Preliminary study of the English curriculum for non-English major students at Hanoi National university of education

Abstract. This report presents the results of the author’s recent study of the English language curriculum for non-English majors at HNUE, which is intended to achieve a dual objective: to make some contribution to the development of language curriculum evaluation in the country in general, and to provide a scientific background for the improvement of the current English curriculum at HNUE. A survey was conducted, collecting data by document analysis, questionnaires, follow-up interviews and classroom observations for subsequent quantitative and qualitative analysis. Four key aspects of the curriculum including its objectives, materials, testing, and teaching were evaluated. The results helped identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current curriculum. Based on these findings, the author provided some recommendations for the improvement of the curriculum.

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JOURNAL OF SCIENCE OF HNUE 2011, Vol. 56, N◦. 1, pp. 123-129 PRELIMINARY STUDY OF THE ENGLISH CURRICULUM FOR NON-ENGLISH MAJOR STUDENTS AT HANOI NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF EDUCATION Ha Hong Nga Hanoi National University of Education E-mail: nga.hahong@gmail.com Abstract. This report presents the results of the author’s recent study of the English language curriculum for non-English majors at HNUE, which is intended to achieve a dual objective: to make some contribution to the de- velopment of language curriculum evaluation in the country in general, and to provide a scientific background for the improvement of the current English curriculum at HNUE. A survey was conducted, collecting data by document analysis, questionnaires, follow-up interviews and classroom observations for subsequent quantitative and qualitative analysis. Four key aspects of the curriculum including its objectives, materials, testing, and teaching were evaluated. The results helped identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current curriculum. Based on these findings, the author provided some rec- ommendations for the improvement of the curriculum. Keywords: curriculum evaluation, indispensable component, non-English majors, curriculum guidelines, needs analysis, periodical evaluation 1. Introduction The English curriculum for non-English majors at HNUE plays a very im- portant role because it trains English for thousands of students in 22 faculties. Non-English majors constitute the largest proportion of tertiary-level students pur- suing undergraduate degrees in a variety of subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, history, geography etc. The current English curriculum has been used at HNUE since 1993, greatly contributing to the success of the univer- sity’s programme, however, it is time to put it under evaluation due to the following reasons: - Theoretically, evaluation is an indispensable component of programme de- velopment. When a curriculum has been designed, all components such as needs analysis, content, testing etc. should be put under an on-going evaluation which helps reveal what in the program is working well, what is not and what problems should be addressed [1]. As the current English curriculum for non-English majors has been used without any evaluation work for 18 years, an overall evaluation turned to be very natural. 123 Ha Hong Nga - The need has become increasingly urgent when problems arose from nearly all aspects of the curriculum and were pointed out by many curriculum participants. The curriculum guidelines seemed insufficient and inappropriate for both teachers and students. It was complained that some listening materials were too difficult and the tests were often too demanding. They meanwhile were worried whether their English would be good enough to do their jobs after graduation. Some teachers questioned the relevance of several objectives of the curriculum to the job market requirements. Others said that the time allocated for one or another unit in the text- book was not appropriate and yet some others argued that some teaching materials in the textbook exceeded their students’ level of proficiency. The current situation confirmed the need for an evaluation so as to address problems and suggest solutions to improve the curriculum. 2. Content 2.1. Language curriculum evaluation 2.1.1. Definition of curriculum evaluation Curriculum evaluation is one of the key components of the process of curricu- lum development. A number of definitions of language curriculum evaluation have been made by different researchers. Richard et al. in [5] defined evaluation as the systematic gathering of information for the purpose of making decisions. Brown de- fined evaluation as the systematic collection and analysis of all relevant information necessary to promote the improvement of a curriculum and assess its effectiveness within the context of the particular institutions involved [1]. Lynch might satisfy everybody with his clear and inclusive definition of program evaluation: Evaluation is the systematic attempt to gather information in order to make judgment or deci- sions. As such, evaluation can be both quantify and give quantitative form and can be gathered through different methods [3]. 2.1.2. Types of curriculum evaluation * Summative evaluation. According to Brown [1], summative evaluation is usually characterized as oc- curring at the end of the curriculum, and is, therefore, not capable of improving that particular curriculum. The purpose for gathering information in a summative evaluation is to determine the degree to which the curriculum was successful, effi- cient, and effective. The decisions that result from summative evaluation tend to cause sweeping changes and are fairly large in scale; for example, the cancellation or continuation of a whole curriculum. * Formative evaluation. Lynch [3] used the term formative evaluation in connection with curriculum development. It was defined as the use of systematic evaluation in the process of curriculum construction, teaching, and learning for the purpose of improving any of 124 Preliminary study of the English curriculum for non-English major students at... these three processes. One key characteristics of formative evaluation is that it takes place during the course delivery, being, therefore, capable of providing a mechanism for timely improving the course. Brown [1] added that decisions that result from formative evaluation are usually numerous and relatively small in scale because they aim just to modify and fine tune an existing curriculum. Formative evaluation can be built into the curriculum during its development and implementation. When planners make such evaluation a regular part of the curriculum, they are able to timely change, develop, and upgrade it. Evaluation is essential to any language training curriculum; however, both types of evaluation seemed very unfamiliar in Vietnam. At the Faculty of English, although a lot of adjustments to the curriculum have been done unofficially, this work was the first of its kind that has ever been done. As has been stated, the purpose of this evaluation project was to improve the current English curriculum for non-English majors, so the type of evaluation chosen for the study was formative. 