Lexicology Curriculum Design

During the summer of 2017, I was responsible for the creation of a new Lexicology textbook and curriculum at Hebei Normal University (HNU in Shijiazhuang, China). This encompassed:

  • Researching which topics to include, based on both educational standards and student need and ability;
  • Designing information architecture for the material;
  • Developing the voice and tone;
  • Writing the text of a hundred-page book and supplementary materials;
  • Teaching the final product during the following semester; and
  • Subsequently making improvements based on findings from students, tests, and my own observations.

The main body of the project lasted for three months, from June to August, with revisions and improvements taking place on an ongoing basis after that. I primarily worked alone, with advising from university faculty stakeholders and input from students.

While teaching Lexicology at Hebei Normal University (Shijiazhuang, China), I found that the school-recommended curriculum did not adequately meet the needs of my students. Although the material had appeared adequate during my planning and was at times useful, the writing style was old fashioned and difficult for learners to follow; the language concepts presented were outdated; and the information was poorly organized, confusingly presented, and, at times, incredibly offensive. Moreover, although the course was required for all English majors, students viewed the class as a boring waste of time, regardless of their group or teacher.

You, innocently, five seconds ago: “How can a lexicology textbook be offensive?”

I surveyed my students to better understand their needs and found that they were not only confused by the material and its organization, but that they couldn’t understand why they were learning it in the first place, or how it could be used. This was clearly not just a problem with the book, but also a failing on my part. I elected to completely redesign the course, and as my searches for lexicology texts suitable for EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students yielded no results, I assembled as much information as I could in order to develop my own book.

One of my smaller classes in the language lab

It didn’t take long to have far more material than I could ever use. I was only able to come up with a vision for the book by applying the UX process — I went back to what my users had said. Why would my students need to know lexicology in the first place when they were going to be tour guides and translators and physical therapists and accountants? How could I make a lexicology course that would actually benefit them?

Start with what we know: English is weird.

I began to think about what I could do with my language that I hadn’t been able to teach my students. As a native speaker, I know what “frumious” means, even though it isn’t in the dictionary. I know exactly what my friend means when he says “Hey, let’s food,” even though “food” is a noun, not a verb. I know that “lol” is the first letters of “laugh out loud.” I realized that lexicology was a chance for me to teach students the mental models used by native speakers, giving them an understanding of English that would allow them to communicate more flexibly.

Did you know that capital letters have different implications depending on the language and culture? And some languages don’t even have capital letters!

Next, I returned to the results of the research with my students. Creating material for them had to satisfy three requirements. First, it needed to be easy to understand, written in engaging language that wouldn’t get in the way of learning. Second, the concepts needed to be structured in a way that made sense, starting with the simple and building in complexity. And finally, there had to be a way for them to apply what they were learning and see a practical use for it. I would focus on the why behind the vocabulary and grammar they already knew, and help them understand how to apply it to situations they would encounter in the future.

Brainstorming the information architecture of the book

I developed a voice that was friendly and fun, but also focused. I kept a close watch on the wordings I used, making sure to explain clearly and organize concepts in the most straightforward way possible. My workflow wove back and forth between organizing and writing, as explaining ideas on paper often helped me see relationships that had previously evaded me.

I wholeheartedly endorse including dinosaurs in curriculum at every possible opportunity.

The final structure of the book begins by telling the story of English, providing a larger context for the information the students would be studying. It then supplies tools and skills that will be useful both during the course and after it. The following chapters dive into word types and how meaning can change over time, which flows into the discussion of word formation. The book concludes with a section for students to see exactly how those skills, tools, facts, and mental models apply directly to real life.

The final table of contents

The resulting book, which I used for my class the next semester (and subsequently improved upon), was a great success. The students used their new skills to better understand casual spoken English; analyze and make educated guesses about words they’d never seen before; and even invent their own words on the fly — all things they would never even have considered attempting at the beginning of the semester. They enjoyed reading the text; exams showed that they learned the information better than classes that used the old curriculum; and they even told me how they were transferring their new mental models to other courses.

Using creative analogies to explain linguistics concepts

I also learned a lot in the process — both about teaching lexicology, and about how much language influences the way we think and learn and process information. It’s this awareness that allows us to better understand both ourselves and others, and that understanding is at the heart of authentic empathy and effective communication. And if that’s not UX, what is?

One last thought: Using humor is a great way to engage learners and listeners

For a more in-depth version of this article, please check out my Medium post. I’m currently revising the book’s text and adding illustrations, and I hope to publish it in the near future — let me know if you’d like to be kept updated!