Syllabus Design

A Critique (by Ted Power) of Breen's Process Model [1984] for the design of Communicative Syllabuses

Processes in Syllabus Design Breen, M. 1984 in C. Brumfit (Ed.) General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon Press

Breen's Process Syllabuses for the language classroom

For negotiation - decisions taken by teachers & learners (level 1)


Who works with whom?

For example T with whole class

T with subgroups

T with individual learners

Ls in pairs

Ls in groups

L alone

L as a member of whole group

COMMENT - The number of learners that you have got in the classroom may vary from day to day. In some countries, where girls' education is taken less seriously than boys', you get different girls in the class on alternate days. Some are made to stay at home to help in the household.

In my teaching experience, participation is decided by

The alternative to Breen's concept of "participation", is the teacher as manager, well-trained, sensitive to all the management factors relating to people, equipment, classroom furniture and learning materials, knowing when to take the lime-light (i. e. give input) and knowing when to hand the floor over to the learners.

As a VSO, teaching English to Algerians, I did not share a common language with many of my learners - the non-French speakers. They were complete beginners in English with no reading and writing skills, but they did have expectations as to how a good teacher should control them. In the barren environment of a State Secondary School, I had to stand on a raised platform, so all 48 (14-19 year-old) learners could see my visual aids.

For negotiation - decisions taken by teachers & learners (level 2)

The procedures are agreed upon = "a working contract for the classroom".


Who does what with whom?

With what resources?




1. Which particular activity or task is undertaken?

2. What specific materials or other resources are to be worked upon during the activity or task?

3. At what point in 'the lesson' or 'series of lessons' and for how long?

4. How should the work be undertaken? What steps should be followed through?

5. For what learning purposes will the activity or task serve?


1. The teacher knows

An experienced teacher's idea of a suitable task is likely to be better informed than any student's. However, I agree with the concept of "responsive planning", especially at higher levels of education where the experience and input of knowledge of the learners are likely to be greater. This situation would not occur in a language class where only the teacher knows the target language in any depth.

2. Resources are finite. You have got to get material from somewhere. You are limited by access to books and the existence of photocopier. My learners in Algeria had no books and there was not a photocopier in the school. The teacher cannot just say "abracadabra". The material usually has to be carried into the classroom before the lesson begins, if it exists!

3. In most schools in the world, students are not free to re-arrange the school timetable according to when and how long they want to work on a particular task. There would be a conflict between subjects. Teachers responsible for unpopular subjects (such as French!) may find themselves redundant. Getting the learners to do the sequencing and the scheduling when the content of the lesson is unknown territory (especially in the case of a foreign language) is equivalent to asking them to plan the national curriculum in subject areas of which they have little or no experience.

4. Sometimes part of learning is practising a method or technique e.g. playing scales on a piano. There are times when the teacher can specify procedures more loosely, but relinquishing the role of manager altogether can lead to poorer lessons. For example, in a discussion class, I usually lay down a procedure - one person chairs the discussion, another takes notes and another reports back. The class is usually divided into groups so that these roles can be duplicated and nervous students find it easier to contribute when they are working with just a small number of other people. As teacher, I can take the whole situation into account and find ways of preventing individual learners from hogging the limelight or laying down disruptive procedures. I have been trained to do this and I am being paid to provide a service - to try to make learning a rich and rewarding experience for every individual in the class.

There are occasions (e.g. teaching business English to senior executives or working with university postgraduates) when students have already learnt procedures and are capable of managing their own discussions. On these occasions, the teacher's role can often focus on input of content in the target language, though setting up a good simulation may mean insisting on procedures up to a point.

In many language classes (I suspect most, especially at lower levels) learners need to be taught new procedures as well as new language.

I would never try teaching the procedure of pairwork to large classes of Algerian Secondary School learners who are likely to be vociferous in their native dialects when left to face their immediate peers. However, given one Algerian Secondary School learner in a multilingual class of no more than 12 learners in an English-speaking environment, then teaching this new procedure is altogether a different proposition. Indeed, teaching a target language is altogether a more realistic task.

5. A teacher who is sensitive to a group of learners will try to find out their purposes for learning and will try to match them with suitable materials and methodology. Often in advanced level classes, there are heterogeneous demands that cannot always be met. A co-ordinator must decide what the group purpose is. It is always a compromise. Having an environment that is rich in resources can help you to direct suitable material in different directions for homework or independent study. However, when one student wants the lessons to be focussed on banking and another is only interested in English for engineering, you either tell them that they should have booked one-to-one courses or you find a common denominator such as poor pronunciation or weaknesses in grammar, reading or listening skills. The teacher with a background in Applied Linguistics (phonology, stress, intonation, syntax, reading & listening strategies) is likely to be better placed than anybody else in the class to set the agenda.

