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Current Trends in Syllabus Design

and Materials Development

Cheng Xiaotang
School of Foreign Languages and Literature, Beijing Normal University

1. Introduction

1.1 A clarification of terms: curriculum and syllabus

In the existing literature on language education, the terms curriculum and syllabus are
sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes differentiated, and sometimes misused and
misunderstood. Likewise, the terms syllabus design and curriculum development are causing
confusion among both researchers and practitioners. There are at least two reasons for this
chaotic use of the terms. One reason is that both of the two terms are used differently in
British English and American English. The other is that the concept of curriculum has
changed in the past years. Stern (1983) provides an attempt to clarify these two terms:

The term ‘curriculum’ is commonly used in two related senses. It refers, first, to the
substance of a programme of studies of an educational institution or system. Thus,
we can speak of the school curriculum, the university curriculum, the curriculum of
French Schools, or the curriculum of Soviet education. In a more restricted sense, it
refers to the course of study or content in a particular subject, such as the
mathematics curriculum or the history curriculum. It is, therefore, used as a synonym
of what in British universities and schools is sometimes referred to as the ‘syllabus’
for a given subject or course of studies. In recent years, however, the term
‘curriculum’ has come to refer not only to the subject matter or content, but also to
the entire instructional process including materials, equipment, examinations, and
the training of teachers, in short all pedagogical measures related to schooling or to
the substance of a course of studies (p. 434).

Following Stern, Nunan (1988:3) suggests that a curriculum is concerned with making
general statements about language learning, learning purpose, and experience, and the
relationship between teachers and learners, whereas a syllabus is more localized and is based
on the accounts and records of what actually happens at the classroom level as teachers and
students apply a curriculum to their situation.

Rodgers (1989:26, cited in Richards, 2001:39) makes a similar distinction between a syllabus
and a curriculum. According to Rodgers, syllabi, which prescribe the content to be covered by
a given course, form only a small part of the total school program. Curriculum is a far broader
concept. Curriculum is all those activities in which children engage under the auspices of the
school. This includes not only what pupils learn, but how they learn it, how teachers help
them learn, using what supporting materials, styles and methods of assessment, and in what
kind of facilities.

Since the 1980s the view that curriculum development processes are central elements in
language program design has become more widely accepted in language teaching. In many
countries, language curriculum development units have been established in ministries of
education since the 1980s with a mandate to review and develop national language teaching
curriculum based on a curriculum development perspective (Richards, 2001:41).
Consequently, the kind of document that used to be called “syllabus” is now called

In this paper, syllabus and curriculum are differentiated based on the distinctions outlined
above. A syllabus is a specification of what takes place in the classroom, which usually
contains the aims and contents of teaching and sometimes contains suggestions of
methodology. A curriculum, however, provides (1) general statements about the rationale
about language, language learning and language teaching, (2) detailed specification of aims,
objectives and targets learning purpose, and (3) implementation of a program. In some sense,
a syllabus is part of a curriculum.

Another difference worth note is that syllabus is often used to refer to something similar to a
language teaching approach, whereas curriculum refers to a specific document of a language
program developed for a particular country or region. Therefore, we can talk about a
grammatical syllabus or a task-based syllabus, but we don’t have a grammatical curriculum or
a task-based curriculum. Based on this distinction, we assume that syllabus design is more of
a pedagogical nature, whereas curriculum is a more planning issue.

1.2 The relationship between syllabus and materials

In many parts of the world, language education programs are designed following a syllabus-
driven approach, that is, the syllabus determines what kind of materials will be adopted and in
what ways they will be exploited for the classroom teaching. In certain educational contexts,
the syllabus even determines how materials should be designed in the first place. Therefore,
the materials are not seen as an alternative to the syllabus, but an instrument among others
used to fulfil the goals of the syllabus. Materials, whether commercially developed or home-
made, are an important element within the curriculum, and are often the most tangible and
visible aspect of the curriculum. While the syllabus defines the goals and objectives, the
linguistic and experiential content, instructional materials can put flesh on the bones of these
specifications (Nunan, 1991:208, cited in McGrath, 2002:214).

