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What steps are part of the process of designing a syllabus? What knowledge & skills do teachers need?

Summary of #ELTchat on January 25th 2012, 21.00 P.M. GMT

By Toula Sklavou/@toulasklavou

I recently completed and passed my Delta Module 3 assignment which involved designing a syllabus for a one-to-one exam prep course, so I felt that I would be able to contribute to this #ELTchat in a positive way and share my research findings with other teachers. So here are the comments of Wednesday 25th ELTchat and a few extra points from my research.

According to Kathleen Graves, the processes of course design are beautifully outlined in the following framework (Designing Language Courses, 2000:3)


The question of whether we need a syllabus or not was raised but I am not foing to  analyse it in depth here as it was not the main topic of discussion. However, since a few good points were made on this, I would like to include them.

Do we always need a syllabus? Not necessarily, it depends on various factors…

  • If the management requires it or for external stakeholders.
  • It is more necessary for an exam course or for shared classes where teachers should follow the same path.
  • If students have specific needs and they expect one to a certain extent.
  • If there’s an end goal.
  • Syllabus helps inexperienced teachers because they know what to cover.

Diagnostic Testing or Analysis

This was mentioned as a necessary step in defining some types of syllabuses, especially on ESP, EAP courses.

What is a syllabus?

Teachers came up with wonderful and various definitions of syllabus, all of them revealing its practical applications to real life teaching or how real life teaching defines and shapes the nature of syllabuses.

  • A syllabus is intended for the teacher or academic supervisor and it’s a statement of intentions.
  • Desired results, evidence of understanding and language and learning progression.
  • It ensures some continuity in the program.
  • It helps the teacher to build a foundation where he/she could plan lessons more effectively.
  • It is seen as a bureaucratic tool to differentiate between success and failure in statistics.

Features of a well-designed syllabus

  • It should include very good and clear measurable objectives.
  • It should reflect students’ needs and be realistic about what they can achieve.
  • A syllabus needs variety, i.e. focusing on all skills and systems, language areas, functions, tasks, materials, input and output.
  • It should be flexible, informative and informing.
  • It should allow space to adapt lessons or deviate from the initial syllabus but factors like the school should be considered.

 What to take into account when designing a syllabus.

  • The needs, wants, interests of the students.
  • The learners’ learning styles.
  • The time available and other stakeholders.
  • Setting out achievable objectives, which should provide a clear focus for the course and be laid out in achievable steps.
  • Having a clear idea/statement of global goals, i.e. why the course is being run and what the end goals are.
  • The physical constraints of the environment you’ll be teaching in.
  • The nature of the course, e.g. if it’s a Business English course.
  • The demands of the institution and maybe government framework.
  • The order of the syllabus elements.
  • What you expect students to produce, the subskills needed and the assumptions underpinning them.
  • Students would like to know the main objectives of a lesson (in terms of skills/language), this is a good motivator.
  • To know how to balance skills/ systems.

 What to include

  • The rules, course descriptors, textbooks used, a calendar, grading policy, your goals, how you plan to achieve them, in what order and how to evaluate them.
  • Needs, purpose, syllabus type, language to be used, testing, methodology, evaluation, teacher training, recycle stage.
  • Outcomes or expressive objectives, possible learning objects, expectations, rubrics, key assessment or performance tasks.
  • The instructor’s personal goals of what is to be taught.
  • A list of what the students could expect from the teacher.
  • Development of teaching, learning and testing approaches.
  • Teaching methodology and micro planning.
  • The phrase ‘By the end of the {…}the students will have learnt…’

What about some of the types of syllabus design?

During the #ELTchat, the following two types prevailed in the discussion, however, these are only two of the types mentioned in the relevant bibliography. It seems to me the reality of the classroom imposes its own way or ways.

Prescriptive-prefabricated syllabus vs a formative negotiable syllabus

A good class is a blend of prescriptive-prefabricated syllabus assuring learning engagement but teachers object to pre-specified syllabuses because they include the notion of accountability and they do not want to do what the institution may say.

Is a Negotiated syllabus the solution?

  • If you can encourage students by choosing themes to adapt the syllabus or voting on themes, offering materials and putting forward various ideas, it can work.
  • It becomes more flexible and suits the students’ needs.
  • It ensures greater engagement.
  • Needs may change mid-course so there is a need to negotiate the content.
  • It is suitable when there are classes with continuous enrolment.

 But…

  • It can be tiring.
  • It requires a degree of maturity from students.
  • It is difficult to involve new or quiet students.
  • Students may say ‘you’re the teacher’.
  • Students are not used to this kind of freedom.
  • Students have no ideas what to do and when.
  • Students expect a syllabus and to follow a book.

Of course, the retrospective syllabus was also mentioned in the tweets, since it could work in some contexts and seemed to be more appealing to dogme supporters.

