University of Veracruz

Curriculum Analysis and Syllabus Design

School of Languages

Printable version

2.3 Syllabus design

At the beginning of this course, we learnt the difference between curriculum and syllabus. So far, we know that traditionally syllabus design has been seen as a component of the development of a curriculum. Syllabus focuses on the selection and grading of content.

Teachers are rarely required to design their own syllabuses. Therefore, the objective of this section of the unit is to provide you with the necessary information to enable you to distinguish the different types of syllabuses, evaluate the syllabus and course materials you are working with and, if necessary, modify and adapt them to meet your student’s needs.

So far you know the difference between curriculum and syllabus, you know how to analyse needs, and the importance of establishing goals and objectives. Now we need to make a further distinction among the different types of syllabuses.


2.3.1. Different Approaches in Syllabus Design

Nunan (1988) explains that “a given syllabus will specify all or some of the following: grammatical, structures, functions, notions, topics, themes, situations, activities and tasks. Each of these elements are either product or process oriented, and the inclusion of each will be justified according to beliefs about the nature of language, the need of the learner, or the nature of learning”.

This author also defines process as a series of actions directed toward some end and product as the end itself. He mentions the following examples to clarify the concepts: “A list of grammatical structures is a product. Classroom drilling undertaken by learners in order to learn the structures is a process. The interaction of two speakers as they communicate with each other is a process. A tape recording of their conversation is a product”.


ico 02

CASD 211 Syllabus elements.

Indicate whether each of the syllabus elements is product or process oriented. Complete the table. The first one has been done for you. Then go to the corresponding forum to share your answers with your peers. Then, include in your PORTFOLIO your reasons to classify the elements as process or product.

Element Orientation
Structures Product


Based on these concepts, there are two different types of syllabus: product-oriented and process-oriented.

Product-oriented syllabuses are those where the focus is on knowledge and skills which learners should gain as a result of instruction.

Process-oriented syllabuses are those which focus on the learning experiences themselves. Product – Oriented Syllabuses

There are some syllabus proposals which are related to end products of a course of instruction. Wilkins (1976) makes a further distinction between analytic and synthetic syllabuses.

In synthetic syllabuses, the content of instruction is organised in terms of the target language: grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. The different parts of language are taught separately and step by step so that acquisition is a process of gradual accumulation of parts until the whole structure of a language is built up.

On the other hand, analytic syllabuses are organised in terms of the purposes for which people are learning a language and the kind of language performance necessary to meet those purposes (Wilkins, 1975). As Wilkins comments, "since we are inviting the learner, directly or indirectly, to recognize the linguistic components of the language behaviour he is acquiring, we are in effect basing our approach on the learner's analytic capabilities."

Learners are presented with chunks of language which may include structures of varying degrees of difficulty. The starting point for syllabus design is not the grammatical system of the language, but the communicative purposes for which language is used.

Nunan (1988) mentions that language courses are rarely solely synthetic or solely analytic.


Synthetic syllabuses

The grammatical or structural syllabus: This is the best known example of a synthetic syllabus. The content is selected and graded in terms of simplicity and complexity. Teaching units focus on a particular point of grammar or pronunciation plus related vocabulary. A structure is systematically taught in its various forms until students are thought to know how this piece of grammar works in the target language. Once this unit is completed, the teaching moves on to a more linguistically complex piece of grammar.

Grammatical syllabuses have been very popular as the basis for general courses, particularly for beginners. This type of syllabus has been criticized because they are said to represent only a partial dimension of language proficiency: they do not reflect the learning sequences in naturalistic second language acquisition; they focus on the sentence rather than on longer units of discourse; they focus on form rather than meaning and they do not address communicative skills (Richards, 2001)


ico 05


Go to the corresponding forum and discuss the following questions with your peers.
Do you think that grammar is an important component of a language course? If so, what kind of course? What would the role of grammar be in such a course? How would the choice of grammatical content be determined?


The Functional-notional syllabus. This type of syllabus became popular during the 1970s. Functions may be described as the communicative purposes for which we use language (such as asking and giving permission or complaining), while notions are the conceptual meanings (such as expressing time or spatial relationships) expressed through language.


ico 02

CASD213_Functions and Notions.

Copy and write the following items in the correct column and go to the corresponding forum to share your answers and your reasons for them with your peers.





Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983) mention the following advantages of this type of syllabus:

  1. It sets realistic learning tasks.

  2. It provides for the teaching of everyday, real-world language.

  3. It leads us to emphasise receptive (listening / reading) activities before rushing learners into premature performance.

  4. It recognises that the speaker must have a real purpose for speaking, and something to talk about.

  5. Communication will be intrinsically motivating because it expresses basic communicative functions.

  6. It enables teachers to exploit sound psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, linguistic and educational principles.

  7. It can develop naturally from existing teaching methodology.

  8. It enables a spiral curriculum to be used which reintroduces grammatical, topical, and cultural materials.

  9. It allows for the development of flexible, modular courses.

  10. It provides for the widespread promotion of foreign language courses.


ico 05

CASD 214 Functional-notional Syllabus advantages.

