Introduction to Syllabus Design

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What comes below is an introduction to language syllabus design and evaluation. This on-line source (to appear in print, available as a hard copy) will be updated regularly. This combination helps you get to know each topic by providing a brief definition for each. The references for each section can be found at the end of the file. I hope you'll find it useful. If there's any comment, you can contact me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Cite this online source as: 

Hamidi, H., & Montazeri, M. (2015). Language syllabus design and curriculum development. Retrieved from http://iranelt.com/index.php/introduction-to-syllabus-design.

Language Syllabus Design and Curriculum Development

(On-line Source)

Last update: 1/2/2017

Table of contents

1. Definitions of Syllabus

2. General Syllabus Types

     2.1 Synthetic/analytic syllabi

     2.1.1 Criticisms of synthetic syllabi

     2.2 Type A/ Type B Syllabi

     2.3 Process/product syllabi

     2.3.1 Criticisms of process syllabus

     2.4 Final remarks

3. Definitions of Curriculum

4. Adoption, Adaptation, and Development of Instructional Units

     4.1 Instructional Materials

     4.2 Adoption and adaptation

     4.3 Materials development

     4.4 Final Remarks

5. Content-based Syllabi

     5.1 Advantages of Content-based Syllabi

     5.2 Criticisms against Content-based Syllabi

     5.3 Final Remarks

6. Negotiated Syllabus: Towards Learner Autonomy

     6.1 Teachers and Autonomy for Learner

     6.2 Learner Autonomy in Curriculum Development

     6.3 Negotiated Syllabus and Learner Autonomy

     6.4 Principles of the Negotiated Syllabus

     6.5 Final Remarks

7. Skill-based Syllabi

     7.1 Advantages of Skill-based Syllabus

     7.2 Criticisms against Skills-based Syllabi

1. Definitions of Syllabus

     Syllabus is a description of the contents of a course of instruction and the order in which they are to be taught (Richards & Schmidt, 2010). According to Richards and Schmidt (2010), language teaching syllabi can have their bases on such different criteria as grammatical items and vocabulary, the language required for different types of situations, the meanings that underlie different language behavior or the text types language learners need to master. Richards and Schmidt (2010) also define the term syllabus design, as a phase in curriculum development that deals with procedures for developing a syllabus.

     Richards and Rogers (2001) state that the term syllabus traditionally refers to “the form in which linguistic content is specified in a course method” (p. 25). As they contend, the term this term is more closely associated with methods that adhere to product-centered rather than process discipline rather than a product-centered one. Likewise, Nunan (1999) defines syllabus as the subcomponent of a curriculum which is concerned with the selection, sequencing and justification of experiential and linguistic content, and makes a distinction between syllabus design and methodology. He defines syllabus design as being concerned with selecting, and sequencing linguistic content and methodology as being concerned with selecting and sequencing pedagogical procedures.

     Harmer (2009) introduces grammatical syllabi, functional syllabi, and situational syllabi as three main types of syllabi in language teaching. As he explains, in grammatical syllabi there is a list of items such as present continuous, count and non-count nouns, comparative adjectives, etc. whereas in functional syllabi we have a list of functions such as apologizing, inviting etc. And in situational syllabi the materials to be taught are based on such situations as at the bank, on travel, at the supermarket, etc.

2. General Syllabus Types

2.1 Synthetic/Analytic Syllabi

     Wilkins (1976, as cited in Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011) distinguishes between analytic syllabi and synthetic syllabi by stating that synthetic syllabi consist of such linguistic units as grammar structures, vocabulary items, functions, etc. while analytic syllabi are organized arranged in terms of the purpose for which people, or language learners, are applying language and the types of language performance that are necessary to meet the purposes. He states that in synthetic syllabi the units are usually put in order logically “in a sequence from linguistic simplicity to linguistic complexity” (p. 149). It is the learners, as he argues, who are responsible for synthesizing the linguistic units for the purpose of communication. On the other hand, Wilkins (1976, cited in Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011) refers to content based instruction as an example of analytic syllabi. Instead of learning language items one by one in a specific context, language learners work on relevant content texts and the language applied in the text (Wilkins, 1976, cited in Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011).

     According to Larsen-Freeman and Anderson (2011), the research conducted in the field of language teaching advocate the use of analytic syllabi because of the fact that learners do not learn linguistic items one at a time, and they, instead, induce linguistic information from the language samples they work on.

     Broughton et al. (1980) define analytic syllabus as “a syllabus which provides the student with authentic texts from which he makes his own analysis” (p.214). In this syllabus as they argue, structural considerations are secondary to the use to which he puts the language. They also define synthetic syllabus as a syllabus which aims at “cumulative teaching of a sequenced inventory of items” (p. 231).

     The assumption behind synthetic syllabus is that a language system can be analyzed into smaller components of grammatical structures, functional categories, and lexical items, classified in some manageable way, and presented to language learner one by one for their understanding and assimilation (Kumaravadivelu, 2008). In this type of syllabus, as stated by Kumaravadivelu (2008), the learners are then expected to synthesize all the elements so as to get “the totality of language” (p. 79), and because synthesis is conducted by learner, this syllabus is called synthetic syllabus. In the analytic syllabus however, as argued by Kumaravadivelu (2008), the language input is presented to the language learner not in a piece by piece fashion “but in fairly large chunks” (p. 79). The chunks do not tend to pursue any linguistic focus and, instead, call learners’ attention to the communicative, or interactional, aspect of language. They form connected texts in form of stories, problems, tasks, and so on, and the responsibility is upon learners’ shoulders to analyze the connected texts into smaller constituent elements (Kumaravadivelu, 2008). Kumaravadivelu (2008) further argues that learning-centered methods adhere to analytic approach to syllabus construction.