A few tweets that sum these ideas up

  • I always leave the last day of the week open.
  • Many adult learners might see it as unprofessional, needs a lot of explanations.
  • Is this a syllabus or a plan?
  • If you have students collaborate on the syllabus on Google Docs with a layout is a great way to do this.
  • Syllabus for ESP is necessary, GE classes can negotiate each week.
  • Work on a particular need and then change, makes sense for individual students.

Skills needed.

  • The teacher should be able to communicate the objectives. This is an important skill but difficult to achieve.
  • Being able to identify and describe objectives. Objective setting isn’t an easy thing to do well.
  • To be flexible enough in order to accommodate the student’s needs in contrast to the school management or government requirements.
  • Being able to pay attention to detail, necessary for clarity in defining objectives but also have knowledge of the big picture.
  • When more the one person is involved, there should be consensus on the content.

Who designs a syllabus.

  • In some schools, a general syllabus is designed by the academic department for each class at the start of the year. This is considered to be THE syllabus.
  • Test designers were also mentioned as people who tend to be good syllabus writers.
  • It is difficult for new teachers to design a syllabus before they have the experience of writing achievable aims.
  • Not all teachers are required to be syllabus designers, that’s why it’s a special skill and paid well.

Does the coursebook stand in the way of the syllabus?

Not always according to the teacher’s opinions.

  • A coursebook is pretty detailed.
  • Coursebooks should complement syllabuses.
  • For inexperienced teachers, the coursebook is the bible due to lack of training.
  • The coursebook is the syllabus for some schools so teachers just go with that.
  • And can anyone deny that ‘most coursebooks follow CEF and someone spends huge amounts of time researching what should and shouldn’t be in it.’?

At the other end of the scale…

  • A coursebook may not address learner needs very effectively, could be very top down, it’s like one size fits all.
  • They may not take into account all preferences and needs.
  • Not all units would interest students.

‘Will wonders never cease?’

  • Shouldn’t the coursebook complement the syllabus not be the syllabus?
  • Does using a coursebook encourage less flexibility in syllabus?
  • Shouldn’t management and DOSes support teachers to adapt and reflect?
  • Isn’t it very time-consuming for a school to write their own syllabus while there also other things to worry about?
  • Doesn’t too much detail in a syllabus or coursebook deter teachers from being flexible and addressing needs in class?

Relevant links and books:

  • a link to the Common European Framewk of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) http://t.co/CFBG36r8
  • Text-based Syllabus Design http://t.co/fT9cKIpK – Australian textbook – aging now, but good for beginning teachers
  • @sandymillin: An example of one of my work plans (closest thing to syl). The codes (G12, W1) based on CEF statements #eltchat http://t.co/SnoWWKsY
  • @ShellTerrell Here’s a syllabus tutorial by the Univ of Minnesota. Not language based but still some good tips http://t.co/kv4Zw7RV

The following books I’m suggesting gave me insights regarding Syllabus design for my module 3.

  • Graves, K. (Ed.) (1996). Teachers as Course Developers. New York: CUP
  • Graves, K. (2000). Designing Language Courses. A Guide for Teachers. Boston: HEINLE CENGAGE Learning
  • Nunan, D. (1988). Syllabus Design. Oxford: OUP
  • Richards, J.C. (1990). The Language Teaching Matrix. Cambridge: CUP

My personal experience of working for my Delta Module 3: It was really hard work but at the same time highly rewarding and I am very happy to have acquired some skills as a syllabus designer.

But syllabus design is a subject that can’t be exhausted in one hour so since ‘designing a language course is a work in progress’ (ibid:7), teaching experience and more #ELTchats will certainly unfold other aspects or even raise more questions for discussion.

Ideas to think about and maybe raise on another #ELTchat, if not covered so far, or a blog challenge:

  • Should homework be more than an afterthought or be included in the syllabus?
  • Should a teacher allow students to do homework if they wish?
  • Is the syllabus a link in a chain of learning, political, social context?
  • Since expectations to what a syllabus is can vary among teachers, what about the student’s expectations?
  • Should there be order in the material presented or just go with the flow?
  • Is a syllabus a useless list of can do statements?
  • Is CEF more an assessment tool rather than a planning too?
  • Do we have to focus on CEF statements when adapting the syllabus?
  • How do we decide between synthetic and analytic syllabi?

As you have noticed, I haven’t mentioned any names and the reason is that all of the teachers equally contributed to the discussion – I wouldn’t like to discriminate, even unintentionally.

Toula Sklavou has been a teacher of English since 2002. She studied basic methodology at CELT Athens where she also recently also completed her Cambridge DELTA Diploma, but she has also studied translation and holds an MA in Translation from the University of Surrey, UK.  She has worked mainly in Greece but more recently has also been teaching summer school in the UK.

She is @toulasklavou on Twitter.

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3 replies »

  1. Thanks for an inspiring insight into the complicated procedure of syllabus design..an inforamtive and educational chat followed by a professional summary which I hope will guide me through my module 3 of DELTA and assist my students’ course syllabuses..thanks so much #eltchat and Toula!

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