A snapshot of a simple "core inventory" featured at the beginning of a writing and speaking coursebook I designed for a school in the early noughties...
Let me state from the outset (just in case there has been an initial misunderstanding based on the title of this post), I'm not about to write something relating to accountancy or logistics.
Hang on... Or am I?
Scott Thornbury's recent post about the Core Inventory recently released by the British Council and EAQUALs has created something of a buzz, and at least to some degree, something akin to a collective frown among teachers and coursebook writers (which ranges in scope from approval with conditions attached to a blatant sense of unease).
I have major problems with the idea of the core inventory. Not because it isn't based on actual usage/corpus data (as pointed out by Scott and others, though I do agree this is a major hitch). Nor because of the various other criticisms pointed out on that post (though again, I agree that they are seriously problematic). And while the whole concept of the "inventory" (and the potential connection to the idea of "things invented"?) absolutely vexes me, my "core" problem is pretty simple really.
Core inventories don't work very well when it comes to teaching and learning language.
In the early noughties, when I was academic coordinator and materials writer for a largish private institute for children and teens, we experimented with the whole idea of a core inventory of functions and structures. This seemed important at the time based on various considerations:
- Our approach at that school (based on the chain school's policies and advertising) was separation of skills into different subjects. We wanted to find ways to integrate these disparate streams (reading, grammar, writing, listening/speaking) more effectively.
- We needed to correlate the learners' existing grammar syllabus (taught by the school's bilingual teachers) with what was happening in the native speakers' speaking and writing classes, for the purposes of integration mentioned above, but also to create a realistic framework for the "corrections" so desperately sought in the local context.
- There was a revolving door of teachers coming and going, many of whom had little or no formal teaching experience or training. They didn't know what to focus on when it came to topics, functions, grammar and corrections.
- Learners themselves (and their parents) wanted to know what they should focus on (in terms of lexis and grammar) for private study in preparation for lessons. They also wanted to see a clear correlation to that country's MOE grammar lists to feel reassured they were plugging in to the right channels.
Based on this, we set to work and came up with a basic core inventory which was a mashup of existing coursebooks (especially the grammar ones), MOE guidelines, important local and international tests, and "feelings" about what would be most practical and feasible for purposes of writing and speaking tasks. It was carefully organised by level, and grew/adjusted as levels progressed.
Here is an example from one of the levels:
It was nowhere near as sophisticated or detailed as the Core Inventory just released by the BC and EAQUALs, but it was the best we could come up with as relatively inexperienced teachers and course designers. Later we incorporated things similar to the Core Inventory approach (an adapted application of the CEFR, with inclusion of relevant topics, functions and discourse markers).
These lists and "learning priorities" were included at the start of all the learners' speaking/writing workbooks, so that everyone concerned could see it and refer to it: teachers, learners, their parents. And initially, it won universal approval from all of these parties. Things were clear. Targets were set. Learners could pre-study (and, the teachers hoped, review and attempt to self-correct). Parents could see that their children had a clear list of structures and functions to focus on (which hopefully made grading and testing clearer/fairer as well). Teachers had a clear outline in terms of what to correct and practice based on the learners' speaking and writing in class.
What it really amounted to, in the end, was so much window-dressing.
Learners barely referred to the charts beyond the first week of classes, no matter how much teachers nudged or reminded or referred.
Teachers themselves became stressed out. It was hard enough to teach a certain number of classes per day and actually check students' production (particularly writing), but throwing an inventory cupboard like this at them was almost cruel.
Beyond that, what became abundantly clear was that the inventory approach wasn't having much -- if any -- effect on the learning and communicative performance.
There were a few learners who could refer and review and self-correct based on the lists, but in the end this had a negligible impact on their actual grades for tasks (where grammar/lexis was only one of 4-5 rubrics used for assessment). Conversely, there were many learners who performed well (overall) in speaking and writing who made regular errors with our inventory, but in many cases also never really needed parts of it to communicate effectively.
In the brief experiments we did with making the grading more about addressing the inventory correctly, the production ranged from hopelessly contrived to just downright ineffective.
And for teachers, it was like giving them instructions and lists of items for a lego display, and asking them to apply it with a garden full of plants.
In the end, we left the inventory there at the start of the books to appease parents (and certain learners). But teachers addressed learners' production based on its inherent needs and merits -- not an external checklist of recommended items.
Things got much better from there. And quickly!
Perhaps we weren't using the "right" core inventory. Perhaps it wasn't extensive or broad enough. Perhaps our problems with the design, implementation and management were the primary faults.
Or perhaps the notion of a core inventory represents more problems than it has the capacity to practically address.
As a coursebook writer, I was handed reams of these "core inventories" in the design and review stages of materials writing. They were absolutely horrible to have to refer to, and did impede on what I think is by far the core challenge for materials writers: finding and applying content and activities that are relevant to learners and above all engaging.
But my objections to the core inventory aren't really based on my experience as a coursebook writer.
They're based on my classroom and school management experience. Experience that shows a core inventory is problematic at best, and misleading and thoroughly time-wasting at worst.
And when I think about how much so many schools and teachers rely on coursebooks, and how a "guidelines" document from outfits as influential as the BC and EAQUALs might start to dictate terms to materials writers, I feel my heart sinking.