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How not to design a syllabus

May 18, 2014

After many years of working in this business (and yes it is a business), I am still frequently frustrated by a lack of awareness of good practice when it comes to language programme design. Different institutions do it in different ways, but not that many (in my experience) do it well. In this post I’m going to describe a few popular approaches to syllabus design and tell you what’s wrong with them. In a subsequent post I’ll go on to give some alternative suggestions on what principles to adopt when designing or developing a curriculum for language learning.


Bad syllabus No. 1: The global coursebook

Coursebooks look amazing – they have great pictures, they appear to be well-organised, and they come with all sorts of add-ons – workbook, CD-Rom, DVD, website, references to dictionaries by the same publisher etc. However, I’ve said it before, I’m saying it now and I’m sure I’ll say it again: because global coursebooks are designed to appeal to everyone, they are unable to meet the specific needs of anyone.

Most of my students need English so they can communicate in social and work-based situations, mostly with native speakers living in the West of Scotland. The topics covered by global coursebooks are so generic and bland that they don’t address many of the areas that my students need to talk about. The language is also so heavily graded, and contrived so that it provides unusually frequent examples of whatever the language point for that unit is (see No. 2 below), that they are hopelessly inauthentic and often bear little similarity to the type of language that my students are exposed to outside the classroom.

But it’s not just students in Scotland – whatever context you are in, I’m sure you will be able to identify with this. I found a coursebook-based syllabus equally inappropriate for my learners in Malaysia (the unit on cooking during Ramadan was particularly embarrassing), and South Africa (too Eurocentric), and Hungary (no references to Hungary), and everywhere else I have worked.

The other problem with a global coursebook is that it is used globally. My Libyan students didn’t come all the way to Scotland to use the same coursebook they were using in Libya. And even when they were in Libya, I bet they wouldn’t have been too happy to learn that the same coursebook-based syllabus was being followed by teenagers in Malaysia. The ubiquity of global coursebooks might make the publishers a lot of money, but it also reduces their appeal – a bit like going to France and eating in McDonald’s.

Of course, I’m sure we can all look through a coursebook and find a few pages that will be directly relevant for our learners, whoever they are. But if you use a global coursebook as the basis for a syllabus, this syllabus can only be very generic and therefore not particularly useful for any students.


Bad syllabus No. 2: The structural approach

The structural syllabus has been around for ages and presents language atomistically, starting with the most simple grammatical structures and moving on to more complex ones.

However, it has long been established that languages are not learnt in order of linguistic complexity. This was stated quite categorically by Diane Larsen-Freeman:
“Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another.”
Larsen-Freeman 1997: 151
Therefore, a syllabus that starts with basic grammatical structures and then gradually introduces more complex ones doesn’t make any sense. It makes even less sense when you consider that different people acquire different language items at different times. Then they forget them again and have to re-learn them. The structural syllabus assumes that a single focus on a grammar item will be enough for all the students to acquire that item, thereby allowing the teacher to move on to the next, more complex, item. This is hopelessly naive and unrealistic. Linguistic complexity is a wholly inappropriate and completely random organising principle. You might as well have unit 1 containing only words that begin with the letter A, then in unit 2 have words that start with A and B, and so on.

Despite its mismatch with principles of language acquisition, the structural syllabus has continued to endure. Part of the reason for this could be that syllabuses which claimed not to be structural actually were. When Wilkins (1976) introduced the idea of a Functional-Notional approach to syllabus design it was heralded as something radically different. However, on closer inspection, language was still presented in order of complexity, and the use of the terms “notion” and “function” were simply, as Richards (2001: 38) put it, “semantic sleight of hand”. Nevertheless, Wilkins’ work was regarded as the way forward in communicative syllabus design, paving the way for subsequent syllabuses to continue with atomised grammatical items as the organising principle and yet call themselves communicative.


Bad syllabus No. 3: The “organic” approach

It’s important that a syllabus meets the needs of its learners, and this is what an organic syllabus tries to do. Instead of having a syllabus document prepared in advance, an organic syllabus relies on some detailed needs analysis at the beginning of the course, followed by ongoing evaluation of content by the teacher and the learners. The idea is that learner feedback is used to inform the teacher’s decisions regarding course content.

