Syllabus Design and Course Planning

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
  6. Preparing the scope and sequence plan

What are the parts of a Syllabus?

Syllabus Design is one aspect of curriculum development, a syllabus is an specification of the contents of a course and list what will be taught and tested.

 Several methods have been used over the years to ensure successful language teaching and learning, regardless of the method and approach that you are using in language, you will find the problem of selection because it is impossible to teach the whole language so you must select the parts of the language that you want to teach.

  • Basic Information
  • Learning Objectives
  • Materials and Access
  • Course Content
  • Teaching Philosophy:
  • Grading Method
  • Goal/Rationale
  • Student Responsibilities

What to Know Before Creating a Syllabus

These are some things you should know before creating a syllabus

  • Need AnalysisNeeds are often described in terms of a linguistic deficiency, that is, as describing the difference between what a learner can presently do in a language and what he or she should be able to do.
  • Situational Analysis: Situation analysis is an analysis of factors in the context of a planned or present curriculum project that is made in order to assess their potential impact on the project. These factors may be politic, social, economic, or institutional.
  • Course Planning: 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.
  • Teaching Materials: Teaching materials are a key component in most language programs. Whether the teacher uses a textbook, institutionally prepared materials, or his or her own materials, instructional materials generally serve as the basis for much of the language input learners receive and the language practice that occurs in the classroom.
  • Effective Teaching: Quality teaching is achieved not only as a consequence of how well teachers teach but through creating contexts.

How to Write a 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.

Should I Include an 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.

How to Choose Course Contents in a Syllabus?

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)

How to 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 prerequisite to reading unsimplified texts at later stages of the course.

What Syllabus Frameworks are there?

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.

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

What are the Approaches to Syllabus Design?

These are some of the 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.

Instructional Materials

Instructional Materials are a key component in most language programs. Whether the teacher uses a textbook, institutionally prepared materials, or his or her own materials, instructional materials generally serve as the basis for much of the language input learners receive and the language practice that occurs in the classroom.

In the case of inexperienced teachers materials may also serve as a form of teacher training because they provide ideas on how to plan and teach lessons as well as formats that teachers can use. Much of the language teaching that occurs throughout the world today could not take place without the extensive use of commercial materials. These may take the form of

  1. printed materials such as books, workbooks, worksheets, or readers
  2. nonprint materials such as cassette or audio materials, videos or computer-based materials
  3. materials that comprise both print and nonprint sources such as self-access materials and materials on the Internet.

In addition, materials not designed for instructional use such as magazines, newspapers, and TV materials may also play a role in the curriculum.

Authentic Vs Created Materials

When plans regarding the role of materials in a language progam are made, an initial decision concerns the use of authentic materials versus created materials. Authentic materials refers to the use in teaching of texts, photographs, video selections, and other teaching resources that were not specially prepared for pedagogical purposes. Created materials refers to textbooks and other specially developed instructional resources. Some have argued that authentic materials are preferred over created materials, because they contain authentic language and reflect real-world uses of language compared with the contrived content of much created material. Allwright

Advantages of Authentic Materials

These are some of the advantages of using Authentic Materials

  1. They  have a positive effect on learner motivation because they are more motivating than created materials.
  2. They provide authentic cultural information about the target culture.
  3. They provide exposure to real language.
  4. They relate more closely to learner’s needs.
  5. They support more creative approach to teaching.

Criticism of the use of Authentic Materials

These are some of the problems that teachers find with the use of Authentic Materials

  1. Created materials can also be motivating for learners
  2. Authentic material often contain difficult language
  3. Created materials can be superior to authentic materials because they provide a systematic teaching of the contents found in a syllabus
  4. Creatiing authentic materials is a burden for teachers

Advantages of Comercial Textbooks

These are some of the advantages of using comercial textbooks

  1. They provide structure and syllabus for a program
  2. They help standarize instruction
  3. They mantain quality
  4. They provide a varierty of learning resources
  5. They are efficient
  6. They can provide efffective language models and input
  7. They can train teachers
  8. They are visually appealing

