DAVID NUNAN. SYLLABUS DESIGN. Oxford: OUP. 1994 (5th impression).


The book provides teachers of English with various types of syllabuses and the different approaches to them, as well as with a demonstration of a syllabus design and its exploration. It defines the concepts of ‘syllabus’ and ‘curriculum’, presenting different views. The book also offers some tasks connected with these notions.

Nunan presents Candlin’s view of a curriculum and a syllabus. Candlin (1984) states the fact that while curriculum is connected with ‘language learning, learning purpose and experience, evaluation, and the role relationships of teachers and learners’, syllabus is a more concrete term, referring to the actual events in the classroom, i.e. the application of a syllabus to a given situation.

In connection with curriculum development we have to specify learner’s needs and purposes for studying the foreign language, establish the goals and objectives, select, adapt and grade materials for classroom and self-study work, etc.

‘Curriculum’ should be tried in the classroom by observing the ‘teaching/learning process’, then the process of learning and teaching should be evaluated and assessed having in mind what has been planned. Some changes have to be made after that so that the learning process could be improved. Classroom management, availability of resources and their utilization are also of importance.

As for syllabus design there are some approaches that regard it in a narrower and broader perspective. The ‘narrow view’ makes a distinction between syllabus design and methodology. The first one is connected with ‘selection and grading of content’, while ‘methodology is concerned with the selection of learning tasks and activities’ (p. 5).

Stern (1984) defines syllabus as connected with content, structure, and organization, while curriculum development is viewed as connected with implementation, dissemination and evaluation. For Yalden (1984) syllabus is connected with learner’s needs and aims. Syllabus is also connected with not only selection and grading of content but with specifying and grading learning tasks and activities. While syllabus design refers to the ‘what’ of a language programme, ‘methodology is concerned with the ‘how’’ (p. 7).

It is pointed out that in the 1970s syllabuses were specified not only as far as grammar was concerned but also in terms of functional skills for a successful communication. This served as the basis for ESP. Every syllabus should pay attention to the above mentioned as well as to notions, topics, themes, activities and tasks. Needs analysis, connected with learners’ expectations, some constraints and resources for implementation, has to be carried out for designing of a successful syllabus. Approaches for the application of a given syllabus should be negotiated with the learners. Thus, autonomy of the learner can be achieved to a great extent. Apart from the specific tasks characteristic of the ESP syllabus, some real-world tasks should also be designed.

Distinction has been made between product-oriented syllabuses aiming at ‘knowledge and skills which learners should gain as a result of instruction’ and process-oriented syllabuses putting an emphasis on ‘the learning experiences themselves’ (p. 27)..

Product-oriented syllabuses can be analytically or synthetically planned. In a synthetic language teaching strategy language is taught bit by bit thus gradually making one unified whole. This strategy was connected with acquiring of grammatical structures. In an analytic syllabus the aim is the communicative structures with different degrees of difficulty. The truth is that form and function should be studied together, not in isolation. The well-known functional-notional syllabus is presented as a synthetic syllabus (see Widdowson 1979). With analythic syllabuses the stress is on situations, topics, themes, school and academic subjects. Language is used as a vehicle for communication.

Process-oriented syllabuses are in fact task-based or procedural syllabuses. They stimulate learning by involving the learner in activities of all sorts (e.g. information-gap activities, opinion-gap activities, reasoning-gap activities, etc.). These activities come as a result of processing or understanding language (p. 45). Candlin’s criteria have been suggested for the selection of good tasks, such as ‘promote attention to meaning, purpose, negotiation’, ‘draw objectives from the communicative needs of learners’, ‘provide opportunities for metacommunication and metacognition’, ‘promote sharing of information and expertise’, etc. (after Candlin 1987, in Nunan 1994: 45-6). Doyle’s statement about curriculum viewed as ‘a collection of academic tasks’ is also mentioned. What matters in a task-based syllabus is the degree of contextual support provided for the learner, the cognitive difficulty of the task, the amount of language input and background knowledge that are required, the psychological stress, etc.

Content syllabuses are also connected with the analytic approach to syllabus design. They are usually derived from some subject area.

The question of grading tasks has been raised once again. This is determined by the cognitive and performance demands made upon the learner. Any type of text can be taken and exploited by devising various activities that are different in their level of difficulty. With ESP syllabuses the grading of tasks will definitely be connected with the concepts associated with the subject in question. Learners should be familiar with the content of the subject. Candlin (1987) offers some factors significant for the determining of difficulty, such as ‘cognitive load’, ‘communicative stress’, ‘content continuity’, ‘process continuity’, etc. (Nunan 1994: 59).

