Traditional and holistic syllabuses reflect different views of language and language learning and teaching. Both viewpoints are quite valid, and most courses nowadays will reflect elements of both.

Which syllabus: The traditional and the holistic syllabus - methodology article

It is the relative emphasis given to language as a body of knowledge to be mastered, or language as a communicative process to be developed, which will determine which of the labels 'traditional' or 'holistic' I would apply to a given syllabus.

  • The traditional syllabus
    • An example
    • Advantages
  • Arguments for a more holistic syllabus
    • How this works
  • A comparison of traditional and holistic approaches
  • Summary


The traditional syllabus
In traditional syllabuses and materials, linguistic content is primary. The situational and thematic choices are made once the linguistic content has been established. The selection of the linguistic content itself is based on a particular theoretical view of the nature of language and the way in which we acquire it.

An example
The audiolingual method, for example, emphasised a careful sequencing of grammatical structures, which were presented and then repeated, with gradual memorisation of the dialogue. This approach was developed following research by behaviourist psychologists, who saw language as a system of building blocks, and language acquisition as a process of habit formation, through imitation and repetition. Such an approach tends to ignore thematic content, and grammar and vocabulary are presented in isolated sentences without any thematic thread.

Advantages
Traditional syllabuses are suited to some types of learner. Breaking the language down into bits and pieces can help to focus students on a particular aspect of the language and avoid the focus being blurred by other problems of a lexical or phonological nature.


Arguments for a more holistic syllabus
Those who criticise the traditional syllabus argue that it isn't logical to break language into bits and pieces when it is always experienced comprehensively, as a whole. Language consists of more than a stock of objective facts. This means that a holistic approach uses texts, i.e., whole pieces of language, rather than individual sentences, to prepare the learners for the language they will encounter outside the classroom. Widdowson claims that we must progress form learning about the language (language usage), to considering how language works in a communicative sense, (language use), which, 'requires us to go beyond the sentence and look at longer stretches of language.'

This holistic view has gained prominence in recent years. A holistic syllabus will front texts, topics and tasks, placing great emphasis on meaningful communication from the learner's point of view. Texts should be authentic, tasks should be communicative, and learners will be encouraged to respond to the topics and texts, rather than to isolated phonemes and morphemes.

How this works
Whereas traditional syllabuses select language items solely on the basis of linguistic criteria, a holistic syllabus will select the items the learner needs to know in order to get things done, i.e., to complete the task.

Language errors are repaired by the teacher or the class while the students are on the task. Thus grammar is taught reactively, rather than pre-emptively. Such approaches of course throw up their own problems, such as of how to order the tasks and of how to choose the task which learners need. However, adherents of this approach would argue that a focus on function, fluency and use is still more like how learners experience the language outside the classroom, than a focus on form, accuracy and analysis.


A comparison of traditional and holistic approaches

Traditional Holistic
Focus on language as a sequence of grammatical patterns. Focus is on communication.
Selects language items on basis of complexity of linguistic criteria. Selects on the basis of what language items the learner needs to know
Language used tends to be more formal and bookish Genuine everyday language is emphasised.
Aim is to have students produce formally correct sentences. Aim is to have students communicate effectively in order to complete the task.
Reading and writing are emphasised. Speaking is given at least as much time as reading and writing.
Tends to be teacher-centred. Tends to be student-centred.
Focus is on the form of expression rather than the content. Resembles the natural language learning process by concentrating on the content / meaning of the expression rather than the form.


(Adapted from 'The Learner-Centred Curriculum' David Nunan. CUP 1988.)

Summary
Nowadays, many coursebooks opt for a more mixed approach. If you are interested in finding out more about the thinking behind the course book syllabus that you are using, it can be very helpful to read the introduction to the teacher's book, which accompanies your coursebook. This usually reveals the coursebook writer's methodology, selection criteria, and approach to grammar and vocabulary. As a teacher, it is very useful to know the ideas behind a particular sequence of exercises or tasks, as this can help you to judge whether or not such an approach is suited to your students' needs.

Further reading
'Course Design' by Dubin and Olshtain. CUP 1986
'The Learner-Centred Curriculum' by David Nunan. CUP 1988
'Language Teaching Methodology' by David Nunan.

Vanessa Steele

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