The Internet TESL Journal

An Introduction to Syllabus Design and Evaluation

Roberto Rabbini
rob [at]
Bunan Gakuen (Warabi, Japan)


The purpose of this paper is to examine the currents running through syllabus design and to highlight the issues relevant to teachers considering creating their own curriculum with specific reference to those based in Japan. It will hopefully also help instructors better evaluate their own programs and course books. It is therefore concerned with linguistic theory and theories of language learning and how they are applied to the classroom.

In the past, the focus of syllabuses has shifted from structure to situations, functions and notions to topics and tasks. In fact, as Nunan (1988:52) suggests, with the development of the latter it is palpable that "the traditional distinction between syllabus designÖand methodologyÖhas become blurred". So, how should we initially define syllabus?

Syllabus: A Definition

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 follows:
At its simplest level a syllabus can be described as a statement of what is to be learntÖIt reflects of language and linguistic performance.
This is a rather traditional interpretation of syllabus focusing as it does on outcomes rather than 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. Next, we will discuss the various types of approaches available to course designers and the language assumptions they make.

Product-Oriented Syllabuses

Also known as the synthetic approach, these kinds of syllabuses emphasize the product of language learning and are prone to intervention from an authority.

The Structural Approach

Historically, the most prevalent of syllabus type is perhaps the grammatical syllabus in which the selection and grading of the content is based on the complexity and simplicity of grammatical items. The learner is expected to master each structural step and add it to her grammar collection. As such the focus is on the outcomes or the product.

One problem facing the syllabus designer pursuing a grammatical order to sequencing input is that the ties connecting the structural items maybe rather feeble. A more fundamental criticism is that the grammatical syllabus focuses on only one aspect of language, namely grammar, whereas in truth there exist many more aspects to language. Finally, 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.

The Situational Approach

These limitations led to an alternative approach where the point of departure became situational needs rather than grammatical units. Here, the principal organizing characteristic is a list of situations which reflects the way language and behavior are used everyday outside the classroom. Thus, by linking structural theory to situations the learner is able to induce the meaning from a relevant context.

One advantage of the situational approach is that motivation will be heightened since it is "learner- rather than subject-centered" (Wilkins.1976: 16). However, a situational syllabus will be limited for students whose needs were not encompassed by the situations in the syllabus. This dissatisfaction led Wilkins to describe notional and communicative categories which had a significant impact on syllabus design.

The Notional/Functional Approach

Wilkins' criticism of structural and situational approaches lies in the fact that they answer only the 'how' or 'when' and 'where' of language (Brumfit and Johnson. 1979:84). Instead, he enquires "what it is they communicate through language" (Op.Cit.:18). Thus, the starting point for a syllabus is the communicative purpose and conceptual meaning of language i.e. notions and functions, as opposed to grammatical items and situational elements which remain but are relegated to a subsidiary role.

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. White (1988:77) claims that "language functions do not usually occur in isolation" and there are also difficulties of 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.

The above approaches belong to the product-oriented category of syllabuses. An alternative path to curriculum design would be to adopt process oriented principles, which assume that language can be learnt experientially as opposed to the step-by-step procedure of the synthetic approach.

Process-Oriented Syllabuses

Process-Oriented Syllabuses, or the analytical approach, developed as a result of a sense of failure in product-oriented courses to enhance communicative language skills. It is a process rather than a product. That is, focus is not on what the student will have accomplished on completion of the program, but on the specification of learning tasks and activities that s/he will undertake during the course.

Procedural/Task-Based Approaches

Prabhu's (1979) 'Bangalore Project' is a classic example of a procedural syllabus. Here, the question concerning 'what' becomes subordinate to the question concerning 'how'. The focus shifts from the linguistic element to the pedagogical, with an emphasis on learning or learner. Within such a framework the selection, ordering and grading of content is no longer wholly significant for the syllabus designer.

Arranging the program around tasks such as information- and opinion-gap activities, it was hoped that the learner would perceive the language subconsciously whilst consciously concentrating on solving the meaning behind the tasks. There appears to be an indistinct boundary between this approach and that of language teaching methodology, and evaluating the merits of the former remain complicated.

A task-based approach assumes that speaking a language is a skill best perfected through practice and interaction, and uses tasks and activities to encourage learners to use the language communicatively in order to achieve a purpose. Tasks must be relevant to the real world language needs of the student. That is, the underlying learning theory of task based and communicative language teaching seems to suggest that activities in which language is employed to complete meaningful tasks, enhances learning.

Learner-Led Syllabuses

The notion of basing an approach on how learners learn was proposed by Breen and Candlin (1984). Here the emphasis lays with the learner, who it is hoped will be involved in the implementation of the syllabus design as far as that is practically possible. By being fully aware of the course they are studying it is believed that their interest and motivation will increase, coupled with the positive effect of nurturing the skills required to learn.

However, as suggested earlier, a predetermined syllabus provides support and guidance for the teacher and should not be so easily dismissed. Critics have suggested that a learner-led syllabus seems radical and utopian in that it will be difficult to track as the direction of the syllabus will be largely the responsibility of the learners. Moreover, without the mainstay of a course book, a lack of aims may come about. This leads to the final syllabus design to be examined ; the proportional approach as propounded by Yalden (1987).

