This is the second of our summaries from the MaWSIG IATEFL Pre-Conference Event, which was held online on Friday, 18 June 2021. In her talk, Frances Amrani weighed up the pros and cons of a top-down versus a grassroots approach to scope and sequence design.

This presentation was designed to raise more questions than it answered.

It started by looking at the definition of ‘scope and sequence’, as defined by the International Bureau of Education UNESCO:

  • Interrelated concepts that refer to the overall organisation of the curriculum in order to ensure its coherence and continuity.
  • Scope refers to the breadth and depth of content and skills to be covered.
  • Sequence refers to how these skills and content are ordered and presented to learners over time.

It was noted that in ELT publishing, the scope and sequence is usually the map of the book, including topics, skills, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, CLIL, recycling, functionality, and any extras, such as warmers or consolidation tasks.

Publishers and authors often come to the development of material, and thereby scope and sequence, from different perspectives. The publisher often has a commercial viewpoint, with a clear hole to fill in their list. This ‘top-down’ approach is prescriptive and typically driven by things like CEFR can-do statements, English Profile-graded vocabulary and grammar, topic lists, exam syllabus mapping, national curricula from ministries of education, 21st century skills, competitors’ products – either in terms of differentiation or cloning – and market expectations.

This often results in matrix-driven writing with predictable content. This type of material risks limiting personalisation opportunities, and makes the material either too generic or too specific. While it may match perceived needs, it often fails to match real needs. It can also result in the material being seen as boring. On the upside, it is often seen to guarantee an expectation of ‘standards’, and this is one of the reasons it persists. In spite of this top-down approach resulting in materials that all look more or less the same, each publisher still has to find a USP (unique selling point) for their product. This is one of the reasons why they need the creativity that authors provide.

For the author, writing materials is more like designing a garden. There are infinite exciting possibilities, but there will only be one garden/project for the author this year. This ‘grassroots’ approach does not entail a predetermined scheme of work, and it risks resulting in a scattergun outcome. On the other hand, it does provide opportunities for personalisation, differentiation and addressing a real learning need, and it produces creative and exciting content which often goes beyond the confines of ELT. However, it can also be something which is seen as ‘hard to sell’ and risky.

The reality of current ELT publishing is that very few unsolicited ideas these days are published. Most are commissioned and there is often a tendering process with samples conforming to the brief. Most of the scope and sequence is top down.

In some ways, this means that some of the classic innovative materials we were all familiar with some years ago would be unlikely to be published if they were proposed to publishers today.

Publishers often define the linguistic focus first and the context second. Mainly because of my EAL background, my default focus has always been on accessibility to target language and subject matter – in short, looking at what language a text naturally needs to access it. Examples of this include:

  • idioms through football commentary
  • dialogues within soaps (mini-drama series)
  • discourse markers in celebrity interviews
  • imperatives with adverts.

The tension between wanting to be innovative and wanting to conform can result in a ‘sweet spot’, combining the positive elements of the top-down and grassroots approaches; this can be commercially viable, i.e. it checks all the boxes, yet is fresh and new. Examples of this can be seen in recent publishing, with a move away from character stories in textbooks and a move towards authentic photos, e.g. Discovery/ National Geographic; demand for more technology; a move towards a skills-based syllabus; a move towards CLIL-based syllabus and a move towards 21st century skills, e.g. critical thinking, creativity and collaboration. Developing a good scope and sequence is about finding the right combination of grassroots innovation and top-down direction.

Finally … some questions to think about:

  • What makes a good brief for an author?
  • How can grassroots innovation be included?
  • How do you persuade the publisher to include some creative ideas that weren’t on their radar?
  • How do you do unbiased market research for scope and sequence design?
  • Who are the gatekeepers beyond the publisher, and what are their agendas?

Frances Amrani has been delivering international teacher training and trainer training for over 30 years. She has worked in publishing since 1991. She works closely with academic institutions, major publishers, the British Council, NILE and other training providers. She has been an academic consultant for recent projects in Europe, China, the UAE, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kazakhstan and North Africa. She has worked as a freelancer in publishing services for the main ELT publishers for the last ten years via her own consultancy business. She is currently Series Editor for a series of Modern Foreign Language books with Hachette and a lecturer in EMI for Girton College’s summer programme at the University of Cambridge.