Remixing a grammatical syllabus

In my previous blogpost for LearningEnglish (Breaking up big grammar), I explained how I deal with big grammar points like 'Past habits' or 'Present Perfect' that appear in coursebooks with a grammatical syllabus. I was thinking, as teachers often do, about adapting content to learners as part of our lesson planning. But what about the bigger picture? How can we move away from a coursebook's grammatical syllabus in our course planning?

The first thing to say is that a grammatical syllabus isn't necessarily the evil it's often made out to be (whatever I might say below)! It's likely to go down well with analytical learners that see the patterns in language, and learners coming from an educational background that places a lot of importance on grammar. When I worked in Italy, for example, many learners felt at home with a grammatical syllabus, as they had grown up studying languages that way.

But... That doesn't necessarily mean it was the best thing for them in terms of learning to speak English. It's the old dichotomy of 'knowing how the language works in theory' (linguistic competence) vs 'being able to use the language in practice' (communicative competence). I'm not debating the importance of grammar itself in learning a foreign language, just whether we should prioritise it as the building blocks of a course.

Anyway, I now teach in Thailand, where most of my adult and teenage learners find the alternative - focusing primarily on meaning and communication, with focus on form where necessary - more motivating. So here are my top 3 ways of remixing the syllabus to move away from a grammatical syllabus...

In third place... Unravelling the strands

The coursebook. The majority of General English coursebooks nowadays are organised around a 'multi-strand' syllabus. However, a glance at the contents page often tells you that the grammar strand is given priority. It's the organising principle according to which the book, and supposedly the learners, progress. Other 'strands' are fitted in around it:

  • Other language points (functional, lexical, phonological)
  • Skills work (S, L, R, W)
  • Topics
  • Non-linguistic points (culture, life skills)

Remixing it. We can simply choose to foreground other linguistic strands, like lexical or functional areas of language that may be more of a priority to learners. This doesn't imply redesigning the coursebook, it's just a way of conceptualising the course and communicating with learners about goals and priorities.

In second place... Task-based syllabus

In a grammatical syllabus, learners learn the grammar and then use it. A task-based syllabus simply reverses this. Ingenious! They start by using it, trying to say what they really mean, then refining it where necessary.

The coursebook. A2+ coursebook unit organised around a review of the past simple, based on some fairly random extracts from graded readers.

Remixing it. I tell my young adult learners how I once overnighted at Lima airport because I couldn't pay the departure fee. We discuss common problems on holiday - delays, bad weather, etc. Qualifying round: learners tell each other about a problem on holiday in a group of three. They choose the best holiday mishap story and write it down together, concentrating on how to word the story. Finals: they retell their story to another group and decide on the best one. After this, there is a focus on form based on learners' difficulties from the task, using the coursebook for support. Other lessons follow a similar pattern, and the language focus can even be set for homework.

The best thing about it? It's built around what learners want to do with English. More examples of task-based lessons here.

And in first place... Text-based syllabus

This also reverses the usual paradigm. While coursebooks use specially engineered spoken and written texts to support the grammar points, a text-based syllabus turns this on its head.

The coursebook  a B1+ teen coursebook unit focusing on gerunds and infinitives and using pretty unconvincing texts about 'study tips' just to present and practise the grammar.

Remixing it. Youtube is an important genre for my teenage students. I chose 4 Youtubers' vlog clips about study tips and prepared a list of tips from the videos, including some red herrings. Learners predicted which tips from the list were good ideas, then watched the clips to check their ideas. We reconstructed parts of the video and analysed the transcript to pick up some useful phrases and vocabulary. Learners made their own texts (ie. spoke) like the Youtubers. We recorded these and came back to them in another lesson (using them as learner texts) to focus on their use of gerunds and infinitives, which learners then put back into practice by writing their study tips.

This recycling of the text in new forms and analysing the language used makes for lots of language development - all in context in whole texts. It's often easy to find out what kinds of texts are important to learners, too, so this is a sure-fire way to adapt the syllabus to your learners. Scott Thornbury makes the case for text-based syllabi very convincingly in Beyond the sentence.

Best of the rest

Organising lessons around the four language skills and subskills is another option, or remix the syllabus to be topic-basedproject-based or conversation-driven.

A syllabus or syllabi?

The reality is that one syllabus is often not sufficient to meet learners' different and changing needs, not to mention the need for variety! And when teaching on a General English course, the syllabus needn't be set in stone.

I often cycle through different syllabus types: a few lessons following a text-based approach, a straight-up grammar lesson from the coursebook, a series of task-based lesson, and then renegotiating with learners. As I said above, it's all about how we conceptualise what we do in the classroom and communicate about it with learners.

Whatever happens, negotiate it with your learners. What texts, tasks or topics do they want to study? What linguistic strands will help them get there? And remix!

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