The Proportional Approach

The proportional syllabus basically attempts to develop an "overall competence" (Op.Cit.:97). It consists of a number of elements with theme playing a linking role through the units. This theme is designated by the learners. It is expected initially that form will be of central value, but later, the focus will veer towards interactional components ; the syllabus is designed to be dynamic, not static, with ample opportunity for feedback and flexibility (ibid:100).

The shift from form to interaction can occur at any time and is not limited to a particular stratum of learner ability. As Yalden (ibid:87) observes, it is important for a syllabus to indicate explicitly what will be taught, "not what will be learned".

This practical approach with its focus on flexibility and spiral method of language sequencing leading to the recycling of language, seems relevant for learners who lack exposure to the target language beyond the classroom. But how can an EFL teacher pinpoint the salient features of the approaches discussed above?

Syllabus Design and Evaluation

Initially, several questions must be posed. Do you want a product or process oriented syllabus? Will the course be teacher or learner led? What are the goals of the program and the needs of your students? This leads to an examination of the degree to which the various elements will be integrated, which is of great significance to White (1988:92) who comments:
A complete syllabus specification will include all five aspects : structure, function, situation, topic, skills. The difference between syllabuses will lie in the priority given to each of these aspects.
Eclecticism is a common feature of the majority of course books under the communicative banner currently on offer. Attempting to combine the various aspects of language has also been addressed by Hutchinson and Waters who state:
Any teaching material must, in reality, operate several syllabuses at the same time. One of them will probably be used as the principal organizing feature, but the others are still there (op.cit.:89).
What should the language teacher based in Japan make of this review? What points are relevant to them?

Traditionally, the grammar-translation method (mid-nineteenth century to Second World War) has been the staple of the language class in Japanese secondary education in spite of efforts from programs such as JET. Students are expected to understand and memorize lists of vocabulary, phrasal verbs / idioms, grammar rules etc for the purpose of translating selected texts and preparation for university entrance tests. On graduating from either high school or university, many students remain unable to communicate at even a basic level.

Widdows and Voller (1991) found that Japanese learners desired oral-aural skills whilst rejecting a need for structural knowledge or technical writing. As Long and Russell (1999:27) observe:

It seems reasonable after years of English classes focused on grammar, Japanese students would want more conversational practice, want to have more confidence and better speaking skills.
This implies that a syllabus focusing on the communicative aspect of language would satisfy the needs and desires of young Japanese adult learners. Group psychology, years of passive learning and the grammatical syllabus under attack here, ensure that most 15 to 25 year olds in Japan remain at the false beginner / elementary level in communicative terms. Such learners lack confidence in their productive skills and require communicative activities to activate the language they have learned whilst building their self-assurance. The importance of adopting a communicative approach is compounded by the fact that the university entrance examinations are the "true driving force of EFL education in Japanese high schools" (Gorsuch 1999:9). Despite requests by the Japanese Ministry of education for syllabus designers to regard the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking equally, materials writers continue to base their trade on helping students prepare for exams. In viewing language as a system of grammatical and vocabulary items, the "communicative ethos of the course of study" (ibid:9) is neglected.

In light of this background, and given the monolingual nature of Japanese society and the lack of exposure to the target language outside the classroom, a task based strategy with a blend of approaches and emphasis on communicative learning, may well be one of the most suitable types of syllabus design on offer for language learners in Japan.


Clearly, there is a vast amount of material to disseminate when considering syllabus design. The numerous approaches touched on here all offer valuable insights into creating a language program. The synthetic approaches of structuralism, situational and functional-notional, all have objectives to be attained, a content to be processed and learnt. The foundations of the product syllabuses remain fundamentally similar, whereas the underlying assumptions about language and language learning from the analytic approaches differ greatly: process type syllabuses assert that learning a language is transient and cannot be itemized ; pedagogical procedure takes precedence over content.

If our assumptions about the nature of linguistics and language learning is one of "language as communication" (Richards and Rodgers 1986:69) then a syllabus based around activities and tasks which promote real and meaningful communication will seem advantageous. We have shown that the false beginner in Japan will have learned structural rules to a surprisingly complex degree, yet may find it difficult to use, or indeed, may never have had an opportunity to use the language learned. Consequently, the belief that learning is facilitated by activities that include real communication, may be the most suitable belief to adopt in the Japanese classroom.

Further points to consider when critically reviewing a syllabus are the objectives of the course as well as the needs of the learners. Ultimately, and perhaps ideally, a hybrid syllabus will result purely due to pragmatic reasons. As Hutchinson and Waters (1987:51) suggest:

It is wise to take an eclectic approach, taking what is useful from each theory and trusting also in the evidence of your own experience as a teacher.
Thus, to what extent has an integration of the various approaches taken place? Does the syllabus specification include all aspects? If yes, how is priority established? These questions must also form part of the criteria when designing or assessing your own syllabus.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 5, May 2002