     In a synthetic syllabus, the target language is segmented into discrete linguistic items, and the ones who apply this type of syllabus assume that language learners will be able to re-synthesize these discrete pieces of language into a whole later utilized in communicative situations (Beglar& Hunt, 2002). Beglar and Hunt (2002) introduce analytic syllabus as noninterventionist in that language learners are immersed in real life communication. This syllabus, as they contend, provides language learners with samples of language in terms of the purpose for which language learners use the language. “In this case, the assumption is that the learners’ analytic abilities will be equal to the task of coming to accurate conclusions about grammatical and lexical usage , since relatively little may explicitly explained about the formal aspects of language” (Beglar& Hunt, 2002. P. 96).

     McDonough and Kaichitmongkol (2007) argue that focus on forms is associated with teaching approaches that have their bases on synthetic syllabi, meaning that different components or parts of language are taught separately and the goal of the learners is to learn each part and then synthesize them again. Focus on form, however, is associated with analytic syllabi, which are arranged according to the language learner’s purpose for learning and the types of language performance they need in order to meet the purpose (McDonough &Chaikitmongkol, 2007)

     Ur (2011) states that analytic syllabi do not have a list of language features, but have the opportunities for language learners to encounter the target language naturally in communicative interaction. The language may undergo simplification to be comprehensible to learners, but it will not be deliberately designed so as to teach certain grammatical features (Ur, 2011). Besides, Long and Crookes (1992) maintain that analytic syllabi provide the language learner with language samples which have not been controlled for lexis or structure in traditional way. Analytic syllabi are the syllabi that present the target language whole chunks at a time, with no linguistic control or reference (Long & Crookes, 1992). It is further maintained that analytic syllabi rely on the language learners’ assumed ability to discern regularities in the input and to induce rules and the continued availability to learners of innate knowledge of linguistic universals and the ways through which language can vary. They introduce procedural, process, and task syllabuses as examples of analytic syllabuses.

     Basturkman (2006) asserts that there has been the belief among designers of analytic syllabus that language content for a course should not be pre-specified because of the fact that “language cannot be atomized into discrete particles for ‘learning’”(P. 22). On the other hand, those who advocate the view that learning takes place when learners acquire individual items of language one by one and then, later, combine them may choose synthetic syllabus that enlists linguistic items to be learned (Basturkman, 2006).

     2.1.1 Criticisms of Synthetic Syllabi

     Alshumaimeri (2009) delineates the following criticisms made against synthetic syllabi:

  • Lack of needs analysis,
  • Linguistic grading,
  • Not being supported by a theory of learning,
  • Underestimating the role of learners in language development,
  • The likelihood of producing boring lessons, and
  • Producing more false beginners than finishers.

2.2 Type A/ Type B Syllabi

     According to Long and Crookes (1992), Type A syllabi have their focus on what is to be learned, which is the L2. Someone, as they report, preselects and predigests the target language, “dividing it into small pieces and determining learning objectives in advance of any consideration of who the learner may be or of how languages are learned” (p. 29). They report the characteristics of Type A syllabi to be external to the learner, other directed, determined by authority, set the language teacher as decision maker, and achieve success and failure in terms of achievement or mastery. Besides Ellis (2005) defines Type A approach to syllabus design as an approach in which the objectives are defined in advance.

     Type B syllabi, according to Long and Crookes (1992), on the other hand, have their paramount focus on how the target language is to be learned. These types of syllabi consist of no artificial preselection or arrangement of items and allow for objectives being determined through a process of negotiation between teacher and learners after they meet (Long & Crookes, 1992). These syllabi, as maintained by Long and Crookes (1992), are internal to the language learner, put emphasis on the process of learning than the subject matter, and assess accomplishments in relationship to learners’ criteria for success.

     White (1998, cited in Alshumaimeri, 2009) maintains that regarding language teaching syllabi, Type A and Type B can be summarized in terms of the distinction between an interventionist approach giving priority to the prespecification of linguistic and other skill objectives on the one hand, and not interventionist, experiential approach on the other hand. White (1988, cited in Alshumaimeri, 2009) contends that Type A syllabus directly contributes to analytic L2 knowledge, the knowledge involved in knowing the language, its rules, its parts, etc. This knowledge, as he suggest is not on hand for unplanned discourse. According to Alshumaimeri (2009), in a comparison, a Type B syllabus contributes to ‘primary processes’ which automatize existing non-analytic knowledge and is available for unplanned discourse. He further contends that in Type B syllabi, whether the focus is put on form, skills, or functions, the basis for such syllabi is the same. White (1998, cited in Alshumaimeri, 2009) determines the following two characteristics for Type A syllabi:

2.3 Process/product syllabi

     Process syllabus is introduced by Cook (2001) as an approach to learner autonomy. In this approach, what is covered in the language classroom should be decided upon not by the teacher or the curriculum designer in advance by through a process of negotiation between the teacher and the learners (Cook, 2001). As Cook (2001) further explains, in a cycle the learners and the teacher discuss what they want to know, choose the activities and tasks required to perform it and then evaluate how successful they have been in so doing.

     Richards and Schmidt (2010) define process syllabus as a syllabus that specifies the learning experiences and processes language learners will go through during a course, than the learning outcome and a “framework for classroom decision making based upon negotiation among teachers and students applied to any chosen aspect of the curriculum” (p.422). Besides, Finney (2001) argues that the purpose of education from this point of view is to enable language learners move towards self-fulfillment. It is concerned with boosting understanding, “not just the passive perception of knowledge or the acquisition of specific skills” (p. 73).As he further elaborates on the concept, this type of curriculum development considers the goals of education not definable in terms of particular ends or products but in terms of procedures or processes through which language learners develop understanding and awareness and pave the way for future learning (Finney, 2001).