Disadvantages of Comercial Textbooks

These are some of the disadvantages of using comercial textbooks

  1. They may contain inauthentic language
  2. They may distort content
  3. They may not reflect students’ needs
  4. They can deskill teachers
  5. They are expensive

Criteria for Textbook Evaluation

Four criteria for evaluating textbooks, particularly course books:

  1. They should correspond to learners’ needs.
  2. They should match the aims and objectives of the language learning program.
  3. They should reflect the uses (present or future) that learners will make of the language.
  4. Textbooks should be chosen that will help equip students to use language effectively for their own purposes.
  5. They should take account of students’ needs as learners and should facilitate their learning processes, without dogmatically imposing a rigid “method.”
  6. They should have a clear role as a support for learning. Like teachers, they mediate between the target language and the learner. ‘

Preparing Materials for a program

Advantages of building a materials development component into a program include:

  1. Relevance: Materials can be produced that are directly relevant to students’ and institutional needs and that reflect local content, issues, and concerns.
  2. Develop expertise: Developing materials can help develop expertise among staff, giving them a greater understanding of the characteristics of effective materials.
  3. Reputation: Institutionally developed materials may enhance the reputa-tion of the institution by demonstrating its commitment to providing mate-rials developed specifically for its students.
  4. Flexibility: Materials produced within the institution can be revised or adapted as needed, giving them greater flexibility than a commercial course book.

Disadvantages also need to be considered before embarking on materials development:

  1. Cost: Quality materials take time to produce and adequate staff time as well as resources need to be allocated to such a project
  2. Quality: Teacher-made materials will not normally have the same standard of design and production as commercial materials and hence may not present the same image as commercial materials.
  3. Training: To prepare teachers for materials writing projects, adequate training should be provided.

Effective Teaching

Effective Teaching is achieved not only as a consequence of how well teachers teach but through creating contexts and good environments that can facilitate good teaching.

Some of the factors that syllabus designers have to think about are:

  1. The Institution
  2. Teachers
  3. Type of Learners
  4. Teaching Process

4 Factors to Consider to Provide for Effective Teaching

These are the factor that you should take into account when designing your syllabus

#1 The Institution

A school’s organizational culture is revealed in the way the following questions are answered:

  1. What are the school’s goals and mission?
  2. What is the school’s management style?
  3. What shared values do staff have?
  4. What are the decision-making characteristics of the school?
  5. What roles do teachers perform?
  6. How are teaching and other work planned and monitored?
  7. What provision is made for staff development?
  8. How are courses and curriculum planned?
  9. How receptive is the school to change and innovation?
  10. How open are communication channels?

Quality indicators in an institution Language teaching institutions vary greatly in terms of how they view their educational mission. Some schools hopefully the majority are committed to providing quality educational services. They have a clearly articulated mission. They take seriously the development of a sound curriculum and set of programs, hire the best available teachers, and provide quality instruction and the kinds of support teachers need to achieve their best.

The following characteristics are indicators of the quality of a school or educational institution.

  1. There are clearly stated educational goals.
  2. There is a well-planned, balanced, and organized program that meets the needs of its students.
  3. Systematic and identifiable processes exist for determining educational needs in the school and placing them in order of priority.
  4. There is a commitment to learning, and an expectation that students will do well.
  5. There is a high degree of staff involvement in developing goals and making decisions.
  6. There is a motivated and cohesive teaching force with good team spirit.
  7. Administrators are concerned with the teachers’ professional development and are able to make the best use of their skills and experience.
  8. The school’s programs are regularly reviewed and progress toward their goals  is evaluated.

Other aspects to consider are the following:

  1. A sound curriculum: Well developed courses and teaching materials and test of high quality.
  2. Flexible organization framework: There is an atmosphere of trust and support  with reasonable teaching loads.
  3. Good Internal Communications: Sytems that facilitate the communication among teachers.
  4.  Professional Treatment of teachers:  Teachers don’t work under poor employment conditions
  5. Teacher Development: Teachers develop long-term career goals.
  6. Equipment: An institution that provides and invest in technology.
  7. Class Size: Language classes should not exceed fifteen students.

#2 Teachers

Many things can be done to create a context for good teaching, but it is teachers themselves who ultimately determine the success of a program.

