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Concourse 2

Syllabus design


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. 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. 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
Click here to go to the guide to task-based learning
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.

Related guides
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
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

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
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