logo  ELT Concourse teacher training
Concourse 2

Syllabus design (and coursebooks)


Three questions to start us off:
    What is your definition of a syllabus?
    How does it differ from a curriculum?
    How does it differ from a course plan?
Click here when you have three answers.


Types of syllabuses in English Language Teaching

There are rather too many of these.  The following is available as a PDF document.
The design of a syllabus often betrays the underlying theory of language and learning that the syllabus writers hold.  For example, if a syllabus lists only structural items to be taught, it shows that the writers believe that language is structurally based and that learning requires the ability to use structures, grammar and other formal linguistic items successfully.
Nunan (1988:52) points out, in a centrally important text in this area

the traditional distinction between syllabus design and methodology has become blurred

This is because more recently devised syllabus types clearly require the application of certain types of methodology to deliver the content.  A task-based syllabus, for example, demands the application of a task-based teaching approach.  Here's a list:

Syllabus Description Typical content
Structural A 'traditional' syllabus, listing formal language items to be learned.  The ordering of items usually depends on a judgement concerning their complexity rather than communicative utility.  Simple forms are handled first, more complex ones later. Such a syllabus will usually contain lists of grammar, lexis and phonological features to be covered.  For example,
First conditional
Gerunds after verbs
going to for intentions/plans
have got (
+ bare infinitive.
Past simple vs. Past progressive
Present perfect with for, since etc.
Words to describe the appearance of people
Schwa and other common weak forms
Skills-based This kind of syllabus targets language abilities rather than the formal aspects of language. Usually a list of skills to be demonstrated and taught.  For example,
Delivering a short talk
Writing a letter of complaint
Understanding a lecture
Reading an academic article
Situational This kind of syllabus will cover the settings in which learners will have to deploy appropriate language.  A key distinction is made in such syllabuses between structural and lexical words (by, be, which etc. vs. house, table, gasp etc.) Typical content will include items such as:
At the doctor's
In the post office
Travelling by air, train, car
Renting a flat
Topic-based This is a syllabus organised around topic rather than language structure which has similarities to both a lexical and a situational syllabus (with both of which it is often combined). Typical topics in such a syllabus might include:
Personal relationships
The weather
Lexical This kind of syllabus focuses on lexical patterns and common ways to express meaning.  It usually draws on corpus research to discover patterns and frequencies in the language. Typical items would include:
Collocational patterns: adjective + noun, adverb + verb, etc.
Delexicalised verb patterns
by: expressing who, how, when, where
would: expressing past habit, unlikelihood

Notional A syllabus which focuses on learning the language to describe universal concepts, notions such as size, temperature, frequency, likelihood etc. Typical content will cover lists such as:
Functional / Communicative A syllabus which focuses on learning the language to perform certain functions in the language such as asking for and giving information, apologising etc.
Such a syllabus may subsume within it a notional approach but that is not common.
Typical content will cover lists such as:
Asking about/expressing likes and dislikes
Greetings and introductions
Offering/accepting/declining refreshment
Expressing forgetfulness
Expression political opinion
Granting forgiveness
Task-based / Procedural This kind of syllabus focuses on using tasks to help learners deploy language communicatively.  It is important that the tasks represent real-world language.
This kind of syllabus is often combined with a skills-based syllabus.
Task types are usually listed and sometimes particularly tasks are prescribed.  For example,
Negotiation tasks: reaching a consensus
Forward planning tasks: planning an excursion
Judgement tasks: writing a review of a film
There is a guide to task-based approaches on this site (linked below).
Learner-generated This relies on learners knowing what they need to do in English and what they need to learn to achieve the skills they need.  The syllabus is then negotiated between the students and the teacher/institution. Typically, these syllabuses end up as lists of concepts, topics, skills and structures such as:
Using the present perfect
Writing an email
Interacting informally
Giving a presentation at work
Mixed This is possible the most common type of syllabus and focuses on combining elements of all syllabus types so that each lesson or series of lessons focuses on different aspects of what is to be learnt. Typical content will include items from any of the areas above.
In many cases, a mixed syllabus will be a combination of a structural, functional and topic syllabus.  Language will be set in a topic area, the structure will be presented and practised and then the learners will focus on using the language to communicate.

