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December 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

The Elements of Language Curriculum: A Systematic Approach to Program Development by James Dean Brown


Published in 1995 by Heinle, Boston, MA

Some books are so good that they deserve to be reviewed again and again to keep them fresh in the minds of those who can benefit from them. The Elements of Language Curriculum: A Systematic Approach to Program Development by University of Hawaii at Manoa Second Language Studies professor, James Dean Brown is one of those books. Published in 1995 it has not been bested since, remaining relevant through all the trends and travails the language teaching field has gone through since. Not only is it substantively the best book on foreign language curriculum development, but I can think of no better exemplar in the language teaching profession of the Classic Style of writing, characterized by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner as clear, to the point, and “at its best…transparent, as if the reader were looking at something through a perfectly clean and undistorting window [which] should not draw attention to itself” but give the reader a straight-forward, easy to understand picture of what is being written about (Noël  and Turner 2011). This style is advocated by Steven Pinker, who also characterizes it as being “an antidote for academese, bureaucratese, corporatese, legalese, officialese, and other kinds of stuffy prose.” (Pinker 2014) The Elements of Language Curriculum has both substance and style.

Brown clearly lays out six elements which are the basic building blocks for a foreign language curriculum: 1) needs analysis, 2) goals and objectives, 3) testing, 4) materials, 5) teaching, and 6) program evaluation. Language learning programs should begin with a needs analysis. What exactly is it that learners in a particular educational context need? Is it a class of hotel management majors? Business majors? Learners focused on science and engineering? Each group of learners will have different needs according to their particular focus. Once learners’ needs have been established, goals and objectives for the course can be identified. After goals and objectives have been laid out, the best method of testing student achievement of those goals and objectives can be devised. Educators can then adapt, adopt, and/or develop teaching materials that fulfill the goals and objectives of the course and prepare students for tests. Then they can decide specifically on which teaching methodologies will constitute the best vehicles for learners to achieve the course goals and objectives. With this groundwork laid, teachers can walk into the classroom prepared to give instruction to the best of their abilities. The final element of a program is to evaluate its efficacy in achieving the goals and objectives laid out for it and use that data to improve future course offerings.

Brown offers his audience  many things of substance that are not always found in other works on curriculum development, always expressed in the clarity that characterizes Brown’s mastery of the Classic Style of prose. I will mention two that I find particularly helpful. One is elucidating terms that other authors either give vague definitions of or are content to leave to readers’ intuition, a perilous practice in the field of foreign language pedagogy. An illustrative example is his defining the terms “goals” and “objectives.” In colloquial English, and, unfortunately, in some references on language teaching, the terms are often used interchangeably. But in the field of education there is a definite difference. Brown defines goals as “general statements about what must be accomplished in order to attain and satisfy students’ needs.” So a goal of a course in hospitality management might be to acquaint learners with international norms of customer relations. “Objectives, on the other hand, are precise statements about what content or skills the students must master in order to attain a particular goal.” An objective might be to have students demonstrate an ability to follow detailed procedures when a hotel guest has a maintenance request for their room, for example to specify exactly what the problem is, the manner in which to communicate with the guest, the relevant staff at the hotel to contact in order to address the request, etc. Clear explanations like these written in prose that is easy to understand is something Brown does throughout the book.

The second contribution that I want to mention is how he fits testing into the curriculum, namely that he advocates developing tests before developing teaching materials. This is counterintuitive to many beginning teachers who race to make tests the weekend before midterms based on what they have presented in the first half of the semester. And it is sometimes the subject of controversy for more experienced educators and especially for those in the educational bureaucracy such as principals, superintendents, school board members, and university administrators who often have vague, folksy, common-sense intuitions of what they think might be right for the classroom but little familiarity with the actual research on what is actually effective for learning—especially concerning educational endeavors that run counter to unanalyzed “common sense,” such as developing tests before materials. These neophytes often intuit that developing tests before materials may result in “teaching to the test,” which they fear might “narrow” a curriculum to exclude large amounts of material that otherwise might be included in a course, what is sometimes called a negative washback effect. What they don’t know is that pedagogically sound tests invite a positive washback effect. Developing tests first keeps teachers’ eyes on the ball at all junctures of a course so that they remember to include and emphasize concepts and skills that speak to the goals and objectives of the course, but does not in any way mandate the exclusion of the complementary material that would make for a full and complete course. In fact, this focus on what will be tested creates an efficiency of teaching that allows even more time for supplementary and complementary materials. This is because the teaching of the “core” materials is streamlined through knowing beforehand what to focus on, which increases the efficiency of its presentation, which in turn allows more time for other endeavors that can fill out a course. Pedagogically sound tests, constructed after goals and objectives but before teaching materials, provide educators with fenceposts upon which to build—not fences within which to restrict.

These are only two highlights of the book. There is much more. It is filled with a plethora of other useful information, both practical and theoretical, to guide foreign language educators towards designing a curriculum that fulfills the needs of their students. For example, Brown broadens needs analysis beyond narrow language-focused goals of learners to include those of “teachers, administrators, employers, institutions, societies, and even whole nations” so that what is addressed in class is not just what education can do for the student, but also what the student can do for society. He elucidates and provides practical advice on how to implement the many different types of testing that may enter into curricula: placement, proficiency, diagnostic, and achievement. He also explains when, how, and why to use norm-referenced and criterion referenced tests. Concerning materials development, he offers a great amount of information and practical advice on the classic materials development question of adapt, adopt, or develop. In the area of teaching itself, he provides not only advice and research about what methodologies have proven successful in fostering language acquisition, but supplies programs with assistance in the crucial endeavor of supporting teachers in their teaching, on how language programs can be a buffers between teachers and the school administration which might impose duties and requirements on teachers that interfere with their ability to teach at optimum levels of performance. Even this supplementary list barely scratches the surface of Brown’s offerings in this book. There is much more.

For those foreign language teachers who follow principles laid out in and activities offered by the works of educators such as Paul Nation in the area of vocabulary acquisition, Michael Rost in listening, Sandra McKay in reading and writing, and Henry Widdowson for speaking—to name a very few; for those who use books by authors like Jack Richards, Douglas Brown, and Jill Hadfield in more language-focused curricula; and for those who have specialized courses in English for Special Purposes, Content-based Instruction, or any of the other myriad courses taught around the world, The Elements of Language Curriculum provides the glue to put it all together in a coherent whole that gives educators the best chance at giving the best instruction they can to their students.



Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

Thomas, F-N. & and Turner, M. (2011). Clear and simple as the truth (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton bUniversity Press.

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