Syllabus Design: All You Need to Know about Course Planning

Syllabus Design

A number of different levels of planning and development are involved in developing a course or set of instructional materials based on the aims and objectives that have been established for a language program.

In this post we will examine the following dimensions of course development:

  1. Developing a course rationale
  2. Describing entry and exit levels
  3. Choosing course content
  4. Sequencing course content
  5. Planning the course content (syllabus and instructional blocks)
  6. Preparing the scope and sequence plan

Course Rationale

A starting point in course development is a description of the course rationale. This is a brief written description of the reasons for the course and the nature of it. The course rationale seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. Who is this course for?
  2. What is the course about?
  3. What kind of teaching and learning will take place in the course?

The course rationale answers these questions by describing the beliefs, values and goals that underlie the course. It would normally be a two or three-paragraph statement that has been developed by those involved in planning.

The following is an example of a course rationale:

This course is designed for working adults who wish to improve their communication skills in English in order to improve their employment prospects. It teaches the basic communication skills needed to communicate in a variety of different work settings. The course seeks to enable participants to recognize their strengths and needs in language learning and to give them the confidence to use English more effectively to achieve their own goals. It also seeks to develop the participants’ skills in independent learning outside of the classroom.

Entry and Exit Level

In order to plan a language course, it is necessary to know the level at which the program will start and the level learners may be expected to reach at the end of the course. Language programs and commercial materials typically distinguish between elementary, intermediate, and advanced levels, but these categories are too broad for the kind of detailed planning that program and materials development involves. For these purposes, more detailed descriptions are needed of students’ proficiency levels before they enter a program and targeted proficiency levels at the end of it. Information may be available on students’ entry level from their results on international proficiency tests such as TOEFL or IELTS.

Choosing a Course Content

This is the most basic issue in course design.   A course has to be developed to address a specific set of needs and to cover a different set of objectives, what will the content of the course look like? Decisions about course content reflect the planners’ assumptions about the nature of language, language use, and language learning, what the most essential elements or units of language are, and how these can be organized as an efficient basis for second language learning. For example, a writing course could potentially be planned around any of the following types of content:

  1. grammar (e.g., using the present tense in descriptions)
  2. functions (e.g., describing likes and dislikes)
  3. topics (e.g., writing about world issues)
  4. skills (e.g., developing topic sentences)
  5. processes (e.g., using prewriting strategies)
  6. texts (e.g.; writing a business letter)

Similarly a speaking course could be organized around:

  1. functions (expressing opinions)
  2. interaction skills (opening and closing conversations, turn taking)
  3. topics (current affairs, business topics)

Determine the Scope and Sequence

Decisions about course content also need to address the distribution or content throughout the course. This is known as planning the scope and sequence of the course. Scope is concerned with the breadth and depth of coverage of items in the course, that is, with the following questions:

  1. What range of content will be covered?
  2. To what extent should each topic be studied?

The sequencing of the course can be determined based on the following criteria:

Simple to complex: One of the commonest ways of sequencing material is by difficulty level. Content presented earlier is thought to be simpler than later items. This is typically seen in relation to grammar content, but any type of course content can be graded in terms of difficulty. For example, in a reading course reading texts may be simplified at the beginning of the course and unsimplified at later levels. Or simple skills such as “literal comprehension” may be required early on, and more complex skills such as “inferencing” taught at a later stage.

Chronology:  Content may be sequenced according to the order in which events occur in the real world. For example, in a writing course the organization might be based on the sequence writers are assumed to employ when composing: (1) brainstorming; (2) drafting; (3) revising; (4) editing. In a proficiency course, skills might be sequenced according to the sequence in which they are nor-mally acquired: (1) listening; (2) speaking; (3) reading; (4) writing.

Needs: Content may be sequenced according to when learners are most likely to need it outside of the classroom. For example, the rationale for the sequencing of content in a social survival curriculum is given as follows: The topics and cross-topics in the curriculum are sequenced “in order of importance to students’ lives, ease of contextualization and their relationship to other topics and cross-topics.” The sequence is:

  1. basic literacy skills
  2. personal identification
  3. money
  4. shopping
  5. time and dates
  6. telephone 
  7. health
  8. emergencies
  9. directions
  10. transportation
  11. housing
  12. post office
  13. banking/bills
  14. social language
  15. clarification

Prerequisite learning: The sequence of content may reflect what is necessary at one point as a foundation for the next step in the learning process. For example, a certain set of grammar items may be taught as a prerequisite to paragraph writing. Or, in a reading course, word attack skills may be taught early on as a pre-requisite to reading unsiMplified texts at later stages of the course.

Selecting  a Syllabus Framework

A syllabus describes the major elements that will be used in planning a language course and provides the basis for its instructional focus and content. For example, in planning a course on speaking skills based on the course content discussed earlier (in the section titled “Describing the entry and exit level”), a number of options are available. The syllabus could be:

  1. Situational: organized around different situations_and the oral skills needed in those situations
  2. Topical: organized around different topics and how to talk about them in English
  3. Functional: organized around the functions most commonly needed in speaking
  4. Task-based: organized around different tasks and activities that the learn-. ers would carry out in English

Approaches to Syllabus  Design

Grammatical (or structural) syllabus: one that is organizes arouna grammatical items. Traditionally, grammatical syllabuses have been used as the basis for planning general courses, particularly for beginning-level learners.

Lexical syllabus: one that identifies a target vocabulary to be taught normally arranged according to levels such as the first 500, 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 words.

Functional syllabus: one that is organized around communicative func-tions such as requesting, complaining, suggesting, agreeing.

Situational syllabus: one that is organized around the language needed for different situations such as at the airport or at a hotel. A situation is a setting in which particular communicative acts typically occur. A situational syllabus identifies the situations in which the learner will use the language and the typical communicative acts and language used in that setting.

Topical or content-based syllabus: One that is organized around themes, topics, or other units of content. With a topical syllabus, content rather than grammar, functions, or situations is the starting point in syllabus design.

Skills syllabus: one that is organized around the different underlying abil-ities that are involved in using a language for purposes such as reading, writ-ing, listening, or speaking.

Task-based syllabus: one that is organized around tasks that students will complete in the target language. A task is an activity or goal that is carried out using language such as finding a solution to a puzzle, reading a map and giving directions, or reading a set of instructions and assembling a toy.

Text-based syllabus: One that is built around texts and samples of ex-tended discourse. As already noted, this can be regarded as a type of situa-tional approach because the starting point in planning a syllabus is analysis of the contexts in which the learners will use the language.