This is not, as you would imagine, the end of the story.  There are other components of syllabuses which, while not forming a syllabus in themselves, are often inserted into the syllabus.  Two of most common ones are

  • cultural syllabuses
    which list the sorts of things learners need to know about the speech community's shared values and knowledge (for example, systems of government, cultural icons etc.).
  • content syllabuses
    in which the language to be taught is drawn from the need to teach and learn a different topic – teaching English through the teaching of other knowledge and skills such as happens in English-medium schools situated in many settings where English is not the official language, for example, teaching sciences in English because the majority of texts are in that language.


Combining syllabuses

It is rare to find any course or institution focusing on only one of the syllabus types outlined above.  Most will combine aspects of two or three syllabuses to try to meet the needs of learners who may be quite disparate in this regard.  For example:

communicative plus
Communicative Language Teaching varies.  A strong form of the approach is one in which any formal teaching of structure (including phonology) is abjured, the principle being that learners will acquire the formal aspects of language in the effort they make to communicate in the language.  A weak form, which is more commonly used, sets as its target the enhancement of the learners' ability to use language for real communicative purposes.  However that is achieved is a matter for the teacher and syllabus designer (often the same thing).
It is common, therefore, to find a communicative syllabus alongside a structural one with elements of a task- and skills-based syllabus running parallel.
This can be effective in terms of, particularly, the teachers' comfort zones and the learners' expectations of what a language course should involve.
The downside is that the various strands may not be adequately linked so the linguistic resources in terms of structure and phonology required by the learners to attain their communicative goals may not be given adequate attention.  This often means that, while the learners are deploying language to achieve some form of quasi-realistic communication, they are not actually learning anything new.  Lessons can, in this way, focus only on practice rather than be real learning opportunities.
structural plus
The other side of the equation is the combination of a syllabus which is ostensibly structural in nature and takes language items and the grammar and phonology in order of complexity will have, grafted onto it, communicative tasks for the learners to carry out and in which to set the formal aspects they are learning.
This can be effective in showing the learners the real-life relevance of the language they learn as the proceed through the item on the syllabus.
The downside is that in order to achieve the mix, the communicative tasks which are carried out have no relevance to the learners' needs outside the classroom and, while an exercise to use the present perfect simple, for example, to discuss current levels of experience may be a vehicle for the deployment of the structure, its relevance in terms of whether the learners will ever need to do that in the language is overlooked.
task-based plus
The temptation, when using a task-based approach to teaching, is to combine the syllabus with elements of a skills-based approach and even some elements of a structural approach.  This is often done to try to ensure that the learners have the skills and language they need to carry out the tasks they are set.  It is also the case that elements of a communicative syllabus are implanted in the syllabus to make the tasks more focused on real life.
The advantage here is that this may overcome the common criticism of task-based approaches that they do not, in fact, lead to learning but to learners deploying language and skills they already know.
The disadvantage is that the principle underlying task-based learning is overlooked, i.e., that the tasks are meaningful to the learners.  Task design then tends to be driven by assumed skills, structural or communicative needs rather than the tasks representing real language use for the learners.
situational plus
Situational syllabuses attempt to set language socially rather than treat it as a series of items to learn (whether those are structural, notional or functional).  The obvious temptation is to use the situation as a backdrop for the use of communicative strategies or the deployment of structural, phonological and lexical items, rather than focusing on the social nature of a situation.
The positive outcome is that communication is based on recognisable and often familiar settings for the learners who can see the relevance of what they are doing to real life encounters.
The negative impact is that the social nature of language may be overlooked so the learners use language which is appropriate for the people in the room with whom they are interacting but are not prepared for encounters (whether spoken or written) in which the power relationships and social distances may be very different.
topic plus
Topic-based syllabuses are rarely used discretely but topic-driven courses are quite common.  In such a course, for example, the learners may be exposed to language set in a variety of topic areas such as education, health, transport and so on.
This sort of syllabus can readily be combined with situational, communicative, skills-based and lexical syllabuses and the last of these is often a frequent partner.
The advantage is that lexis, in particular, is encountered in a connected field with the nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on most typically encountered together.  This makes the teaching of collocation (both lexical and textual) much easier and more consistent.
The disadvantage is that, in an attempt to insert other elements into the topics, realism is overlooked and communicative functions may be inappropriately deployed talking, reading, listening and writing about topics which may, or may not be relevant or of interest to all (or any of) the learners in a group.