     Kumaravadivelu (2008) introduces the term procedural syllabus coined by Prabhu (1987). According to Prabhu (1987, cited in Kumaravadivelu, 2008), the term procedure is applied is two senses. In the first sense it refers to specification of classroom activities which conduces to language learning, and in the second sense it traces back to a specification of procedures of classroom activity, without any implication regarding their language content or meaning content.

     Long and Crookes (1992) introduce process syllabus as a task-based approach to second language teaching. The early rational, as they mention, for process syllabi was educational and philosophical. In this approach to syllabus design, a social problem-solving orientation towards learning the second language than a preselected procedure to go through is highly favored (Long & Crookes, 1992). It is argued by Long and Crookes that in process syllabus the attempt is made to answer the question: “who does what to whom, on what subject matter, with what reources, when, how, and for what learning purpose(s)?” (p. 38). “The process syllabus is a plan for incorporating the negotiation process and, thereby, learning process into syllabus design” (Long & Crookes, 1992, p. 39).

     Alshiumaimeri (2009) summarizes the distinctions that can be made between product syllabi and process syllabi. As he contends, the distinction can be made between process and product syllabi by saying that product-based syllabi are the syllabi in which the paramount focus is put on the knowledge and skills that learners should gain as a result of undergoing instruction, while process-based syllabi are the syllabi in which the emphasis is put on the learning experiences themselves.

2.3.1 Criticisms of process syllabus

     According to Long and Crookes (1992), published criticism of process syllabus claim that “it lacks a formal field evaluation, assumes an unrealistically high level of competence in both teachers and learners, and implies a redefinition of role relationships and a redistribution of power and authority in the classroom that would be too radical and/or culturally unacceptable in some societies” (39). It is further argued that the need this type of syllabus creates for a range of materials and learning resources which is beyond teachers’ or teaching principals’ ken.

     It is further argued by Kumaravadivelu (2008) that “because process syllabus revolves around unpredictable classroom interaction rather than preselected content specification, learning centered pedagogists do not attach much importance to syllabus construction” (p. 145).

2.4 Final remarks

     Syllabus can be defined as description of the contents of an instructional course and the order of their being taught. Language teaching syllabi can be based on different criteria such as grammatical items and vocabulary, the language required for different types of situations, the meanings that underlie different language behavior or the text types language learners need to master.

     We can distinguish between analytic syllabi and synthetic syllabi by holding that synthetic syllabi consist of such linguistic units as grammar structures, vocabulary items, functions, etc. while analytic syllabi, on the other hand, are arranged in terms of the purpose for which people, or language learners, are using the language and the types of language performance that are required to meet the purposes. McDonough and Kaichitmongkol (2007) contend that focus on forms is compared to teaching approaches that are based on synthetic syllabi, and focus on form is associated with analytic syllabi, which are organized according to the language learners’ purpose for learning and the types of language performance they need in order to meet the purpose.

     Type A syllabi are focused on what is to be learned. In this type of syllabus someone preselects and predigests the target language, dividing it into small pieces and determining learning objectives in advance. They report the characteristics of Type A syllabi to be external to the learner, other directed, determined by authority, set the language teacher as decision maker, and achieve success and failure in terms of achievement or mastery. Type B syllabi, however, have their focus on how the target language is to be learned. These types of syllabi consist of no artificial pre-election or arrangement of items and allow for objectives being determined through a process of negotiation between teacher and learners after they meet (Long & Crookes, 1992). These syllabi, as argued by Long and Crookes (1992), are internal to the language learner, put emphasis on the process of learning than the subject matter, and assess accomplishments in relationship to learners’’ criteria for success.

     Process syllabus is considered as an approach to learner autonomy. In this approach, what is covered in the language classroom should be selected not by the teacher or the curriculum designer in advance but through a process of negotiation between the teacher and the learners (Cook, 2001). In a cycle, the learners and the teacher discuss what they want to know, choose the activities and tasks required to perform it and then evaluate how successful they have been in so doing. Alshiumaimeri (2009) distinguishes between process and product syllabi by stating that product-based syllabi are the syllabi in which the paramount focus is put on the knowledge and skills that learners should gain as a result of undergoing instruction, while process-based syllabi are the syllabi in which the emphasis is put on the learning experiences themselves.

3. Definitions of Curriculum

     Curriculum is an overall plan for a course program. Such a program, according to Richards and Schmidt (2010), usually delineates:

  • The educational purpose of the program,
  • The content of the program and the sequence in which it will be taught (Known as syllabus),
  • The teaching procedure and the learning activities that will be applied,
  • The means to assess language learners’ learning, and
  • The means to assess whether a language program has achieved its goal.

4. Adoption, Adaptation, and Development of Instructional Units

4.1 Instructional Materials

     Needless to say in order to inaugurate a teaching project, there is the need to preparing linguistic materials which can be of ineffable help in doing so. Materials are, as defined by Richards and Schmidt (2010) things which can be drawn upon by language teachers or language learners to make the learning, or language learning, process easier, or, better said, more facilitated. Materials, as they explain, may be “linguistic, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic” (p. 322), and they may be put forward in print, audio or video, on the internet, etc. Nunan (1988, cited in Sheikhzade-Marand, 2011) identifies the following principles for material design:

  • They should be clearly linked to the curriculum they serve.
  • They should be authentic in terms of task and text.
  • They should simulate interaction.
  • They should call learners’ attention to formal aspects of language.
  • They should encourage language learners to develop skill and skills in language learning.
  • They should motivate language learners to apply their developing their language skills to the world beyond language classroom.

