topic-based syllabus

December 11, 2018 | Author: Kenneth Wade | Category: Reading (Process), Second Language, Second Language Acquisition, Language Acquisition, Learning
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Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners  Jamess M. Bour  Jame Bourke ke

In recent years there there has been a good deal of debate on the teachin teachingg of Englis English h to young learners. Although Although the article looks at the teachin teachingg of English to lower  primary children children in an  E S L  context in Southeast Asia, it is not specific to one regi re gion on.. Th Thee yo youn ungg le lear arne ners rs in qu ques esti tion on ar aree ag aged ed 6 to 8 ye year ars. s. Th Thee ma main in fo focu cuss of th thee article is how best to design a syllabus and classwork materials suitable for young  learne lea rners rs wh where erever ver th they ey may be. Th Thee wri writer ter str stress esses es the ne need ed for app approp ropria riate te tar target get-setting and makes the case for a topic- based/ta based/task-based sk-based syllabu syllabus. s. The underlyi underlying  ng  rationale rationa le is that a second language language syllabus should reflect the world of the child  and facilitate the bringing of acquisition into the classroom.


Although it is clear that different young learners have different English language needs, priorities, and motivations, it is now generally agreed that an early start is desirable and beneficial. Language acquisition seems to be onee of th on thee th thin ings gs th that at yo youn ung g ch chil ildr dren en ar aree pa parti rticu cula larly rly go good od at at.. Th Thee qu ques esti tion on is how best to get acquisition into the second language classroom and to provide pro vide the nec necess essary ary con condit dition ionss for its gro growth wth and dev develo elopmen pmentt acro across ss the primary curriculum. One of the major considerations is the matter of a syll sy llab abus us.. Th Thee sy sylla llabu buss is mu much ch mo more re th than an an in inve vent ntory ory of te teac achi hing ng it item ems. s. It also defines the approach to teaching/learning. Every syllabus has to take account of contextual variables and constraints, and at the same time pay dueregardto the theprin principl ciples es of seco second nd lan langua guage ge lea learni rning.In ng.In thi thiss pap paper er it will be argued that there is a strong case for a topic-based/task-based approach to designing English language programmes for young learners.

Syllabus design: goals and conten contentt

Second Secon d lan langua guage ge syl syllab labus us des design ign is an ine inexac xactt sci scienc ence. e. Lan Langua guage ge syl syllabi labi are written with the specifics of a particular situation in mind. It is difficult to define linguistic outcomes precisely for learners of different age groups, different differ ent socio socio-lingu -linguistic isticbackgr background ounds, s, and differ different ent curricu curricular lar experi experiences ences.. Clearly,, how Clearly howeve everr, one nee needs ds over overall all goa goals ls wit within hin whic which h spec specific ific out outcom comes es or obje ob ject ctiv ives es ca can n be se set. t. For in inst stan ance ce th thee go goal alss of an En Engl glis ish h la lang ngua uage ge sy syll llab abus us for young learners might be the following (adapted from the primary English syllabus for Brunei): n

 to help pupils communicate effectively in English, in order to discuss personal experiences, and to meet the demands of the school curriculum

E LT  Journal  Journal Volume 60/3 July 2006; doi:10.1093/elt/ccl008 ª


The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.




 to facilitate the acquisition of fluency and accuracy through active participation in a range of appropriate tasks  to develop emergent reading and to inculcate in pupils a fondness for n reading n  to introduce language items (e.g. structures, vocabulary) within the context of appropriate topics which can be talked about, read about, and written about. n

Assuming that the function of a syllabus is to generate appropriate units of  work for a specific group of learners, one can see that a syllabus constructed to implement the four broad goals above would have the following characteristics:  communicative activities such as games, cued dialogues, role-play, information gap exercises, and various other interactive tasks n  communicative tasks supported by ‘enabling’ (i.e. language-oriented) tasks. The rationale here is that children will acquirethe language as a byproduct of the activities in which they are engaged n  gradual introduction of pupils to reading in English by means of the shared reading of Big Books, using both ‘look and say’ and phonic approaches n  topic-related units of work derived from the syllabus. The topics provide thescaffolding aroundwhichthelanguage grows anddevelops.They also provide the motivation for personal and group writing tasks. n

In all of this the needs and experiences of the learner are paramount. The aimisnotsomuchtoteachthemthenewlanguage,butrathertoprovidethe necessary conditions and motivating experiences for the target language to be acquired by the pupils themselves.