All the syllabus types outlined in the table above can be combined with others in this way to try to provide some kind of all-round approach which will engage and be of use to the learners.  That's a positive.
The negative is that this kind of eclecticism can lead to a loss of focus and the inappropriate insertion of rogue elements into a syllabus.


Who determines the syllabus?

Unless the syllabus is purely learner determined, somebody, somewhere needs to decide on the targets of a teaching programme.  This is often neither the people who will deliver it nor those on the receiving end of the teaching-learning process.  That is, some say, unfortunate.
We noted above that curriculums are often decided nationally or regionally and even in the private sector, may well be determined by powers somewhat distant from the classroom such as sponsors, agents and head office managers.  Curriculum designers are, into the bargain, often not concerned with the nitty-gritty of classroom content but with setting targets in terms of competencies that the learners will attain by the end of the process.  In the UK, for example, the language studies curriculum is set out by the government and has the following aims:

The national curriculum for languages aims to ensure that all pupils:

  • understand and respond to spoken and written language from a variety of authentic sources
  • speak with increasing confidence, fluency and spontaneity, finding ways of communicating what they want to say, including through discussion and asking questions, and continually improving the accuracy of their pronunciation and intonation
  • can write at varying length, for different purposes and audiences, using the variety of grammatical structures that they have learnt
  • discover and develop an appreciation of a range of writing in the language studied

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-languages-progammes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-languages-progammes-of-study

At what is called Key Stage 3, the government further demands (op cit.) that:

Teaching should focus on developing the breadth and depth of pupils’ competence in listening, speaking, reading and writing, based on a sound foundation of core grammar and vocabulary.

So, the requirement is for a mixed skills- and structure-based syllabus in schools.
And that requires:

Grammar and vocabulary

  • identify and use tenses or other structures which convey the present, past, and future as appropriate to the language being studied
  • use and manipulate a variety of key grammatical structures and patterns, including voices and moods, as appropriate
  • develop and use a wide-ranging and deepening vocabulary that goes beyond their immediate needs and interests, allowing them to give and justify opinions and take part in discussion about wider issues
  • use accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation

Linguistic competence

  • listen to a variety of forms of spoken language to obtain information and respond appropriately
  • transcribe words and short sentences that they hear with increasing accuracy
  • initiate and develop conversations, coping with unfamiliar language and unexpected responses, making use of important social conventions such as formal modes of address
  • express and develop ideas clearly and with increasing accuracy, both orally and in writing
  • speak coherently and confidently, with increasingly accurate pronunciation and intonation
  • read and show comprehension of original and adapted materials from a range of different sources, understanding the purpose, important ideas and details, and provide an accurate English translation of short, suitable material
  • read literary texts in the language [such as stories, songs, poems and letters] to stimulate ideas, develop creative expression and expand understanding of the language and culture
  • write prose using an increasingly wide range of grammar and vocabulary, write creatively to express their own ideas and opinions, and translate short written text accurately into the foreign language

which strongly implies some kind of communicative syllabus running alongside skills and structure development with an element of a cultural syllabus added to the mix.

What the government is silent about, however, is precisely how the syllabus itself is to be written, what it will contain and how it will be delivered.  For that, teachers and schools are obliged to develop their own syllabus or use an off-the-shelf set of teaching materials which provide the syllabus for them.

In non-state sector education, it is rare to find a curriculum set out in such detail but even in small establishments some effort is usually made to list the aims of a programme and the competencies to be attained.

