students and myself. The second period will be held in a room equipped with a projector so that I may show some pictures of my childhood and recent life in an effort to begin to establish the type of community in the classroom which Palmer (1998) states is necessary for true learning to take place. My hope is that by opening as much of my life to them as possible, it will invite further questions and will encourage them to share openly about their own lives in class.

I also intend to use many personal examples when we discuss cultural differences from the Davis (1999) text. Having lived in China for nearly 3 years, I have accumulated a wealth of examples of the sometimes uneasy coexistence of my American upbringing and the Chinese surroundings in which I find myself. The better they know me, the better able they will be to see my examples and the subject we study not just as an abstraction, but as something dynamic and capable of enacting change in myself and them. This is another of the views Palmer (1998) says teachers should try to instill in their students: that the focus of their studies is not some inanimate object, but a living, breathing entity capable of impacting and changing those who come in contact with it.

I hope also, in the final class period during the week of Christmas, to have the students perform a nativity role play. Through my presentation of the Christmas story, I hope students will see that the presence of God in my life is not merely a vague abstraction, but the source of endless love which flowed through me as a teacher during this course. In order that the students truly know me, they must know that my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life.

The main pragmatic strand will be mostly inductive until the end of the course. Except for some early discussions of breakdown repair, the syllabus saves all pragmatic discussion until the 8th week when I intend to invite students to pool their ideas and try to discern in what ways foreigners go about communicating. The 8th week is when the write-up of their meeting with a foreigner is due. I hope that the combination of analyzing their meeting with a foreigner and time spent with me outside of class will yield some insights on how foreigners open and close conversations and what topics they seem to enjoy. By placing this major inductive activity near the end of the course, I intend that the students will be able to make use of the knowledge gained inside and outside of the classroom as well as the confidence to articulate thoughts or impressions of which they may be unsure.

I also hope that through experiencing these things and then articulating them, the students will be better able to discern the pragmatic tendencies of non-native speakers (NNS) from diverse backgrounds. If this course just required them to memorize a list of Western, or even American conversational conventions, they might never gain the ability to pick up the subtle contextual clues from non-American interlocutors. With the number of NNS using English for international communication now outnumbering native speakers from the inner-circle countries, (Crystal, 1997, as cited in Jenkins, 2002) students need the ability to recognize and react to variances in pragmatic style.

V. Selecting and Adapting a Text and Materials

Being assigned textbooks by the department served as kind of a comfort when I first arrived in China. I had no idea what texts were out there and didn’t have the time or expertise to assess them properly anyway. I’ve gradually moved from an almost complete reliance on the assigned text to almost complete neglect of the text. I have found other texts, both authentic and learner-specific, and have created a lot of my own activities and texts. Though this required some creativity and effort on my part, I judged the improvements to be vast, especially when compared to the oral English text by Wilson, Olson, Li, Chen and Yao (2005) that the Leshan Teachers College specifies.

Upon further reflection though, it seems that my way of presenting these alternate texts went a long way toward handicapping my students in what is perhaps one of their strongest skills – intensive reading. Historically, Chinese education has been focused almost entirely on memorizing the four books and the five classics of the Confucian canon, (Pratt, 1992) and still today texts are often seen as the repositories of true knowledge (Scollon, 1999; Wang, 2001, as cited in Hu, 2002; Jin & Cortazzi, 2006). As a novice teacher, planning more than a week in advance was not my forte and since the campus print shop often required more than a week to print a short text for each of my nearly 300 students, I relied on one class-set of short texts which I would collect from the students at the end of each class, in order to use with my next group of students.

This neglect of their traditional textbook, as well as my failure to allow them ownership of my alternative texts for more than a class period made it impossible for them to preview and review lessons, or to go through texts in an intensive way outside of class. Also, at the end of the semester, students were left wondering what to study for the final exam since I had given little explicit direction about taking notes in class, and most students’ notes were woefully inadequate. It seems my handling of texts in the course described above had clearly violated Graves’ (2000) recommendations that materials and “activities should draw on what the students know” (p. 152). It was not my topics or grammatical foci that were beyond the ken of the majority of my students; instead, lacking ownership of the texts, the students were unable to take ownership of their learning.

For this semester, I am attempting to integrate what I see as three varieties of texts into this course. The first one is the textbook assigned by the college. Though it is imperfect, I feel it can contribute to the course and maybe by using it occasionally, students will get some ideas about how they can use the book on their own outside of class. Next, for my own selections of texts, I have sequenced them and gathered them together to take to the print shop so that the students will have one booklet of course readings to supplement the regular textbook. The last form of text I hope to use in new ways this semester is the text written by the students. Interspersed throughout the supplementary booklet are places for students to take notes, either from things I say or write on the board, from classroom discussions, or homework assignments. Having an oral English course so heavily laden with written texts may seem oxymoronic, yet to me this is one way to bridge the gap between my course and what in China is an almost text-exclusive focus in middle school. It is also my desire to have the students retain ownership of the texts we cover far beyond the conclusion of this oral English course.