2.1.3. Viewpoints of curriculum evaluation Naturally, when a language curriculum is evaluated, all components should be involved as sources of information. Brown [1] pointed out that, each component can be evaluated by answering 3 questions: Is it effective? Is it efficient? and What are the participants’ attitudes toward it? * Is it effective? Brown [1] emphasized that effectiveness of a curriculum is an overall question of interest in most curriculum evaluations. At first glance, this would seem to be a relatively simple determination. Using quantitative methods, an experiment can be designed to discover whether or not the students have learned anything, and if so, how much? However, these sorts of studies are much more difficult than one might initially expect. Planners face not only the problem of designing an airtight study but also the problem of using statistics. In addition, data collection techniques are also suggested, including document analysis (e.g. analysis of the original needs analysis), criterion tests, classroom observation and student evaluation sheets. * Is it efficient? Also according to Brown [1], the second question of interest in most language curriculum evaluations is the degree to which the curriculum is efficient. Using one of the quantitative designs, evaluators could set up a study to investigate the degree to which the amount of time can be compressed to make the learning process more efficient. Brown [1] suggested that questions about all components of the curriculum activities should be asked and data collection techniques used for this sort of study can be document analysis and criterion-tests (both diagnostic and achievement tests). * What are participants’ attitudes? The third concern in language curriculum evaluation will usually focus on the attitudes of teachers and students regarding the various components of the 125 Ha Hong Nga curriculum as they were being implemented. Ideally, when evaluating a language training curriculum, one should address all the three above-mentioned points: effectiveness, efficiency, and attitudes. How- ever, time constraint and the scope of the study did not allow for addressing them all; therefore, the author has decided to choose the third point i.e. to focus on inves- tigating teachers’ and students’ opinions about different aspects of the curriculum. 2.1.4. Criteria for curriculum evaluation Brown [1] suggested that whenever there is a need to evaluate a language curriculum, the key components including needs analysis, objectives, testing, mate- rials, teaching and evaluation itself should be put under investigation. The following figure illustrates Brown’s criteria for evaluating a language curriculum. As can be clearly seen, the system for designing curriculum goes through five stages from needs analysis to teaching, with evaluation providing input at each stage, 126 Preliminary study of the English curriculum for non-English major students at... and then the actual teaching provides input to revise the previous needs analysis. The most important thing to note about this model is that evaluation has a role at every stage, and is thus a constant process. The current curriculum was developed by some teachers at Faculty of English who were not trained to become curriculum designers. As a result, no needs analysis work had been done. So in this study the author focused on the four last components i.e. objectives, testing, materials and teaching. To evaluate these components, the author made selective use of several useful checklists provided by Brown [1]. 2.2. Teachers’ and students’ attitude towards the curricu- lum 336 answered questionnaires from K59 and K60 courses’ students and 30 from teachers of the Faculty of English were analyzed. Students were non-English majors who had just finished the first year of their English study HNUE and teachers who had taught those students. Follow-up interviews and classroom observation were also carried out to get more in-depth information. Some findings are as follows: In general, the curriculum has, to a certain degree, achieved its goal as its selected teaching contents have been considered sufficient by most students. How- ever, the evaluation also revealed that the process of curriculum implementation has been facing serious problems in nearly all aspects. The most obvious deficiency of the curriculum was the lack of a thorough needs analysis and it certainly has led to unavoidable problems in other aspects such as objectives, materials, testing, and teaching. According to Brown [1] teaching is a complex and controversial profession and has a limited set of activities involved in implementing a language curriculum at the classroom level. Here, in the current curriculum, no guidelines or classroom activities are suggested, nor a handy guide or handbook containing all vital program information so that teachers can refer to it when they have problems. Many teachers (24 out of 30, 80%) agreed that the overall objectives of the curriculum were sat- isfactory. However, the rest said they were not specific and well-formatted enough because they did not contain such necessary elements as performance, measure, condition and criterion that a standard objective requires [1]. - All teachers and 290 (87%) students confirmed that the textbooks were appropriate to the students’ English proficiency level. There was little to discuss about the usability of the textbooks in use because teacher’s books, CDs, workbooks