Few teachers have the time or the skills to set about writing their own syllabus from scratch, although course and lesson planning are expected to be two of their competencies.  For this reason, schools often opt for a single coursebook (or books) which in their view will successfully provide a syllabus which accords with the aims of their programme(s).


The syllabus and coursebooks

Sheldon (1988:237) pointed out that:

ELT coursebook publishing is a multi-million pound industry, yet the whole business of product assessment is haphazard and under-researched.

Coursebook production is a complex, expensive and time-consuming business (unlike, for example, the cobbling together of a set of engaging classroom activities into a kind of busy teacher's source book).
The undertaking requires (or should require) researching the demands of an international range of curriculum authorities, the setting out of a syllabus, the construction of the students' book, the teacher's book, a set of audio / video materials, a website and, often, a test book and set of supplementary materials.  All this material has to be written, edited, re-written and assembled by a team of dedicated, professional and qualified people working under an experienced and well-paid editor.
In addition, professional graphics designers and other in- and out-of-house experts are drawn into the process which may take several years to complete.
Moreover, all of this work has to be repeated because the course may consist of a complete set of materials at four or five levels.
It is little surprise that this is not task lightly undertaken.

Publishing houses are not, for the most part, charitable organisations and they want to maximise the financial returns on their considerable investment in the process of creating, marketing, printing and distribution.  To do this, they have before them an enormous and potentially hugely lucrative market.  The British Council's states it this way:

By 2020, we forecast that two billion people will be using [English] – or learning to use it.
The British Council, 2013

A market of over a billion people (and rising) is not something at which many publishers are reluctant to aim.  A yearly income of €0.05 per learner would yield a handsome €50 million.

Accordingly, the focus is on producing materials with the widest possible appeal to the broadest market they can access worldwide.  There are significant implications:

  1. Breadth of content:
    An example is given above of what is required from a language-teaching process in UK school and most governments worldwide have developed similar schemes.  Unfortunately for course-book authors and their publishers, all the schemes are different, some radically so.
    There is little incentive for publishers or writers to confine the market for their efforts too narrowly and, therefore, deny themselves the opportunity to sell their materials worldwide.  Consequently, a coursebook or a series of them will endeavour to cover the whole of the content of very disparate curriculums and will include targets, language items and skills which will appeal wherever the materials are used and fit well with whatever form of syllabus is developed locally.
    This will be evident, especially, in the structural work covered in course materials so that each part of the series covers the core curriculum of as many state-driven syllabuses as possible.  Materials which do not do this run the risk of being locked out of some nations' educational institutions.
  2. Cultural neutrality:
    Similarly, publishers and authors will naturally be constrained not to offend or to make their materials too culture bound.  Topics and situations which, for example, may appeal to European audiences may have less relevance elsewhere and those which are attractive and familiar in some cultures may be mysterious or offensive in others.
  3. Social neutrality:
    By the same token, coursebook producers will attempt not to limit their potential market with materials which appeal to particular age groups, sexes, occupational categories or social classes.
  4. Methodological neutrality / coverage:
    There is little point, for publishers at least, in producing materials closely linked to any specific approach or methodology so, for example, content which is only suitable for use in a strictly communicative setting will be abjured and the materials must cater for structural, task-based and lexical approaches, among others.
    Hence the tendency for course materials to include a range of activity types and procedures aimed at different approaches to defining best practice and theories about how second-language acquisition is best promoted in the classroom.
  5. Aim neutrality / coverage:
    Coursebook writers do not, by definition, know the people individually at whom the materials are aimed.  General coursebooks are, therefore, written with general, not to say diffuse, aims in mind because the pressure is to produce materials which have learning outcomes applicable to the widest possible set of needs for using English.  Skills work will, accordingly, be evenly balanced usually and the genres of texts used will not be explicitly linked to any particular register.
  6. Learner appeal:
    Although learners are infrequently consulted by institutions concerning the content of their course materials and the nature of the syllabus they are obliged to follow, institutions will be concerned to choose material which they feel will be engaging and trusted by their customers and clients.  Learners and many teachers often see the coursebook as the syllabus and will be impressed, so the theory goes, by a contents list which is long and broadly based, covering skills, structures, topics and settings of general appeal to the 'middle ground'.
  7. Teacher appeal:
    In many institutions, the teaching staff will have limited but real choices concerning the materials they use to deliver the syllabus (which they may have contributed to designing).  Hence, authors and publishers are concerned to produce materials which can be used by teachers at all levels of training and expertise.  Materials which require high levels of skill in classroom management or language and skills analysis will be avoided in favour of simple to use materials which do not require large amount of preparation.
  8. Formulaic procedures and activities
    The way the materials are presented will also follow a consistent pattern with each unit in each part of the course looking very much like all the others apart from the content.  Even across a series of coursebooks aimed at different levels of learner, the same phenomenon is apparent with each part of the course mirroring its counterparts at other levels.  This makes it easy for even novice or under-skilled teachers to use the materials because, once they are familiar with the formats, the teaching approach follows predictable patterns.