Minimizing mismatches

Based on the communicative agenda above, it could be argued that the best type of syllabus for young learners of English is one which makes it possible for them to acquire the target language within the acquisition-poor environment of the classroom. The problem with skills-based, structural, lexical, and other ‘itemized’ syllabi is that they are needlessly prescriptive and uni-directional. They are based on the false assumption that there is a simple, one-to-one relationship between teaching and learning. Nunan (1994) pointed out that learning is mutually constructed as a collaborative experience between teachers and learners. He went on to outline the mismatchesthat mayoccur between theagendas of teachers andlearners in three important domains: a) the experiential domain, b) the learning process domain, and c) the language content domain.

The experiential domain

In relationto this domain, language teachingshouldrelate tothechild’sworld. It is necessary to re-discover and inhabit the world of the child. Children live in a world of fantasy and make-believe, a world of dragons and monsters, talking animals, and alien beings. In their world there are no tenses, nouns, or adjectives; there are no schemas labelled ‘grammar’, ‘lexis’, ‘phonology’, or ‘discourse’. It follows that when we plan a syllabus for young learners we should make sure it is experientially appropriate. It should contain:  topics of interest to children n  stories of all kinds n


James M. Bourke




 games and fun activities n  doing and making activities n  songs, chants, and rhymes n  pairwork and groupwork tasks n  Big Books n  materials from the Web n  children’s literature n  any activity that brings acquisition into the classroom. n

There is still a place for language games and meaningful drills, but only in so far as these ‘language experiences’ act as a pivot point to more genuine communication.

The learning process domain

Itemized syllabi typically focus on the product and not on the learning process. They ignore the fact that language is made in the mind and requires active processing on the part of the learner. In contrast, a ‘process’ type syllabus requires learners to notice features of the input and process them in various ways in order to convert ‘input’ into ‘intake’. The main objection to skills-based, structural, and other ‘itemized’ syllabi is that they are unnatural. They intervene in and interfere with the learner’s emerging interlanguage, which is often described as a ‘built-in syllabus’. Naturalness in second language learning implies a commitment to acquisition-like activities in acquisition-rich environments and the adoption of a ‘minimal teaching strategy’, a viewpoint expressed by Von Humboldt: ’ We cannot teach a language; we can only create the conditions under which it will be learned’ (Dakin 1973: 11). What those optimal conditions are is still an open question, but different researchers have suggested the following:  comprehensible input n  a stress-free environment n  the right to be silent n  copious interaction n  some focus on form. n

Research also indicates that language learning is a complex,non-linear, and rather chaotic process. Learning linguistic items is not a linear process—learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact the learning curve for a single item is not linear either (Larsen-Freeman 1997: 151).

The language content domain

Some syllabi and coursebooks adopt a multi-strand approach to language content by listing language content under headings such as language input (grammar, language functions, lexical items) and skills development (the four skills). This division of labour results in a series of lessons where the main teaching point is grammar, or reading comprehension, or writing, etc. What happensis that teachers blindly follow the sequence of teaching items in the syllabus in the hope that learners will somehow re-combine these discrete items once they are inside the head. Sadly, this does not seem to happen. Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners





What is needed is ‘roughly tuned’ language input, not ‘finely tuned’ input. The language has to be packaged in a way that makes sense to children. Hence the relevance of topics as vehicles in which language can be contextualized. The language input must be not only comprehensible, it must also be memorable. Children need exposure to ‘whole instances of  language use’ andnot a seriesof disjointed bits of language.It is theauthor’s contention that topics provide a natural context for the integration of  language input and skills development.