including answer keys and tape scripts were readily available for reference. However, a considerable number of students (32%) said that the learning materials were not relevant enough for their future jobs as teachers of different subjects. - The majority of the interviewees including 27/30 (90%) teachers strongly agreed that the mid-term and end-of-term tests met specific requirements of the curriculum. Another good point was that the tests were relevant to what was taught and were appropriate to the students in terms of their level of proficiency. Neverthe- less, there should have been oral tests because speaking is one of the four language 127 Ha Hong Nga macro skills which are necessary for students in their future jobs. Most teachers suggested that there should be a combination of tests and frequent assessment so that students’ abilities could be more reliably measured. The collected data showed that individual teachers’ teaching skills were good enough. In fact, the teachers could maintain students’ motivation in the class (89.8% of the students agreed), managed lessons rather efficiently, prepared well for their lessons, provided clear instructions to students (94.6%). This can be seen as special individual efforts of each teacher in the program. However, the observation also revealed that 1 out of 6 observed teachers were not well aware of the communicative language teaching approach. They still maintained the role of a traditional teacher who spent much time presenting new language items rather than observing and co- participating with students in class activities resulting in the latters’ complaints of insufficient time for practice in class. This also reflects the problem that HNUE is always facing - large sizes of foreign language classes. 2.3. Suggestions for improving the current curriculum Based on the major findings mentioned above, the author would like to provide some suggestions for improving the curriculum as follows: - First and foremost, there should be a closer co-operation in planning and doing needs analysis of all relevant participants (i.e. teachers plus ex-students and current students). Consequently, the course objectives should be more appropriate and relevant to students’ level of proficiency as well as their future careers. The curriculum structure should be reorganized in accordance with the level of usefulness and attainability. It is obvious that curriculum designers themselves cannot imagine all the objectives of a course. To specify useful and attainable objectives, they have to rely on needs analysis done at the beginning of the course or curriculum development. The more thorough the needs analysis is, the more satisfactory the objectives are. - Regarding the testing system, there should be specification for each type of testing; and test designers should check test items based on specification rather than a particular textbook. The test specification would help control its level of relevance and difficulty. Furthermore, test results should be analyzed and used subsequently to re-adjust the course objectives, reallocate time budget and materials, and should be communicated to teachers to re-adjust their teaching. The students’ speaking skills must be tested as the other three macro language skills. - In order to improve the teaching process, teachers should be supported with monthly workshops, seminars, and weekly group discussions. They should focus on such topics as how to improve pair work and group work activities, how to use songs and games to motivate students, how to switch the traditional role of teacher from a mere material presenter into a facilitator and guide, an observer and a facilitator in the class. Class sizes, therefore, should be smaller, say less than 30 students per class, for these techniques to be effective. In addition, classroom observations should 128 Preliminary study of the English curriculum for non-English major students at... be carried out so that teachers can learn from each other how to improve their own teaching skills. - Last but not least, it is strongly recommended that on-going formative eval- uation be included in every component of the curriculum: needs analysis, objectives, materials, testing and teaching. In addition, summative evaluation can also be im- plemented at the end of each school year to find out whether a particular textbook meets the students’ needs and whether or not it should be used for the next course. 3. Conclusion The study has focused on the evaluation of the current English curriculum for non-English majors at Hanoi National University of Education by surveying the attitudes of teachers and students, and on that basis suggested ways for its improvement. Findings from the survey and data analysis have pointed out some weaknesses of the current curriculum which need to be considered. The most obvious drawback of the curriculum is that it did not take into a full account of the students’ background, their needs and interests and some peculiarities of the whole program which leads to some problems in its implementing as mentioned above. Further, the study has suggested some ways for improving the current curriculum. All the five components such as students’ needs, objectives of the course, testing, materials and teaching should be taken into full consideration. Among other things, periodical evaluation to find the best way to improve it with the aim to better meet the students’ needs appears essential and should be an important part of curriculum development. It is hoped that the findings and suggestions presented above would be useful for improving the current curriculum, providing a firm ground for designing a new curriculum for the benefits of all non-English major students at HNUE. REFERENCES [1] Brown, J. D., 1995. The Elements of Language Curriculum. Boston: Heinle and Heinle. [2] Lynch, B.K., 1992. Evaluating a program inside and out. In J.C. Alderson (ed.), Evaluating Second Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [3] Lynch, B.K., 1996. Language Program Evaluation: Theory and Practice. Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press. [4] Richards, J. C., 2001. Curriculum Development in Language Teaching. Cam- bridge: Cambridge University Press. [5] Richards, J. C. et al., 1992. Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Lin- guistics. Longman. 129
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