Designing a communicative syllabus for the tertiary level [Archives:2007/1074/Education]

August 6 2007

Dr. Kalyani Samantray
Associate Professor of English
S B Women's College,
Cuttack, India
[email protected]

Innovative thinking is now evident in the area of teaching and learning of English as a second language (ESL) for a wide range of purposes. Policy makers, curriculum framers, materials producers, teachers, parents, and learners of ESL everywhere expect accomplishments in ESL in such a manner that the language can fulfill a variety of real life communication demands of the learners.

The past century has seen the swell of many approaches to second language teaching. Previously, the task of learning a language involved, among others, an understanding of a large number of complex grammatical rules, development of an ability to translate into and from the second language, and language habit formation using grammar rules and language chunks. Unfortunately, all these did not yield expected language behaviour from learners because their practice in ESL was not rooted in 'real life' simulations. Consequently, misgivings arose about the existing approaches to language teaching.

It was then realized that there was a need for a more relevant approach to language teaching methods. This started an increased interest in looking afresh at the learning-teaching situations and individual learners.

The recent trend in the theory of language is a growing interest in communicative rather than linguistic competence, and in communicative performance which is pragmatic and realistic. As a result, in planning language programmes, there has been a switch of emphasis from linguistic content, which normally meant grammar and lexis, to learner needs, and learning objectives.

A growing number of learners at the tertiary level require ESL for occupational and vocational purposes, as well as for general educational purposes. This has necessarily led to a corresponding increase in attention on syllabus design so as to provide appropriate teaching programmes to learners.

Curriculum and syllabus

The terms “syllabus”, “syllabus design” and “curriculum” have given rise to confusion in terms of their definitions and use. According to Stern (1983) the field of curriculum studies is part of the discipline of educational studies. In its broadest sense, it refers to the study of goals, content, implementation and evaluation of an educational system. In its restricted sense, curriculum refers to a course of study or the content of a particular course or programme. It is in this narrower sense of curriculum that the term “syllabus” is employed. According to Stern, “syllabus design” is just one phase in a system of interrelated curriculum development activities.

Curriculum as defined by Allen (1984) is a very general concept. It involves consideration of philosophical, social and administrative factors which contribute to the planning of an educational programme. “Syllabus” then refers to that subpart of a curriculum which is concerned with the specification of what units will be taught.

Candlin (1984) takes a somewhat different stand when he says that syllabuses are “social constructions, produced interdependently in classrooms by teachers and learners … They are concerned with the specification and planning of what is to be learned, frequently set down in some written form as prescriptions for action by teachers and learners.”

Basically, a syllabus can be seen as “a plan of what is to be achieved through our teaching and our students' learning” (Breen, 1984) while its function is “to specify what is to be taught and in what order” (Prabhu, 1984).

Syllabus designing

The next step is to decide which factors should be taken into account in syllabus designing.

According to Webb (1976), syllabus design is understood as the organization of the selected contents into an ordered and practical sequence for teaching purposes. His criteria for syllabus design are the following:

– progress from known to unknown matter

– appropriate size of teaching units

– a proper variety of activity

– teachability

– creating a sense of purpose for the learner.

Designing a communicative syllabus involves three main stages: i needs analysis, ii content specification, and iii syllabus organization. A communicative language learning syllabus follows very closely the following steps:

-needs analysis

– formulation of objectives

– selection, and organization of content

– selection, and organization of learning activities

– decisions about what should be evaluated and how.

Needs analysis

Speakers use English to perform a large number of functions in the course of their everyday life. It is almost impossible, and impractical to attempt to predict all the possible uses for which a learner might want to use the language. There has to be some criteria for the selection of those notions and functions which would be particularly useful to learn.

– the type of language contexts which learners would engage in

– the language activities they would need to perform

– the roles they would play in different language contexts

– the topics they would deal with.

Needs analysis includes the identification of the communication requirements, personal needs, motivation, relevant characteristics and resources of the learner. It also includes investigating those of his “partners for learning” (Trim, 1981). These refer to teachers, employers, administrators, family and friends and colleagues, and even those of material writers and textbook publishers.

An ESL programme at the tertiary level should specify

– processes which trigger fluency in specified skill areas

– forms of the linguistic or communicative content to be covered, and

– the level of proficiency.

Attention has to be paid to the following as well:

– the kind of language needed most immediately by the learner

– the kind of language that has high payoff value immediately and in the future

– the linguistic and social strategies necessary to avoid a communication breakdown

– the kind of language that can be used most widely, and most frequently by the learner.

Designing the content

After having determined the language needs of learners, the next step would be to decide on the content of the syllabus.

Content can be specified through a series of checklists which deal with communicative functions, discourse skills, and study skills.

Having once decided on what to teach, the next step is to decide on an appropriate strategy of presentation. The content should be organized in such a way as to facilitate teaching and maximize learning.

Transacting the syllabus

No matter how well developed a syllabus is, it would not be able to achieve what it is meant to if serious consideration is not given to its successful implementation.

Various sources have cited a number of factors which need to be given consideration in the successful implementation of a language syllabus. These factors would also affect the choice of an appropriate syllabus for use.

Maley (1984) suggests the following factors:

– cultural

– educational

– organizational

– learner

– teacher, and

– material


The trend in language teaching has been towards being learner-centred. This brings with it a large number of variables, which influence the formulation of a syllabus type.

Whether a syllabus is flexible or whether it is binding depends mainly on the objectives which it aims to achieve. Many teachers prefer a syllabus that clearly prescribes everything that has to be done, and the procedure of doing. Enlightened teachers, on the other hand, prefer both freedom and responsibility, and therefore a syllabus that is more flexible.

The complex demands on ESL learning today requires that concerted efforts be put into designing a syllabus which would be appropriate for the variables involved in the teaching-learning process. The requirement in ESL learning nowadays is communicative performance among a vast majority of learners. Therefore, the emphasis on syllabus design is justified so as to produce appropriate syllabuses for the specific needs of the learners.