Why topics and tasks?

Hudelson (1991: 2–5) describes four basic principles of learning and language learning that are embedded in a topic-based/task-based approach: Young learners are in the ‘concrete operations’ stage of cognitive development. This means that they learn through hands-on experiences. It follows that in language classes children ‘need to be active rather than passive; they need to be engaged in activities of which language is a part; they need to be working on meaningful tasks and use language to accomplish those tasks’ (Hudelson, op. cit.). 2 In a group situation some members know more than others. Those who know less can learn from those who know more. Hence, children need to interact with and learn from each other. Teachers too need to interact with the children in order to challenge them to go beyond their presentlevel of expression. Thiskindof contextualsupportis known as ‘scaffolding’ (Ellis 1997: 48). 3 Acquisition is a discovery process. Learners have to figure out how the language works. ‘In terms of the classroom context, an implicationis that learners need opportunities to use and to experiment with the new language.’ (Hudelson op. cit.). Learners must be free to make errors so they can re-structure their emerging language system. 4  Acquisition occurs through social interaction. Meaning is constructed jointly as learners work together and exchange messages. They need to talk to each other in order to negotiate meaning. 1

Putting it together 

The design of a topic-based syllabus is fairly straightforward. A topic is selected as the hub for a unit of work which may extend over one or two weeks. It is the topic that ‘selects’ the new language items, be they structures, language functions, or vocabulary. The topic also suggests relevant listening and speaking tasks, interactive activities, (for example, games, information-gap, etc.), reading texts, and a variety of  writing tasks keyed to the topic. The aim is not to give pupils all available information on a specific topic, but rather to use the topic as a form of  instructional scaffolding in order to let learners themselves explore certain aspects of a particular topic and the language associated with it. The number and type of activities planned around a topic depend on various contextual constraints, such as time, resources, class size, proficiency level, etc., but they also depend crucially on the willingness of the teacher to set up and involve learners in motivating learning experiences. By way of example, let us suppose that our topic is ‘Animals around us’. We might begin by naming some common animals, such as monkeys, snakes, spiders, and frogs.


James M. Bourke




We show a large-size cut-out of the each animal to elicit what pupils already know, for example: Monkeys have fur and long tails. They live in the jungle. This one is a macaque. The teacher may ‘feed in’ some new words or ideas, for example, ‘troop’, ‘agile’, ‘chatter’, ‘naughty’, etc. Then pupils discuss the size, food, covering and habitat of the other animals. As Hudelson (op. cit.) suggests, the language focus of the unit of work may be any one or more of the following:  identify each animal by name (‘This is . . .’/‘That’s a. . .’) n  describe animals according to their size (‘It’s big/small/bigger/smaller/ fatter.’)  colour (‘It’s brown/green.’); appendages (‘It has a long trail, eight n legs’); kind of skin (‘The  . . .has fur/scales/feathers.’); how they move (‘The . . .  runs/hops/crawls/flies.’) n  classify animals according to their habitat. (‘The  . . . lives in water/in the jungle/in trees.’) n  Making comparisons: (‘The monkey has ears. The mouse-deer has ears. Both have ears.’/‘The frog does not have wings. The snake does not have wings. Neither has wings.’/‘All birds have beaks. All butterflies have wings. All ants have six legs.’)  Ability: (‘Frogs can swim, but they can’t fly.’). n n

Follow-up tasks may be any of the following: a b c d e f 

On a large picture poster, find the four animals; name them, using labels. In pairs, talk about each animal. Listen to and sing the animal song. (on cassette) In groups play the game—Do you know this animal? Shared Reading from a Big Book about animals, e.g. ‘Have you ever seen. . .?’ Group writing: Write five sentences about any one of the animals.

The unit of work on ‘Animals Around Us’ may take one or two weeks depending on the amount of time set aside forEnglish. Each lesson will be a seamless whole, with flexible stages, andwiththe language focus integrated within the various activities.

