A Sketch of a Process Syllabus

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Introduction

Winston Churchill made the good point that “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” Rather than work patiently and diligently on a carefully-crafted Process syllabus which perfectly captures the progressive educational principles that underlie it, I offer this very elementary sketch.

Rationale

In Freire’s (2000) view of adult education, personal freedom and the development of individuals can only occur mutually with others: Every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a ‘dialogical encounter’ with others. In this process, the old, paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome.

To paraphrase Breen (1987), the Process syllabus prioritises classroom decision-making on the assumption that participation by learners in decision-making will be conducive to learning. Decision-making can be seen as an authentic communicative activity in itself. The objective of the Process syllabus is to serve the development of a learner’s communicative competence in a new language by calling upon the communicative potential which exists in any classroom group. It is based on the principle that authentic communication between learners will involve the genuine need to share meaning and to negotiate about things that actually matter and require action on a learner’s part. The Process syllabus proposes that metacommunication and shared decision-making are necessary conditions of language learning in any classroom.

What Does the Process Syllabus Provide?

Two things: a plan relating to the major decisions which teacher and learners need to make during classroom language learning, and a bank of classroom activities which consist of sets of tasks.

The plan consists of answers to questions which the teacher and learners discuss and agree on together. Questions refer to the purposes of language learning; the content or subject matter which learners will work upon; the ways of working in the classroom ; and means of evaluation of the efficiency and quality of the work and its outcomes. Clearly, decisions made about these areas will relate one to the other and they will generate the particular process syllabus of the classroom group. They will also lead to agreed working procedures within the class; a ‘working contract’ to be followed for an agreed time, evaluated in terms of its helpfulness and appropriateness, and subsequently refined or adapted for a further agreed period of time. This joint decision-making will lead to a particular selection of activities and tasks.

As for the materials bank, this needs to be built by each local centre, taking into consideration the known general and specific needs of its students. While today a great deal of material can be found on the internet, there’s no denying that implementing a process syllabus requires an initial investment in both materials and  teacher time in order to assemble and organise a good materials bank. In 1987, Breen had this to say:

A classroom group adopting a Process syllabus would deduce and implement its own content syllabus; a syllabus of subject-matter in the conventional sense would be designed, implemented, and evaluated within the Process syllabus. In circumstances where an external pre-planned syllabus already existed and had to be undertaken by the teacher with his or her learners, the decisions for classroom language learning would be related directly to such a pre-planned syllabus. As a result, the external syllabus may be incorporated within the group’s process — with or without modifications as decided upon by the group — and used as a continual reference point – or source of helpful criteria — during decision-making and evaluation. It is more than likely that any external syllabus will be modified as the group works with it. In sum, the Process syllabus is a context within which any syllabus of subject-matter is made workable. 

I think it’s very important to do without any external syllabus, so my proposal is based on the assumption that the teacher can call on a rich diversity of well-organised materials, where the diversity and the organisation are both crucial factors. Currently, few ELT centres provide such a materials bank, and this fact has led Rose Bard and I to the conclusion that we need to build a materials bank comprised entirely of materials which can be downloaded from a dedicated web site. The materials bank will grow and teachers will, of course, supplement the central hub with their own locally produced materials. The  “central” materials will be organised in a data base using the following provisional fields:

  1. Access number
  2. Source
  3. Medium
  4. Activity type
  5. Level
  6. Topic
  7. Sub-topic
  8. Grammar area
  9. Function
  10. Comments

The Access Number is a simple code which defines the level of difficulty (l-6), the ‘medium’ (‘A’ or audio; ‘V’ for video; ‘T’ for text; ‘I’ for Internet;  etc.), and a sequential number of no other significance than to allow us to keep materials in order. Thus, for example, “4.V.19” is the nineteenth video segment for the fourth level of English. The creation of a database allows those creating the materials bank  to produce indexes for as many fields or combinations as they want, and this allows teachers to quickly see what video material is available at their level, or, for example, to find a reading text on tourism at that level. But teachers can also decide that they will concentrate on a certain topic, tourism, for example, and then confect a multi-activity task on that topic. The indexes tell them exactly what is available on this subject in each medium at each level. They can define the task for themselves or choose a ready-made task from the ‘Activities’ index. If they design their own task, they could start with a reading text, go on to an information-gap activity, then use video, then do an Internet  exercise, then move to discussions, presentations, and reports, staying all the time on the topic of tourism and at their chosen level.

So let’s look now at the example.

An Example Process Syllabus

In the following, I’ll refer to the teacher as “he”, supposing him to be a younger version of me.

Type of Student: Adult

Number of Students: 12

Level: Mid-Intermediate (CEFR: B2). The students should have done a proficiency test, ideally including an interview, prior to enrolling in the course.

Course Duration: 100 hours; 6 hours a week.

