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Curriculum Design or Curriculum Overload? The real problem with Tier 1 provision

I'm taking a side-step from the Multi-tiered System of Learning for EAL to discuss the issue that is raised in almost every school I have ever worked in when I introduce the concept of language-integrated teaching - the plaintive cry of 'But we don't have time to add anything else in to our curriculum!'. I understand this sentiment, and I know where it is coming from, but it doesn't negate the need for strong Tier 1 provision. The truth is that in most schools (and almost all international schools) our curriculum is the issue.


That may seem like I'm critiquing the quality of your curriculum, but I assure you this is not the case. I visit schools that have amazing curriculum leaders, and have equally amazing curricula and teachers. The problem lies not in the quality itself, but in the mismatch between the curriculum and the students. The bottom line is (or should be) the following:

We need to design the curriculum for the students we have in our classes, not for the sake of the curriculum itself.

I see a lot of over-planning in schools, where the effort is to have the richest curriculum possible. I applaud the ambition, but if we have a significant number of students who are learning the language of instruction, we also need to take into account their needs. A very dense curriculum that relies mainly or wholly on higher-order thinking and inquiry leaves behind our language learners unless we design the language they need right into the learning. If we want to provide equity in learning opportunities, we need to adapt to meet our learners where they are, and that means flexing our curriculum. It's better to focus on fewer things (units, objectives, standards, etc.) and do them well than to leave students behind.

This is a particular challenge of inquiry-based learning such as we see in the Primary Years Programme (PYP). Inquiry is language-centred and requires higher-order thinking. When we deliver a curriculum like this to language learners we need to adapt our approaches; we can't expect them to be able to magically keep up. Keep in mind that all important 5-9 years to develop a new academic language fully, and compare that to your learners and to your curriculum! The simple solution with a unit-based curriculum that includes different lines of inquiry is to have one line of inquiry dedicated to language in each unit. This explicit focus on the language needed to understand the content and work towards being effective in sharing our learning is the foundation of Tier 1; it's up to each teacher to support the language of learning as it is needed.

International schools benefit from a significant amount of autonomy in terms of our curricula and pedagogy. We can use that autonomy to design and deliver a curriculum that allows all of our students to learn and thrive, but that means meeting the language needs of our students through our curriculum, not leaving them behind in the quest for the 'best' curriculum.


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