Go to the corresponding forum and discuss with your peers the following questions:

  1. Which three advantages mentioned by Finocchiaro and Brumfit would encourage you to adopt a functional-notional syllabus?

  2. What do you see as some of the advantages of adopting a functional-notional rather than a grammatical approach to syllabus design?


Analytic Syllabuses

In analytic syllabuses, learners are exposed to language which has not been linguistically graded. Content might be defined in terms of situations, topics, themes or academic or school subjects. Learning is organized in terms of the learners’ social purposes for acquiring the target language. This suggests that learners must interact with and analyze samples of language that are relevant to their needs.

As Long and Crookes (1993) mention: “Updating Wilkins' definition a little, analytic syllabuses are those that present the target language whole chunks at a time, in molar rather than molecular units, without linguistic interference or control. They rely on a) the learners' presumed ability to perceive regularities in the input and induce rules, and/or b) the continued availability to learners of innate knowledge of linguistic universals and the ways language can vary, knowledge which can be reactivated by exposure to natural samples of the L2”

Topical or Content-based syllabuses. The organization of this type of syllabus is based on themes, topics or other units of content, which is the starting point rather than grammar, functions or situations. Content provides the vehicle for the presentation of language. Brinton, Snow and Wesche (1989) mention the following advantages of content-based syllabuses:

  • They facilitate comprehension
  • Content makes linguistic form more meaningful
  • Content serves as the best basis for teaching the skill areas
  • They address students’ needs
  • They motivate learners
  • They allow for integration of the four skills
  • They allow for use of authentic material

In content-based syllabuses, the stimulus is the notion that, unlike science, history, or mathematics, language is not the subject but only a means for communicating about something else.

The use of content from other subject areas has been widely applied in courses and materials for ESP and in ESL programmes in elementary and secondary schools. However, this adoption has had some difficulties, since learners sometimes have extensive knowledge of the subject matter and feel frustrated.

There has been some discussion about whether content syllabuses exemplify product or process syllabuses. Most of them would probably be located at the centre of the product/process continuum.


ico 05

CASD 215 Analytic Syllabuses.

Discuss the following questions with your peers.
How might teachers find out what “social purposes” the learners have for learning the target language? Have you had any experience teaching analytic syllabuses? What advantages and disadvantages do you see in using this type of syllabus?


ico 03

Background reading:

Wilkins, D.A. (1976) Notional syllabuses. Chapter 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. PROCESS-ORIENTED SYLLABUSES

As a result of dissatisfaction with the content-based approach, linguists began to see language as a process more than a product.

In recent years, linguists have shifted their attention from products of instruction to the process through which knowledge and skills might be developed, since it came to be realized that specifying function and notion would not by itself lead to the development of communicative language skills. This led to the development of process-oriented syllabuses.

We can distinguish two different types of process-oriented syllabus: procedural and task-based. The principles underlying both are very similar, and some authors consider them synonymous. The use of tasks has become an effective way of learning since it provides a purpose for the use and acquisition of a language beyond simply learning language items for their own sake.


How do you define “task”? Do you remember that in Unit 1 of this course you were asked to look up the definition?

Look at some definitions of task:

  • An activity which requires learners to arrive at an outcome from given information through some process of thought, and which allows teachers to control and regulate that process (Prabhu, 1987).

  • An activity or action which is carried out as the result of processing or understanding language (i.e. as a response). For example, drawing a map while listening to an instruction or performing a command may be referred to as tasks. Tasks may or may not involve the production of language. They usually require the teacher to specify what will be regarded as successful completion of the task. The use of different kinds of tasks in language teaching is said to make the teaching more communicative ... since it provides a purpose for a classroom activity which goes beyond the practice of language for its own sake (Richards et al., 1985).

  • Any classroom work which involves learners in comprehending, manipulating, producing or interacting in the target language while their attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form. The task should also have a sense of completeness, being able to stand alone as a communicative act in its own right (Nunan, 1993).

As you can see in the definitions above, a distinction has not always been made between real-world tasks (i.e. those that the learner may do in real life) and pedagogic tasks (those that the learner is required to carry out in the classroom).

