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Choosing the right order of contents when organizing a book syllabus


submitted by Gonzalo Pazo, Colegio Tecnico Don Bosco, Costa Rica

I would like to ask you what the theoretical basis are when choosing the right order of contents when organizing a book syllabus.

Dr Richards Responds:

A syllabus (also called a scope and sequence plan) is a description of the contents of a course and order in which the content will be taught. Syllabus design is a core component of course design and an area that has long been the focus of discussion and debate in language teaching. It continues to arouse controversy today. The reason for this is because there is no firm consensus as to what the core components of second language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing are as well as to the nature of the various competencies that underlie ability in language use. For example although reading and listening are often described as calling upon the development of the use of component skills or microskills that contribute to the overall ability the learner has with reading and listening, researchers do not agree as to the nature of these skills or whether they actually describe the processes learners make use of when they use language (see chapters 9 and 11). There is still controversy around such a basic question as to the importance of grammar and its role in a language syllabus. In developing a syllabus for any type of course there are hence different options as to how the course can be organized and what the units of course organization will be. Here are a few examples:

Grammar: grammar has traditionally provided the core framework of general English courses. These are usually developed around a structural syllabus – a graded sequence of grammatical items that are regarded as establishing the basic building blocks of language proficiency, particularly at the level of the sentence. Choice of grammatical items has normally been based on linguistic difficulty, frequency, and communicative need. Grammar is often also a component of writing and reading courses, since grammatical knowledge contributes to reading and writing ability. It may also be a strand in speaking courses if a focus on accuracy is addressed in the course. In contemporary applied linguistics research corpus analysis is used to determine the most frequent language forms and usages for inclusion in language courses.

Skills: Courses in the listening, speaking, reading and writing have often been built around the microskills that each skill involves. Organizing a course around skills is based on the belief that learning a complex activity such as reading fluently and with understanding involves mastery of a number of individual skills that together make up the activity. For example reading microskills include the following:

  • Recognizing the rhetorical forms of written discourse
  • Recognizing the communicative function of written texts
  • Using background knowledge to make inferences
  • Inferring links and connexions between events
  • Distinguishing between literal and implied meanings
  • Using strategies such as scanning and skimming and guessing meanings of words from context

In a reading course a focus could be on practicing individual skills and in using skills in combination.

Competencies: whereas skills-based courses focus on developing proficiency in the four macro-skills, competency-based courses focus on the skills needed to carry out real-world activities. For example in order to be able to make telephone calls in English a learner would need to be able to acquire the following “competencies”;

  • read and dial telephone numbers
  • identify oneself on the telephone and when answering and calling
  • request to speak to someone
  • respond to a request to hold
  • respond to an offer to take a message

Competency-based approaches have been widely used in developing work-related courses and courses for new arrivals.

Functions: communicative language teaching led to the development of functional syllabuses as an alternative to structural syllabuses. “Functions” are the acts of communication that are realized in conversation, such as offers, requests, suggestions, complaints, apologies, agreeing, disagreeing, accusing, denying, and so on. Functions have often been used as the basis for speaking courses in which students are taught how to carry out specific functions using strategies and language appropriate for different situations on the assumption that communicative competence involves mastering a core of communicative functions.

Critics of functional syllabuses have argued that they represent a simplistic view of communication based on the idea that there is a predictable relationship between form and function, when in fact the realization of functions (technically known as speech acts) depends on much more complex processes of negotiation and interaction between speakers. It has also been pointed out that students learning from functional materials may have considerable gaps in their grammatical competence because some important areas of grammar may not have been elicited by the functions taught in the syllabus.