Behind the Scenes: Developing a New Curriculum

Developing a new curriculum is a lot of work, work that we're very proud of. Now that we're about to launch some more languages, we wanted to show you how we do it.

Behind the Scenes: Developing a New Curriculum image

We’ve started 2019 with a bang here at Chatterbug, and we’re going to be launching two new languages soon; French for English speakers and English for Spanish speakers. We’re really stoked about this and look forward to welcoming lots of new students! These two new languages will be joining the ones we already have, having begun with German in late 2017 and with Spanish in June 2018.

One of the reasons we’re so excited about finally being able to offer these two new languages is the amount of work that has gone into getting ready for their upcoming launches. In this post, we’d like to show you a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes to create a new language curriculum for our students!

Our Curriculum Teams

The first step in developing a new language course at Chatterbug is hiring the right team to design and implement our unique curriculum.

Meet Inda, Stefie and María José, our Spanish language curriculum design team.

Spanish curriculum team

Inda heads all curriculum design here, but as a native Spanish speaker, she has been personally involved in contributing to the Spanish curriculum as well.

Then, there’s also Danielle and Ryan, our English language curriculum design team…

English department

…and Geraldine and Lauréna, our French curriculum design team.

French curriculum team

Our curriculum teams tend to work in pairs on languages, ensuring that there’s always someone to bounce ideas off of. Let’s take a look at everything they have to work on in order to launch a new language.

Planning the Syllabus

The first thing to do when designing a new Chatterbug curriculum is to plan a high level overview of what we’re going to teach and in what order.

We call this the Syllabus and plan out a first pass in Dropbox Paper. This lets us get a rough idea of what the communicative goals at each step of the course will be. These are things like “Asking for and giving phone numbers” or “Checking in to a hotel” in the early levels, all the way through topics like “Discussing friendship in the modern age” at the later levels.

Once the communicative goals are defined, we can work backwards through which grammatical structures (“simple past tense”, “superlatives”, etc) and vocabulary the student will need to master in order to accomplish these goals. We also try to identify some phrases and chunks that the student can memorize that might be helpful. This establishes the general framework and scaffolding for a student to progress from zero knowledge of a language to basic fluency across a range of subjects.

To determine what these goals are, we always begin with a lot of research. We look at the CEFR standards to make sure that we’re generally in line with that framework - so if you finish our Level 1 course for instance, you should be able to pass any A1 standardized test.

Then we look at other textbooks and curriculum that have been designed at these levels. Since all the Chatterbug exercises are designed to be modular, repeatable and only for one-on-one interaction, none of the existing materials will perfectly fit what we’re doing (as they’re usually designed for large groups of students all moving at the same pace), but they can give us a good idea of what the communicative goals at these levels generally are.

Curriculum as seen on user end

Designing the Exercises

Next we start designing the exercises that will be used in our Live Lessons (our video sessions where students can practice the language in real time with a live tutor). Our driving philosophy at Chatterbug is that you become comfortable with the things that you do often and so if you want to become good at speaking, you should practice speaking a lot.

We have three main exercise themes and our design approach for the exercises is guided by these themes. Each lesson that a student takes with us will have a combination of these exercise types, in a specific order.

The first type of exercise is a warm up. These are designed to get your brain ready for learning. There are a few different themes that we can use in this class type of exercise. Some warm ups are designed to reactivate the neural connections of some information that we think you already know and are about to go deeper on. Others are meant to introduce new information in a way that is easy and relaxed. Still others are meant to remind you of prerequisites for a more complicated topic you’re about to tackle. For example, in French, before doing a drill on passé composé, which depends on knowing the être and avoir verbs, we might do a warm up about these verbs just to make sure you remember them well before doing something more complex with them.

The next type of exercise is a drill. These exercises are designed to help you learn and reinforce vocabulary, grammar or chunks (redemittel) in your new language. Chunks are small phrases that help you communicate naturally - filler words like ‘um’ or ‘anyhow,…’, greetings like wie geht’s or ça va? and so on.

Drills put passive knowledge into active practice. We can assume that you’ve been exposed to this information in your self study time - that you got flashcards for them and have memorized these words or phrases to some degree. The drills are meant to make you recall these things in a live context and reinforce them in the process.

In drills, this reinforcement is done communicatively in a controlled way. For example, we could have the student read a sentence in the present tense and then say the same thing in the past tense, helping to reinforce those verbs and also the ability to compose conjugate that tense in your head. They should be just a little challenging, helping your brain improve at recalling something focused and specific.

Finally, we have situations. Our situational exercises are designed to get students to practice their communicative goals. We try to design open conversational prompts or communicative situations that the student might find themselves in so that they can practice being in this situation in real-time conversation before having to face it in real life. They’re designed to not be actively corrected, so that you can understand what you can get across in a real communicative situation, not what you can produce perfectly in a controlled setting.

