"If a language course is not achieving the results that it should, or if the nature of the course causes dissatisfaction for the teachers or learners, then one of the first prerequisites for change is present. If the whole range of people affected by the change see the need for change, the conditions are ideal. Often, however, not everyone sees the need and those who are dissatisfied may have to convince those who are not. This often occurs when change in the classroom becomes necessary because our understanding of effective language-learning practices change." — Paul Nation and John Macalister in "Language Curriculum Design"

If you are part of an ESL program assessing your curriculum through a best practices lens, an institution looking to establish a best practices ESL program, or a teacher looking to work in a best practices program, what should you look for?

In a series of articles, we'll examine elements that constitute a best practices program. Today, we begin with curriculum.

There is a preponderance of best practices evidence affirming the efficaciousness of integrated curriculum, including research by, but not limited, to the National Research Council; Richards and Renandya; the Council of Europe; Finney; Schwarzer; Blanton; Beglar and Hunt; Scarcella and Oxford; Hinkel; Erickson; Drake; Shoemaker; Beane; Clark; Pate; Fogarty; and Miller.

Decades ago, neuroscientific research demonstrated the immutable connection between neural plasticity (malleability) and learning (among but not limited to Vygotsky; Sylwester; Restak; Caine and Caine; Healy; Gardner; and Bunge).

According to Robert Sylwester, the brain itself is integrated: "Our brain's cellular units are tiny, their numbers are immense, and everything is connected." Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine explain that the brain is "designed to perceive and generate patterns (and) resists having meaningless patterns imposed on it. By meaningless, we mean isolated pieces of information that are unrelated to what makes sense to a particular student."

In their article "Reinventing Schools Through Brain-Based Learning," Caine and Caine continue, "Brain-based learning stresses the importance of patterning, that is, the fact that the brain does not easily learn things that are not logical or have no meaning." Clearly, a curriculum with discrete parts is detrimental to students' learning.

Sylwester observes that, "Our brain has always defined the education profession, yet educators haven't really understood it or paid much attention to it." Sylwester's "A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain" accessibly explain how the brain functions and the implications of brain function on education and curriculum design. Ultimately, Sylwester notes that neuroscience beseeches us to design and implement an integrated curriculum:

"Everything is connected to everything else. Our brain is a dense web of interconnected neurons. Any neuron is only a few neurons away from any other neuron, and all the organisms that inhabit our global village are now also highly interconnected (at least electronically). The naturalist John Muir suggested that when he carefully studied anything in nature, he discovered that it was connected to everything else in the universe. Thus, such things as the language arts, thematic curricula, and multicultural and environmental education programs are central to any curriculum that hopes to help students discover who they are, where they live, and how things are connected."

Among the legions of researchers and educators who advocate for an integrated curriculum is Denise Finney, who asserts that "most applicable to ELT today is an integrated approach, which is essentially learner-centered and is an attempted 'synthesis of the product-oriented ends-means model and the process-oriented approach.'"

Eli Hinkel identifies the need for integrated curriculum, particularly now: "In an age of globalization, pragmatic objectives of language learning place an increased value on integrated and dynamic multiskill instructional models with a focus on meaningful communication and the develop of learners’ communicative competence."

Robin C. Scarcella and Rebecca L. Oxford agree with Sylwester, Finney and Hinkel. In "The Tapestry of Language Learning," Scarcella and Oxford observe: "Language is viewed as a meaning system ... comprised of many different but connected strands. The strands are not treated independent of the whole. Every skill relates to other skills. Touching any skill in the system affects other skills because of their related nature."

One of the key strands includes the primary skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. This strand is connected to the skills of vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, syntax, meaning and usage. Fifteen years ago, the National Research Council advocated for "a responsible curriculum" that integrates three critical elements:

  1. in depth knowledge of content and topic knowledge
  2. conceptual understanding in order to gain awareness of structures in various disciplines
  3. critical thinking skills to be able to engage in meta-cognitive strategies of self-monitor learning (i.e., learning how to learn, how to think, and how to solve problems)

In her book, "Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul," H. Lynn Erickson underscores the need to jettison the traditional curriculum and replace it with an integrated one: "Historically, curriculum has been governed by discrete subject areas and topical organizers for content. ... The problem with this model is that the information base in our world is challenging the best of microchips."

David Schwarzer's work reflects the work of his fellow researchers and teachers who advocate for an integrated, whole language (holistic) curriculum:

"In whole language, all language skills are integrated ... and class activities incorporate the students’ knowledge and talents. ... Taking a holistic perspective means looking at language as a whole rather than approaching it in pieces, such as studying adverbs in isolated sentences or practicing verb conjugation out of context merely to memorize the endings. It means studying the language in context so that the learners experience it in a realistic way. It prescribes integrating reading, writing, listening, speaking and cultural activities."

Fredricka L. Stoller notes that more than 30 years ago, applied linguists were keenly interested in "integrated instruction."

In addition to best practices research promoting an integrated curriculum, best practices offer a significant number of approaches to integrating curriculum: theme-based curriculum, content-based instruction (CBI), project-based and problem-based instruction, task-based learning, and service-learning/community engaged learning.

In Part 2, we we look at two types of integrated curricula: theme-based learning and culture-based curriculum.