What is the best syllabus? [Archives:2005/834/Education]

April 18 2005

Dr. Abdulhameed Shuja'a
Department of English
Faculty of Languages
Sana'a University

“The syllabus is not suitable for my students”; “it is a difficult syllabus to cope with”; “this is a very bad syllabus”, such statements are often given by practicing teachers . Obviously, these teachers are unsatisfied with the syllabuses they use. Their reluctant use of the syllabus may make the learning/teaching process end in failure, because the “syllabus” is considered the nucleus, as it were, of the teaching/learning process.

In a broad sense, the term “syllabus” also encompasses “the teaching materials”, “the textbook”, or “the coursebook” that the teacher makes use of to teach the target language in the classroom.

In order to deal with any syllabus, it is important that we understand its theoretical underpinnings and the circumstances in which the syllabus was first developed. This kind of understanding certainly helps us to use the syllabus at hand in a more conscious, informed and efficient way.

Let us, then, go quickly through the kinds of syllabuses that are available in literature. Broadly speaking, syllabuses are divided into two main types: Product-oriented and process-oriented syllabuses.

1. Product-oriented syllabuses

As the name suggests, a product-oriented syllabus is concerned with the ends and objectives, which the learner has to achieve by the end of the language program. In other words, it is objective or ends-oriented. There are two kinds of syllabuses which are product-oriented: grammatical/structural syllabus and functional/notional syllabus.

Grammatical/structural syllabus

This syllabus teaches the target language in terms of grammatical forms and structures that are believed to enable the learner to use the language in communicative situations outside the classroom. The following are examples of this kind of syllabus:

This is a book / pencil etc.

That is a bag / pen ..etc.

These are books / pencils ..etc.

Those are bags / pens etc.

Is this ? Yes, it is.

Is that ..? No, it isn't.

The criteria of selecting the items of a grammatical/structural syllabus are frequency of the items, their simplicity, learnability and teachability.

Functional/notional syllabus

The basic units of this type of syllabus are language functions and notions. Whereas 'functions' refer to the purpose of using language, 'notions' refer to conceptual meanings. Both functions and notions are used to present the target language to the learner. Therefore, functional/notional syllabuses are based on what people want to do through language. Examples of 'functions and 'notions' are given below:

Functions Notions

introducing duration

greeting frequency

agreeing time

2. Process-oriented syllabuses

Unlike product-oriented syllabuses, process-oriented syllabuses are not governed by the goals or ends of instruction. Rather, they focus on the process of instruction itself, i.e., on the learning experiences that the learner goes through. Process-oriented syllabuses shifted the concern of teaching from 'content' into 'process' of learning and 'procedures' of teaching. They appeared in order to overcome the limitations reported about product-oriented syllabuses. These kinds of syllabuses are further subdivided into procedural syllabuses (task-based) and process syllabuses (negotiated).

Procedural syllabuses

The focus of procedural syllabuses is 'task'. That is, language is taught through tasks, which cover 'form' and 'meaning'. The content of a procedural syllabus is a variety of tasks that the learner can do using the target language. Examples of such tasks are:

– Giving directions (using a tourist guide)

– Asking people for information

– Drawing pictures based on oral instructions

Negotiated syllabus

A negotiated syllabus, on the other hand, is developed and created through negotiations between the teacher and the learner during the course of study. Consequently, such kind of a syllabus may end up being any type of the above-mentioned syllabuses, depending on the learner's goals and objectives.

The rationale behind this type of syllabus is influenced by four important strands:

1. Humanistic methodologies for ESL environment in North America.

2. Needs analysis as the basis for a notional or communicative syllabus.

3. Research in the individualization and autonomy of the learner.

4. Investigations into the nature of learner strategies in the language learning process.

However, to implement a negotiated syllabus is not an easy job. It is a task, which is beset with difficulties due to the following factors:

a. Cultural differences among the learners.

b. Diversity of learning strategies.

c. Shortage or lack of competent teachers.

d. A considerable amount of time is needed.

e. Every group of learners would require a new material.

f. A training program is needed to carry out the negotiation process.


Any syllabus, when it first appears, is a response to a particular need in a particular place, at a particular point of time. It is so, because the common objective of all types of syllabuses is to provide the learner with language input that would equip him/her with necessary skills to use the target language outside the classroom.

Therefore, a syllabus which fully meets the learner's needs, wants, desires, aspirations and expectations is most welcome, no matter what label it carries or the approach of language or theory of learning it is based on. If the syllabus concerned satisfies the learner and makes him/her use the target language effectively and communicatively, then we can confidently state that it is the best for the learner.