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Language for Specific Purposes: The Curriculum Development Problem

Language for Specific Purposes: The Curriculum Development Problem

If you teach any language for specific purposes courses, you have felt the pain of having to invent and feed the curriculum with hours and hours of creative energy in order to run a successful course.

 

I teach Spanish for specific purposes, and rarely have I found a text to use that I feel does a good job of presenting industry specific vocabulary paired with logical language instruction – at an appropriate level, for a reasonable price, and laid out in such a way that I can use it as a text in my professional Spanish classes. Forget about a text with relevant comprehensible input…that’s up to you to create. I actually have nothing to complain about, because I have it sort of easy. I don’t have unrelated professions lumped together into one course, nor do I have to take a lead role in defining standards of practice for a given profession. I get the chance to work with industry professionals and graduate level students in my classes who contain amazing amounts of industry content knowledge, and they quickly identify what they need to learn in Spanish. Many of my colleagues – possibly even you – have classes in which a variety of professions (with little to no content overlap) are represented in the same class and some students are really “green” in their industries; yet they are tasked with teaching them relevant Spanish for their industry!

It’s a frustration, but it’s the reality when you get into the LSP (language for specific purposes) world. At the end of the day, I would argue that it’s a trade-off; when I teach Spanish for specific purposes, I get a chance to work with the most amazing, intelligent, and motivated students; but I have to hustle to bring relevant content to the classroom. Yes it’s difficult – and you’re likely not to get a portion of your FTE devoted to curriculum development (total bummer) – but it’s incredibly rewarding to work with people who desperately want an additional language as a practical skill for their workplace. Everyone wants a motivated student, right? The great thing about the LSP classroom is that it’s full of student motivation!

We’ve been teaching Spanish for specific purposes and English for specific purposes since 2001, so how have we made it work at Common Ground? Here are a few lessons we’ve learned along the way, and some tips that we pass along to our new teachers who are just entering the LSP world:

  1. Teacher expectations. At the end of the day your expectations about the time and energy it will require to pull off an LSP class (and do it well) need to be realistic. How much time should you budget for planning/prepping? In our experience at Common Ground, you’re going to spend at least double the time planning and prepping an industry-specific course than a normal course. Not only are you going to want to make sure that you have enough command of the day’s vocabulary as you can, you’ll need to develop some materials.
  2. There is no perfect text. At some level, there is no escaping the reality that you’re going to have to develop curriculum to fit your students’ language needs. We can generally find a text that is at least somewhat close to what we want to do with our students, but we 100% of the time produce a course pack that accompanies the text. This is the course workbook that is dialed in to the field that students are working in or studying for. This allows for perfect grammar activities that use industry vocabulary and realistic situations to reinforce necessary language objectives. Over the course of time, we’ve been able to standardize our course packs into spiral-bound workbooks; but when we initially run a course we just supply students with an empty 3-ring binder and build out the course pack on a class by class basis. There is no pressure to have it all set before class begins – it’s going to be pretty malleable anyway the first few times you run that course – so you might as well keep the content flexible.
  3. YouTube. Comprehensible input is difficult to find when you’re teaching a language for specific purposes course. Often, what you need is usually very specific to a given industry situation, but it must be comprehensible for the level of your class, and highlights a particular grammar topic you’re working on as well. One nice feature of YouTube is the captioning feature – but make sure you preview the captions before showing them in class. They seem to be automatically generated, so not surprisingly they’re often incorrect.
  4. Grammar-lean model. In my world, I have very little contact time with my students because they’re either working professionals or severely overwhelmed graduate students. When I’m identifying what to teach, I have to focus in on only the most practical, applicable, and actionable grammar for them. Usually, my students only need a handful of tenses to be effective in their workplace environment.
  5. Students as experts, teacher as facilitator. Walking through the doors of my Spanish for specific purposes classroom, I remind myself constantly that I’m just a language guy – not the expert in my students’ field. It’s obvious when you step back and think about it, but it’s a shift in perspective that I have to regularly remind myself and my teaching team of. It’s actually a great advantage for the classroom because it helps you keep your class very student-centered. In every class, you should be thinking of ways you can elicit industry knowledge from your students – they love teaching the teacher! Your role shifts from the “expert” in the classroom to the “facilitator” that helps the experts thrive in their bilingual world.
  6. Cross-curricular integration. Students as experts really only works well if your students have industry knowledge. If you’re working with a high school or undergraduate audience, the odds are that they will have limited industry knowledge to draw from. So what do you do? You’re not the expert either in that field – how do you lead your students in practical communicative skills? The answer that we’ve found that works best is integrating your language class with the other courses students are taking simultaneously. This has worked for us on a high school level, and on the undergraduate level. Not only do students appreciate the opportunity to solidify the same content they’re learning outside of your class, but you’re also guaranteed to keep your class relevant. Additionally, you will probably establish some significant collaborative relationships with other faculty on campus as you request brief interviews and phone calls to discuss their industry and curriculum. In many cases, these faculty have been more than willing to share their course syllabi with us so we can keep our class up to pace with theirs. This will likely produce a steady stream of students from that department for years to come and bolster your student registration numbers because other departments on campus know that the language you are teaching is useful and that you are intentionally integrating the language that students need to be successful in their careers. The same applies for businesses and organizations in the community. In our case, community partnerships have been a gold-mine of industry specific content for our courses.

Teaching a language for specific purposes class is not an easy endeavor. This is not a field to get into if you’re looking for a quick and easy class to add to your department, or a simple side-job to start for some easy extra cash. It’s incredibly rewarding and stimulating, but it takes initiative and lots of hustle to get a course off the ground and facilitate it well.

I would love to hear what your LSP curriculum challenges are – odds are we’ve faced similar difficulties and we’d be happy to share our solutions. Feel free to add your tips as well!

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Rory Foster
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Rory is passionate about the Spanish language, an expert instructor, and specifically energized by the practical use of language in industry & community settings.
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