Syllabus: Definition and Types

A syllabus is an expression of opinion on the nature of language and learning; it acts as a guide for both teacher and learner by providing some goals to be attained. Hutchinson and Waters (1987:80) define syllabus as ‘at its simplest level a syllabus can be described as a statement of what is to be learnt. It reflects language and linguistic performance.’ This is a rather traditional interpretation of syllabus focusing as it does on outcomes rather than on process. However, a syllabus can also be seen as a “summary of the content to which learners will be exposed” (Yalden, 1987: 87). It is seen as an approximation of what will be taught and that it cannot accurately predict what will be learnt. 

Syllabus is the overall organizing principle for what is to be taught and learned. It is the way in which content is organized and broken down into a set of teachable and learnable units, and will include considerations on pacing, sequencing and grading items’ methods of presentation and practice, etc. Syllabus inventory is a list of the content to be covered in the language program much like a content outline. Richards and Rodgers (1986) presents a useful framework for the comparison of the language teaching methods which illustrates the place of syllabus in the program planning. The Model has three levels: approach, design and procedure.Approach refers to the views and beliefs or theories of language and language learning on which planning is based.

  • Design converts the principles in the fist level (approach) into more practical aspects of syllabus and instructional materials.
  • Procedure refers to the techniques and management of the classroom itself.

Types of Syllabus (Reilley)

Although six different types of language teaching syllabi are treated here as though each occurred “purely,” in practice, these types rarely occur independently of each other. Almost all actual language-teaching syllabi are combination of two or more of the types. The characteristics, differences, strengths, and weaknesses of individual syllabi are defined as follows:

1. Structural (formal) Syllabus

  • The content of language teaching is a collection of the forms and structures, usually grammatical, of the language being taught.
  • Examples include nouns, verbs, adjectives, statements, questions, subordinate clauses, and so on.

Issue/Criticism: One problem facing the syllabus designer pursuing a grammatical order to sequencing input is that the ties connecting the structural items may be rather feeble. A more fundamental criticism is that the grammatical syllabus focuses on only one aspect of language: grammar; however in truth there exist many more aspects to be considered in language. Recent corpus-based research suggests there is a divergence between the grammar of the spoken and of the written language, raising implications for the grading of content in grammar-based syllabuses.

2. A notional/ functional syllabus

  • The content of the language teaching is a collection of the functions that are  performed when language is used, or of the notions that a language is used to express
  • Examples of the functions includes: informing, agreeing, apologizing, requesting; examples of notions includes age, size, color, comparison, time, and so on.

Issue/Criticism: In order to establish objectives, the needs of the learners will have to be analyzed by the various types of communication in which the learner has to confront. Consequently, needs analysis has an association with notional-functional syllabuses. Although needs analysis implies a focus on the learner, critics of this approach suggest that a new list has replaced the old one. Where once structural/situational items were used, a new list consisting of notions and functions has become the main focus in a syllabus. “Language functions do not usually occur in isolation” and there are also difficulties in selecting and grading function and form. Clearly, the task of deciding whether a given function (i.e. persuading), is easier or more difficult than another (i.e. approving), makes the task harder to approach.

3. Situational syllabus

The content of language teaching is a collection of real or imaginary situations in which language occurs or is used. A situation usually involves several participants who are engaged in some activity in a specific meeting.

  1. The language occurring in the situation involves a number of functions, combined into a plausible segment of discourse.
  2. The primary purpose of a situational language-teaching syllabus is to teach the language that occurs in the specific situations.
  3. Examples of the situations include: seeing the dentist, complaining to the landlord, buying a book, meeting a new student, and so on.

4.  A skill-based syllabus

  • The content of the language teaching is a collection of specific abilities that may play a part using language.
  • Skills are things that people must be able to do to be competent in a language, relatively independent of the situation or setting in which the language use can occur. While the situational syllabi group functions together into specific settings of the language use, skill-based syllabi group linguistic competencies (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and discourse) together into generalized types of behavior, such as listening to spoken language for main idea, writing well-formed paragraphs, giving effective oral presentations, and so on.
  • The primary purpose of the skill-based instruction is to learn specific language skills.
  • A possible secondary purpose is to develop more general competence in the language, learning only incidentally any information that may be available while applying the language skills.

5. A task-based syllabus

  • The content of the teaching is a series of complex and purposeful tasks that the student wants or need to perform with the language they are learning.
  • The tasks are defined as activities with a purpose other than language learning, but, as in the content-based syllabus, the performance of the tasks is approached in a way intended to develop second language ability.
  • Tasks integrate language (and other) skills in specific settings of the language.
  •  Task-based teaching differs from situation-based teaching in that while situational teaching has the goal of teaching the specific language content that occurs in the situation (pre-defined products), task-based teaching has the goal of teaching students to draw on resources to complete some piece of work (a process). The students draw on a variety of language forms, functions, and skills often in an individual and unpredictable way, in completing the tasks.
  • Tasks can be used for language learning are, generally, tasks that the learners actually have to perform in real life. Examples include: Applying for a job, talking with a social worker, getting housing information over the telephone, and so on.

6. A content-based syllabus

  • The primary purpose of the instruction is to teach some content or information using the language that the students are also learning.
  • The students are simultaneously language students and students of whatever content is being taught.
  • The subject matter is primary, and the language learning occurs incidentally to the content learning. The content teaching is not organized around the language teaching, but vice-versa.
  • Content-based language teaching is concerned with information, while task-based language teaching is concerned with communicative and cognitive processes.
  • An example of content-based language teaching is a science class taught in the language the students need or want to learn, possibly with linguistic adjustment to make science more comprehensible.