From topic to task   Atopiconitsownisnotofmuchuse.Itiswhatonedoeswithitthatmatters. The topic provides the inspiration for a variety of tasks that pupils engage in. In the present context a ‘task’ is a structured activity involving learners in some form of real interaction, which may or may not be supported by pre-selected language items. 1 Topic as interface between interaction and language focus figure

Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners





In the case of young learners, two kinds of task are especially relevant, viz. 1  Communication tasks (objective: fluency through interaction)

According to Estaire and Zanon (1994: 13) a communication task is a piece of classroom work which has the following traits. It involves the learner in  the comprehension of the second language (spoken or written), n  the production of the second language (spoken or written), and n  oral interaction in the second language. n

Learners’ attention is principally focused on meaning rather than form. It resembles activities which students carry out in everyday life and it may involve all four skills. 2  Enabling tasks (objective: accuracy through


An enabling task is a language-oriented activity designed to provide students with the necessary linguistic tools to carry out a communication task. It may take the form of a great variety of activities which focus on language analysis, language awareness, or language practice. Enabling tasks may come before or after a communication task even though Willis (1996) insists that they should come last. A task-based syllabus presupposes that pupils already have a working knowledgeof thesecondlanguage. How could they possibly solve problems, play games, or do information-gap tasks without a reasonable degree of  second language proficiency? But young learners do not normally have that prior knowledge. Hence, at the lower primary level there has to be some preliminary work on building up a repertoire of enabling language so as to facilitate real interaction at a later stage.Notsurprisingly, some teachers feel that any talk of task-based learning in its strong form at lower primary is premature. Pupils may not be ready to stay afloat, communicatively speaking, until they are at upper primary level. Many teachers are quite reluctant to accept that  T BL on its own is the only way to go, a viewpoint advocated by Nunan (2002: 23): I think task based learning is the only way to go for younger learners becauseit is entirely natural to get someone learning something by doing rather than by memorising sentence patterns or whatever. The writer takes the view that much depends on the learners’ readiness. If  they already know some English, one can plunge them into a structured communicative task. However, if they do not, then some time willneed to be spent on building a linguistic platform.

Total integration

One of the major challenges in constructing an  E SL  syllabus for young learners is integrating language input and skills development. In the context of Communicative Language Teaching, integration is the name of  the game. There is no longer any justification for an obsolete itemized syllabus. Nobody wants to return to the bad old days of ‘grammar bashing’—the traditional teaching of discrete points of grammar external to the learner. Not everyone accepts Krashen’s viewpoint (Krashen 1981) that children acquire language in only one way—when they understand messages, i.e. receive comprehensible input. However, the provision of 


James M. Bourke




comprehensible input is crucial in the case of young learners. We have already seen how grammar and vocabulary might be linked to the topic ‘Animals around us’. Likewise, phonology should grow out of the topic. Sometimes phonemic awareness, and a phonics approach to early reading, are taught as grammar used to be taught, in discrete units (see Lloyd 1992). A topic-based approach however would integrate both phonemic awareness and phonics into the topic as a ‘speechwork’ activity, which might be presentedas a jingle, nurseryrhyme,and variousgames such as mimicking the sounds animals make, etc. While oral language can be easily linked to the topicof the week, reading and writing are more problematic in the sense that lower primary pupils cannot normally read or write even in their mother tongue. For this reason, reading and writing call for special attention. As regards reading, the use of Big Books makes it possible to go from discussing a topic to reading a story about, or at least related to, the same topic. In Primary 1 the focus has to be on emergent reading, with a gradual progression from reading aloud to silent individual reading (in Primary 3). Big Books keyed to the topics should be part of the reading programme in Primary 1 and 2. It seems desirable also that Big Books should be contextually appropriate. However, just reading and re-reading Big Books aloud is not enough. There has to be:  a focus on building sight vocabulary n  a focus on phonics and word attack skills n  Word Bank activities, especially a focus on word families n  word and phrase recognition n  making predictions prior to reading n  responding to the text. n