Good teachers can often compensate for deficiencies in the curriculum, the materials, or the resources they make use of in their teaching.

Language teaching institutions vary greatly in the type of teachers they employ. In some situations, there may be a choice between native speakers of English and nonnative speakers of English with varying levels of English-language proficiency. Within both groups there may be further choices possible based on teaching experience and professional qualifications.

Views concerning the appropriate qualifications of language teachers have changed in recent years as the field of TESOL has become more professionally demanding of itself and has sought to develop standards for language teachers (Leung and Teasdale 1998; TESOL 1986b). There is a much greater awareness today that an expert language teacher is a highly skilled professional.

Core components of teaching knowledge include the followiing:

  1. Practical Knowledge: The teacher’s repertoire of  classroom techniques and strategies.
  2. Content Knowledge:pedagogical grammar, phonology, teaching theories, second language acquisition, as well as the specialized discourse and terminology of language teaching
  3. Contextual Knowledge: Familiarity with the school or institutional context, knowledge of the learners, including cultural and other relevant information
  4. pedagogical knowledge: ability to restructure content knowledge for teaching purposes, and to plan, adapt, and improvise
  5. Personal knowledge: the teacher’s personal beliefs and principles and his or personal approach to teaching
  6. Reflective knowledge: the teacher’s capacity to reflect on and assess his or her own practice

Support for teachers include:

  1. Orientation: New teachers need a careful orientation
  2. Adequate Materials: Nothing is more demotivating than using materials that no one likes
  3. Teaching Release: Teachers need time to develop materials, prepare test and plan lessons.
  4. Feedback: Teacher need to be told what they are doing well and what they need to do in the performance

#3 The Teaching Process

Teaching models are usually based on particular methods or approaches

  • The communicative approach: The focus of teaching is authentic communication; extensive use is made of pair and group activities that involve negotiation of meaning and information sharing. Fluency is a priority.
  •  The cooperative learning model: Students work in cooperative learning situations and are encouraged to work together on common tasks and to coordinate their efforts to complete tasks. Rewards systems are group-oriented rather than individually oriented.
  • The process approach: In writing classes, students take part in activities that develop their understanding of writing as a process.
  • The whole-language approach: Language is taught as a whole and not through its separate components. Students are taught to read and write naturally, with a focus on real communication, authentic texts, and read-ing and writing for pleasure.

If you want to maintain a good language program you need to consider the following  strategies to address issues:

  • Monitoring: Information needs to be collected regularly on all aspects of the program to find out how teachers are teaching the course, what is working well or proving difficult, and what issues teachers need to resolve. Monitoring can take place through formal and informal mechanisms such as group meetings, written reports, classroom visits, and student evaluations.
  • Observations: Regular observation of teachers by other teachers or supervisors can provide positive feedback on teaching as well as help identify areas that might need attention.
  • Shared Planning: Teachers often work in isolation and do not always have the opportunities to benefit from the collective expertise of their colleagues. One way to avoid this is to build in opportunities for collaborative planning, as when teachers work together in pairs or groups on course planning, materials development, and lesson planning. During the process of planning, potential problems can often be identified and resolved.

#4 The Learning Process: Four Different Types of Learners

Learners’ learning styles may be an important factor in the success of teaching and may not necessarily reflect those that teachers recommend. In a study of the learning style of adult ESL students, Willing (1985, cited in Nunan 1988, 93) found four different learner types in the population he studied:

  • Concrete learners: These learners preferred learning by games, pictures,
  • films and video, talking in pairs  and  going on excursions.
  • Analytical learners: These learners liked studying grammar, studying English books, studying alone, finding their own mistakes, having problems to work on, learning through reading newspapers.
  • Communicative learners: This group liked to learn by observing and listening to native speakers, talking to friends in English, watching TV in English, using English in shops, and so on, learning English words by hearing them and learning by conversations.
  • Authority-oriented learners: These students liked the teacher to explain everything, writing everything in a notebook, having their own textbook, learning to read, studying grammar, and learning English words by seeing them.
Manuel Campos, English Professor

Manuel Campos

I am Jose Manuel, English professor and creator of, a blog whose mission is to share lessons for those who want to learn and improve their English