Insight into a synthetic syllabus

Views are my own in this post.

I teach from a synthetic syllabus at my school and the following attributes are true of it…

  • it’s a covert linguistic syllabus (notional-functional)
  • it’s task-supported (rather than task-based)
  • the tasks are built on structure-trapping rather than target tasks based on learner needs. However, learners can opt to follow a particular pathway (e.g. work, study) which helps ‘personalise their learning journey’ (to an extent)

You could level plenty of criticism towards the approach – I do love ranting about this myself sometimes. In a nutshell: it’s tblt with small letters, as Mike Long (2015) would put it, and with that his awesome book on TBLT (note the capitals) would pay it no further attention. The “tasks” are more like “situational language exercises” (Cunningham, in Ellis 2009), and would likely lead to “encoded usage” rather than “purposeful use” (Widdowson 2003). I’ve heard some teachers call it worse than that – “McDonaldsy” and “glorified PPP” being some of the softer terms.

I get the PPP thing.

One third of a 90-minute lesson is designated to a real-world task. The first hour provides a series of reviews and input needed to perform the task effectively. You’ve got activities for activating schematic knowledge, and listening texts in every lesson which present the target language and model the task. There’s a controlled practice stage of the target language (always with a pronunciation focus), then there’s the task itself (feedback, upgrade, repeat, etc). Well, yeah that’s pretty much PPP to me.

Regardless, the learners love it. Feedback from student satisfaction surveys is really positive. When I take a step back and (try to) view the product objectively, I think elements of the course are well-devised.

The product is a direct response to ‘learner needs’. Individual learner needs? Not exactly, no. But it addresses a trend. Learners here spend years studying English at school. They follow a grammar-based syllabus and methods can be more didactic. You end up with plenty of learners who have a passive knowledge of language and structures but no confidence or experience with actually using it. Their experience of listening to English will often be based around a careful speech model, hence features of connected speech prove to be a real barrier for comprehension. The syllabus aims to address this by optimising the amount (and length) of speaking stages, providing frequent listening (i.e. every lesson) and including ‘pronunciation for listening’ stages which help learners decode features of connected speech.

Wait – that makes it sound a bit too good actually. Texts are still graded (so inauthentic) and they are not exactly that far removed from careful speech. Plus, there is a limited range of accents, and the pronunciation focus, usually suprasegmental, isn’t always something that you could say is ‘teachable’ (a lot of the intonation, sentence stress, etc activities feature generalised rules). It wouldn’t need to be if the focus of the pronunciation stages was receptive, but wait, I’ll explain.

There are more positives, and one is that the syllabus is non-linear. This is a rarity for me – I’ve taught more from a linear structure rather than a ‘dip in and out as you wish’ style which we have now. If I were more inclined to a structure-based syllabus, like one found in a coursebook, then I’d say this non-linear approach might lack coverage. Then again, if you’re a learner and (IF) you know what you need/want to work on then you’ve got a lot of freedom from our syllabus. A non-linear approach makes assessment difficult – if that is you’re basing assessment on effective use of target language. Our assessment is primarily based on task-completion, then fluency, then lower down the list come aspects I’d consider more structure/linguistic focused – accuracy and range of vocabulary. Ability to produce the pronunciation focus in a lesson is also part of the assessment, and the jury is out for me on that one because more often than not the focus is receptive rather than productive.

But is it effective?

Ah. Well, I guess this depends on the marker you’re using for ‘effectiveness’. On the one hand, this is glaringly obvious – does this syllabus help learners acquire English? Er… you know I don’t think that is a fair marker personally. I wish it was, but what with all the research into interlanguage development, weak/no interface positions etc and suggestions that explicit teaching and classroom time in general could well be futile, why would you treat acquisition as the marker for success?! Despite all the will in the world, I’d question whether the decade I’ve spent in the classroom has helped facilitate learning for many of my students. That’s depressing.

Effectiveness effectively falls back on the affective then. I witness increased confidence in my learners for sure, and they are highly motivated by the structure of the lessons and the amount of student-talk-time the lessons provide. On what measure am I basing that? Yep, the usual TEFL ones – observation and (primarily) intuition. Factual, concrete nothing.

Retention rates, though. They’re quite high.

What do I really think of this course?

Well, I’m no stranger to satire on this blog, but I will be honest here. I feel like this syllabus is…

  • like a bridge between more structure-based methods and what Long might concede as ‘chaotic, organic’, true TBLT
  • unpolished: put together fairly organically and intuitively by teachers in its original form but becoming more refined with every iteration
  • better than a coursebook
  • much easier to adapt than a coursebook

and the last point is the kicker. I could critique the syllabus more but one thing is for sure – our managers are astute enough to realise that the driving force behind the product is actually the teachers. We are told that we have the freedom to select, reject and adapt materials as we see fit, providing the main aim of a lesson is addressed. Our workforce is full of DELTA/MA qualified teachers with ample experience, who welcome this level of agency with open arms.

The way I make things work for me personally it to make my lessons more ‘deep-end tblt’ (note the small letters). I start with the task and go from there, which normally reveals that at least half the suggested input (sometimes all of it) isn’t needed and I can deal more directly with the real needs of the learners. The syllabus is still there as a skeleton if needed, but I’ve got my ways that I think work better so I (usually) go with them. Thankfully, that’s not considered renegade… because the day someone asks me to teach a lesson from a script is the day I throw in the towel on TEFL.

I’ve given a pretty abridged view of the syllabus here, but there’s a little insight into what exists away from coursebook-driven ELT. Are you teaching anything similar?

References

Ellis, R. (2009). Task‐based language teaching: Sorting out the misunderstandings. International Journal of Applied Linguistics19(3), 221-246.

Long, M (2015) A task-based approach to language teaching. Chichester: Wiley

Widdowson, H. (2003). Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford University Press.

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