2. Current trends in syllabus design

2.1 An overview of types of syllabuses

In theory, a language teaching syllabus can be designed in many different ways, depending on
the designers’ view of language and view of language learning and teaching. In the past few
decades, the grammatical syllabus, the lexical syllabus, the skills syllabus, the functional-

notional syllabus, the content syllabus and the task-based syllabus have been proposed and
attracted more or less attention. Below is a brief description of some of the influential types of

Grammatical syllabuses: The underlying assumption behind grammatical

syllabuses is that language is a system which consists of a set of grammatical
rules; learning language means learning these rules and then applying them to
practical language use. The syllabus input is selected and graded according to
grammatical notions of simplicity and complexity. These syllabuses introduce
one item at a time and require mastery of that item before moving on to the next.
Lexical syllabuses: Lexical syllabuses identify a target vocabulary to be taught
normally arranged according to levels such as the first 500, 1000, 1500, 2000
words. Lexical syllabuses were among the first types of syllabuses to be
developed in language teaching (Richards, 2001:154).
Skills syllabuses: Skills syllabuses are organized around the different underlying
abilities that are involved in using a language for purposes such as reading,
writing, listening, or speaking. Approaching a language through skills is based
on the belief that learning a complex activity such as “listening to a lecture”
involves mastery of a number of individual skills or microskills that together
make up the ac tivity.
Functional-notional syllabuses: In functional-notional syllabuses, the input is
selected and graded according to the communicative functions (such as
requesting, complaining, suggesting, agreeing) that language learners need to
perform at the end of the language programme. The functional-notional
syllabuses reflect a broader view of language provided by philosophers of
language and sociolinguistics.
Content syllabuses: In content syllabuses, the content of language learning might be
defined in terms of situations, topics, themes, or other academic or school subjects.
The stimulus for content-syllabuses is the notion that, unlike science, history, or
mathematics, language is not a subject in its own right, but merely a vehicle for
communicating about something else. These syllabuses are also called topical
Task-based syllabuses: Task-based syllabuses are more concerned with the classroom
processes which stimulate learning than with the language knowledge or skills that
students are supposed to master. These syllabuses consist of a list of specification of
the tasks and activities that the learners will engage in in class in the target

Obviously, each of the above types of syllabuses has its merits and drawbacks (c.f., Nunan,
1988; Richards, 2001). Each was developed with inspirations from linguistic and/or
educational studies. Some of these have been used longer and more widely than the others.

2.2 Current trends in syllabus design

2.2.1 The co-existence of the old and the new

Although many different types of syllabuses have been brought forth in the past three
decades, currently, the traditional syllabuses (e.g., the grammatical syllabus and lexical
syllabus) have not been completely abandoned, and the later models (e.g., the content syllabus
and the task-based syllabus) have not been universally accepted. For example, though one of
the earliest type of syllabus, the grammatical syllabus continues to be used in many parts of
the world; and although the task-based is often said to be the latest (newest) type of syllabus,
it has been found to be incompatible with many educational context and therefore has not
been widely adopted (Richards, 2001; Ellis, 2003).

2.2.2 The emphasis on learning process

Compared with the traditional syllabuses, the later models (e.g., the content syllabus, the
procedural syllabus and the task-based syllabus) have attached more importance to the
process of language learning than to the product of language learning. These syllabuses are
sometimes referred to as process-oriented syllabuses, which focus on the learning experience
themselves. This types of syllabuses are often contrasted with the product-oriented syllabuses,
which focus on the knowledge and skills which learners should gain as a result of instruction
(Nunan, 1988).

2.2.3 The inclusion of non-linguistic objectives in syllabus

Compared with traditional syllabuses, the later models usually include a list of non-linguistic
objectives, such as learning strategies and affective cultivation. Richards (2001) refers to
these objectives as non-language outcomes, which include affect cultivation (such as
confidence, motivation and interest), learning strategies, thinking skills, interpersonal skills,
and cultural understanding. The underlying assumption behind this trend in syllabus design is
that, as a school subject, language education should not merely aim at helping students to
maters language knowledge and skills. Rather, it has responsibility in foster students’ whole-
person development, which includes not only intellectual development but also affect, cultural
understanding and learning strategies.

2.2.4 The emergence of the multi-syllabus

Given the fact the none of the existing types of syllabuses is any better than the others,
“decisions about a suitable syllabus framework for a [language] course reflect different
priorities in teaching rather than absolute choices…. In most courses there will generally be a
number of different syllabus strands, such as grammar linked to skills and texts, tasks linked
to topics and functions, or skills linked to topics and texts” (Richards, 2001:164, italics
original). Therefore, the integrated syllabus came into being, which is also called the multi-
syllabus. Designing a multi-syllabus does not mean the simple combination of elements from
different types of syllabuses. Rather, it is a matter of choice of priority.