Crawford (2001) determines the key assumptions that should underpin instruction materials if they are to enhance the learning environment of the classroom. She states that effective materials are likely to reflect the following statements:

  • The language is contextualized and functional.
  • Language development requires learner management in purposeful use of language.
  • The language which is used should be authentic and realistic.
  • Classroom materials will usually include an audiovisual component.
  • In our modern world, second language learners need to develop the ability to deal with written as well as spoken genres.
  • Effective teaching materials foster learner autonomy.
  • Materials need to be flexible enough to accommodate individual and contextual differences.
  • Learning needs to engage language learners both affectively and cognitively.

Gatbonton and Gu (1994) delineates the problems or difficulties one may encounter in developing teaching, or instruction, materials. He mentions two types of difficulties: the availability of materials, and the adoption and adaptation of materials to teaching activities. Adoption and adaptation are applied to different types of materials in language teaching. As Sheikhzadeh (2011) maintains, in developing instructional materials, there is the crucial need to allocating a sufficient amount of time and being aware of “why, how and to whom materials will be used” (p.551). Graves (1996, cited in SheikhzadehMarand, 2011) the two most important factors in adopting, adapting, and developing language materials are the effectiveness of language materials in achieving the purpose of the course and “their appropriateness for the students and the teacher” (p. 551). Appropriateness, as defined, refers to language learners familiarity and comfort with the material, language level, relevance, and interest.

4.2 Adoption and adaptation

Sheikhzadeh-Marand (2011) defines adoption as “the process of choosing and selecting materials” (p. 552) and claims that the boundary between adoption and adaptation, defined by Richards and Schmidt (2010) as “changes made in the use of published teaching materials in order to make them more suitable for particular groups of learners, e. g. by supplementing, modifying or deleting parts of a textbook” (pp. 9-10), is blurred, referring to the fact that adopting materials without any modification is rare. In adopting teaching materials it should be kept in mind that the materials which are going to be chosen should take the language learners forward directly, or as directly as possible, to the already set and determined objectives, and we should look beyond the confines of classroom into outside world and draw language learners’ attention to what he wants to do in real situation and real life (Sheikhzadeh-Marand, 2011). Likewise, regarding adaptation, McDonough and Shaw (1993, cited in SheikhzadehMarand, 2011) state that materials are adapted in order to achieve congruence, discussing that a good teacher is always yearning for congruence among such related variables as teaching materials, methodology, students, course objectives, language and its context, teaching style, and the teacher’s own personality. Besides, Cunningsworth(1995, cited in Sheikhzadeh, 2011) cites the following factors for adaptation of materials:

  • Classroom dynamic
  • The personalities involved
  • Syllabus-imposed constraints
  • The availability of resources
  • Learners’ expectations and motivation.

4.3 Materials development

Nation and Macalister (2010) elaborate on how language teachers can adopt, adapt, and evaluate an existing course book. McCrath (2002 cited in Davis, 2007) states that those with the responsibility for the development and administration of language learning program in either educational or workplace settings will need scant persuading that evaluation and design learner assessment and the study of classroom processes are important applied-linguistic activities. Once a course book has been chosen, teacher may follow the course book very closely, making the minimum number of changes when necessary (Nation& Macalister, 2010). This close following, as they argue, may have the following reasons:

  • It is the requirement of school or the ministry of education.
  • The teacher may be inexperienced or not well-trained.
  • The teacher assumes the course book to be valid and qualified.
  • The language learners wish to cover all parts of the course book.

The techniques utilized to cover materials to be taught can be varied in order to suit the language learners’ interest and proficiencies, which can be accomplished through varying the speed, the number of repetitions, assigning some parts of the lesson as homework, “or by creating parallel situations to those in the course book to provide extra practice” (p. 161). Once the course book has been chosen the teachers may wish to make the substantial changes to it, for which there could be such reasons as responding to the environment, taking needs into account, or putting principals into practice (Nation & Macalister, 2010). Nation and Macalister (2010) make are the following more detailed, exhaustive account of the reasons for teachers’ manipulating the course book:

  • The course book does not include all the activities the teacher has already used successfully.
  • The course book material is not proportionate to the time available for the course.
  • The course book contains content which is not suitable to language learners’ current level of proficiency.
  • The learners’ knowledge and skills do not match that involved in the course book.
  • The course book does not contain strategies, ideas, skills, and knowledge that learners need.
  • The course book does not contain the principles that are thought by the teacher to be applied.
  • The course book does not involve the language learners in the process of curriculum design (Allwright, 1981).

The solutions to these problems are as follows:

  • Omit or add content.
  • Change the sequencing of content.
  • Change the presentation.
  • Change the format.
  • Add or omit monitoring.
  • Add or omit assessment.

As an example of teacher adding content we can refer to the addition of an extensive reading component to the course, which may be done because the teacher does not feel the course book is applying the principles that are believed by him or her to be important (Nation & Macalister, 2010).

Nation and Macalister (2010) also give credit to using computers and the Internet support to teaching. As they argue, computer has impacted on language teaching in four ways:

  • The use of computers in language learning laboratories and self-access centers.
  • The use of computer-mediated activities in classroom, an epitome of which could be teaching writing.
  • The use of the Internet as a source of information.
  • The use corpora in language learning to generate language-learning materials.

They maintain that the extent to which learners of language use computers and the Internet is determined by the outer circle of curriculum. Obvious environment constraints include lack of money to by the equipment, schools without electricity, and teachers’ unfamiliarity with technology.

4.4 Final Remarks

A syllabus is a specification of what is to be taught what is to be taught in language program and the order in which it is to be taught and may contain phonology, grammar, functions, notions, topics, themes, etc. Syllabus defines linguistic content in terms of such linguistic elements as functions, notions, topics and structures and defines the goals for learning the second or the foreign language in terms of reading, writing, listening, or speaking skills.

Ellis (2003) makes an account of course design, or syllabus, and distinguishes between course design and methodology. As he contends, course design is concerned with selection and sequencing the content to be taught, while “methodology addresses the participatory structure of the classroom and the actual teaching procedures” (p. 205). Language curriculum is formed by a blend of design and methodology (Ellis, 2003).