We design all of these so that every lesson is presented in an arc from closed to open practice. Warm ups should be very controlled and designed in a way where you can’t really make mistakes. They are meant to stimulate rather than test you - get things moving in your brain. Drills are more open, but still fairly controlled. With drills you can, and probably should, be making mistakes and the tutors can correct you and help you improve. Situations are very open and free form, helping you go in any direction you want and helping improving your be awareness of what you can and cannot yet say or understand.

Building the Data Model

Once we know what the goal of each exercise should be, we can produce the actual exercise. This means a main image or text that is the focus of the exercise, instructions for the student, separate instructions for the tutor, optional private texts for either side, optional private images for either side, and so on.

Live lesson example

The images for the curriculum can be produced by the curriculum developer themselves, or they can be sketched out and passed to our design team who can help produce an image for them.

Illustration process

We typically need about 10-12 exercises per lesson, with 3 lessons per minor level and 10 minor level per major level. This means that for our A1 (beginner) curriculum alone, we need to design and produce around 350 individual exercises. It typically takes a week to produce one full minor level of 3 lessons (~30-40 exercises), which means a team of two can produce a major level in about 1-2 months. We typically need at least three major levels before general availability, so it takes us 5 or 6 months from starting on a new language until students can start using it.

Our German curriculum for example, has 4 levels (A1, A2, B1, B2) comprised of over 1200 exercises that the students can do. Our Spanish curriculum that was launched in June goes through B1 and has almost 1500 exercises.

Once the exercises are in our system, we can start connecting the dependencies. These are the vocabulary words, grammatical topics and phrases that the student should study before attempting the exercises of a lesson. They are connected to each lesson in our system and we ensure they are presented to the student before scheduling a lesson.

Once that is all completed, we will then curate media clips (video and audio files) that are appropriate for the level and theme of each of our sections and are also fun or motivating. Since we need transcripts for all of them, we will then have contractors go through all of the clips to produce a transcription file for each of them. When those are completed, we can upload or link them all into the system and connect them to the appropriate level.

Testing, Feedback and Revision

Once we have an initial set of exercises and vocabulary completed (though not necessarily any media or phrases yet), we often begin testing internally or with friends and family. We like to start early to start catching issues and problems with our curriculum before opening it up to a wider audience.

This begins the process of our feedback improvements loop. As students start completing our exercises, we start getting feedback from the tutors (and sometimes the students) about which worked well, which were confusing, which were too long or too hard, and any other issues, both good and bad. We can then do passes through the exercises and revisions to simplify or improve them. This process starts with our internal testing but continues for months after even our public release of the course.

feedback improvement loop

In addition to user and tutor feedback, we do a few professional feedback passes, looking for mistakes, errors and typos. This is done closer to when a large portion of the course is completed.

We can also do review of individual student lessons for targeted sections of the curriculum, if the student gave us permission to use their video for research purposes. This allows our curriculum team to see if a lesson actually played out the way they designed the exercises, or if it seemed to go off path or in a different direction than intended. We can use these video reviews to see if instructions were clear, if we should shorten them or to find another way to communicate the goals. We can see if the exercises were motivating, if mistakes were made or if the content was too short. We don’t get to do a lot of these, but when we do, they’re incredibly informative.

Finally, for our vocabulary study portion, we have an appeals process that informs us of when you type something that you believe is correct but we don’t have as an acceptable answer yet. Our tooling allows us to go through these responses regularly and approve new acceptable answers based on your feedback.

On-boarding Tutors

Live lesson trial tutor

Once we have a few levels and can start inviting in more and more students, we need to start finding tutors. For this process, we’ll sometimes create Facebook ads or ads in more local listings specifying our requirements and then start vetting tutors.

Generally a tutor will fill out our application form with some information about themselves and a video of them speaking in the target language and talking about themselves a bit, so that we can verify that they’re either a native speaker or that they have extensive teaching experience.

If the video and application look good, then we can schedule a live training lesson with them, connecting them to one of our staff who can walk them through an example lesson and evaluate if they’re friendly and motivating for our students. After that training session, that tutor can start giving live sessions in the system for that language.

The Last Word

After all of this - all of these thousands of tasks and months of work - we can open the course up for general usage. This is always really exciting for our team and our community.

We’re incredibly proud of the hard work and thought that goes into all of our material and we hope that you enjoy learning through our new and innovative system as much as we like coming up with new ideas to help you really learn a new language.

We really look forward to our students enjoying learning the languages that are available through our platform and being successful in doing so. We celebrate your achievements in your target language as if they were our own and look forward to expanding our offer further so that there’s more for everyone to celebrate!