As with reading, the topic provides the motivation, ideas, and most of the language needed for writing. Pupils in lower primary classes are not linguistically ready for group and individual story writing. Writing develops slowly and lags some way behind speaking. It should not be rushed. In Primary 1 the main writing activity should be handwriting, learning the alphabet,writing common words andphrases, transcription, andsome very basic controlled exercises. In Primary 2 writing tasks can be more guided than controlled. Various techniques can be used such as the  WSQA technique developed by Burgess (1994) in Malaysia. WSQA  is an acronym for Word, Sentence, Question, Answer. It is a simple language game designed to give structured practice in recycling a word in a self-generated sentence, question, and answer. Othersimpletopic-related writing activities can be found in Hadfield and Hadfield (2000). In Primary 3 one can move on to the beginning of ‘free’ writing. Work here too should be related to the topic of the week. Young learners are by definition ‘struggling writers’ and teachers have to provide the instructional scaffolding necessary for them to write in the second language, English. There is nothing wrong with explicit teaching at lower primary level. Pupils have to learn basic skills (such as handwriting, spelling, and punctuation) before a process approach can be adopted at upper primarylevel. It is notbeingsuggestedthat young learners shouldnot write in English until they have mastered English grammar, spelling, and Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners





discourse structure. Rather, it is proposed that young children need a lot of  time and practice in order to learn the craft of writing, and that it may be counter-productive to introduce them to the process model of writing too soon.



The case for a topic-based/task-based syllabus for young learners is based on the belief that children learn best by doing—in the sense of exploring topics andengaging in meaningful tasks—in a stress-free andsupportive learning environment. When topics are allied to tasks one has a very effective mechanism for planning and implementing English language instruction at the lower primary level. The basic assumption here is that language learning is easy when the child is actively involved in the learning process. An old-fashioned ‘itemized’ syllabus seems hopelessly out of step with the notion of Communicative Language Teaching. It adopts a linear and atomistic approach to the specification of content and it engenders a dreary drill-based approach to teaching methodology. A topic-based/task-based approach is based on the simple fact that it is the learner who does the learning and that the teacher’s role is to facilitate the learning process. However, alllearninghasto be structuredin some way. Topics andmatching tasks provide a structured framework for getting young learners actively involved in the learning of a second language. A topic-based/task-based syllabus can yield very stimulating units of work for young learners and remove many of the roadblocks to successful second language learning. Revised version received November 2004


Burgess, P. 1994. ‘Achieving accuracy in oral communication through collaborative learning’. English Teaching Forum  July 1994. Dakin, J. 1973. TheLanguage Laboratory andLanguage  Learning. Harlow: Longman. Ellis, R. 1997. Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Estaire, S. and J. Zanon. 1994. Planning Classwork: A Task-based Approach. Oxford: Heinemann. Hadfield, J.  and C. Hadfield.  2000. Simple Writing  Activities. Oxford : Oxford University Press. Hudelson, S. 1991. ‘EF L  teaching and children: a topic-based approach’. English Teaching Forum  October 1991. Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and  Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’. Applied  Linguistics  18/2. Lloyd, S. 1992. The Phonics Handbook (3rd edition). Chigwell, UK: Jolly Learning.


Nunan, D. 1994. ‘The role of the learner in the learning process’. Paper given at 28th  IATEFL International Conference, University of Brighton. Nunan, D. 2002. ‘An interview with  . . . David Nunan’. The Teachers and Educators  S IG  Newsletter  2002/3: 22–3. Willis, J. 1996. A Framework for Task-based Learning. London: Longman. The author 

James M. Bourke is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Language Education at the University of Brunei where he teaches courses in language awareness, grammar, phonology, and syllabusdesign. Hehaspublished numerousarticles on task-based learning, form-focused instruction, and communicative interactive techniques. His main research interest is ‘linguistic problemsolving’. Email: [email protected]

James M. Bourke




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