Obviously, getting the learners’ input on course content seems the logical way to ensure that the syllabus will meet their needs, but there are two problems (at least) with this approach. Firstly, students often don’t know what they need. In my experience, if you ask students what they need they usually say “more grammar” or, even less constructively, “everything”. This leaves the teacher none the wiser than before the needs analysis was conducted. As the course progresses, the teacher can get to know the students better and identify their needs as a result of this. The students might even request a focus on a specific topic, or language area, or task, but the decisions on content will still ultimately be made by the teacher. Another problem is that a syllabus needs to have some kind of balance to it in terms of the language and skills it develops. Giving the responsibility of syllabus design to the teacher and expecting them to do this as they are teaching the course can result in an unbalanced programme that lacks both coherence and cohesion. Hugh Dellar made this point in his excellent presentation at IATEFL 2014. Hugh and I disagree on the value of global coursebooks, but we do agree that a good syllabus needs to have careful planning and structure behind it.

The organic syllabus has become popular in Scotland, particularly in community-based contexts, through the influence of the Social Practice model. Social Practice is about making learning relevant to the students’ real lives, so in ESOL it’s simply a question of providing learners with the English they need to go about their everyday lives outside the classroom. That’s entirely as it should be as far as content is concerned, but it doesn’t actually provide a means of designing a syllabus.


Bad syllabus No. 4: The hodge-podge

This approach to syllabus design is surprisingly common. It is what often happens when a course is designed with multiple goals in mind, with a view to meeting the needs of various different stakeholders. In Scottish FE colleges, for example, there is an increasing push towards the inclusion of accredited outcomes in ESOL courses i.e. assessments that lead to the attainment of national qualifications. These qualifications are skills-based, but teachers know that simply preparing students for the assessments won’t develop their language skills sufficiently for them to progress to a higher level, so a large amount of language input is also required. A common approach to this problem is to use a coursebook for the language input, and then somehow find a way of shoehorning the qualifications into the programme. The result is a weird mix of over-generic grammar-oriented content, and highly focused tasks that require the use of specific skills and are set within a very Scottish context.

Of course, the hodge-podge approach to syllabus design can be found in many contexts. There may be students who are preparing for academic IELTS, but also need English for everyday communication. Or maybe the end-of-course test is largely a test of grammar and vocabulary, but the students are actually really lacking in fluency. Or sometimes you have courses sponsored by companies that specify a business focus, when all the students want to do is talk about football.


Hodge-podge syllabuses are designed with the best of intentions – the designer has recognised the need to meet multiple goals and has tried to do this – but the end result lacks coherence. In my next post I will try to outline ways of designing a language programme that is clearly organised, can meet a range of goals and is based on sound principles of language teaching.




Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition’, Applied Linguistics, 18/2, Oxford: OUP.

Richards, J. C, 2001, Curriculum Development in Language Teaching, New York: CUP.

Wilkins, D.A., 1976, Notional Syllabuses, Oxford: OUP.

  1. “Sie sprechen mir aus dem Herzen” That is what we say in German (which I teach) meaning that you put down thoughts that I have had for the past 20 years. Even the structural syllabus hidden under a functional one is true for coursebooks for German as a Foreign Language. Very much looking forward to your next post 🙂
    Dietmar Dinklage
    head of TTI DaF Freiburg

    • Hi Dietmar,
      Thanks very much for your comment. This idea of pretending a syllabus is functional and communicative when it is actually structural is, in my view, what has stopped Communicative Language Teaching from evolving properly. At IATEFL 2014, Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury had a public conversation about the state of CLT, and Thornbury bemoaned the publication of the Headway series as he saw it as a return to the structural syllabus and the atomistic teaching of language. However, I would suggest that the books that preceded Headway were equally atomistic. This meant that Communicative Language Teaching (in its true sense) was dead in the water before it even got going. As long as the organising principle of the syllabus is linguistic, mean can only ever be secondary. You can watch the conversation between Thornbury and Harmer here:
      I previously posted on this problem with CLT here:
      As for my next post, I hope I haven’t been a bit rash in suggesting I have the answers when it comes to syllabus design. I might need a bit of time to organise my thoughts properly – please bear with me.

