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The whys and hows of syllabus writing


Mature woman working at her deskKaren Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her tips for writing an effective syllabus.

More often than not teachers receive syllabi which are kept unread. I remember receiving mine at the beginning of the academic year and just archiving them after marking which pages of the Student’s Book to omit. Why? Because they were more of an outline of what to cover than a syllabus. Why is this a problem? Because as coordinators we cannot be present in every class and certainly cannot see each and every lesson plan our teachers produce and implement. As a result, syllabi are valuable tools that allow us to guide and support teachers in various ways.

First and foremost, a syllabus should inform of the teaching points needing to be covered in order for students to reach the objectives set for the course and therefore pass tests and exams. Secondly, it should instruct teachers which methodology to use and the type of lessons you expect, as well as the balance of interaction patterns, time devoted to the different skills, amount of TTT (teacher talking time), etc. A good syllabus will, as a consequence, be a benchmark that enables teaching staff to be aware of what is expected from their lessons.

How can we write a syllabus which serves such a purpose? Here are 4 tips:

1. Keep the target audience in mind

It is crucial to know the teachers on your staff and write accordingly. Syllabi for newly qualified teachers should not be the same as those for experienced ones. It is therefore essential for you to know the type of teacher in every level so as to include the necessary information and cater for every teacher’s needs. Undoubtedly, less experienced teachers will need more thorough explanations and step-by-step indications of how to work with every task in the book, as well as ideas on the kind of warm-ups they can use, ways of eliciting information from students, extra activities they can incorporate in their lessons, etc.

2. Think of the syllabus as an extended lesson plan

Explain how you would work with each unit, including links between the different activities, appropriate warm-ups and follow-ups, whether you would propose activities as pair-work, group-work or individual tasks. Think of plausible questions which may be asked to enrich the lesson and useful tips regarding the development of skills and strategies. This will help teachers save time when planning, help them embed new techniques or methods, and seek help in those areas where they are less confident. It would be expected for new teachers to stick to these plans more strictly and for experienced teachers to take bits and pieces they find helpful and use these guidelines more flexibly.

3. Use syllabi to adapt coursebooks to the target students

No matter how good a text is, it is impossible for it to cater to all students, learning styles and needs. As coordinators, it is our responsibility to make sure students feel comfortable in their classes and that the materials used are appropriate to their ages, levels and interests. Sometimes it is necessary to replace activities or texts, which may be either too childish or too complex for students, with alternative or complementary ways of presenting certain points. It may also happen that topics which are either too culture-specific or just not interesting for a particular group of students appear. Should this be the case, those activities should be replaced with more appropriate and engaging topics your students will find more relatable and enjoyable. Make sure you cover all these noteworthy elements properly.

4. Remember the final recipients

The people who will be impacted most by what you plan are the students; a vast majority of whom are likely to be ‘digital natives’. Students expect technology to be used in class, as it represents an instrinsic aspect of their lives and they see it as a natural context for learning. It is therefore of paramount importance to incorporate technology into the syllabi we produce in order for teachers to understand its relevance and utilise it in their lessons as well. Try to include links to websites that both teachers and students may find of interest, be it to read a good contextual piece or study tips, or to do some practice through interactive exercises or games.

What other aspects do you consider when writing a syllabus?

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

7 thoughts on “The whys and hows of syllabus writing

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Thank you once again for your tips! I also find it useful to ask teachers for their feedback at the end of the year, since they are the ones who carry out our suggestions and are the ones who can tell us whether students enjoyed and benefited from suggested activities and links or not.

    • Definitely. Writing a syllabus should be seen as a process in which both the coordinator and teachers participate, as it it teachers who are in direct contact with students and get to see what actually takes place in the classroom. This feedback can be gathered either through forms distributed among teachers for them to fill in, or more informally whenever teachers consider there is something noteworty to share with you.

      Thanks for your contrinution!

  2. Thanks for the post! Yes, writing a syllabus can be quite challenging.. From my own experience, I remember there is a very fine line between just writing a syllabus (listing appropriate resources ) and actually imagining how you would teach that lesson ( in which case it’s very easy to overwhelm new teachers with too much information…). But I agree we have to make a distinction between experienced andnew teachers – that can really simplify the situation!