Assigned Textbook

Challenge to Speak I, by Wilson, Olson, Li, Chen and Yao, (2005) is an oral English textbook commonly used in lower-level university courses in China. It features units which are grouped according to function. Each unit has 4 dialogues, a series of language patterns included in the dialogues, a section where the student must produce extemporaneous dialogue on a similar tack as the initial dialogues and a reading about some point of cultural comparison. There is also a part of each unit with a lighter theme, either a joke or riddle or song or game.

My main complaint with this text is that the dialogues often seem simple or unnaturally stilted. The dialogues in the same unit are usually associated with a particular locale and this does go some ways toward contextualizing them, yet their blandness and lack of depth give me little choice but to use them mostly to practice various aspects of pronunciation. I intend to practice the dialogues chorally with students and work with them to get the intonation segments demarcated and prominence applied, when our pronunciation focus is on those aspects. I also intend to assign them to memorize one dialogue per unit, once I’m sure they know how to do it according to our pronunciation focus for the unit. Memorization is a big part of Chinese traditional pedagogy (Pratt, 1992), and incorporating some culturally sensitive components into my course should make it more effective (Graves, 2000; Lingenfelter & Lingenfelter, 2003).

The section of each unit which focuses on language patterns may be helpful for students seeking to master certain functions, yet they don’t lend themselves well to communicative activities and therefore, I will largely ignore them. As time allows, certain situations from part B of each chapter may be used to get students talking and role-playing in a more open-ended communicative fashion, while using the particular language function from that unit. Students chose units 12, Encouragement and Suprise, 17 Opinions and Views, and 18, Plans and Intentions, on the needs assessment survey, and thus our use of the textbook will come mostly from those units.

The cultural readings tend to address surface issues in Western culture only and rarely attempt to describe how the underlying values systems of the cultures differ. Therefore, only the cultural readings concerning Christmas and Halloween will be used. Otherwise, I will be able to let the students choose English names from the back of the book on the first day, but that will probably be the extent to which I use this textbook.

Supplementary Course Booklet

In order to provide a more thorough grounding in the theories and values systems underlying Western and Chinese culture, I have included 3 readings from Snow (2004) and 3 case studies from Davis (1999) in my course booklet. The readings from Snow are rather broad overviews of some basic tenants of culture, and how they are different in China and the West. The case studies from Davis are specific examples of when and how these differences may cause communication difficulty. When coupled with the illustrations by Liu, (2007) the booklet should appeal to field-dependent, field-independent and visual-spatial learners. Appealing to a variety of learning styles has been shown to increase the effectiveness of a lesson or course (Brown, 2001; Lightbown & Spada, 2006; Tomlinson, 1988, as cited in Richards, 2001).

At first glance, these supplementary materials may seem to have little connection with the existing knowledge of the students and this would violate recommendations by experts such as Rowntree (1997, as cited in Richards, 2001) that materials should relate new ideas to learners’ previous learning. Chinese students have likely not studied much about sociological or sociolinguistic differences between cultures and attempting to discuss such matters may stretch them into completely unknown realms of subject matter. Yet, I would argue that the basis of these readings and case studies is Chinese culture – something well known to the students. They may have never heard Chinese culture dissected in quite such an academic format before, but they will undoubtedly recognize its portrayal in these texts. Davis (1999) writes in her introduction, “Readers may think it unusual that a foreigner has written a book that in some sense describes Chinese culture for a Chinese audience” (p. 4). My students also may think it strange that my course will seek to define Chinese culture in several ways. Yet, my experience has shown that an increase in knowledge of the other can and should be coupled with an increase in knowledge of one’s self.

The structure of the supplementary course booklet is designed to foster student writing. In many places, the students will be asked to fill in answers with notes taken in class or in response to assigned readings. There are a couple places where the responses called for are more personal in nature. The first homework assignment in the booklet requires students to produce a metaphor to describe their family. This may be an emotionally charged task considering many of these students have just moved away from their parents and hometowns for the first time. The last assignment is the write-up for the encounter with the foreigner. This too may be an emotionally charged task considering the fears and misgivings many students have about their ability to converse with foreigners. My hope is that through more closely examining their place in their family, in their culture and ultimately in the world, they might more readily define themselves.

VI. Developing an Assessment Plan

As students attempt to define themselves and their world in new ways, I will be sorting through the dizzying array of options for assessing student learning and the performance of a course, teacher, materials or even the assessment plan itself. Assessment plans that derive from the beliefs of the teacher and the goals of a course may at times conflict with institutional demands for a particular testing format and instrument, or may succumb to constraints of time and efficiency that weigh on the teacher who has many students. Though I have no such institutional constraints, the burden of teaching 270 students does limit me somewhat in what forms of assessment I can reasonably undertake. Also, the assessment norms of my context in China tend to legitimize certain forms of assessment and limit the face validity of other forms.

The test-centric nature of the Chinese educational system allows English tests to serve as gate-keepers for the entrance to and graduation from the country’s colleges and universities (Jin & Cortazzi, 2006). The TEM4 oral test, a nation-wide oral test for English majors, is taken by all English majors near the end of their sophomore year (Wen, Zhao & Wen, 2001). Thus, the majority of oral English classes are offered to students of this college in the first two years of their study here. This large-scale oral test is one of the few exceptions to an assessment system that usually is a traditionally written, objectively-graded system at both the national and course level. I’m not claiming that the extrinsic motivation and washback from these tests are not beneficial. I have seen how an upcoming quiz can propel students in their studies of grammar (Eberly, 2008).