For negotiation - decisions taken by teachers & learners (level 3)

The subject matter is selected from a catalogue of activities, which involve tasks. Members in the activity group select the tasks.


On what do learners work?

Conventional syllabus design addresses itself to this.

It pre-selects subject matter. Thus only gives a general account of the learning purposes, not recognising the more specific or more important learning purposes discovered through a certain activity or task.

Comment - While Breen's "Process Syllabus" is clearly described, I fail to comprehend the additional element in the learning process. Any period of learning is "a process" whoever helps to set it up.

I prefer the cognitive view of the learning process, set out in Julian Dakin's The Language Laboratory and Language Learning Longman 1973, where there is also an experiential element. Here it is through problem-setting exercises and tasks that learners realise they have a problem of "accommodation". Dakin emphasizes the twin processes of "assimilation" and "accommodation" and the role of mistakes. Julian Dakin allows us to experience the meaning of "accommodation" and "assimilation" through his lesson in Novish. He attempts to teach an imaginary language, which has a rule-system that is rather different to English grammar. He goes out of his way to set problems, which ensure that learners will fall into traps. As learners we are led to over-generalize and to form misconceptions. When we find that we are getting it wrong, we are led to refine our grammar of Novish and only then are we ready to continue to the next step.

Dakin's lesson in Novish emphasizes the structural foundation of language and the interdependence of syntax and meaning. The important thing to note is that it is Dakin, as language teacher, who is setting the problems and deciding the tasks. We, as learners, know nothing about the interrelationships between syntax and semantics in Novish and are in no position to define useful tasks.

Breen acknowledges "participation", "procedure" and "subject matter" are interrelated and that decisions about them must be taken as a whole.

However, learners do not have the teacher's intimate knowledge of classroom management, the target language and the resources available in the school with which to work on. What is wrong with the teacher providing inputs, which will facilitate learning? That's what the classroom can do.

Breen quotes an example of a group of learners who discover they have a problem while doing a task with tense-markers, but couldn't the same discovery be made a lot more quickly with Julian Dakin's programmed tasks? [Novish!]. It's certainly more orderly for a 3-week course.

In practice, the constraints on participation, procedure and subject matter are often outside both the teacher and learners' control. However, the teacher has usually been there longer and knows what these constraints are. The teacher knows the available materials, the kind of language learning purposes they satisfy and the language learning experiences they lead to (e.g. when error is likely to occur).

Experienced teachers will practise classroom management techniques while offering a content syllabus. They are also adaptive:

  1. they can manage the interrelationships between participation, procedure and select from the appropriate materials available.
  2. they will have standby lessons and materials at hand. The content syllabus is always incorporated within other decisions. If they have misjudged the learning purpose, social dynamics, maturity or competence (level) of the group, the content and difficulty level of the tasks can be adjusted.
  3. they will offer options, but not until they know their learners well enough or have assembled the necessary materials to offer suitable options. Something akin to a Process Syllabus already exists in Eldorado Language Schools (with small class sizes, motivated learners, resources rooms & self-study centres offering an Argus catalogue of resources and an absence of external constraints such as compulsory examination syllabuses to follow), but it happens more subtly than Breen suggests. Experienced teachers continually make management decisions. Content is selected on the basis of what they know about participation. This includes students' willingness to work in pairs. Fixed habits or cultural constraints relating to participation can limit the range of procedures and materials you can work on if allowed to win the day. Experienced teachers have to take external constraints into account in most work places.

In my first teaching practice in Algeria, I was reprimanded for standing too close to the female learners in the front row of the class.

In my Voluntary Overseas Post in a large boys' Secondary School, my classes were very large and there were some learners who I would not have sitting (let alone working) together. This was to prevent the kind of disruption that can also be seen on British football pitches when two players are marking one another too closely.

As for subject matter, Algerian Schools were permitted to use Geoffrey Broughton's "Success with English" Level 1, but there was a ban on "Success with English" Level 2 since the main characters Martin and Jillian had an argument containing the word "damn". The learners in their third year of study had to switch to L.G. Alexander's "Practice and Progress", which gave less offence to the female native Algerian English Teachers employed in Oran and Algiers.

