Semi-intelligent Design

I’ve just emerged from the pit of hell called DELTA Module 2 (more on that another time..) and I’m back in work about two weeks. Surprisingly, my DOS didn’t throw me straight back to the lions, instead calling on me to redesign our syllabus for levels A2 – C1.. In three weeks.. Alone.. Welcome Home!!

I suppose the first thing to talk about is what the old syllabus was like. We’re a big-ish school (~5-600 students) in Dublin that works with a lot of gap-year students from Latin America and Asia, and as such we need to have accreditation. The accreditaiton body dictates that these courses be 26-weeks long as that’s the length of time the students must study in order to get their visa – so far so good? Ok, so then we had a system where we would use 2  course books per level so each book would get ‘covered’ in 13 weeks. There’s assessment every 2 weeks and every 6 or 7 weeks there’s a ‘big test’ which gives students the chance to progress to the next level.

The books we were using were New English File and Outcomes. New English File has 7 units and Outcomes has 16. The syllabus was basically the table of contents divided up over the required number of weeks. There were a minimum of thought put into it and there were some days where we needed to cover 1 page and others where we needed to cover up to 6 pages!!! Our classes are 3 hours per day (90 minutes, 15 minutes break, 90 minutes). I think my DOS chose me to redesign them because I complained the most about them.

What I really want to talk about here is how different it is when you are constrained in this way by accreditation and the size of the school in terms of the course that you can design. I’ve done DELTA Module 3 and from the gospel according to Graves (2000) we all know that the first thing you do is assess your students’ needs, which leads to your aims and objectives and from there you develop an organising principle and off you go, building in your formative assessment as you go. In our case, we have over 500 students who enrol at different times and start every Monday into classes that never end, they simply return to the start of the cycle and go again. You can see why the theory gets thrown out the window in this case.

So our organising principle is to follow the order of things in the coursebook. Our objectives are to be able to do all the things in the book and to be ready to study the next book. Easy right? And that’s what I was asked to do. Fill in tables on a word document with page numbers and exercises and what have you. At least we changed to 1 coursebook only for 26 weeks at A2 and higher, which makes slightly more sense and at least provides a bit more time for teachers to supplement and maybe occasionally assess the needs of the humans in the same room of them and do something that will help them as individuals. We’ve also pushed assessment out to being once every 4 weeks – I’ll post a bit more about that another time, that’s what I’m working on this week.

Anyway, I think I’ve managed to do it in such a way that at least it wasn’t just copying and pasting the title of the unit and giving a page number. For each day I’ve tried to pick out what the main aims of the 2 page-spread in the book are and I’ve put them in. So instead of “Monday, Reading: John goes to the shop” you get something like “Reading for gist, reading for specific information, guessing meaning from context.” etc. I think it’s a slight improvement and it will certainly help those teachers who want to supplement by showing them exactly what skills/systems they should be dealing with.

This experience does highlight the massive gulf between what happens in theory and on CELTAs, DELTAs and M.A.s and what needs to happen in the real world where language schools are businesses and student bodies are not fixed. Where size dictates that courses must be robust rather than tailored, general rather than specific, and most importantly, easy to implement on large scales.

The anti-coursebook brigade will rail and moan, but pity the poor soul in your school who gets told to knock out a 26-week syllabus for every level in just 3 weeks. Module 2….. all is forgiven… take me back!!!



Graves, K. (2000) Designing Language Courses, Heinle & Heinle.


3 thoughts on “Semi-intelligent Design

  1. Hiya Liam.

    Glad I don’t have a DOS. I’d probably be shot for this but herr goes:

    Have a look at the book. What is utter tripe and/or looks good but never works. Tweak these to all hell, maybe mine the text/listening bits for unusual stuff.

    Instead of language points, go with tasks possibly based on function. I.e. not adjectives of personality but ‘Discussing together to choose an online language partner.’ Gives more scope to the good ones and the weaker ones can still contribute and sharpen up. It means that you don’t force the students into shoehorning language into conversation unnaturally.

    Good luck on the Delta. Give it some welly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marc,

      Thanks for the comment.. I get what you’re saying but that sounds to me like planning lessons. Teachers in my school are free to interpret the syllabus as they wish – they aren’t tied into doing ex1, ex 2 etc even though that’s what it says on the syllabus. They can SARS (select, adapt, reject, supplement) as much as they want. My aim with this syllabus was to make that process easier for them while still having a robust framework that will be accepted by the accreditation body.

      The rationale here is that if you’re using a coursebook from a big publisher, then they have done the work of making sure the material is suitable for a particular level etc. i.e. the accreditation body will believe that you know what you’re doing. Years ago we actually had lots of homemade materials in our syllabus and we failed the accreditation process as they had no confidence in our ability to make suitable materials… but that’s another story which has been hanging out in my drafts folder for a long time….

      Anyway, I wanted to ask about your suggestion of tasks rather than language points: If you only have tasks then what are your objectives – to be able to do the task? In this case, is the language used to complete the task irrelevant? How can we say what tasks are appropriate for which levels? If we take buying a hamburger as an example task, what would the difference be between an A1 student and a C1 student in terms of language required to complete the task? Do we get into grading tasks then? Just curious how you would justify this for a hypothetical accreditation body?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d grade according to planning time, complexity expected by listeners or interlocutors, etc.

        You’re right that the syllabus sounds like planning lessons but how teachers get the task done would be left to them.

        That accreditation body sounds ridiculous, mind. They might not have confidence in your school’s materials production but materials aren’t learning. Also, did they see samples?


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