Syllabus Design For Teachers

Introduction and overview
Syllabus design is concerned with the selection, sequencing and justification of the content of the curriculum. Traditional approaches to syllabus developed were concerned with selecting lists of linguistic features such as grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary as well as experiential content such as topics and themes. These sequenced and integrated lists were then presented to the methodologist, whose task it was to develop learning activities to facilitate the learning of the prespecified content.

In the last twenty years or so a range of alternative syllabus models have been proposed, including a task-based approach. In this piece I want to look at some of the elements that a syllabus designer needs to take into consideration when he or she embraces a task-based approach to creating syllabuses and pedagogical materials.

Questions that I want to explore include: What are tasks? What is the role of a focus on form in language learning tasks? Where do tasks come from? What is the relationship between communicative tasks in the world outside the classroom and pedagogical tasks? What is the relationship between tasks and language focused exercises?

Task-based syllabuses represent a particular realization of communicative language teaching. Instead of beginning the design process with lists of grammatical, functional-notional, and other items, the designer conducts a needs analysis which yields a list of the target tasks that the targeted learners will need to carry out in the ‘real-world’ outside the classroom. Examples of target tasks include:

Taking part in a job interview.
Completing a credit card application.
Finding one’s way from a hotel to a subway station.
Checking into an hotel.
Any approach to language pedagogy will need to concern itself with three essential elements: language data, information, and opportunities for practice. In the rest of this piece I will look at these three elements from the perspective of task-based language teaching.

Language Data
By language data, I mean samples of spoken and written language. I take it as axiomatic that, without access to data, it is impossible to learn a language. Minimally, all that is needed to acquire a language is access to appropriate samples of aural language in contexts that make transparent the relationship between form, function and use.

In language teaching, a contrast is drawn between “authentic” and “non-authentic” data.
Authentic data are samples of spoken or written language that have not been specifically written for the purposes of language teaching. “Non-authentic” data are dialogues and reading passages that HAVE been specially written.

Here are two conversations that illustrate the similarities and differences between authentic and non-authentic data. Both are concerned with the functions of asking for and giving directions. I needn’t spell out which is which, because it is obvious.

Conversation 1
A: Excuse me please. Do you know where the nearest bank is?
B: Well, the city bank isn’t far from here. Do you know where the main post office is?
A: No, not really. I’m just passing through.
B: Well, first go down this street to the traffic light.
A: OK.
B: Then turn left and go west on Sunset Boulevard for about two blocks. The bank is on your right, just past the post office.
A: All right. Thank you.
B: You’re welcome.

Conversation 2
A: How do I get to Kensington Road?
B: Well, you go down Fullarton Road …
A: … what, down Old Belair Road and around …?
B: Yeah. And then you go straight …
A: past the hospital?
B: Yeah, keep going straight, past the racecourse to the roundabout. You know the big roundabout?
A: Yeah.
B: And Kensington Road’s off to the right.
A: What, off the roundabout?
B: Yeah.
A: Right.

Proponents of task-based language teaching have argued for the importance of incorporating authentic data into the classroom, although much has been made of the fact that authenticity is a relative matter, and that as soon as one extracts a piece of language from the communicative context in which it occurred and takes it into the classroom, one is “de-authenticating” it to a degree. However, if learners only ever encounter contrived dialogues and listening texts, the task of learning the language will be made more difficult.

The reality is, that in EFL contexts, learners need both authentic AND non-authentic data. Both provide learners with different aspects of the language.

A Test Question for Grammarians

On pronouns and possessive antecedents.
It’s rare for a point of English grammar to feature on the front page of a newspaper, but on 14 May a dispute over a subtle issue was so reported in the Washington Post.

In the USA, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Tests), for high school students. A question in a recent test caused the problem. Try it yourself. Is there a grammatical error in this sentence: “Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured”?

My guess is that the great majority of readers will not be able to find an error; I would certainly mark it as grammatically correct, if stylistically poor. So did a small majority (53%) of those who took the test last October. All the experts who reviewed the test before it was issued—some 30 altogether, the article reports—also said it was grammatically impeccable and that the right answer was to mark it as such.

However, Kevin Keegan, a high-school journalism teacher, argued the answer was wrong. After months of dispute, and consultation with an outside panel of experts, the ETS has deleted the question and re-scored the test.

So what’s wrong with the sentence? Mr Keegan says that it’s not correct for a pronoun (her in the sentence) to refer back to a noun in the possessive case (Toni Morrison’s). He would insist that the sentence be rewritten.

Many of the linguists who have since debated the subject on various lists have never heard of this rule. However, it does appear in a number of current American style guides, including The Penguin Handbook and The Scribner Handbook For Writers. More often, grammar books say nothing about it, which suggests that they don’t acknowledge the rule exists. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (regarded as a dangerously permissive work by conservative grammarians) is a rare public opponent of the rule. It says that “This sort of logic … does little more than impose an unnecessary burden on the writer” and argues that a type of notional agreement is occurring that makes the usage legitimate.

Certainly, there’s no ambiguity in the sense. If somebody says to you, “My neighbour’s wife left him”, or “John’s mother loves him” (both of which would be outlawed by the rule) you understand the meaning at once. Indeed, you will find it next to impossible to rephrase these sentences elegantly and without repeating yourself. (“John’s mother loves John”? Hardly. That’s what pronouns are for, after all.) The construction has been used by good writers for centuries. In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote: “It was Mr Squeers’s custom to call the boys together and make a sort of report, after every half-yearly visit to the metropolis, regarding the relations and friends he had seen”. And another example from an impeccable source: “The writer’s colleagues in the Department of English in Cornell University have greatly helped him in the preparation of his manuscript” (William Strunk, The Elements of Style, from the 1918 edition at Project Bartleby).

The problem really comes down to sense versus logic. The formal approach of the rule treats such sentences as though they were something akin to a computer program, which has to be correct in all particulars or it will not work. This is the view of what is sometimes called rather pejoratively “traditional grammar”, which is ultimately based on Latin models in which case agreement is important. Modern linguists prefer to work using concepts such as discourse analysis, in which the topic is clearly Toni Morrison, and it is legitimate for a pronoun to refer back to this implied topic. Also, “Toni Morrison’s genius” can be rewritten as “The genius of Toni Morrison”, which makes the relationship obvious. This conforms to the common-sense view of the way English works. You can tell this is really the nub of the problem, since Mr Keegan is reported as arguing at one point that the exam wasn’t testing whether sentences were clear but whether they were correct.

The consensus among the linguists who have written about this since the newspaper article appeared is that the supposed rule is daft and that it’s a legacy of attempts by grammarians of earlier times to impose a Latin-like structure on our language by diktat, without considering the way people actually speak it. However, Mr Keegan made one point which is incontrovertible: the rule exists, and some instructors insist on it (as Mr Keegan does), so that it’s unfair to include a question in a test when teachers disagree about the right answer. This argument seems to have been the one that finally convinced the ETS to change its mind.

One contributor to the American Dialect Society discussion on the issue summed matters up thus: “The high school sophomore who is ready to ponder the ambiguities of a possessive case noun serving as an antecedent does not exist”. That goes for most of us.

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