I would maintain that only in a small minority of schools (which fulfil my "Eldorado" conditions) based in English-speaking environments, can anything like the level of negotiation that Breen relates to Participation, Procedure and Subject Matter take place.

It is pretence that the Communicative Language Teaching approach (where the learner has "an active, negotiative role" with reference to Breen's three areas of class management) has revolutionized language teaching. Good language teachers recognise the constraints under which they are operating and do not abdicate their role as information-providers and managers. The "Eldorado" teaching environments are very few and far between.

It is equally a travesty to claim that under a new regime following Audiolingualism and the days of Structural Syllabuses, learners have suddenly started to "contribute as well as receive".

The shelf-life of titles such as First Things First by L.G. Alexander (Longman) 1967, Kernel Lessons Intermediate by Robert O'Neill, Roy Kingsbury and Tony Yeadon with Roger Scott (Longman) 1971, Streamline Departures by Bernard Hartley and Peter Viney (Oxford) 1978, has been far greater than that of titles such as Communicate and Approaches (formulae for chaos in afternoon classes), which we discarded very quickly from our shelves.

Today's most successful English course books still retain a structural syllabus. These include all the Original and New Headway series by Liz and John Soars (Oxford) 1984-2000 and the Look Ahead series by Andy Hopkin, Jocelyn and John Naunton with Diane Hall, Madeleine du Vivier and Bob Marsden (Longman dating from 1995).

Syllabus Design has benefited mainly from The Council of Europe's THRESHOLD by Van Ek and Trim (Cambridge: revised 1990) - a statement of how a learner should be able to use English in order to function independently in everyday communication (intermediate level) and WAYSTAGE by Van Ek and Trim (Cambridge: revised 1990), which sets out a more restricted set of objectives for learners who are around a lower-intermediate level.

These two volumes contain lists of functions similar to those developed in Notional Syllabuses by D. Wilkins (Oxford 1976) whose seminal work owed much to Austin & Searle's Speech Act Theory.

The functional objectives are also tied to the syntactic forms which learners will need to have mastered at each level.

The structural syllabus is well represented in the most successful course books of the twentieth century.

It is entirely unfair to accuse authors such as L.G. Alexander and Robert O'Neill of neglecting the functional agenda (semantics, meaning or communication) in their carefully planned structural syllabuses.

The influence of Notional / Functionism was very evident in the late 70s and early 80s - see the Teacher's Book to Building Strategies by Brian Abbs and Ingrid Freebairn (Longman 1979). A metalanguage for describing every utterance in functional terms found its way into many course books - sometimes the metalanguage was more difficult than the rest of the language on the page. Writers and publishers are now wise to the advantage of a clear page layout and the goals now seem to have found their way onto Contents Pages and Maps of the Course Book.

The N/F metalanguage could equally be applied to the very first dialogue in L.G. Alexander's First Things First (1967):

Inquiring about the ownership of a personal possession:

(My deliberately complicated metalanguage)

Man: Is this your handbag?

Woman:No, it isn't.

Man:Is this your handbag?

Woman:Yes, it is.

From the point of view of communication, the most important words in this dialogue are "Yes" and "No". Given this limited vocabulary and the ability to use and respond to gesture, a learner has a basic survival kit from their very first lesson in (New Concept English) First Things First (1967), which was hailed as the Direct Method. Through the use of visuals, L.G. Alexander made the meaning of his dialogues clear enough.

The use of drilling whether in the classroom or the language laboratory was an important feature of First Things First (1967), Kernel Lessons Intermediate (1971) and Streamline Departures (1978).

In chapter 4 (Roles and settings in the language class) of David Nunan's Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom (Cambridge 1989), the following table appears (page 80) in relation to Learner roles:



1. Oral/Situational

learner listens to teacher and repeats;
no control over content or methods

2. Audiolingual

learner has little control; reacts to teacher direction; passive, reactive role

3. Communicative

learner has an active, negotiative role;
should contribute as well as receive

I strongly maintain that the drilling element of First Things First (1967), Kernel Lessons Intermediate (1971) and Streamline Departures (1978) ensured that learners contributed as well as received.

I ran a self-access centre at The English Language Centre in Hove from 1991 to 1996, years when Communicative Language Teaching was certainly hyped in many I.A.T.E.F.L./ T.E.S.O.L. conference presentations and in the Applied Linguistics & TEFL press. It is currently being hyped by the BBC on web pages that are intended to be read by professionals working in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America - places where most teaching environments do not match the privileged conditions in a handful of "Eldorados" that exist in some English-speaking countries.