Candlin (1987) presents a series of criteria for judging the worth of tasks. He mentions that good tasks should:

  • Promote attention to meaning, purpose and negotiation.
  • Encourage attention to relevant data.
  • Draw objectives from the communicative needs of learners.
  • Allow for flexible approaches to the task, offering different routes, media, modes or participation, procedures.
  • Allow for different solutions depending on the skills and strategies drawn on by learners.
  • Involve learners’ contributions, attitudes and effects.
  • Be challenging and not threatening, to promote risk-taking.
  • Require input from all learners in terms of knowledge, skills, participation.
  • Define a problem to be worked through by learners, centered on the learners but guided by the teacher.
  • Involve language use in the solving of the task.
  • Allow for co-evaluation by the learner and teacher of the task and of the performance of the task.
  • Develop the learners’ capacities for estimating consequences and repercussions of the task in question.
  • Provide opportunities for metacommunication and metacognition (i.e. provide opportunities for learners to talk about communication and about learning).
  • Provide opportunities for language practice.
  • Promote learner-training for problem-sensing and problem-solving (i.e. identifying and solving problems).
  • Promote sharing of information and expertise.
  • Provide monitoring and feedback, of the learner and the task.
  • Heighten learners’ consciousness of the process and encourage reflection (i.e. to sensitize learners to the learning processes in which they are participating).
  • Promote a critical awareness about data and the processes of language learning.
  • Ensure cost-effectiveness and a high return on investment (i.e. the effort to master given aspects of the language should be functionally useful, either for communicating beyond the classroom or in terms of the cognitive and affective development of the learner).

Prabhu, one of the principal contributors to the “Bangalore Project” established three task types:

  1. Information-gap activity which involves a transfer of given information from one person to another – or from one form to another, or from one place to another – generally calling for the decoding and encoding of information from or into language.

  2. Reasoning-gap activity which involves deriving some new information from given information through processes of inference, deduction, practical reasoning or a perception of relationships or patterns.

  3. Opinion-gap activity which involves identifying and articulating a personal preference, feeling, or attitude in response to a given situation.


ico 05

CASD 216 Tasks.

Go to the corresponding forum and discuss the following questions with your peers: Which of the definitions of tasks given above do you find most useful? Have you ever used any of the types of tasks established by Prabhu? If so, how successful do you think they were in promoting language learning? Why? From the list of criteria established by Candlin, select five which you consider the most useful for selecting tasks. Why did you choose them?



This type of syllabus is based on tasks that have been specially designed to facilitate second language learning and in which tasks or activities are the basic units of syllabus design. While carrying out the tasks, learners receive comprehensive input and modified output, processes believed central to second language acquisition.

Krashen formulated a theory of second language acquisition (SLA) called Monitor Theory (Krashen, 1981; 1982; 1985). One of the central tenets of this theory is known as the "comprehensible input" hypothesis. This hypothesis states that learners acquire grammar and vocabulary by getting and understanding language that is slightly beyond their current level of competence. By guessing and inferring the meaning of linguistic information embedded in the communicative context, learners are able to comprehend grammar and vocabulary that would otherwise be too difficult for them to understand. This input is known as comprehensible input, or "i+1". Thus, learners gradually develop fluency by being exposed to i+1 in the target language.

Extending the comprehensible input hypothesis, Swain (1985; 1995) further argues that learners must also produce comprehensible output in order to move their interlanguage from a semantic to a syntactic analysis of the second language input. In other words, in order to produce new language that is accurate, learners have to move beyond getting the general gist of what something means. Producing new language items, therefore, forces learners to analyze new language in terms of its grammatical structure. According to this perspective on SLA, then, it is the large number of repairs that potentially make comprehensible speech which was initially too complex for learners to understand.

Task-based syllabuses have not been widely implemented in language teaching because definitions of tasks are sometimes so broad as to include almost anything that involves learners doing something; the procedures for the design and selection of tasks remain unclear and it is also said that the excessive use of communicative tasks may encourage fluency at the expense of accuracy.


ico 03

Background reading:

* Long, M.H. and G. Crookes (1992) “Three approaches to task-based syllabus design” TESOL Quarterly, 26(1):27-56.

* Nunan, D. (1993) “Task-based syllabus design: Selecting, grading and sequencing tasks” In: G. Crookes and S.M. Gass (Eds), Tasks in a Pedagogical Context: Integrating theory and Practice. Clevedon, Avon: Multiligual Matters, 55-68.


2.3.2. Choosing and Integrating syllabuses

In general, all syllabuses reflect some degree of integration. As Krahnke (1987) mentions:

For almost all instructional programs, it is clear that some combination of types of instructional content will be needed to address the complex goals of the program… for most general teaching applications, whose goal is functional ability in broadly defined settings and structural knowledge and communicative ability in specific situations, a combination of functional, structural, situational and skill-based instruction is the probable choice. On the other hand, in some second language teaching settings, skills and tasks can be more narrowly specified, instructional resources are richer, or specific structural or formal knowledge is not required by the program for students to succeed, and a combination of task-based, skill-based, situational, functional, and content instruction may be chosen.


ico 02

CASD 217 Syllabuses in a textbook.

Compare two or more textbooks for the same area (e.g. writing, speaking, listening) and for learners of the same level. How similar are the syllabuses in each book? Examine the teacher’s books for each course and include this analysis in your PORTFOLIO.


ico 02

CASD 218 Types of Syllabuses.

Write a brief reflection on the types of syllabuses that we have reviewed and mention which of these you will use for your syllabus and why (100-150 words).


Based on the type of syllabus that you will design, choose a textbook or textbooks that will fit your course.