All too often though, I feel that assessment in the Chinese context tends to be summative and geared more for the institutional administrators or future employers than for the students themselves. I recall past courses where I would have post-test office hours specifically for students to come and pick up their graded paper tests and ask me questions about their answers and grades. Very few students showed up, and those who did usually glanced at their score and departed, without even taking their test with them. Therefore, I would like to attempt to move some of the assessment responsibility for this course from the teacher to the students and hope to get the students to invest in their own self-assessment. Learner self-awareness has been linked with successful language acquisition by many researchers and theorists (i.e. Brown, 2001; Lightbown & Spada, 2006; Snow, 1996).

Course Assessment

The preceding discussion has ignored all notion of formative, teacher and course evaluation, all of which are necessary components of a thorough assessment regiment (Graves, 2000; Richards, 2001). Of course, student success, or lack thereof, on the assessment instruments designed for them, may reveal the effectiveness of the course. Yet, I feel students should be given a more direct voice in the evaluation of the course. I have therefore designed a post-course survey, using some of the questions from the initial needs assessment survey, in order to judge not only their reaction to the course, but also to gauge how their self-awareness and attitudes have changed as a result of the course. (see appendix C) In particular on this survey, I’m looking for an increase in knowledge of their particular areas of difficulty in pronunciation, a reduction in the stigma attached to speaking with foreigners, an increase in their pronunciation self-rating and more variety in their out-of-class pronunciation study methods. I will also note which particular activities they judged to be most and least beneficial and which topics they found most interesting.

Teacher Assessment

Undoubtedly, some of the previously mentioned course assessment will reflect upon me as a teacher, yet I feel it is important to have a few questions on the post-course survey which address specific teacher-performance parameters. Some assessment of my teaching techniques and activities will also be obtained in the comments and Likert scores from the students that complete my on-going needs assessment surveys. This form of needs assessment coincides nicely with the need for formative assessment of my course and teaching approaches. My periodic interviews with 3 students also serve largely the same purpose. My college has no form of assessment which it applies to foreign teachers, at least none which it makes known to the teachers themselves.

Also, a lot of illuminative evaluation on the specific topic of pronunciation pedagogy will be uncovered through my action-research. The success or failure of specific interventionist pronunciation approaches and techniques should aid my understanding of the processes of teaching and learning segmental and suprasegmental elements of pronunciation. Through extensive triangulation, teacher and student perspectives will be thoroughly cross-referenced, which should lead to a deeper understanding of what is actually happening in the classroom and learning process (Wallace, 1998; Freeman, 1998).

Student Assessment

Despite the various forms of aforementioned assessment, the largest portion of assessment will undoubtedly be student assessment. As mentioned before, students will bear part of the responsibility for assessing their own learning and this will occur largely through the final recording and transcription project. I plan to incorporate some of the suggestions of Walker (2005) for constructing the final recording and transcription project. Walker claimed that this type of student recording project “encourages adjustments in pronunciation and allows for peer feedback” (p. 557). I hope this will allow students to build and demonstrate analytic abilities about their own pronunciation, and begin to notice where and when their peers fail to reach the target language norms. It will also be an excellent way for students to review and demonstrate their knowledge of all that the course has included about intonation segments, segment prominence, individual phonemes and grammar. (see appendix D for project handout)

There will be a short paper test in the penultimate class session, as a way to review all of the cultural knowledge that was included in the readings in the course booklet. (see appendix E) The course booklet itself will be collected and the answers written by the students given a cursory glance for completeness. One or two answers will be read in a thorough way to assure that the student did indeed pay attention and answer them correctly.

The final method of post-course student evaluation will be a conversation with me. By stretching the conversations out over two weeks of time, I will be able to allot 5 minutes for each student. I have adapted a rubric from Hughes (1989) and tried to make it so that I as an evaluator will have as little to mark as possible while I am conversing with the student. In addition to Hughes’ categories of grammar, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, I have added my own category entitled conversational comfort, intended to measure confidence and pragmatic language usage. (see appendix F)

Added to this tripartite achievement assessment will be the more mundane progress assessment that is done on a weekly basis in class. There are two homework assignments outside of the course booklet, as well as attendance and participation to consider. Participation scores will be given on the basis of the number of small participation papers that are returned to me at the end of each class period by the students. A student earns one of these papers each time they participate. This is not only for whole-class settings. I also reward speakers in small groups with a paper if I notice they are actively engaged in their conversation.

My intention is to return the 3 parts of the achievement test to the students during the final class period of the semester. By returning and explaining all parts of the test, I hope to make myself accountable to the students. By seeing scores attached to specific descriptions of performance, the students should recognize their weaknesses and strengths in pronunciation, conversation and cultural knowledge. By allowing them to retain their test papers, I hope the students might acknowledge both how far they have yet to go, and how far they have already come in their study of English.


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Designing an oral English course. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved December 7, 2022 , from

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