Intellectual Sources

Overview of Intellectual Sources

Content-oriented instruction and the creation of diverse curricular models have been extensively discussed in ESL contexts in the United States, particularly within the lower grades of the K-12 sequence and as part of the mandate for bilingual education in Canada. Yet, with few exceptions, these issues have received almost no attention from the foreign language teaching community in general, from foreign language professionals in higher education in particular. Furthermore, the entire notion of curriculum virtually nonexistent. virtually nonexistent. Thus the profession lacks proposals for a programmatic frame of reference that explicitly acknowledges the long-term nature of L2 learning and strives to make students? learning activities as efficient and effective as possible in order to enable them to become competent advanced users of the language. Instead, a communicative orientation and the Standards for Foreign Language Learning mandates notwithstanding, programs by and large continue to consist of a bifurcated aggregation of courses, where the language courses continue to be separated from the remainder of the enterprise, the content program, and both, in their own ways, tend to follow a formalist understanding of language that has no trajectory into language, language use, and language acquisition as situated discourse.

Our project therefore turned to a variety of sources, resources, and experiences outside the immediate FL field, even outside the United States. Our focus was on exploring the literature for helpful discussions that could connect content and language acquisition in the core components of an integrated and comprehensively conceptualized program that would have a likelihood of leading to advanced language use. Curriculum construction, therefore, inevitably was linked to pedagogical considerations, to materials selection and sequencing, and to new approaches in assessment. In the end, we particularly benefitted from the following areas in the professional literature:

  • Systemic functional grammar in the Hallidayan mode and its numerous followers and its diverse applications, particularly in educational settings in Australia. This approach provided us with a strong orientation toward language in use with a focus on discourse level phenomena that facilitates both a product and a process view of language (see e.g., Bhatia, Christie, Cope and Kalantzis, Eggins, Hasan, Hyland, Martin). With its particular emphasis on genre, this approach also provided us with the necessary model of text in context “of discourse in relation to grammar and lexis.” (Martin 1998, 249).
  • Socioculturally oriented analyses of language and literacy (e.g., Gee, Hasan, Heath, Lantolf, Martin, Vygotsky, Wells, Wertsch). These provided us with a better understanding of the nature of primary and secondary discourses and the need for carefully conceptualized instructional interventions if the discourses of public life were to be attained by our learners of German within a relatively limited period of time. The notion of literacy not only allowed us to consider at length what constitutes “advanced”abilities in an L2 and how we might support our learners’ efforts, it also provided the important link between these adult learners’ literate behaviors in their L1 and their study of an L2. In this fashion we arrived at the centrality of the story, both in interactional language use, and in written narratives and, by implication, in L2 development.
  • Extensive discussion of models of curriculum building aside from linguistic-structural models. Earlier on these flourished particularly in the British or more generally in the ESL context; in the North-American professional discussion they have been expanded by Crookes, Long, Long and Crookes, Nunan, and Richards. They have been researched particularly carefully within the Canadian setting. Though these models and their attendant claims are rarely applicable to the collegiate FL environment in the U.S., we found them invaluable as we began to conceptualize a curriculum that would be both content-oriented and focused on continued long-term language development and would require us to make the all-important decisions of selection and sequencing of instructional events, and by implication materials and forms of pedagogical intervention
  • The SLA literature with a cognitive language processing perspective that focuses on tasks, including such central dimensions as ask complexity, task difficulty, and task performance conditions (e.g., Bygate, Skehan, and Swain; Crookes, Crookes and Gass; Long; Nunan, Skehan, Robinson). Again, these sources provided less ready-made answers and more occasions for translation into our context. This is, in part, due to our explicit literacy orientation and because of a notion of language learning that emphasizes that language use and language learning are situated sociocultural activities that are mediated by communicative practices. Even so, cognitive approaches that give center stage to an individual knower who processes language provided us with some important principles for linking language performance with long-term language development in a way that could lead to upper levels of performance. Related to that perspective, though different from it, the literature on effective learning strategies was an important source for re-imagining our pedagogy.
  • The educational and L2 acquisition literature that examines knowledge structures and their link to text structures (e.g., Mohan) as a way of structuring and sequencing pedagogical tasks that, of necessity, had a strong text base.
  • Research on the importance of learners having differential opportunities for learning at various stages of their interlanguage development and for various aspects of language use and learning for engaging in dual modes of processing, analytical syntactic and collocational-memory based approaches.
  • The Focus on Form (FonF) literature (see particularly Doughty and Williams 1998) which allowed us to explore possible instructional interventions that explicitly linked content with language form and that would attend to the development of accuracy, fluency, and complexity of language use.
  • Task-based assessment of learning outcomes and criterion-referenced performance assessment and their linkage to curriculum development and assessment. (Norris et al., 1998)

In offering this necessarily incomplete list of intellectual sources for our curriculum construction effort, we are not suggesting that we embarked on this project with a well laid out blueprint that was carefully adhered to over the three year period. Instead, as we launched this venture and progressed through its various phases and stages our students provided the most important anchor in what was otherwise a complex system of proposing directions, refining them, implementing them to the best of our abilities, conferring on their appropriateness and efficacy, making adjustments accordingly and, in turn, subjecting the resulting solutions to another round of scrutiny. In all of this both our starting point and surest guide came from our awareness of and commitment to our students. Extensive familiarity with them as young adult learners in a highly selective institution, consideration of our particular institutional context, and acknowledgment of students? special ambitions as individuals and as future professionals in a wide array of contexts guided our determination of their needs and the most appropriate forms that instructional interventions might take.

Once we were on our way, we benfited remkarbly quickly from a dramatic change in departmental culture due to the collaborative nature of curriculum construction. In turn that enabled us, due to a growing shared knowledge base, to draw on relatively sophisticated considerations regarding adult FL teaching and learning. At the end of the implementational phase of the curriculum project, it is this comfortable acceptance of a shared discourse on pedagogy and on the nature of adult L2 learning within a collegiate setting that we hope will enable us to maintain our momentum.

September 2000


It is impossible to provide a list of all the sources that have influenced our thinking. Furthermore, scholarly influences on our project have changed over the years. In particular, we have come to see working with textual genres in an array of genre-derived tasks to be particularly suitable for our educational goals, for our students’ motivation for language learning, and for our own preferred pedagogies. Recognizing both of these constraints, we present a bibliography that, at the very least, shows the scholarly directions that most influenced our work.

September 4, 2004; revised July 2011