Currently, the practice of adhering to one type of syllabus throughout the language program is
rare. Rather syllabus designers tend to resort to multi-syllabus. There are two ways for
syllabus designers to do so. First, they can design a multi-syllabus, incorporating features of
currently popular syllabuses. Second, they can choose to adopt a different type for the
different stages of the program. For example, [a] syllabus might be organized grammatically
at the first level and then the grammar presented functionally. Or the first level of organization
might be functional with grammar items selected according to the grammatical demands of
different functions (Richards, 2001:164).

3. Current trends in materials development

3.1 What’s on the blurb?

The trends in syllabus design are often reflected in materials development. Since the early
1990s, following the “cooling down” of the communicative fever, materials developers have
changed their claims about their materials. While still emphasising the goals of developing
learners’ communicative competence, materials developers have made explicit claims about
the value of incorporating grammar and vocabulary study in textbooks. Besides, most
textbooks have also made a point of embedding learning strategy training. Before we
summarise current trends in materials development, let’s first take a look at the claims on the
blurbs of some popular materials.

McDonough and Shaw (2003:42) provides some extracts from the claims made by
coursebook writers:

carefully structured multi-syllabus approach ... systematic development of all 4

skills ... emphasis on pronunciation, study skills and vocabulary learning ...
authentic and semi-authentic reading and listening practice ... language for
immediate communication
thorough, communicative practice of grammatical structures ... coverage of all the
4 skills … comprehensive coverage of the English tense system
plenty of practice in ‘core’ grammatical structures and deals with language at a
deeper level ... covers all the 4 skills ... makes students think about the language
they are using
proven multi-syllabus approach ... careful pacing ... allowance for different
learning styles and teaching situations ... authentic reading and listening
material ... motivating range of up-to-date topics
focuses on the real English students will encounter and need to use in today's world
... regular Grammar sections focus on important grammatical areas at sentence
level and above . .. wide cross-section of real texts promotes reading for pleasure,
as well as developing functional reading skills ... word study ... encourages
students to be selective in their vocabulary building

combines thorough language work with real life skills to give students the
confidence and ability to communicate successfully in English
builds on and expands students’ existing knowledge, encourages learner
independence and develops fluency, accuracy and confidence
gives learners a new set of skills and strategies for mastering the language

From the above extracts, we can see that most current materials claim to offer chances to learn
the following aspects: all 4 skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing; grammar and
vocabulary learning; communicative skills; language learning skills and strategies; authentic
or real English.

3.2 Current trends in materials development

Current trends in materials development can be summarized as follows:

 Along with the evolution of approaches to materials development, materials

themselves have evolved into much more complex objects. Many materials currently
in use are no longer a combination of a student’s book and a teacher’s book. Rather
they consist of a whole set of materials, including the student’s book, workbook, the
teacher’s book, cassettes, CD-ROMs, evaluation (test) book, the readers, etc.
 Remarkable technical advancement has brought sophistication and a great
proliferation of ESL/EFL coursebooks but it has also created a wider role division
between materials producers and materials users. The sheer scale and amount of
time, energy and different expertise required in contemporary coursebook production
seems to be alienating teachers as potential materials writers, because they often have
a heavy workload in often under-resourced teaching contexts. The teachers’
homegrown materials may be more finely tuned to the local classroom needs with
valid methodological awareness but the colourful or glossy appearance of
commercial coursebooks may be more eye-catching and may even seem to the
learners to have more face validity (Masuhara 1998:246-7).
 Commercial materials are designed in such a way so that they remove much of the
teacher’s burden involved in the process of creating or adapting teaching materials.
 Materials are not just tools, they represent the aims, values, and methods in teaching
a foreign language. Materials are the most powerful device in spreading new
methodological ideas and in shaping language teaching and learning practice.
 British and American publishers have too much power, and project cultural attitudes
which may be inappropriate to the needs of the vast majority learners of English as a
foreign language. Materials spread culture. Members of the target language
inevitably spread their cultural norms to learners of the language from other cultures
(Littlejohn, 1998).
 Coursebook publishers expend a great deal of time, money and effort in promoting
and securing the adoption of their commercial materials, which may otherwise

disappear from the market.
 Current materials tend to overburden the user with an embarrassment of riches
(abundance of data).


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Littlejohn, A. 1998. The analysis of language teaching materials: inside the Trojan Horse. In
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Masuhara, H. 1998. What do teachers really want from coursebooks? In Tomlinson, B. (Ed.),
Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McDonough, J., & Shaw, C. 2003. Materials and Methods in ELT (Second edition). Oxford:
McGrath, I. 2002. Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. Edinburgh
University Press.
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