In the running of the self-access centre at The English Language Centre, I tried to lay things out in order that learners could help themselves. Colour-coding according to level, catalogues of materials (both printouts and on computer) and signs to designated areas in which different skills could be practised were the product of many hours of work. My job was also to supervise the self-access sessions themselves and to give help where it was needed.

This was an ideal environment for negotiation with learners. My learners were very largely the most motivated students in the school. They came on their own accord after their afternoon lessons had finished.

The busiest time for me was the first fifteen minutes of each two hour session, when the questions such as "What can I do to improve my XY or Z?" or "How can I prepare for this or that exam / job?" came at me from all directions.

I had listened to and labelled all the audiocassettes in the language laboratory and multi-media room, so like a good librarian I had an intimate knowledge of everything available. I would ask students at what level they had been placed if I did not know already (I taught on the Main Intensive Course in the mornings). I would ask them their language background and their purpose for learning English. The only negotiation I had to do was to lead them directly to the material I felt would best serve their needs.

What I often noticed when new arrivals came to the self-access centre was how passive learners have become in this new age of Communicative Language Teaching. I did not mind them plodding through Raymond Murphy's excellent English Grammar in Use 1985 Ed Cambridge (There is now a newer improved edition by Murphy & Hashemi). However, there is a difference between receptive and active use of resources. I always reminded the plodders that they had not really mastered grammatical English until they could produce it orally within a reasonable period of time. I would recommend that they moved into the language laboratory and spent 20 minutes on alternate days using Meaningful Language Drills. I encouraged them by pointing out that this way they were not only practising English grammar, but also English phonology, stress and intonation.

What exciting CLT material could I offer them? The most useful resources were the Speechwork language laboratory drills accompanying Streamline Departures, Connections & Destinations, the Kernel Lessons Intermediate Lab Drills, but best of all were the Kernel Lessons Plus Lab Drills. Robert O'Neill is a master at presenting syntactic forms in situational contexts that are both entertaining and memorable.

The Kernel Lessons Plus Lab Drills represent some of the best language learning material created during the twentieth century. I have tested out several CD-ROMs on my computer for learning Spanish. In theory, the computer should be a more powerful teaching aid than the language laboratory because there are additional possibilities provided by timed and limited text and graphic displays and testing through keyboard input.

I have not yet found computer software that rivals the Kernel Lessons Plus Lab Drills for practising English Syntax, Pronunciation and Functional language actively all at the same time. Whoever owns the copyright for the Kernel Plus Drills should immediately get in touch with an educational computer software company. The drills could be adapted to make them into the most powerful language learning computer software package on the market. The situational contexts could be supported by video graphics and options such as a control to set the length of time learners are given to record their responses (slow - slow colloquial - normal speed) could easily be added. The mouse and keyboard could also be brought into use for testing e.g. responding to correctly formed utterances that the student hears. I have used computer software for learning Spanish where voice recognition technology marks the learner's pronunciation against that of a native speaker and voice print sound wave graphics provide a visual pattern of the learners speech so one can see as well as hear the differences. The voice recognition technology can be set up to prevent a drill or a dialogue from proceeding until the learner's oral input reaches an acceptable standard. One company (Auralog) markets this software under the GSP speakfluent series.

The age of Communicative Language Teaching seems to have been accompanied by reverence for the "Silent Period" proposed by Stephen Krashen. Learners have been exposed to comprehensible input by the bucket-load and given matching exercises to check for comprehension of meaning, but learning materials have not demanded much output. Hopefully the advent of e-mail and long distance mobile phones will create purposes for communication in an active sense, but the accuracy versus fluency equation will remain one which language teachers and testers have to consider. It will be difficult for students to make themselves understood orally if they do not practise spoken grammatical English and pronunciation up to the level of intelligibility. This involves motor skills, use of speech organs and a lot of practice time, preferably in an English-speaking environment.

Communicative Language Teaching has not provided significantly better conditions or materials for learning languages. More money (smaller class sizes) is the key to better conditions for productive communication.

The key to better materials is to build on the best of what has gone before.

We must resist the lure of a fashion created by a circle of academics (removed from "real classrooms") who waste volumes of prose defining what an activity or a task is in order to tell us that politically correct teaching must fit their new formats. My self-access learners who pick up graded-readers and accompanying audiocassettes or who plod their way through Murphy do not give a damn whether their activities are "task-based".