  2. As always, Steve, an interesting post. I think we may disagree on aspects of the organic approach and what it means to use a social practices approach – for me, anyway. I’ll think about it while weeding my parents’ garden. I might be back 😉

  3. Hi Carol,
    You probably know a lot more about Social Practice than me, with your community-based literacies background. But from what I can make out, the Social Practice Model for teaching means different things to different people anyway. The common element that I’ve identified to be the need to make learning relevant to learners’ needs, but that in itself is a bit of a platitude – of course learning needs to be relevant to learners’ needs. Maybe there’s more to it than that.
    Another argument against the organic syllabus, which I didn’t mention, is the role of assessment or the achievement of outcomes. But anyway I look forward to another comment from you once you have finished your gardening. 🙂

    • Hi Steve,

      A social practices approach has been central to my practice in literacies and ESOL in community learning and development and it is something I feel strongly about. I recognise that it is more easily adopted in a CLD context where the outcomes we are working to would be different from a college environment (thus far, anyway!)

      As you say, many approaches to learning are going to try to be relevant to learners’ lives. There is a lot more to it than that and it may be something that I try to articulate more clearly in a blog post of my own at some point.

      It’s not about simply asking the learner what they need because, as you point out, that doesn’t often get you very far. It is, however, very much about working with learners to develop their understanding of their current abilities, their learning, their language use, their progress so that they are increasingly able to recognise and take control of their own learning. It’s about getting to know the learners, what they are interested in and their experiences of learning and language use. It’s about working with learners, starting from where they are, recognising what they can do, acknowledging the wealth of experience they bring to the learning. Rather than seeing learners as lacking something and us being there to provide them with the English they need, I think we should see our role as helping them to develop their abilities to use English in more contexts and for different purposes.

      It’s about building relationships of mutual respect and shared understanding of what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to do it. It’s a mindset and an approach.

      Some of what I’m trying to communicate here brought to mind a blog post of mine on recognising learning

      An ELT approach which chimes quite well with a social practices approach is the dogme approach as outlined in Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury.

      I’m not sure if I’ve clarified anything, but I need to stop here and go feed my family.


      • Hi Carol,
        Thanks very much for this very useful description of Social Practice and how it can be applied in English Language Teaching. I agree that Dogme seems to adopt very similar principles. Scott Thornbury’s recent blog, in which he described his experiences of learning Spanish, gave me the impression that this he wanted his teachers to use a social practice approach with him.
        It seems though that in Social Practice it’s the learning that’s organic, rather than the syllabus. There’s some kind of process of self-discovery going on, as learners become more aware of their strengths, weaknesses, capabilities etc. I think these kinds of things can happen within a number of different syllabus types.
        Presumably, as learners become more attuned to where they are now and where they want to go, they’ll start setting goals for themselves. Once this starts happening, I would have thought that the actual course needs to be less organic and more goal-oriented.
        If I’m not mistaken, this focus on social practices was developed in 1-1 contexts to begin with. In these situations, when the only key outcome is the maximum development/progress of a single learner, I can see how the syllabus can evolve as learning and development evolves.
        I can see ways of employing the same principles to group contexts as well (in fact I think I do it myself to a large extent), but a difference is that with groups you are dealing with multiple need, abilities and goals. If the students are all following the same course, there need to be some common outcomes – whether it’s an assessment, an accredited qualification, the creation of a portfolio of work, whatever. These days courses need to have clearly defined goals as this gives them some kind of value.
        I’ll probably include course outcomes in my next post. How do you go about establishing outcomes with your students? Or do you avoid doing this?
        Thanks again for your input here, it’s very helpful.

  4. Reblogged this on DELTA Course Blog and commented:
    A timely blog post for those of you thinking about your Module 3 Assignments

  5. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

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