Our Experience: Fast and Flexible Curriculum Design Using the GSE

Teachers are usually busy – and even in large institutions it is rare for there to be a full-time staff member dedicated to curriculum development. It's not uncommon for teachers to be asked by their organizations to develop a curriculum for large numbers of classes in only a few months. There is severe time pressure on teachers to come up with a quality program. This has been our experience and so we were very happy to find out how the GSE, with its Can-Do descriptors pinpointed at various levels, allows us to quickly create relevant, quality curricula.

Our Context
Our students were first- and second-year students of the English department at our university. The overall program objectives were to:

Foster the communicative and academic skills and abilities, as well as the content knowledge, necessary to engage in meaningful discussion and research on issues relevant to university students in Japan and as members of the global community.

These goals had been previously addressed via our four-skills-based Integrated English Program with, of course, an emphasis on communication / speaking. We had had a functional situation syllabus for quite a long time when the administration decided they wanted to institute a Pre-1 Eiken test goal. We looked at our program and we said, Students have to achieve this goal to move to their third year. Is our existing program going to give them what they need to do that? And we realized the answer was no.

We had maybe six months to develop an alternative for 60 classes over two years, to get students from an A-2 level to an Eiken Pre-1 which is around a B-1 plus. That's quite a leap.

Analyzing What We Need
Now, for Eiken Pre-1 the language ability required includes:

  • general academic skills
  • narrative and descriptive skills
  • opinion stating and discussion skills
(The above was adapted from Oberg, 2009)

However, we did not want to create a curriculum that was aimed at a specific test – or teach to that test. So, we looked at the skills required to pass the test – and a lot of these skills are useful skills –and we added additional skills such as presentation skills. Skills that would be useful when our students go out in the world. And we would still meet the university's test requirements. In addition, we really wanted students to come away being able to talk about subjects like the environment, gender, human migration and other global topics. That was our starting point.

Matching Skills and Can-Do Descriptors
Having defined the necessary skills, we now needed to develop the curriculum. Luckily, we had been involved with evaluating GSE Can-Do descriptors – understanding where a particular descriptor lies in terms of difficulty or level. We had also looked at case studies where the GSE had been used to help develop curricula. We realized that the set of skills we wanted students to learn could be matched up with a relevant set of Can-Do descriptors. Given the level of our students and their goals, this meant descriptors ranging from A2 to B1+.

If you're not familiar with Can-Do descriptors, typical ones would be as follows:

  • Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points.
  • Can get information from a tourist office of a straight-forward non-specialized nature
  • Can initiate, maintain and close simple, restricted face-to-face discussions
  • Can give simple instructions to complete a basic task, given a model
  • Can leave simple phone messages using fixed expressions
There are a lot of descriptors. It's impossible to do them all. So it requires a teacher's sensitivity, knowledge and experience to choose the appropriate descriptors for their curriculum and their students. You can download GSE CAN-DO descriptor lists from here. It's pick and mix – but it's this process of adapting the GSE which is really empowering for teachers and which shows its usefulness and flexibility.

Below is a list of some of the descriptors for our Integrated English Program.

Map of IE Language Learning Objectives

Key General Academic (Functional Language) Skills

  1. Can show understanding using a limited range of fixed expressions (1AU1)
  2. Can give compliments using fixed expressions (1BU9)
  3. Can ask for clarification about key words not understood, using fixed expressions (1AU1) (1AU2)
  4. Can paraphrase a simple factual statement related to a familiar topic (1AU2)
  5. Can use basic discourse markers to structure a short presentation (1BU8)
  6. Can explain key information in graphs and charts, using simple language (1AU4) (1AU2) (1BU6)
  7. Can answer basic questions about information presented in graphs and charts (1AU4) (1AU2) (1BU6)
  8. Can discuss illustrations in an academic text, using simple language (1BU9)
  9. Can give a simple presentation on an academic topic in their field (1BU8)
  10. Can ask for more information by interrupting politely during or after a simple lecture or presentation aimed at a general audience, using basic follow-up questions (1AU3) (1BU8)
  11. Can ask questions about the content of a presentation or lecture aimed at a general audience, using simple language (1BU8)

Additional Important General Academic (Functional Language) Skills

  1. Can explain meaning of a word or phrase using simple language (1AU2)
  2. Can answer questions about the content of a presentation or lecture (1AU4)
  3. Can give an effective presentation about a familiar topic (1AU4)
  4. Can summarize information from a simple academic text (16U9)

Key Narrative and Descriptive Skills

  1. Can tell a story or describe something in a simple list of points (1BU8)
  2. Can make a short rehearsed announcement on a familiar topic (1BU10)
  3. Can give a short basic description of events and activities (1AU3)
  4. Can narrate a story (1BU10) (1AU3)
  5. Can give detailed accounts of experiences, describing feelings and reactions (1AU1)
  6. Can reasonably fluently relate a straightforward narrative or description as a linear sequence of points (1AU3) (1610) (1AU3)