Objectives: The main objective of the course is to improve the students’ ability to use English for professional purposes. Priority is given to oral communication.

Step 1    

  1. The teacher greets everybody, introduces himself, and then asks students to get into four groups of 3 (A,B, & C) and to use questions displayed on the whiteboard in order to find out personal and professional information about each other. He then asks A to introduce B, B to introduce C, and C to introduce A.
  2. After that he explains that the course will use a process syllabus and gives a quick description of what that involves.
  3. (This bit of the class aims to reaffirm the feeling that the main thrust of the course is communicative oral practice.) “What’s in the news?”. The teacher brainstorms things in the news – local, national, international, sport, scandal, business, etc., – in order to generate a list of 6 or 7 items on the whiteboard. Students are put into groups of 3 and each group has to choose 1 of the items on the list. They then discuss the item and prepare a report. When everybody’s ready, the class gets back together and then each group gives its report (A gives the background, B gives the news, C gives the group’s opinion). The topic’s then open for others in the class to have their say.
  4. After a break, the teacher gives out a needs analysis worksheet: see here for possible format. (To get back to this page, hit the arrow at the top left of the screen) When everybody has filled in the form, the class divides into 3 groups and discusses their answers. The teacher asks one of each group to report on the answers to each of the 7 questions. This is a long activity, and will take the rest of the class time. The teacher collects the worksheets before everybody leaves.

Step 2

Before the next class, the teacher looks through the needs analysis forms and designs the next 10 hours of the course, confecting tasks from activities and materials in the materials bank. In fact he’s already done most of this work in previous courses, but just needs to fine-tune the tasks in line with the data collected.

Step 3

In the next classes the teacher leads students through a series of tasks involving activities such as problem-solving, information-gap, data gathering, case studies, role plays, presentations, debates, discussions, etc. involving group work, pair work, and whole class work, and using a variety of media. Various types of focus on form, vocabulary building, feedback and correction are used, and homework includes written work, and participation in an on-line discussion forum set up for this course.  Apart from their overt usefulness, the idea of these classes is to give students a taste of a wide variety of activities and formats.

During the classes the teacher tries to put into practice the Methodological Principles (MPs) re-stated in Long (2015), which I’ve summarised in a previous post. In fact, there are very important differences between Long’s TBLT syllabus proposal and this one, which will need discussing at some point, but I think the important points of agreement are:

  • MP2: Promote Learning by Doing. Practical hands-on experience with real-world tasks brings abstract concepts and theories to life and makes them more understandable);
  • MP4: Provide Rich Input. Adult foreign language learners require not just linguistically complex input, but rich input (i.e., realistic samples of discourse use surrounding accomplishment of tasks).
  • MP5: Encourage Inductive (“Chunk”) Learning. Learners need exposure to realistic samples of target language use and then helped to incorporate, store and retrieve whole chunks of that input as whole chunks.
  • MP6: Focus on Form. A focus on meaning can be improved upon by periodic attention to formal aspects of the language. This is best achieved during an otherwise meaning-focused lesson, and using a variety of pedagogic procedures where learners’ attention is briefly shifted to linguistic code features, in context, to induce “noticing”, when students experience problems as they work on communicative tasks. The most difficult practical aspect of focus on form is that, to be psycholinguistically relevant, it should be employed only when a learner need arises, thus presenting a difficulty for the novice teacher, who may not have relevant materials to provide. Where face-to-face interaction is the norm, as in L2 classrooms, recasting is the obvious pedagogical procedure. Once an L2 problem has been diagnosed for a learner, then pedagogical procedures may be decided upon and materials developed for use when the need next arises.
  • MP7: Provide Negative Feedback. Recasts are proposed as an ideal (but not the only) form of negative feedback.
  • MP8: Respect Developmental Processes and “Learner Syllabuses”. I’ve already said enough about this in previous posts dealing with interlanguage development.

Step 4

After approx. 12 hours of classroom time, the teacher holds “Feedback and Planning Session 1” where everybody reflects on what happened and plans the next part of the course. See here for possible format of the worksheet.  (To get back to this page, hit the arrow at the top left of the screen.) This session is obviously a pivotal part of the process syllabus and requires careful handling by the teacher . I think training in how to conduct these sessions is required for new teachers, and I’ll devote a separate post to discussing such sessions. Let me just say here that the teacher must avoid defending himself against any criticisms and must also avoid the temptation of the students to say “Everything’s fine: carry on!” With a bit of practice, these sessions become very dynamic and rewarding encounters, and succeed in giving the teacher a good idea of how to proceed.  I think it’s a good idea for the teacher to video-record the session so as to be freed of the task of taking notes.

Step 5   

Before the next class, the teacher assimilates the data from the planning session and designs the next 20 hours of the course, again confecting tasks from activities and materials in the materials bank, but this time based on what the students have indicated they want to do.

