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A guide to syllabus design

May 31, 2014

In my last post I criticised some popular approaches to syllabus design. In this post I’m going to try to give some constructive ideas on this very important aspect of language teaching. I’m laying it out as a kind of step-by-step guide. I think that if these steps are followed, it should help to ensure that a syllabus will end up being robust in terms of the relevance of content, the pedagogical approach and, of course, the outcomes it leads to. I’ll occasionally refer to my own context, just because that’s what I’m particularly preoccupied with at the moment, but I think these basic principles and steps can be followed by anyone who has to design a syllabus for pretty much any context.

Step 1: Identify your stakeholders.
In most situations, a course isn’t just about the students. There is always a bigger picture that needs to be considered, and this usually requires the syllabus to meet needs of people other than the students’ themselves. Stakeholders could be sponsors, employers, potential employers, educational institutions, family members, other funding providers, accrediting bodies (which receive a fee from the institution), even a national government. Any person or organisation that can benefit in some way from the students doing the course is a stakeholder.
The course therefore needs to factor in certain elements that go far beyond the linguistic needs of individual students.
Scottish Further Education Colleges like mine need to consider wider issues like Curriculum for Excellence, the Adult ESOL Strategy for Scotland, the Wood Report, and recommendations/criteria that come to us from Education Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council and the British Council.
The challenge is therefore to find a way of addressing the needs of such a wide range of stakeholders within the same programme.

Step 2: Establish course outcomes.

Once all the stakeholders and their needs have been identified, this information can be used to identify what the course should lead towards. This may or may not involve the selection of an outcome/outcomes that are awarded by an external body. Externally-accredited outcomes tend to give a course more validity, and in many cases this is exactly what the students (and/or other stakeholders) want – a qualification that they can take somewhere else and which will be recognised as an indicator of language proficiency.
In some contexts, externally-accredited outcomes may be unnecessary, or disadvantageous. They can make a course too generic to meet contextual needs. They may also lead to the syllabus being unbalanced, with a high level of backwash. Externally-accredited outcomes will necessarily contain generic elements that may not be priorities for the students. For these reasons it may be preferable to create your own outcomes that are more context-specific.
In some corners of EFL there is a tendency to shy away from outcomes and assessments (as expressed by Scott Thornbury here). There is an argument that assessments put unnecessary pressure on learners, and that assessment instruments can never truly measure how much learning has taken place. Back in the days when many people simply learned English because they found it interesting, this might have been a reasonably valid point. But nowadays, motivation to learn English is more likely to be borne out of need rather than genuine interest. It is therefore increasingly important for learners to know in advance what knowledge, skills and certificates they can hope to leave the course with; what level they can expect to reach and how this will be evidenced.
In terms of syllabus design, outcomes give the course some sort of direction, something to aim towards. It is very difficult to design a course when you don’t know where it’s supposed to lead.


Step 3: Decide what components can/can’t be integrated.

It’s widely accepted that any communicative syllabus should include opportunities to develop all 4 skills and, if language is to be presented in context, it makes sense for it to be integrated into the same syllabus (see this article by Linda Blanton, for example). Indeed, if we agree that language needs to be viewed holistically rather than analysed atomistically (we do agree on this, don’t we?), then the idea of separating language from skills, or writing from speaking, seems a bit strange. This suggests that a syllabus that integrates all aspects of language, with meaning being paramount, is the way to go, and this is certainly what was proposed when the whole notion of Communicative Language Teaching first came about.

While language itself can and should be integrated, there may be other aspects of the curriculum that are difficult to incorporate within a single syllabus. In my context, we have multiple outcomes – some are national qualifications in ESOL, while others are more generic qualifications, such as problem-solving, working with others and ICT.
It seems easy enough for a general English course to develop learners’ abilities in these non-language-focused skills – groupwork and information gap/problem-solving activities are part of everyday teaching, and many schools now have ICT facilities for students to use. However, there are issues in terms of focus and priority. By definition, if you want to focus on one thing you’re going to have to focus less on something else. It therefore becomes difficult to focus on a large number of things within the same course – it all starts to get a bit cumbersome.
To try and make the whole thing more manageable, we have split our curriculum into two, with a separate syllabus for each. One component of the course covers the ESOL qualifications. While generic skills are also used and developed, language and linguistic skills are prioritised in this part of the course. The other component still includes language teaching, but prioritises the more generic skills over language and takes learners through these non-ESOL qualifications. So basically what we did was to use the outcomes as a means of identifying what the course would need to focus on, and then split the course into components that were clear and manageable for both students and teachers.

Step 4: Select an organising principle.


We all know that languages are messy, and language learning is a chaotic process, but this doesn’t mean the syllabus needs to be messy too. This is the part of syllabus design that, in my opinion, isn’t given enough consideration. As I said in my last post, grammar is often used as the organising principle in syllabus design. The main reason for this is because it’s easy to sequence language according to structural complexity, so it looks very logical. Unfortunately though, languages are not learnt in order of structural complexity, making this a rather pointless organising principle.
Another way to organise input is to follow a lexical syllabus, which presents language in order of frequency of use. This has the advantage of giving learners the most useful language first. However, it still itemises and atomises language, working on the premise that all the students will acquire the same language at the same time, and progress in a lock-step fashion.
A task-based syllabus acknowledges that individual learners acquire different language at different times, and allows this to happen. Task-based learning prioritises learners’ ability to complete tasks. These should be proper, real-world tasks, or should at least replicate real-world tasks. Not gap-fill exercises or find-someone-who mingle activities – tasks that learners actually need (or will need) to perform in English outside of class. For my learners this could be things like registering with a doctor or writing a cover letter for a job application.
Task-based learning (TBL) works particularly well in the ESOL component of my learners’ programmes, as the language that comes up is the language that the learners genuinely need. Also, the outcomes tend to entail the completion of a real-world(ish) task, through which specific skills are assessed. However, as the organising principle behind a syllabus, TBL can create issues of relevance in that some tasks may not be required by some students, while other more important tasks may not be covered within the syllabus.
Project-based learning (PBL) is more or less an extension of TBL, in that the tasks are bigger, more involved, and are likely to span several lessons. This can be particularly productive in English-speaking contexts, where learners can go outside the classroom and use English authentically as part of their project work. As an organising principle, the project-based syllabus is simply a series of projects that learners complete one after the other. The level of challenge or complexity of the projects can increase as the course develops. Language and skills can be focused on as the project develops but, as with TBL, the course is built around what the students use language for, rather than language itself. This allows for all content to be introduced within the context of the project. If learners are given a degree of freedom to choose the content of their project, this ensures that it will relate to their needs and interests.