Additional Important Narrative and Descriptive Skills

  1. Can give a short talk about a familiar topic, with visual support (1BU8)
  2. Can describe dreams, hopes and ambitions (1BU10) (1AU3)
  3. Can discuss the main points of news stories about familiar topics (1AU3)
  4. Can give a short, rehearsed talk or presentation on a familiar topic (1BU9)
  5. Can re-tell a familiar story using their own words (1AU1)

Key Opinion Stating and Discussion Skills

  1. Can give simple opinions using basic fixed expressions and simple language when asked directly (1AU1)
  2. Can initiate, maintain and close simple, restricted face-to-face conversations (1BU6)
  3. Can show interest in conversation using fixed expressions (1AU1/U2) (1AU5)
  4. Can use some basic interjections to express understanding, surprise, disappointment, and excitement
  5. Can convey simple information of immediate relevance and emphasize the main point (1AU4)
  6. Can express belief, opinion, agreement and disagreement politely and can express support or
  7. Can initiate, maintain and close simple face-to-face conversations on a familiar topic (1BU6)
  8. Can give or seek personal views and opinions in discussing topics of interest (1BU7) (1AU2) (1AU4)
  9. Can invite others to give their views on what to do next (113U6) Additional Learning Objectives (Advanced Level Only)
  10. Can ask and answer basic questions in simple academic discussions (1AU1)
  11. Can contribute to a group discussion if the discussion is conducted slowly and clearly (1AU3)
  12. Can ask someone to clarify or elaborate what they have just said and can give clarification (1AU3)
  13. Can give simple reasons to justify a viewpoint on a familiar topic (1BU8) (1AU1) (1AU2)

Additional Opinion Stating Discussion Skills

  1. Can respond in a simple way to a verbal challenge (18U9)
  2. Can express opinions and react to practical suggestions of where to go, what to do (1AU2)
  3. Can signal that they wish to bring a conversation to an end (1BU9) (1BU6)
  4. Can ask someone to paraphrase a specific point or idea (1AU2) (1AU4)
  5. Can explain the main points in an idea or problem with reasonable precision (1AU4)
  6. Can express their thoughts in some detail on cultural topics (e.g. music, films) (1AU3)
  7. Can ask a question in a different way if misunderstood (1AU1) disagreement in a way that shows they were actively listening to the other person (1AU2/1BU7) (1BU9)
  8. Can report the opinions of others (1AU4)

Additional Learning Objectives (Advanced Level Only)

  1. Can ask others for reasons and explanations (1AU3)
  2. Can ask a personal or sensitive questions politely (1AU3)
  3. Can use indirect questions in a polite manner (1AU5) (1AU2)

For the content part of the program (environment, gender, human migration etc.) we used authentic L1 materials following the Understanding by Design principles developed by Wiggins and McTighe.

Skills, Descriptors and the Textbook
Having defined the skills and matched them to our descriptors, we needed to see how that affected the textbook we used. But it is important that the choice of textbook comes last. Hopefully, the textbook you have been using maps to the skills and descriptors required but if not, then you've got the wrong textbook and need to select another one. Pearson have started mapping their course books to GSE levels and Can-Do descriptors.

Our students really want to know how they're being assessed – and when we used our previous syllabus without the learning objectives from the GSE, we had a lot of complaints. Students understood their scores but now why they were getting them. There was no clear match between there scores and things they could or couldn't do.

Now, before we do an assessment we are able to describe exactly what kind of performance, and what kind of assessment criteria they'll have, and what kind of outcome we're looking for.

Here's an example: in a second-year class they were having a discussion on endangered species. They formed groups and each researched an endangered animal, coming up with the reasons why this animal should be saved. Their task then was for people from different groups to come together and discuss what they had researched. They were evaluated on their discussion skills as wells the quality of the research they had done and the coherence of the arguments they put.

These evaluations can be based on the students’ performance of identifiable Can-Do statements and so students can be clear about what they're getting scored on and understand what they can and can't do well.

Below is the assessment form we used:
How you will be graded: (1 point for each criteria; Total = 10 points)
Criteria Outcome Assessment
Materials Fill out the worksheet List of pros and cons with reasons/examples
CAN-DO... Can give simple reasons The first reason is...
Another reason is...
Can show interest I see / Really? / That's interesting. / Wow!
Can show agreement and disagreement I agree / I disagree / That's right / That's true / I don't / I see your point, but...
Talking about endangered animals Can suggest pros and cons for saving or not saving an endangered animal I agree / I disagree / That's right / That's true / I don't / I see your point, but...
Can use specialized vocabulary from topic Vocabulary
Fluency/Accuracy Can talk in fluent English
Can talk with reasonable accuracy
We have found the GSE, underpinned as it is by its Can-Do descriptors, a very useful resource to:

  1. help develop English-learning curricula based on what skills we want students to have
  2. match the curricula with relevant textbooks
  3. provide assessment that is relevant and comprehensible to students.

And it helps us get our job done much more quickly!

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