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“The Elements of Language Curriculum” by J. Brown


In his book “The Elements of Language Curriculum,” Brown addresses the teaching methodology and approaches used in it to teach language and indicates that although numerous strategies exist that are supposed to regularize teachers’ experience when teaching, the actual process is often either more holistic or more chaotic. Brown suggests that instead of dividing this complex process into various subparts, we should examine “language types of teaching activities”: approaches, syllabuses, techniques, and exercises. Brown addresses five approaches (classical, grammar-translation, direct, audiolingual, and communicative) and notes that all of them are actively used today in schools. For example, a classical approach implies that students need to read and memorize bits of texts in their target language. The audiolingual approach means that students primarily listen and speak and thus form a habit. The communicative approach assumes that inductive and deductive learning are used to meet the needs of students.

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Having discussed approaches to learning, Brown comes to syllabuses and divides them into several groups as well: structural, situational, topical, functional, notional, skills, and task. Structural syllabuses are based on grammatical and phonological structures, i.e., the textbook presents more familiar or easier structures at first and then provides learners with more complex tasks. Situational syllabuses approach various events that students are likely to experience in real life (e.g., when they meet someone, order food at a café, buy souvenirs in a tourist shop, book tickets, etc.).

There are also topical syllabuses, which utilize various topics (“terrorism,” “science,” “hobbies,” “lifestyle,” etc.) that might be useful to students as they can often encounter them. The selection of topics is often subjective as the author of the textbook decides which topics should or should not be included. The sequence of topics can also depend on their difficulty, meaning that students will start with easier topics (“work”) and gradually learn to speak about something more complex (“societal issues”). Skills-based syllabuses are organized in such a way that students acquire skills crucial for target language development. Mixed syllabuses can consist of situations sued for individual lessons and topics for regular readings. Brown labels such syllabuses as situational-topical syllabuses.

Techniques and Exercises

Techniques are used to present the language material to students (based on some syllabuses). Brown provides some examples, such as bridging activities (direct dialogue), discussion (a conversation that is used to demonstrate grammar), idea frame (rules of language presented as a lecture), and lessons centered on an object (verb, gerund, etc.).

Exercises are also presented as techniques that help learn the language; Brown provides multiple examples, among which there are sentence combining (speed writing), cloze procedures (conversion), response drills (restatement), translations (true-false). At last, the author also touches upon packaged pedagogies, which differ from other techniques as they have built-in approaches, are identified with their author, and have a “central point of distribution.”

After reviewing all of the components of a teaching process, Brown argues that teachers’ decision to utilize some of these techniques is a political action, too, because teachers are responsible for the way language is presented to students and defines what teachers think students should do. The book is used by the author as a tool to provide a suitable framework, where various techniques and syllabuses can be used freely.

Curriculum Components

The main components of the curriculum are: needs analysis, objectives, testing, materials, teaching, and evaluation as the primary systematic collection and analysis of all information. The needs analysis should be focused on the learner, but, at the same time, other information (such as the needs of teachers, employers, and even nations) should not be forgotten as well. When Brown defines goals and objectives, he specifies that while goals are a broader understanding of what needs to be done (e.g., to teach students how to write term papers), objectives are precise statements that indicate what exact steps will be taken (i.e., students will learn how to use an electronic library).

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Brown argues that the development of tests can be a tricky task because they can serve different objectives (student placement, diagnostic testing, etc.). The author’s opinion on the matter is the following: two different types of tests (norm-referenced tests and criterion-referenced tests) are to be used to either compare the performance of students to each other or to measure what students have learned. Tests are necessary because they can help shape the expectations of students and teachers.

When speaking about materials, Brown argues that to adapt materials to students’ needs, teachers need to transform their understanding of materials and how they are used. His strategy is to relate students’ needs, objectives, tests, and teaching to materials. This way, materials will also be affected by other parts of a program. Language teaching, in Brown’s opinion, should be based on group efforts. If teachers are provided with the expertise and support of others, if the program is created with the help of such professionals, there will be more space for teachers’ primary responsibility: teaching. Teachers should not be responsible for the development of tests, the adaptation of materials, and conduct needs analyses; instead, they need support in these areas to provide perfect results.

Language Programs

The first example provided by the author is the Guangzhou English Language Center at Zhongshan University in China. The aim of the English language instruction there was to teach Chinese scientists who worked with English-speaking countries. The courses were divided into three levels (low intermediate, intermediate, advanced), but as the proficiency of new students regressed, teachers placed all new students into the first group (low intermediate).

At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the English Language Institute (ELI) English language instruction is provided to non-native English-speakers who have been admitted to the University and have the TOEFL score that is 500 or higher. The courses at the ELI consist of 50-minute lessons that students visit three times per week. They are divided based on the activities: “listening comprehension,” “reading for foreign students,” “advanced reading for foreign students,” etc.


Brown views teaching activities (approaches, techniques, syllabuses, etc.) as responsibilities of teachers and administration, but also emphasizes that a systems framework for curriculum development can be useful when there is a need to implement a cogent curriculum. Although teaching activities were seen as related, they were still perceived as fundamentally independent. Nevertheless, Brown argues that each component of a curriculum affects others as well. At the end of the chapter, Brown also provides checklists and questions that can be useful for teachers in deciding how they can transform or create a new, more efficient curriculum and pay attention to its parts that all influence each other. Brown concludes that “methods” should not be seen as the correct understanding of the teaching processes, as those often depend on the more complex interconnection of its various parts (techniques, syllabuses, approaches, exercises).

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