Materials applied in language teaching may be linguistic, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, and they may be put forward in print, audio or video, on the internet, etc. Nunan (1988, cited in SheikhzadeMarand, 2011) identifies the following principles for material design:

1. They should be clearly linked to the curriculum they serve.

2. They should be authentic in terms of task and text.

3. They should simulate interaction.

4. They should call learners’ attention to formal aspects of language.

5. They should encourage language learners to develop skill and skills in language learning.

6. They should motivate language learners to apply their developing language skills to the world beyond language classroom.

Adoption is the process of choosing and selecting materials. The boundary between adoption and adaptation is blurred. In adopting teaching materials it should be kept in mind that the materials which are going to be chosen should take the language learners forward directly, or as directly as possible, to the already set and determined objectives, and we should look beyond the confines of classroom into outside world and draw language learners’ attention to what he wants to do in real situation and real life (Sheikhzadeh, 2011).

5. Content-based Syllabi

     Richards and Schmidt (2010) introduce the term “language across the curriculum” and define it as “an approach that emphasizes the teaching of language skills in relation to their uses in the total school curriculum, particularly the content areas rather than in isolation from the school curriculum” (p. 284). This approach, as they argue, reflects a functional view of language and seeks to teach language through activities linked to the teaching of other subject areas.

     The idea behind content-based instruction is that a course focusing on content subject like mathematics, technology, or literature can also be of considerable use in language development (Nation & Macalister, 2010). There are, according to Nation and Macalister (2010), two dangers to be aware of in such courses. Firstly, a focus on the content matter is necessarily a message-focused approach to the learning of language. The focus is put on content matter of the material. It is crucial for such courses not to neglect language focused learning. Secondly, a focus on particular subject area can stand for the fact that more generally useful language items might not be met often in course. Also, Nunan (2004) states that the thing uniting different approaches to content-based instruction is that the departure point for syllabus design and materials development is derived from experiential content than linguistic data.

     Content-based syllabus is the syllabus in which language skills are put to use on a series of topics and associated materials than can be treated within an academic way (Atkinson &Ramanathan, 1995). Atkinson and Ramanathan (1995) purport that content-based syllabus is a product of the communicative approach to language teaching.

     Content-based syllabus is organized around the functions, themes, topics, or other areas of content that are commonly required in speaking (Richards, 2001). According to Richards (2001) with a content-based syllabus, content, than grammar, functions, or situations, is the starting point is syllabus design. As he argues, “content may provide the sole criterion for organizing the syllabus or a framework for linking a variety of different syllabus strands together” (p. 157). As Krahnke (1987, cited in Richards, 2001) maintains, it is the teaching of content of information in the language which is being learned with scant effort to teach the language separately from the content which is being taught. All language courses must include some form of content, but with other approaches to syllabus design content is incidental and only serves as a way to practicing functions, skills, or structures (Richards, 2001). Richards (2001) further argues that in a typical lesson in grammar-based course, for example, a structure is selected and then the content is chosen to show how the item is used and to provide context where the structure can be practiced. In a content-based syllabus, content provides a way to presenting the language rather than the other way around. Content-based syllabi have often been a feature of ESL programs in elementary or secondary schools in which the teaching English is integrated with science, mathematics, and social sciences, as well as ESL programs for learners at university level (Richards, 2001).

     As Richards (2001) argues, in developing topic-based syllabi, the following issues will arise:

  • How are topics, themes, and content decided on?
  • What is the balance between content and grammar or other strands in the syllabus?
  • Are language learners qualified to undergo content-based courses?
  • What should be the basis for assessment?

     Content-based syllabus is intended to design a type of instruction where the crucial goal is to instruct specific information and content using the language that students are also learning (Mohseni Far, 2008). As Mohseni Far (2008) states, “although the subject matter is of primary and vital importance, language learning occurs concurrently with the content learning” (p. 3). The learners are language students and learners of whatever content and information which is being taught.

     Analytic syllabi, where language learners are exposed to language which has not been linguistically graded, are more potent to result from the use of experiential rather than linguistic content as the starting point for syllabus design (Nunan, 2001). According to Nunan (2001), “the stimulus for content-based syllabus is the notion that, unlike science, history, or mathematics, language is not a subject in its own right, but merely a vehicle for communicating about something else” (p. 38).Besides, Nunan (2004) contends that topic and content-based syllabi are analytic in nature. Gillabert (2007) also states that in content-based syllabi, sequencing is the result of incorporating the intuition of experts in the subject matter into syllabus design.

     Hyland (2006) contends that content-based syllabi are thematic, sheltered, or adjunct types which differ in their orientations towards language content. In a content-based syllabus, as he states, themes or topics are selected according to their relevance or interest to learners and sequences by difficulty level or real world progression in target language contexts.

     A content-based curriculum integrates target language learning and content learning and is, therefore, based on the content of subject and on the use of authentic materials (Marco, 2002). It also, as reported by Marco (2002), takes into account the learners’ linguistic needs and learning styles. Brinton et al (cited in Marco, 2002) argue that content-based instruction applies authentic reading materials which require learners not only to understand information but also to interpret and evaluate it as well and requires language learners to synthesize facts and ideas from multiple sources as preparation for writing. Marco (2002) considers content-based syllabi useful for ESP since the major objective of an ESP course is to help learners acquire the linguistic and communicative skills related to their discipline and states that “content-based pedagogy promotes synthesizing and evaluating, and helps students improve their academic skills by raising their awareness of the concepts of audience and purpose”
(p. 21).

5.1 Advantages of Content-based Syllabi

     Nunan (2004) states that content-based instruction can have the following benefits:

  • It is underpinned by the organic, analytical approach to the development of language.
  • It can help school learners master other aspects of school learning.
  • It provides a framework within which language learners can have sustained engagement on both mastery of content and acquisition of language.