Overall, it may be argued that the combination of these factors will mean that commercially produced coursebooks will often be bland, scattershot, predictable, unrealistic, irrelevant and intellectually, culturally and emotionally undemanding.  In a word, boring.


The DIY syllabus

The disparagement of coursebooks in place of a proper syllabus above may tempt some to abandon the idea of an externally imposed syllabus altogether and opt for a wholly teacher- (and learner-) generated syllabus directed towards the needs of the individuals in the group while maintaining relevance to any imposed curriculum aims.
That might be a mistake because discerning use of commercial materials alongside the generation of learner-specific elements of a syllabus may be a better route.
To do that five steps are needed:

diy syllabus design

This approach to syllabus design which combines generic material with that which is targeted more finely to your learners, their personalities, their needs and your understanding of how to meet them seeks to avoid the two most obvious dangers of coursebook-driven teaching by:

  1. injecting variety of approach, techniques, topics and materials so lessons do not follow the same sequences and employ the same procedures time after time in a predictable and ultimately demotivating way
  2. ensuring that the core needs of the group and even the needs of individuals within it can be addressed, getting away from what temporally, physically and culturally distant authors and editors think your students are like

Related guides
needs analyses for a guide to discovering your learners' needs
CLIL for more on content and language integrated learning (teaching English by using it to teach other parts of a curriculum)
task-based language teaching for more on the approach
Krashen and the Natural Approach the five central hypotheses, The Natural Approach in practice and criticisms of the theory
motivation Gardner's four motivational categories, Expectancy Theory and Task, Institutional and Global motivation
assessing course materials the guide to how to evaluate and assess coursebooks
The history and development of English Language Teaching the ways in which theories of language and theories of learning have developed and informed ELT methodologies
Communicative Language Learning for more about the dominant approach and theories of language
some alternative approaches including considerations of syllabus-free approaches
lexical approach for more on what a syllabus might contain in this methodology
post-method methodology for a guide to the reasons many are dissatisfied with any single approach to teaching and learning (including syllabuses and coursebooks)

Of course there's a test.

Brumfit, C.J. & Johnson, K. (1979), The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hutchinson, T. & Waters, A. (1987), English for Specific Purposes: a Learning Centred Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Nunan, D. (1988), Syllabus Design, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Prabhu, N.S. (1984), Procedural Syllabuses, in Read, J.A.S. (ed.) Trends in Language Syllabus Design. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre
Sheldon, L, 1988, Evaluating ELT textbooks and materials, English Language Teaching Journal, 42/4, Oxford: Oxford University Press
The British Council (2013) The English Effect, British Council 2013 / D096
White, R.V. (1988), The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management, Oxford: Blackwell
Wilkins, D.A. (1976), Notional Syllabuses, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Willis, D. (1990), The Lexical Syllabus: A New Approach to Language Teaching, London: COBUILD
Yalden, J. (1987), Principles of Course Design for Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press