What Does an Effective ESL Curriculum Look Like? (Focus on Curriculum Part 3)

2012.1.esl-world A curriculum is a vital part of ESL classes. It provides a focus for the class and sets goals for the students throughout their study.A curriculum also gives the student a guide and idea to what they will learn and how they have progressed when the course is over.

A typical ESL curriculum centers around students developing four basic skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. The goal of teaching ESL is to help second-language learners become competent at communicating in English with native speakers. That doesn’t necessarily mean fluent, but proficient enough to act in an English-speaking environment (such as in the United States, Canada, or the UK) with little to no trouble.

What are characteristics of a good ESL curriculum?

Developing a curriculum is no easy task. It requires a long period of research on the needs of the student(s) and experimentation. ESL curriculum is not as clearly defined as other subjects, which makes it difficult to narrow down what students should learn.

Like any curriculum, an ESL curriculum should center around five key stages:

  1. It should understand student needs.
  2. It should determine the focus of the program.
  3. It should set clear learning outcomes.
  4. It should integrate assessment.
  5. It should demonstrate accountability.

The Five Stages

  •  Understanding the needs of learners is important for both curriculum development and effective instruction. Teachers, administrators and curriculum developers assess students’ learning needs to write and publish effective, relevant, and age-appropriate curricula. Understanding literacy development needs in terms of a literacy continuum can help you support learners’ progress beyond the very basics of literacy acquisition, as well as in their lifelong literacy development.


  • Determining your program’s focus is an important second stage in the curriculum development process.  It is based on an understanding of ESL literacy, the environment in which your program operates and the needs of your learners and the wider community. As you determine your program’s focus, you will need to articulate your program’s purpose, goals and approach.


  • Setting learning outcomes is the third stage of curriculum development.  Learning outcomes are at the core of an effective curriculum. Effective learning outcomes are specific, measurable, observable and achievable within a realistic time frame. These outcomes should reflect the desired skills ESL students should develop in these four areas:
    • Reading
    • Writing
    • Listening Comprehension
    • Speaking Fluency


  • Assessment is an important part of curriculum design.  Effective assessment directly measures learning outcomes. This ensures that assessment supports the program’s purpose and goals, and developed in response to the needs of learners and the community. Effective, purposeful assessment promotes accountability and transparency at both program and classroom levels. Another effective way to assess and keep track of student learning and record overall progress, is to keep portfolios of all the students. The portfolios should contain all the assignments, reports, exams, and other work students turn in.


  • Accountability is important in each stage of curriculum development. When program providers and instructors demonstrate accountability, this ensures that everyone has confidence that the program can help learners build the skills and knowledge they need.  A program is accountable when evaluators can pinpoint strengths and weakness accurately, and work to improve what needs to be worked on. There is evidence that the program is successful, that the students achieve the marked outcomes, and the instruction and materials are effective at accommodating learners with different needs and styles.


Reinforcement activities are necessary to allow the student to try to use the new language skills in a practical sense. Try including activities that allows the student to use the target language as a native speaker might, i.e. role playing. Games work especially well for children as well as secondary students and, if the right games are chosen, for adults, too. Furthermore, games provide an opportunity for students who are reluctant to participate in a practice session. Worksheet activities also provide good reinforcement and review. Using a variety of workbooks from different series can provide a wealth of activities for reading and writing.


In closing, developing a comprehensive and effective ESL curriculum takes lots of research, developing resources, and making sure the content and instruction are student-centered. The students should be able to achieve clearly set outcomes and the overall program should be transparent and accountable to parents, administrators and other teachers.

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Filed under Curriculum Design, Education, ESL, Teaching

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