As you might expect, we have found that PBL is a sensible way to deliver the non-ESOL component of our courses. Extended tasks, particularly those that require learners to do work outside the classroom, allow learners to generate sufficient evidence to pass these generic units. Our learners have worked on projects such as the organisation of a political debate (working with others), identifying and planning a lifestyle change (problem-solving), and producing an online document giving advice to people coming to live in the west of Scotland (ICT).
Another way to organise a syllabus is to use topics, or themes. Most coursebooks are designed to look like they do this but, broadly speaking, they are actually structural syllabuses in disguise. A truly topic-based syllabus doesn’t organise itself around linguistic complexity. Any sequencing should be according to the complexity of the concepts being addressed within the themes.
An advantage of using themes or topics to organise a syllabus is that it prioritises context. Contextualisation allows language to be meaningful, which is the cornerstone of Communicative Language Teaching. There is also scope for some flexibility in terms of what tasks will be included or what language and skills can be focused on. This is probably the main reason why I have often used topics as the main organising principle when designing syllabuses.

Step 5: Source materials.


In a world that contains such a huge amount of materials for English language teaching, there is a temptation to start sourcing materials very early on in the design process. Try to avoid this. Otherwise, before you know it the materials you have sourced will become the syllabus (for more on this read pages 245-247 of Brian Tomlinson’s excellent book here). You’ll start factoring elements into the syllabus simply because you’ve found some nice materials, not because the materials address a course need. The syllabus should dictate the content, not the other way round. This is why you should only start sourcing materials after outcomes, components and organising principles have been established.
Principled decisions also need to be made about the nature of the materials you will use. Should they be published materials designed for language learners? Authentic materials? Paper- or web-based? Should you make up your own materials from scratch? Can students be involved in generating materials? What variety/ies of English do you want to use?
A lot of these decisions will depend on the context, the availability of materials, how much time you have and also the level of permanency of the syllabus i.e. whether or not you want this syllabus to be replicated many times or just use it for one group.
In my context, we do make use of published materials but we don’t follow a coursebook because this doesn’t tie in with the organising principles behind our programmes; nor would it allow us to fully achieve the course outcomes. We use a mix of published, authentic and in-house materials, which allows us to stay focused on the main outcomes of the course. It’s a lot more work than just following a coursebook, but selecting/designing materials that work towards clearly defined course outcomes makes everything relevant, and students can see this.

Step 6: Build in flexibility

Ideally, you want to be able to use your syllabus again and again. However, no two groups are the same. Even if two groups are working towards identical outcomes at the same time, individual and group differences mean that they are likely to get there in different ways. I’ve placed a lot of importance on organisation and clear outcomes, but this doesn’t mean the syllabus should be entirely prescriptive.
One way to ensure flexibility is to be materials-light . This means the teacher will either need to create/source additional materials or use the students as a source for content. Either way, the result is likely to be lesson content that is specifically relevant to the learners.
Conversely, you could make the syllabus materials-heavy. By providing references to so many materials that it’s impossible to get through them all, teachers will then select the ones that are most relevant to the group they are working with.
I think either approach can be equally effective, and whichever you choose may depend on what the teaching staff will be most comfortable with.
Either way though, it’s important not to lose sight of the syllabus. A large degree of flexibility can lead to the course going off-track. Everyone might be having a good time, but if it’s not leading towards the course outcomes then it stops being a syllabus.


Step 7: Have a robust review procedure
No teaching context is permanent. It’s therefore important to accept that a syllabus will need constant revising, tweaking and adapting. Changes in the availability of ICT, changing trends in student profiles, new demands from other stakeholders and turnover of teaching staff are all reasons why a syllabus needs to be revised.
A robust review procedure needs to include analysis of a number of factors – levels of achievement, feedback from learners, feedback from teachers, new policies/directives, reports from external bodies etc. All of these can be used to inform discussions on what is good about the syllabus and what needs to be taken out, added, amended or updated.


I’ve tried to include as many links as possible to appropriate references and further reading, though it should be noted that most of what I have said here is based on my own opinions drawn from my own experiences. This means I may have said things that contradict your own experiences, or I may have omitted issues that you feel are very important when considering syllabus design. If so, please post your comments so we can have more discussion.

One Comment
  1. geoffjordan permalink

    Very useful suggestions, Steve. Please allow me to make 2 points:

    1. Lexical syllabuses. Those who promote them these days (e.g. Dellar & Walkley; Selliven) don’t use the criterion of frequency to select the language presented and practiced; don’t make clear what criteria they DO use; and don’t address the problem of teaching enough lexical chunks to even dent the number (tens of thousands) of lexical chunks known by native speakers.

    2. TBLT. Long’s TBLT is based on identifying not the linguistic needs of the learners but “target tasks” – the tasks that the learner will need to perform in the L2. I think this has a lot to recommend it.

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