     Mohan (1986, cited in Richards, 2001) content-based syllabi can have the following advantages:

  • They make comprehension easier.
  • Content paves the way for making linguistic form more meaningful.
  • Content is applied as the best basis for teaching the skill areas.
  • They address language learners’ needs.
  • They motivate language learners.
  • They contribute to integration of the four skills.
  • They contribute to use of authentic materials

5.2 Criticisms against Content-based Syllabi

     According to Hutchinson and Waters (1983, cited in Nunan, 2001), in content-based model of syllabi the language learner is frustrated due to the fact that he is denied the language knowledge that makes him able to the task set. The content-based model, as they contend, is no more creative that the language-based model.

     Content-based syllabi differ from task-based syllabi in that experiential content, providing the point of departure for the syllabus, usually derives from some well-defined subject area (Nunan, 2001). This, as argued, might be other subjects in a school curriculum. Nunan (2001) states that “whether content syllabuses exemplify product or process syllabuses is a matter for conjecture” (p. 49). As he maintains, most of them would probably be located at the center of the process/product continuum.

5.3 Final Remarks

     Skill-based syllabus is the syllabus which is organized around different underlying abilities involved in using a language for purposes such as listening, writing, listening, speaking, or reading. As stated by Richards (2001), approaching a language through skills is based on the belief that learning a language skill, such as speaking, involves learning a number of sub-skills or micro skills involved in the activity of learning.

     Skills are, according to Mohsenifar (2008), the abilities that people must be able to do so as to be competent enough in a language, rather independently of the situation or context where language can occur. In skill-based syllabi, the content of the language involves a set of particular skills that may play a role in using the language. The main rational behind skill-based syllabi is learning specific language skills, and another minor objective is to develop more general competence in the language (Mohsenifar, 2008).

     The idea behind content-based instruction is that a course which has its focus on content subject like mathematics, technology, or literature can also be of substantial use in language development. Also, Nunan (2004) argues that the thing which unites different approaches to content-based instruction is that the departure point for syllabus design and materials development is derived from experiential content than linguistic data.

     Content-based syllabus aims to design a type of instruction in which the crucial goal is to teach specific information and content by means of the language that students are also learning. As Mohsenifar (2008) states, although the subject matter is of primary and vital importance, language learning occurs concurrently with the content learning. The learners are language students and learners of whatever content and information which is being taught.

6. Negotiated Syllabus: Towards Learner Autonomy

     In recent decades of language teaching a shift from a teacher-centered to learner-centered approaches has been discernible, putting more responsibilities on learners’ shoulders in the process of learning. The term coined in this surge towards instruction and seriously dealt with is “learner autonomy”. The emergence of constructivist theories, moreover, has allowed for learner autonomy’s becoming an important goal in L2 instruction (Maftoon & Najafi, 2012). Therefore, as argued by Maftoon and Najafi (2012), in the domain of second language instruction a great deal of attempt has been made to make language learners more responsible for their own learning. This has led to the realization of the key role of instructional materials in language teaching, considering the fact that instructional materials are the paramount, if not the sole, source of linguistic input provided for language learners. Maftoon and Najafi (2012) state that two main trends of research can be considered remarkable in this regard. The first brand of research deals with designing principles mostly confined to the organization and grading of content for language course materials , and the second line of research puts its focus on “designing principles through which the instructional materials can enhance learner autonomy” (p. 232). However, it seems that learner autonomy has remained at the level of approach and has not managed to develop a well-defined framework for the development of instructional materials. A solution to this problem can be the application of negotiated syllabus where the realization of learner autonomy can be achieved (Hamidi & Montazeri, 2015). This syllabus provides a detailed specification of instructional materials and their sequencing in the practice of language instruction.

6.1 Teachers and Autonomy for Learner

     Teachers are not agents who learn skills and then apply these skills to pedagogical purpose (Nassaji & Fotos, 2011). They are active decision makers making their pedagogical choice by using networks of knowledge which are practically oriented, personalized, and context-sensitive. This view, according to Nassaji and Fotos (2011) and Maftoon and Najafi (2012), is consistent with cognitive view of teaching, and the idea that language teachers possess their own theories of language teaching, which is gleaned through the active course of reflection on their practice. Thus the needs of language learners, then particular instructional context, and the purpose of enhancing learner autonomy must inform the choice of the teacher in grammar instruction (Nassaji & Fotos, 2011). However, it should be argued that leaving the instruction to teachers’ experience may not guarantee improvement in learning due to the fact that this carte blanche given to teachers’ experience can be a source of unwarranted instruction of language. Teachers may bring into instruction many theoretically baseless practices abiding by no valid framework for the development of instructional materials. Besides, regarding the claim made by Nassaji and Fotos (2011) that the purpose of enhancing learner autonomy must inform the choice of teacher the choice of the teacher in grammar instruction it should be noted that this will suffer from the same criticism made against the focus on form instruction. Many grammatical features may not be dealt with due to the reason that there scarcely appears to arise the situation were theses features need to be applied, hence not grammatically quenching learners’ need for more complex structures.

6.2 Learner Autonomy in Curriculum Development

     The autonomous learner is, according to Benson (2009, p. 18), capable of making the following decisions:

  • Determining the objectives,
  • Defining contents and progressions,
  • Selecting methods and techniques to be used,
  • Monitoring the procedures of acquisition properly speaking (rhythm, time, place, etc.), and
  • Evaluating what has been acquired.

     The biggest criticism which can be cast against the above decisions is that these decisions are not likely to be made by a learner at a low level of language proficiency easily. Each of the decisions above can be made by a learner whose language proficiency and learning strategies have come to a mature state. It is teachers who can make these decisions for learners at a low proficiency level.