  3. I certainly agree with Karen that what often passes for a syllabus is little more than an outline of what to cover than a comprehensively planned syllabus; indeed, I would tend to categorize such syllabi as schemes of work rather than as syllabi.
    Karen makes five useful points but I think we can go beyond these. First consider this framework for analysing a syllabus:
    1. What are the learners expected to know at the end of the course?
    2. What is to be taught or learned during the course [usually in the form of an inventory of items]?
    3. When is it to be taught and at what rate of progress?
    4. How is it to be taught [suggested procedures, techniques and materials]?
    5. How is it to be evaluated [suggested testing and evaluation procedures]?
    Adapted from Dubin F and Olshtain E (1986) Course Design Cambridge, CUP]
    These questions cover more than the original five points and the classroom teacher should expect to find answers to them in any syllabus.
    However, I think that we can go beyond this in answering the question about what other aspects we consider when writing a syllabus. It is a matter of syllabus design and syllabus implementation.
    The planning any ESOL programme should be predicated on a series of decisions made at a succession of four levels: the highest and most general level is the curriculum level; this is followed by decisions at the syllabus level (see below). Once these decisions are made, further decisions can then be taken at the level of textbooks and materials. Finally, decisions are made by teachers at the lesson level. As you can see, decisions at a syllabus level are but one of these levels. In my view, it is the presence of disjunctions between these decisions made at the successive levels that causes problems for classroom teachers. I think that this is the root of the problem alluded to by Karen in her opening paragraph.
    At their level, syllabus designers make decisions about what to put in or leave out of a syllabus. These decisions will be based on the views and beliefs about language and language learning that they have. So syllabus designers who believe that accuracy is important will ensure the focus of the syllabus is on grammatical structures. However, if they believe that language is used for doing things, then they will make language functions a main focus, and so on.
    The decisions that syllabus designers make based on their view of language and language learning will also have an effect on the methodology and approaches used in the classroom and on how the learning will take place in the classroom. For example, if the syllabus focuses on accuracy, then the teaching methods consequently used in the classroom will probably involve repetition and drilling practice in controlled situations, accompanied by plentiful corrective feedback.
    These classroom procedures are implemented by teachers but are instigated and largely determined by the syllabus designers’ views of language, language learning and methodology (and only partly by the teachers’ own views). In practice, perhaps typically, the syllabus designers’ views of language, language learning and methodology are readily adopted by teachers. This implies that to teach a syllabus effectively classroom practitioners need to fully understand the views of language and language learning that underlie the syllabus that is being implemented. In a syllabus these underlying principles might be stated explicitly in the goals and objectives; alternatively, they may be implicit in the selection of content and in the way that the content is organized. Teachers need to be able to tell what the views of language, of language learning and of methodology are from the content that is specified and how the content is organized.
    As I have suggested above, syllabus designers should have a clear view of the underlying principles of their syllabus. To help them, they can ask and answer five sets of questions.
    One: what is their view of language?
    Is language a system of rules? Is it a means of communication? Is it a means of social interaction? Is language primarily composed from discrete items or is it viewed as integrated text?
    Two: what is their view of language learning?
    Does language learning take place in discrete units or holistically? Is it linear (building block) or developmental? Is it an individual or a social/socialised process?
    Three: what is the role of the learners?
    Is their role essentially as learners of rules? Are they expected to be active participants in learning or passive recipients of teaching input?
    Four: what is the role of the teacher?
    Are teachers directors and managers of teaching/learning activities? Are they the source of and providers of knowledge? Are they expected to provide models of language? Are they facilitators and guides?
    Five: what is the nature of the classroom?
    Is the classroom teacher-centred? Is it learner-centred?
    When implementing the syllabus, teachers should be able to think of more specific questions about the syllabus and how it is designed. For example:
    1. Exactly what do you want your target learners to learn? Is this compatible with the syllabus that you have to implement?
    2. Do your learning objectives reflect what you want your target learners to learn? Are these compatible with the syllabus that you have to implement?
    3. Do your assignments and tests sample and measure what you want your target learners to learn? Are these compatible with the syllabus that you have to implement?
    4. Have you established high demanding expectations of the target learners? Are these compatible with the syllabus that you have to implement? Have you clearly communicated these expectations to the target learners?
    5. Have you provided your target learners with a clearly presented road map or outline for the course? Is this compatible with the syllabus that you have to implement?
    6. Is your scheme of work organized, readable and readily followed by your target learners and your colleagues? Is this compatible with the syllabus that you have to implement?
    These questions reflect the decisions about the syllabus that teachers have to make at the classroom level. As I have suggested, they are part of a continuum (or perhaps a cline) of decisions that comprise the process of syllabus design and implementation.

    • Hi David,

      Thank you for your contribution.

      I totally agree with you in that each syllabus shows its writer’s imprint and makes it possible for all teachers to get acquainted with what’s expected from their lessons in terms of methodology to use, the role of the teacher, amount of TTT and STT, interaction patterns, etc. That is why these should be thoroughly planned, since they act as a reference teachers will always resort to when in doubt regarding any of these aspects and reflect both the coordinator’s and the institution’s principles and beliefs.

  4. What a helpful and insightful post! I realized that many points that were brought up in this post can (and in my case, should) be applied to lesson planning, as I can constantly remind myself the types of things I expect to see in my class on a daily basis. Thanks!

    • Certainly. I believe syllabi should be seen as extended lesson plans, so I definitely agree with you in that many of the aforementioned points are applicable to lesson planning.

      I’m glad you found this post useful.


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