A Formative Evaluation of a Task-based EFL Programme for Korean University Students


CHAPTER 3 LITERATURE REVIEW: EFL syllabus design

3.4.2. Syllabus types

The evolution of syllabus design can be seen as a progression of assumptions about language learning, classified by Breen according to two main paradigms[1] or frames of reference, one of these being established and prevailing (termed "propositional" (after the notion of propositional representation of knowledge from cognitive science [e.g. Rumelhart & Norman 1983]), and the other recently emerging (termed "process") (Breen 1987a:81). In second language learning the established paradigm is typified by "formal"and "functional" syllabi and interprets language through a propositional plan and a formal, system-based statement of the knowledge and capabilities required when studying a new language. The emergent paradigm is concerned with "how" something is done (Breen 1987b:160), including how to communicate in the classroom and how to learn how to communicate, and is typified in task-based and "process" syllabi:

In essence, each of the four types of syllabus offer alternative answers to the question: " What does a learner of a new language need to know, and what does a learner need to be able to do with this knowledge?" (Breen 1987a:85).

In examining each syllabus type, Breen further breaks this question down into five sub-questions: i) "What knowledge does it focus on?"; ii) "What capabilities does it focus on and prioritise?"; iii) "On what basis does it select and subdivide what is to be learned?"; iv) "How does it sequence what is to be learned?"; and v) " What is its rationale?"

Long & Crookes (1993), paralleling Breen"s attention to paradigms, suggest a distinction between "two superordinate categories, analytic and synthetic syllabi" (1993:11 cf.Wilkins 1974;1976), and White (1988) further distinguishes between "Type A" and "Type B" syllabi (1988:44). The term "synthetic" refers here to structural, lexical, notional, functional, and most situational and topical syllabi, in which acquisition is a process of gradual accumulation of separately taught parts, building up to the whole structure of the language. The learner is exposed to a deliberately limited sample of language at any time, and has to "re-synthesise the language that has been broken down into a large number of small pieces with the aim of making this learning task easier" (Wilkins 1976:2). Thus synthetic syllabi:

... rely on learner"s (assumed) ability to learn a language in parts (e.g. structures and functions) independently of one another, and also to integrate, or synthesise, the pieces when the time comes to use them for communicative purposes. (Long & Crookes 1993:12)

In "analytic" syllabi, prior analysis of the total language system into a set of discrete pieces of language is largely unnecessary: "Analytic approaches ... are organised in terms of the purposes for which people are learning language and the kinds of language performance that are necessary to meet those purposes" (Wilkins 1976:13). Thus "analytic" refers not to what the syllabus designer does, but to the operations required of the learner. "Since we are inviting the learner, directly or indirectly, to recognise the linguistic components of the language he is acquiring, we are in effect basing our approach on the learner"s analytic capabilities" (Wilkins 1976:14). Analytic syllabi present the L2 in chunks, without linguistic interference or control, and  rely on the learner"s ability to induce and infer language rules, as well as on innate knowledge of linguistic universals. Procedural, process and task syllabi are examples of the analytic syllabus (cf. Long & Crookes 1993:11).

White"s Type A and Type B syllabi (White 1988:59) contrast an interventionist and a non-interventionist approach, being respectively concerned with the "What?" and the "How" of learning, and are similar to Breens" propositional and process paradigms. Thus Type A syllabi focus on content and the pre-specification of linguistic or skill objectives, and Type B on an experiential, "natural growth" approach, "which aims to immerse the learners in real-life communication without any artificial pre-selection or arrangement of items" (Allen 1984:65) (table 27, below): 

Appendix A-27

White further classifies language syllabus types into content-based, skills-based and method-based syllabi, the first two being represented by the propositional paradigm (including situational and topic-based syllabi), and the latter by the process paradigm (task-based and process-based syllabi) (figure 14, below):.

Appendix B-14

Irrespective of these different perspectives, every syllabus is seen by Breen as subject to six universal requirements, which require the designer to i) focus upon; ii) select; iii) subdivide; and iv) sequence the appropriate outcomes of language learning (Breen 1987a:83) :

  1. provision of "an accessible framework of required "knowledge and skills;
  2. provision of continuity for its users;
  3. ability to give a retrospective account of what has been achieved;
  4. evaluation - provision of accountability to colleagues, to learners, and to the wider institution and society;
  5. precision of purpose, so that it may be assessed for appropriateness through implementation;
  6. "sensitivity" to the environment for which the plan is intended. (cf. Breen 1987a:82)

Continue reading this literature review: The Propositional Paradigm


[1] Breen defines "paradigm" as "a consensus within a professional community concerning which ideas are considered important" (1987a:157; cf. Kuhn 1970)