     A more moderate account of Benson’s (2009) claim on autonomous learners can be Dam’s (2009) specification of an autonomous classroom as a teaching/learning environment where “the teacher is expected to provide learners with possibility to be consciously involved in their own learning- to be autonomous learners” (p. 129). He proposes the following ways for developing learner autonomy in the classroom in the beginning sessions:

  • A change of language learner role, involving more responsibility for learners with regard to choice of homework, choice of activity, and planning of small projects.
  • Change of language teacher’s role, through giving more responsibility to learners, speaking the target language all the time paving the way for more group work.
  • The introduction of a logbook to be used by language learners for pursuing the process of learning inside as well as outside of the classroom.
  • The introduction of new activity types which have their focus on authentic learner interaction.
  • A focus on language learners’ written as well as oral evaluation of the work as the responsibility.
  • Other individual preferences.

     Sinclair (2009) considers learner autonomy from two planes. The first plane is metacognitive strategies contributing to informed decision making as a major component of learner autonomy. Metacognitive strategies as Sinclair (2009) explains, involve reflection on learning: planning learning, setting goals, self-assessment and monitoring of progress, evaluating learning activities and exploiting learning resources.

     Another significant plane of learner autonomy pertains to readiness or willingness to act autonomously. A language learner may have a good deal of metacognitive knowledge, but not always take the responsibility (Sinclair, 2009). Learner autonomy, according to Sinclair (2009) is “a construct of capacity which is operationalized when willingness is present” (p. 185).

     According to Sinclair (2009), Metacognitive knowledge needs to include the following factors:

  • Learner factors: Participants explores themselves as learners in the language program.
  • Contextual factors: Participants explore their learning contexts and constrains that impede the promotion of learner-centered methodology.
  • The subject matter: participants explore theory and practice of learner-centered language teaching methodologies.
  • The learning process: Participants reflect critically on their learning and teaching.

     Sinclair (2009) adds that participants need to develop the ability to use the following in service of their own learning if they wish to promote independence in their learners:

  • Planning learning
  • Self-assessment
  • Short-term goals setting
  • Monitoring progress
  • Organizing learning and exploring resources
  • Activity evaluation

     Again, the way learners should pass through to reach these abilities have not been distinctly specified. These abilities cannot be developed by learners, especially learners at low proficiency level, themselves. There is an undoubted need to a clear-cut illustration of guideline and framework for developing materials directed towards fulfilling these abilities. The negotiated syllabus, therefore, can be considered an appropriate guideline in helping us achieve this goal.

6.3 Negotiated Syllabus and Learner Autonomy

     As can be seen so far regarding learner autonomy, there is the space for calling learner autonomy as an approach to syllabus design without any strong framework of specification of materials and their sequencing. In the realm of learner autonomy, negotiated syllabus can be introduced as a paramount contributor to deploying materials and arranging these materials aimed at developing learner autonomy, since this type of syllabus takes individual preferences as its center of attention. Negotiated syllabus is an approach to development of language course where learners’ needs and preferences are taken into consideration during course (Richards & Schmidt, 2010). The needs are discussed by language learners and instructors during the course, serving to generate ideas about the content of the course. This syllabus, like learner autonomy, harbors learner-centered approach to teaching. Interest, according to Benson (2009), in the idea of autonomy has grown to a great extent through its association with various forms of practice one of which is negotiated syllabus. Learners working within the programs with a negotiated syllabus can influence the content of their courses and can also assessment issues in such contexts (Rea-Dickins, 1997).

     The use of negotiated syllabus in the yearn for learner autonomy seems to have also been endorsed by Kenny (1993) who maintains that self-direction is an aspect of autonomy which is expected to find flowering in negotiated syllabus. According to Clarke (1991, cited in Kenny, 1993), “negotiated syllabus is a quantum leap of a radical nature in terms of learner autonomy, because learners play a central part in its making” (p. 434). As Clark (1991, cited in Kenny, 1993) further explains, its content is completely unknown before its creation , but what language learners negotiating a negotiated syllabus will end up with a fairly traditional language syllabus and negotiation means choosing or selecting.

6.4 Principles of the Negotiated Syllabus

     The principle which underlies negotiated syllabus is that the learners and the teacher come together to discuss aspects of the course and reach a consensus on how the course will be conducted, and this how is realized in the control that learners have over them (Sewell, 2004). Besides, Clark (1991, as cited in Sewell, 2004) states that the learners’ control through negotiating that syllabus provides the basis for its being described as a Type B syllabus. According to Sewell (2004), in a negotiated syllabus, the major benefits appear to be that language learners are given control over their learning and “some autonomy to develop English in ways that are valuable to them” (p. 7).

     Breen and Littlejohn (2000, cited in Nation & Macalister, 2010) make a list of situations where a negotiated syllabus is unavoidable:

  • Where learners and teachers have different background.
  • Where there is scant time and useful choices must be made.
  • Where there exists a diverse group of learners.
  • Where initial needs analysis is not feasible.
  • Where there is not any course book.
  • Where learners’ past experience must be part of the course.
  • Where the course is open-ended.

     Nation and Macalister (2010, p. 150) contend that a negotiated syllabus involves the following steps:

  • Negotiating the goals, content, format and assessment of the course.
  • Implementing these negotiated decisions, and
  • Evaluating the effect of implementation in terms of outcomes and the way the implementation was done.

Additionally, six main requirements for a negotiated syllabus are proposed by Nation and Macalister (2010):

  • Negotiation procedure: How and how often be negotiation be carried out.
  • Course planning: participation. Who will work with who?
  • Course planning: procedure. What kinds of activities will be worked on.
  • Course planning: learning goals. What will be the focus of the work?
  • Course evaluation: the continual evaluation of previous decisions and the learning resources.
  • Resource and materials: there is a good deal of materials language learners and teachers can draw on.

