The agony and the ecstasy: Integrating new literacies and reflective portfolio writing into the languages curriculum

Authors: Marina Orsini-Jones and Monika Kohler-Rodley


This article reports on the impact of a curriculum innovation in the area of academic and professional skills for undergraduate linguists at Coventry University, the aims of which were to raise students' awareness of language learning processes and reflect upon their own learning. The authors that all involved found this curriculum development very beneficial.

This article was added to our website on 12/01/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

This article will report on the impact of a curriculum innovation in the area of academic and professional skills for undergraduate linguists at Coventry University.

Module 143LAN Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning, is compulsory for all undergraduate degree courses including a language (or two) as a 'major' subject. These can be either specialist degrees in languages or joint degrees where a language is half the programme of studies. The first year module was designed to address the need to standardise the delivery of skills across the Languages Group. It is meant to be a reflective module, where students think about the way they learn both in generic and in language specific terms and transfer newly acquired skills and literacies to the other modules that they are studying (Orsini-Jones 2004).

The aims of module Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning are thus to raise students' awareness of language learning processes and to encourage undergraduates to reflect upon the ways in which they can improve their language learning skills in an academic and professional way. Its syllabus is based upon the lessons learnt in the two years of piloting skills for linguists as an integral component of the language-specific modules (Orsini-Jones, Edkins, Koehler-Ridley and Lewis 2002).

2. Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning: brief summary of the module's aims, outcomes and related assessment

In line with the recommendations contained in the Subject Benchmarks, this module aims at engaging students actively with the new literacies and skills required by the 'knowledge society' (QAA 2002; Murray 1995).

It was decided that it would be delivered in English, but that it would also include language-specific tasks. This is because there is evidence (Cottrell 2001) that students do not acquire new skills if they cannot see their direct relevance to their chosen subject of study. It is however difficult to engage students in reflective activities at a deep level if they are only beginners in a language, which is why the language of the reflection on tasks in the portfolio had to be English, even if the dossier attachments could be language specific and include language specific reflective logs. As the module also aims at developing the professional skills of future linguists, its 'alignment' (Biggs 1999) in terms of assessment with the other compulsory language modules was sought not only to develop subject-specific professional language skills (such as translation) but also to develop oral communication skills and team work the two most desirable 'soft skills' required by employers in the UK (Cottrell 2003:39).

Students are required to make regular contributions to WebCT discussion forum and also write an electronic reflective personal portfolio of their progress in academic and professional skills, based upon the European Language Portfolio (Davies & Jones 2001; Orsini-Jones 2003 & 2004).

The module learning outcomes are that, on its completion, the student should be able to:

1. Demonstrate the ability to retrieve information from a variety of sources in support of language learning and to reference academic essays appropriately;

2. Work in teams and reflect on aspects of grammar;

3. Show the ability to create a personal homepage in WebCT in a target language studied;

4. Reflect on language learning, as experienced during their first year of studies;

5. Evaluate their individual progress in terms of academic and professional skills for linguists, via the Language Portfolio.

The above outcomes are assessed via:

a. Online test on information retrieval, referencing and essay writing (30%) - outcome no. 1;

b. Group/pair presentation of a project on the language of grammar, delivered both face-to-face and within WebCT (40%) - outcomes nos. 1, 2 and 4;

c. Design of a Personal Homepage in the target language of choice outcome no. 3;

d. Pass mark in the European Language Portfolio - outcomes nos. 4 and 5.

3. Evaluation 2002-2004: why agony and ecstasy?

At the end of both academic years 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 feedback from staff highlighted the following positive outcomes ('ecstasy'): the aim of standardising assessment across languages at level one had been achieved; virtual and real peer-observation resulted in a higher level of engagement with WebCT of colleagues who had previously been very reluctant to engage with it; the re-planning of the module for 2003-2004, in view of staff and student feedback, was a truly collaborative enterprise; all colleagues commented on the improvement in referencing and presentation skills of language students following the introduction of the module. Both staff and students valued the positive effects of peer-learning/knowledge sharing and peer support promoted by the module.

In 2002-2003, however, student feedback showed that the portfolio was causing them some 'agony'. Some saw it as too challenging and others as "a waste of time".

In line with the action learning and research cycle set for the APS module, the Module Information Descriptor (MID) was changed to incorporate student and staff feedback and in 2003-4 a completely revised syllabus resulted from the process. The students' feedback in 2003-4 was extremely pleasing (real 'ecstasy') e.g.:

"At first the relevance of this module was questioned, but now that we have been through our first year the group has realised that it is this module that gives skills for your assessment and also for your professional career. Next time this module is questioned tell that person that the module equips you with all you need to pass your language modules and more." (Semi-structured interviews transcript 2003-2004)

4. Discussion

The curriculum development described here has been very beneficial for all parties involved. The cycle of reflection, research and learning will continue from one academic year to the other, as the skills module is meant to be an 'evolving' module, that reflects both changes within the academic world and in the world of work and develops according to staff and student feedback.

However, there still are some issues to be addressed. Some students still find portfolio writing daunting. Is this task - within the context of 'reflective and independent learning' and 'personal development planning' PDP - too challenging for first year undergraduates? Is 'learning to learn' a language a 'threshold concept'? (Meyer and Land 2003)? Can a language student graduate in a state of 'liminality' (Meyer and Land 2003)? Should this be a worry to us? What more could we do to enhance the development of reflective skills?


Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University . Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Cottrell, S. (2001). Teaching Study Skills and Supporting Learning . Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cottrell, S. (2003). The Study Skills Handbook: Second Edition . Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Davies, V.E. and Jones, M.R. (2001). The European Language Portfolio: a major step on the road to learner autonomy. In Coleman, J. A., Ferney, D. Head, D and Rix, R. (eds.) Language-Learning Futures: Issues and Strategies for Modern Languages Provision in Higher Education. London: Central Books/CILT, pp 63-70.

McKernan, J. (1996). Curriculum Action Research: A Handbook of Methods and Resources for the Reflective Practitioner. London: Kogan Page.

McNiff, J. (1988). Action Research: Principles and Practices. London: Routledge.

Meyer, J.F.K. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (1). Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving Student Learning Ten Years On. OCSLD: Oxford.

Murray, D. E. (1995) Knowledge Machines: Language and Information in a Technological Society. New York: Longman.

Orsini-Jones, M., Edkins, S., Koehler-Ridley, M. and Lewis, J.E. (2002). From focus group research to the European language portfolio via WebCT, unpublished paper delivered at the Joint CILT/SCHML/UCML Conference, Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education , 24-26 June, Manchester Conference Centre.

Orsini-Jones, M. (2003). Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning, LTSN Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, at

Orsini-Jones, M. (2004). Supporting a course in new literacies and skills for linguists with a Virtual Learning Environment: Results from a staff/student collaborative action-research project at Coventry University. ReCALL 16 (1) pp.189-209.

Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education (2002). Languages and Related Studies, Subject Benchmark Statement. Gloucester: QAA.

Related links

All articles relating to skills for languages in the 'Good Practice Guide', LTSN Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies)