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


CHAPTER 3 LITERATURE REVIEW: EFL syllabus design

3.4.3.2. The functional syllabus

The Functional syllabus (also termed notional, or notional/functional) has proved the most popular alternative to the formal/structural/grammatical syllabus (Wilkins 1972; 1976) and can be seen in works of The Council of Europe (1971), Wilkins (1972, 1976), Abbs et al. (1975), Coste et al. (1976), Van Ek (1976), Jones (1977), and Van Ek & Trim (1984). Breen's (1987a) analysis of functional syllabi according to his five sub-questions (section 3.4.2) is presented below in table 29

Appendix A-29

Growing from a preoccupation with communicative competence, its distinctive view of the nature of content for language pedagogy introduced (for the first time as organising principles) two important elements to syllabus design: firstly, a notional or conceptual aspect (time, space, movement, cause and effect); and secondly, a functional aspect (intentional or purposive use of language). This change of direction towards the third of Halliday' s functions (interpersonal) (section 3.4.3.1), in favour of the now influential concept of communicative competence, was a result of adoption by proponents of the f unctional s yllabus of the communicative knowledge concept of Sau vignon (1972; 1983 ) and the ideas of the sociolinguist Hymes ( 1971 ; 1972 ) (who developed Chomsky' s concept of competence [ Chomsky 1965:4] in a sociolinguistic context), proposing that knowledge of language also embraces a knowledge of how to use the language in appropriate ways.

Although the notional/functional syllabus places emphasis on "the meanings expressed or the functions performed through language" (Wilkins et al. 1981:83), it is (like the formal syllabus) a content-based, propositional, synthetic, Type A plan of language knowledge and capabilities, except that its communicative focus leads to "different applications of the organising principles of syllabus design from those of the formal syllabus" (Breen 1987a:87). Thus the target language is no longer presented as a collection of discrete linguistic items subject to isolated linguistic sub-skills, but as groups of  linguistic devices (Long & Crookes 1993:15). Syllabus content for functional syllabi is not tied solely to structural teaching goals, and it is thus possible to present similar language functions, with differing structures. As with the formal syllabus however, designers "lack any empirical evidence upon which to base their selection of structures and exponents when working within a functional framework, and to date there has been an unsatisfactory reliance on intuition" (White 1988:82). Issues of matching functional and formal selection and grading have proved to be problematic, so functionally based syllabi (e.g. Threshold [Van Ek 1975], Waystage [Van Ek & Alexander 1977]) have tended to rely on considerations such as the needs of the learners, both in terms of classroom functions and in the 'real world', usefulness, coverage or generalisability, interest or relevance and complexity of form.

Beyond an awareness of the 'communicative value' of language (Widdowson 1978b:11) and a concern for students' current or future language needs, functional/notional syllabi "offer few obvious improvements, and have several flaws" (Long & Crookes, 1993:16):

  1. preparation, as in formal syllabi, involves fragmenting the target language, presenting one notion or function at a time, and assuming that learners can eventually synthesise the whole, whereas functions actually co-occur in discourse, and take on communicative value from that discourse content (Crombie 1985; Widdowson 1978b);
  2. the set of functions is non-finite, and many individual notions and functions are difficult to define or distinguish, and their linguistic exponents are often difficult to establish (Long & Crookes, 1993:16);
  3. a sound psychological basis is lacking: "No consideration was given to the psychological reality of notions until more than a decade after their introduction" (Cook 1985);
  4. functional syllabi pay little attention to a theory of language acquisition and are based on reasoning rather than empirical evidence (Paulston 1981). Brumfit (1981) observes that "until we have some way of saying 'X is a notion and Y is not, and we can test them in the following ways', we are talking about a vacuous concept" (Brumfit 1981:2); (cf. Widdowson 1971; 1978b; Wilkins et al. 1981; for further discussion of problems in functional syllabi).

Uncritical (and unsupported) acceptance of notional-functional syllabi was modified when (perhaps as a reaction to the loss of confidence in pure notional syllabi), hybrid structural/notional-functional syllabi and materials became more common, in which the role of a mastery of the grammatical system was reaffirmed as "essential to anything more than 'a rudimentary communicative ability'" (Wilkins et al. 1981:85), and syllabi were seen as being able to range "from being principally grammatical to fully notional, according to learners' needs" (Wilkins 1974).

3.4.3.3 Situation and Topic syllabi.
Observing that language structure cannot form the complete basis of a fully realised, integrated syllabus, since language use must be contextualised, involving interactive or social use of language, White (1988:73) sees the category of "situation" as an important (but not exclusive) element in syllabus design. Thus two less known and less widely used types of synthetic syllabus use situation and topic as their unit of analysis.

3.4.3.3.1 The situation syllabus.
Situational syllabi have the potential advantage of tapping students' knowledge of the world as an aid to learning, and also of providing realistic, and hence motivating, materials, though as Alexander (1967:xvii) admits: "In the early stages it is possible to use very few [structural] patterns indeed. This means that the 'situations' are often unconvincing and barely possible." This problem can lead to the use of structures as the pre-eminent form of sequencing, resulting in a form of 'structural-situation' syllabus, open to the same criticisms as for structural syllabi (Long & Crookes 1993:20). Howatt (1984:225) identifies the audiovisual courses of CREDIF (1961) and First Things First italic">(Alexander 1967) as examples of this type. Another example is the Australian government's Situational English course (Commonwealth Office of Education, 1967; cf. Yalden 1983 for more details of this syllabus type). Another use of the term 'situational' in syllabus design implies courses which are organised "around situations and deal with structures as they arise" (Mohan 1977:251). Examples of this type are English Topics (Cook 1974, 1978b), Notions in English (Jones 1979) and Notion by Notion (Ferreira 1981).

3.4.3.3.2 The topic syllabus.
Topical syllabi are a common and convenient method of organising ESL/EFL textbooks, and share the motivational potential of situational syllabi, especially if selection is based on needs identification performed in terms of topics or on the findings of research on frequency of topics in the conversations of people of the same age as the learner. However, they also share the difficulties of defining and distinguishing situations and topics, dealing with the broadness of the concepts in materials design, predicting grammatical form, and grading and sequencing of content. As Long & Crookes point out, "there is in principle no way to grade situations in terms of difficulty or as to which ones need to be 'learned' before others." (1993:20). Topic is also a broad semantic construct (Brown & Yule 1983), and like situations, "topics have an unfortunate tendency to merge into one another and subsume other topics" (Long & Crookes 1993:23) (cf. Goodenough & Weiner 1978; Jefferson 1978). The use of situation and topic as the unit of analysis in a synthetic syllabus is thus problematic due to the impossibility of distinguishing their boundaries or predicting what they involve. "Where you use language, it also turns out, is less relevant for language learning than what you use it for, i.e. task" (Long & Crookes 1993:23).

3.4.3.4 The lexical syllabus
The lexical syllabus is a form of the propositional paradigm that takes 'word' as the unit of analysis and content for syllabus design. Various vocabulary selection studies can be traced back to the 1920's and 1930's (West 1926; Ogden 1930; Faucet et al. 1936), and recent advances in techniques for the computer analysis of large databases of authentic text have helped to resuscitate this line of work. The modern lexical syllabus is discussed in Sinclair & Renouf (1988), who state that the main benefit of a lexical syllabus is that it emphasises utility - the student learns that which is most valuable because it is most frequent. Related work on collocation is reported by Sinclair (1987) and Kennedy (1989), and the Collins COBUILD English Course (Willis & Willis 1988) is cited as an exemplary pedagogic implementation of the work, though "in fact, however, the COBUILD textbooks utilise one of the more complex hybrid syllabi in current ESL texts" (Long & Crookes 1993:23).

Sinclair & Renouf (1988:155) find that (as with other synthetic syllabi), claims made for the lexical syllabus are not supported by evidence, and the assertion that the lexical syllabus is "an independent syllabus, unrelated by any principles to any methodology" (Sinclair et al. 1988:155) is subject to the criticism levelled by Brumfit against notional functional syllabi, i.e. that it (in this case, deliberately) takes no cognisance of how a second language is learned. Since these observations were made, however, Willis (1990) and Lewis (1993) have gone some way to provide such a theoretical justification.

3.4.3.5. Propositional syllabi: summary.
Formal (structural), functional, situational, topical and lexical syllabi share a static target language, product orientation, are ultimately based on an analysis of the language to be learned, and implicitly rely on "the validity of the equation: what is taught = what is (or ought to be) learnt" (Prabhu 1984:273). In preserving the traditional roles of syllabus designer, teacher and student, and in adhering to a view of language as a linguistic rather than a psycho/sociolinguistic process involving the acquisition of social and cultural knowledge, they ignore the learner as a significant participant in his/her own language learning, defending the idea that the forms of a language can somehow be learned, prior to communication, despite the claims of several first and second language acquisition researchers that grammar develops out of conversation or other language use (Scollon 1973; Keenan 1974; Ervin-Tripp 1978; Hatch 1978; Atkinson 1979; White 1988). As Newmark (1996) observes: "if the task of learning to speak English were additive and linear ... it is difficult to see how anyone could learn [it] ... Language is learned a whole act at a time, rather than as an assemblage of constituent skills" (1966:77).  

Continue reading this literature review: The Process Paradigm


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