Step 6

The teacher presents his plan at the next class, and proceeds with its implementation. At around Hour 30 there’s “Planning Session 2” where feedback is again sought and the next part of the course is planned. The whole course thus comprises of about 5 cycles.

As for assessment, I refer you to final section of my post on Test Validity where I briefly summarise Fulcher’s important distinction between large-scale testing and classroom assessment. To the extent that students need an external assessment of their current language proficiency when they finish the course, they have various alternatives, such as those offered by TOEFL, or the Cambridge Examination Board.

Conclusion

This is a rough sketch of a possible process syllabus and I’m aware that it raises lots of important questions. Most importantly, in my opinion, it dispenses with any proper needs analysis and relies on the use of what Long (2015) would call a “hit and miss” approach to materials and task design. But it’s a start: it flies a very fragile kite.

To the objection that the syllabus relies on the existence of a materials bank, I can only reply that there is an abundance of cheap or free material available for ELT these days, but I agree that it needs organising for a particular school’s or institute’s needs. Similarly, to the objection that the teacher is expected to do much work preparing the tasks, my reply is that it doesn’t actually involve that much work, although an initial effort is certainly required. As the saying goes: Where there’s a will there’s a way.

The most important element in the proposal is the negotiation between teacher and students and it’s this element which needs to be tested by being put into practice by teachers in their local environments. I’ve done it myself and I know lots of other teachers who’ve done it, but more serious study is required to properly test the assertions made here. In my experience, students soon get used to the new roles, and the inevitable initial scepticism is soon overcome. The students’ contribution to decision-making, and everybody’s appreciation of the new approach, grows as the course develops; it is, indeed a virtuous circle.  I’m aware of the need to take into account local cultural issues, but, on the other hand, we should not bow to stereotypes. There are schools in England where students are punished for speaking out of turn or for challenging the authority of the teacher, and there are schools in South Korea where students are encouraged to contribute to decisions about what and how they learn. The principles underlying a process syllabus reflect a libertarian educational philosophy which in recent times has perhaps been best articulated by Friere, but which has echoes in all the major cultures of the world.

References

Breen, M.P. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design Part II. Language Teaching, 20, pp 157-174.

Friere, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Bloomsbury Academic.

Long. M. H. (2014) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley-Blackwell.

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5 thoughts on “A Sketch of a Process Syllabus

  1. Hi Geoff, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly” is apparently the last sentence of Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s » What’s Wrong With The World » Ch. 41 (Ch XIV according to http://www.gutenberg.org) : Folly and Female Education http://www.online-literature.com/chesterton/wrong-with-the-world/41/. “She was juggling with frantic and flaming suns. She was maintaining the bold equilibrium of inferiorities which is the most mysterious of superiorities and perhaps the most unattainable. She was maintaining the prime truth of woman, the universal mother: that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Seems to be against education for women though I like the bit about juggling with frantic and flaming suns. It could sometimes be like that in my classes but not in the way he means it.

    As for the rest of your post, I’m glad to read such a clear and detailed exposition of what I’m not convinced of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Glenys,

      Thanks for putting me right about the quote. It certainly sounds like something G.K. might say!

      While I’m convinced that coursebook-driven ELT is bot the best way to organise a course in ELT, I’m not at all sure that my sketch of a process syllabus provides a good alternative. I’m very aware of its shortcomings, but I think they can be overcome. I hope you’ll help and get involved with the on-going work.

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  2. Hi Geoff,
    I’ll watch this with interest.
    I wonder if the bookmarks I’ve been collecting over the last five years might be useful to help with your database.
    The basic link is http://diigo.com/user/sandymillin You can then add a tag to show what you’re looking for. For example: /speaking is all of the speaking activities. When you click ‘+’ next to a suggested tag on the left it makes it cumulative, so ‘+ teens’ gives you speaking activities for teen students: https://www.diigo.com/user/sandymillin/teens%20speaking?sort=updated I try to tag by activity type and by level where relevant. There are about 4000 links on there from a wide range of sources, mostly other people’s blogs (though not all are materials)
    Good luck with building the database!
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Sandy,

    This looks VERY useful! Thanks a lot. I see the next steps in the project as discussing all the issues not completely addressed in the sketch and then getting on with the assembly of a materials base. We want to involve others, and maybe look for an independent publishing outfit that knows about the best way to organise and offer access to all the different types of materials. An important area is the worksheets that are used for feedback and planning purposes – the 2 examples I cobbled together are not good!

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  4. Thank you Geoff! I’ve long found your posts directly useful to my reading and teaching. I’d love to do something like this. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the means to (Tied to a school for a visa). While I almost completely agree with the sketch, is anyhting likely to change? I mean, how is it possible for a mere teacher to convince a director a school of anything different other than buy a book, sell it and then hire a shed load of tourists to teach from it? I’m being cynical, I know, but if you have any ideas how to challenge that I’d love to hear them.

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