In Chapter 5. Objectives they are specified as useful for guiding the selection of structures, functions, notions, and tasks, as well as providing learners with a clear picture of what they should expect from a language programme, and can also help developing means of assessment and evaluation.

There are different ways of specifying objectives, some of which have been mentioned here as pointed out by Tyler (1949):

‘1 specify the things that the teacher (…) is to do’

‘2 specify course content (…)’

‘3 specify generalized patterns of behaviour (e.g. to develop critical thinking’)’

‘4 specify the kinds of behaviour which learners will be able to exhibit after instruction’ (Nunan 1994: 62).

There are different types of objectives, performance objectives being one of them. They specify input rather than output and focus on student rather than on teacher behaviour.

In recent years the participation of the learner in language syllabus design (namely, in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the curriculum) has been advocated. Thus motivation is increased.

It is pointed out that a distinction between real-world objectives and pedagogic objectives is not always made. Another distinction that has to be made is between product objectives (i.e. in cases in which learners are expected to do s.th. as a result of instruction) and process objectives (i.e. connected with activities designed to carry out the product objectives). With product objectives the weak point is that they do not state how the end result should be achieved. Process objectives describe the learners’ experiences in the language classroom.

In Section Two a syllabus design has been demonstrated with specifying the learners needs and goals, selecting and grading of content, tasks, etc. It starts with needs analysis, i.e. ‘gathering information about learners and about communication tasks for use in syllabus design’ (p. 75). Two case studies are presented with a task after the explanation asking the questions if the two candidates can share part of the same language programme in the language centre and which of the two types of syllabuses will be applied.

Goals differ in the same way as needs differ. The former can refer to ‘cognitive and affective aspects of the learner’s development, what the teacher hopes to achieve in the classroom, what the teacher hopes the learners will achieve in the classroom, the real-world communicative tasks the learners should be able to perform as a result of instruction’, etc. Product-oriented goals can be derived from the learners themselves. Teachers and learners objectives will differ, that is why they should be negotiated. Some of the goals suggested in the book are: ‘to contribute to the intellectual, personal, and vocational development of the individual’; ‘to acquire the competence to use English in real-life situations…’; ‘to develop communicative skills in order to acquire, record, and use information from a variety of aural and written sources’; to ‘develop insights into English as a linguistic system’; etc.

The selection and grading of grammatical, functional and notional items and their interrelation are of importance. What is accounted is that grammatical difficulty is not the same thing as learning difficulty.

The selection and grading of learning tasks are described in Chapter 8. What is pointed out is that ’failure to provide links between goals, content, and learning activities can lead to a situation in which the desired outcomes of a programme are contradicted at the classroom level’ (p. 96). A better way of coping with the situation, especially in procedural syllabuses, is having a restricted set of goal statements, thus providing a certain degree of coherence.

In content-based syllabuses language is represented in situations and the activities that are used focus on description, sequence, or choice.

Grading is problematic in syllabuses based on tasks and activities rather than on grammar. Apart from teaching grammar as a product according to Rutherford (1987) it can be taught as a process.

On the whole the designing of a syllabus is based on different criteria according to different syllabus designers.

Chapter 9 discusses the selection and grading of objectives. Product-oriented objectives, or performance objectives as they are also called may refer to ‘grammatical, functional, thematic, or topical skills and knowledge’ (p. 122).

It is mentioned that coursebooks do not always state explicitly what the learner will be able to do as a result of a certain activity. Nunan, however, thinks that ‘it should be possible to rewrite coursebook content in the form of objectives (i.e. in a form which states what learners will do in and out of class) (p. 127). Some educational systems contain course outlines with syllabus frames that can be adapted or modified according to specific needs while developing the courses. In process-oriented objectives specification of conditions and standards matters and establishing of levels of difficulty is a problem.

Section Three deals with exploring syllabus design. Some curriculum and syllabus models are presented. Some tasks are suggested useful for all teachers but they should be considered in the concrete teaching situation. The tasks are connected with studying one’s own curriculum documents as resources and their evaluation connected with ‘needs analysis, ‘goals and objectives’, ‘content specification’, ‘tasks and activities’, ‘learner assessment’, etc. (p. 137). All the tasks regard different situations in which the teachers should react according to their classroom environment.


Cited References:

Candlin, C. 1984. “Syllabus design as a critical process” in C. J. Brumfit (ed.) 1984. General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon.

Rutherford, W. 1987. Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Stern, H. H. 1984. “Introduction, review and discussion” in C. J. Brumfit (ed.) 1984. General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon.

Tyler, R. 1949. Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Widdowson, H. G. 1979. Explorations in Applied Linguistics. Oxford: OUP.

Yalden, J. 1984. “Syllabus design in general education” in C. J. Brumfit (ed.) 1984. General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon.



Reviewer: Roumiana Todorova, Shoumen University