6.5 Final Remarks

     Learner autonomy seems to have been a new approach to the teaching of second language. In learner autonomy, a great deal of emphasis is put on making language learners independent of their teachers as much as possible, hence contributing to a shift from a teacher-centered practice of language instruction to a learner-centered one. In learner autonomy, the styles of learning, the preferences, and the motivation of learners are taken into account, claimed to contribute to more efficient and lasting learning of the language. However, it appears that the term learner autonomy has remained at the level of wish and has not been able to delineate any specific materials and procedures in its hankering for training the least teacher dependent learners. It has made itself confined to some unprincipled creativities deployed by some materials developers in the field of language teaching.

     The solution to this problem appears to be applying the procedures and principles of negotiated syllabus. Like learner autonomy, negotiated syllabus takes language learners preferences, learning styles, and motivation into account and aims to make learner as much teacher independent as possible. As Nation and Macalister (2010) maintain, “the advantages of negotiated syllabus come largely from its responsiveness to “wants” of the learners and awareness of learners. The negotiation existing in negotiated syllabus develops learners’ awareness of the goals of language learning activities, thereby making them better language learners (Nation & Macalister, 2010). It differs from learner autonomy in that it has managed to come across principled selection, implementation, and evaluation of materials contributing to a rise in learner autonomy. However, what can be finally concluded is that learner autonomy is an approach a more practical or designed-based implementation of which could be achieved through the practice of materials chosen, implemented, and harbored by negotiated syllabi.

7. Skill-based Syllabi

     Skills syllabus is the syllabus that is organized around different underlying abilities involved in using a language for such purposes as listening, writing, listening, speaking, or reading (Richards, 2001). According to Richards (2001), approaching a language through skills has its basis on the belief that learning a language skill, such as speaking, involves learning a number of sub-skills or micro skills involved in the activity of learning. He makes an example of skills related to different types of language use as follows:

  • Writing: making a topic sequence, distinguishing between topic sentences and supporting sentences, and self-editing.
  • Listening: recognizing key information and applying discourse markers.
  • Speaking: recognizing run-taking signals, introducing a topic, and using communication strategies.
  • Reading: reading for gist, guessing words from context, and making inferences.

     Skills, according to Richards (2001), have allocated a central attention to themselves in language teaching and attempts have been made to identify the micro-skills which underlie the use of four macro-skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, as the basis for the design of syllabus.

     Yalden (1983) provides the following example of a skill syllabus for the teaching of study skills, basic reference skills:

       understanding the use of

  • Graphic presentation
  • Index and table of contents
  • Cross-referencing
  • Card catalog
  • Phonetic transcription
  • Bibliography
  • Dictionaries

Skimming to obtain

  • The gist of the text
  • A general impression of the text

Scanning to locate specifically required information on

  • A single point
  • More than one point
  • A whole point

Transcoding information presented in diagrammatic display, involving

  • Completing a diagram
  • Constructing one or more diagram

Note taking skills

  • Completing note-frames
  • Deletions
  • Use of diagrams

     Skills are, according to Mohseni Far (2008), the abilities that people must be able to do so as to be competent enough in a language, rather independently of the situation or context where language can occur. In skill-based syllabi, the content of the language to be taught involves a set of particular skills that may play a role in using the language (Mohsenifar, 2008). The main rationale behind skill-based syllabi is learning specific language skills, and another minor objective is to develop more general competence in the language (Mohsenifar, 2008).

     Rahimpour (2010) maintains that a skill-based syllabus is the syllabus where the content of the language is a collection of specific abilities that may play a role in using the language. Besides, as Sewell (2004) argues, Like any other syllabus type, a skills syllabus still consists of a graded selection of skills to be learned, “and thus Type A syllabus” (p. 4).

     Katsara (2008) states that the primary purpose of skill-based instruction is to teach the specific language skills which may be of use or necessity in using the foreign language. Skills are the things to be more competent in a language. Katsara (2008) contrasts between situational syllabi and skill-based syllabi by arguing that “unlike situational syllabi where functions are grouped together into specific language use settings, skill-based syllabi group linguistic competencies (pronunciations, vocabulary, grammar and discourse) together into generalized types of behavior, such as listening to spoken language for the main idea, writing well-formed paragraphs, specific purpose writing, and so forth” (p. 23).

     Skills-based approach is, as argued by Richards and Rogers (2001), characterized by a focus on a specific academic skill area that is, according to Shih (1986, cited in Richards & Rogers, 2001), “linked to concurrent study of specific subject matter in one or more academic disciplines” (p. 217). This may stand for the argument that learners write about materials they are currently studying in an academic course or that the language being learned or composition itself stimulates the academic process (Shih, 1986, cited in Richards & Rogers, 2001).

     Nunan (1999) introduces the term ‘skill-based theory’ and defines it as originating in an explicit form and gradually being proceduralized into an implicit Formby means of practice.

7.1 Advantages of Skill-based Syllabui

     Skills-based syllabi focused on performance in relation to specific tasks and, thereby, provide a practical framework for course design and teaching materials (Richards, 2001). They, as Richards (2001) maintains, may be pertinent to situations where learners have very specific and identifiable needs.

7.2 Criticisms against Skills-based Syllabi

     According to Richards (2001), skills-based syllabi have been criticized on the following grounds:

  • There is no serious basis
  • They have their focus on discrete aspects of performance rather than on developing more global and integrated communicative abilities.

Syllabus Design and Evaluation

Product-Oriented Syllabuses

The Structural Approach

The Situational Approach

The Notional/Functional Approach

Process-Oriented Syllabuses

Procedural/Task-Based Approaches

Learner-Led Syllabuses

The Proportional Approach

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