Uncharted Tesol

Curriculum Development: We’re going to do WHAT?!

Many courses in the MATESOL program have challenged me to step WAY outside my comfort zone, but Curriculum Development was another matter entirely. When I learned I would design an entire course for my chosen context during the semester, the prospect of doing this was daunting! But my classmates and I hit the ground running, and under the skilled guidance of Professor Jeanne Lambert, our learning adventure was underway. In addition to Jeanne’s expertise and years of experience, the selection of Graves’ (2000) text on course design plus research articles on each part of the design process were invaluable.

Based on my undergraduate studies in music and my desire to work with musicians learning English, I decided to design a listening and speaking course for intermediate level students in a music conservatory context. These students undergo a rigorous audition process and are seeking careers as soloists, orchestral and chamber musicians, opera singers and conductors. This ESP course would be part of a larger ESL program, of which passing is mandatory for admission. The material could be used for a 15 week semester or adapted for an 8 week summer session.

To research my course context, I interviewed music conservatory ESL program directors and music faculty to confirm or correct my original thoughts about the course.  Most surprisingly, each interviewee gave me the same charge: create “buy-in” for the course, especially since English language learning is often seen by music students as competition for their instrumental or vocal practice time. Also, I learned that some students may consider English language mastery unnecessary to their careers.  One professor working with voice students further reminded me to create buy-in by connecting the material to students’ lives as much as possible. Clearly, these interviews provided important insights that would inform my course.

In addition to the interviews, social context issues informed my course design. First, adapting language to social context is an especially important skill for musicians, who may one minute be speaking with a conductor or booking agent, and in the next, making small talk in the cafeteria line.  Also, conservatory students need knowledge of Western classical music and culture, since Western music history, theory and practice are core areas of study for both undergraduate and graduate students. Finally, I wanted to be sure to include the opportunity for students to reflect on and discuss their home and target cultures during the course.

Equally important in informing my course design was an observation of a conservatory student recital. I have observed many student recitals in the past, but this was my first as an ESL teacher (and wanna-be course designer ).  As you might presume, the musical performances were stellar: emotionally moving, technically astounding and, since the program featured humor in music, charmingly witty. However, when students spoke with the audience before performing, they struggled significantly with speaking about themselves and the music about which they were clearly passionate. I began to wonder, what if these performers could use English to invite and guide their audiences through the stories of the music they expressed so beautifully? What if they could share their knowledge and insights about the music with the communicative power they already possess musically? What if these performers could become “living program notes?”

When it came time to make a mind map to organize the course, I was convinced that my organizing principle had to be story. Using stories about musicians, past and present, I could connect language teaching and conservatory content, especially music history, and to material from required humanities courses. Also, stories could be mined for “… environmental ingredients that together contribute to optimal L2 learning” such as acculturated attitudes, comprehensible input, negotiated interaction, pushed output and attending to the language code (Ortega, 2009, p. 79). Also, I could help students connect historical narratives to their instrumental or vocal repertoire, background knowledge and career endeavors. And, hopefully, all of this might facilitate buy-in and subsequent enjoyable learning experiences!

The mindmap

All the stages of designing the course were stimulating and challenging. However, I found that developing materials for an entire unit of the course stretched me even further than other parts of the project. Through research, I learned about a common dilemma facing English for Special Purposes course designers: find and adapt materials or create them from scratch? I took the advice of researchers such as Dudley-Evans and St. John (2009) and tried to adapt existing materials when possible, but also noted Hutchison and Waters’ (2010) materials design model for future instances when teacher-generated materials might be appropriate.   

In keeping with my organizing principle, I chose part of Ludwig van Beethoven’s compelling story as the focus of my unit. This composer faced loneliness and isolation with his increasing deafness as he struggled to maintain his career and reputation, all the while producing some of the greatest works known to humanity. This translated excerpt below from Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament (a letter he wrote to his brothers, found years later after his death) reveals his plight:

But what humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me to the verge of despair; a little more and I would have ended my life… Only my art held me back…

Clearly, this living, breathing genius knew about stress, reputation and career concerns, and pressing on for the sake of art. Music students face profound stresses as they travel across the world to seek training, to compete, to express their art and to build their careers. This unit is entitled Ludwig van Beethoven/ Mental Health and the 21st Century Musician, and will hopefully be useful and interesting to the conservatory student learning English.  It features visual thinking strategy, listening excerpts on Beethoven, stress reduction and box breathing, and discussion activities—not to mention specific work with pronunciation, modals, formal and informal language, and question forms. Although the course is (of course) still hypothetical at this point, I’m hoping for that buy-in. With that buy- in, the learning adventure can continue, for this teacher and her students alike!


Dudley-Evans, T., St. John, M.J. (2009). Developments in English for Specific Purposes: A Multi-disciplinary Approach. Cambridge: CUP.

Graves, K. (2000). Designing Language Courses. Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.

Hutchison, T., Waters, A. (2010). English for Specific Purposes: A Learning-Centered Approach. Cambridge: CUP.

Ortega, L. (2009). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. New York, NY: Routledge.


Author’s biography:

Renee Redmond was born in Brooklyn, NY. She completed her undergraduate studies in music, and considers it a gift to go back to school after homeschooling her son through high school. Renee’s desire is to work with music conservatory students learning English. She will complete the MATESOL program in December, 2019.

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