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Language and Linguistics Compass 3/5 (2009): 1266–1283, 10.1111/j.1749-818x.2009.00154.

The Syllabus is Dead, Long Live the Syllabus: Thoughts

on the State of Language Curriculum, Content,
Language, Tasks, Projects, Materials, Wikis, Blogs
and the World Wide Web
Peter A. Shaw*
Monterey Institute of International Studies

In the 1990s, second and foreign language education entered the so-called post-method condition,
marking the end of the search for a global pedagogy applicable to all learning contexts. Just as lan-
guage pedagogy – the design and implementation of learning tasks – became flexible and localised,
so have corresponding curricular concepts and procedures followed suit, leading to the beginning
of a post-syllabus condition. Supported by developments in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language
Learning), the move to a learner-centred focus, and the deployment of authentic target language
texts and artefacts, language learning and teaching are becoming increasingly local, nimble, rele-
vant and specific. At the same time, the latest educational and communication technologies (wikis,
blogs, Skype, Second Life and the like) are having a strong impact on what constitutes the local in
terms of a particular learning community.

The quest for a unifying and globally relevant language teaching method might be said to
have officially ended with the paper, ‘‘The postmethod condition’’, by Kumaravadivelu
(1994). This work was subsequently complemented by ‘‘Towards a postmethod peda-
gogy’’ (Kumaravadivelu 2001), which was elaborated into the book, Beyond Methods,
again by Kumaravadivelu in 2003. In the intervening years, significant attention in the
field of language education has been paid to competing visions of the syllabus, to different
aspects of learner-centeredness, to the role and status of authentic (real world) materials
and, most recently, to the role of computer technology and the Internet. In this study,
I sketch these developments and propose that we are also approaching a post-syllabus condi-
tion, so that neither the content nor the procedures of a given language course are prede-
termined. Rather, they are shaped, on the one hand, by co-constructive, collaborative
procedures among teachers, students and other participants in the learning community;
and, on the other, by the available educational and communication technologies.
In other words, in some contexts, the traditional language syllabus is dead. It has been
replaced by looser, more flexible and resolutely temporary frameworks, which serve the
purposes of a given learning group and are promptly discarded the instant that commu-
nity disbands. It must be emphasised, however, that currently, in the great majority of
language learning and teaching situations, not only is the syllabus not defunct, but it also
is vital to the conduct of a coherent programme.
While methodology (pedagogy) and curriculum are closely related, it is helpful to sepa-
rate them while exploring historical trends, present realities and future possibilities.

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The Syllabus is Dead 1267

In what follows, therefore, the discussion will move back and forth between the two,
including related considerations for learning materials and the professional preparation of
language teachers. In the end, an account of a post-method, post-syllabus approach must
coherently unite all elements.

Clarifications: Target Language, Curriculum and Syllabus

Before proceeding, I want to clarify a couple of key terms. The first involves reference to
the target language (TL) and the context in which it is learned and taught. The two tra-
ditional major contexts have been recently renamed (Graves 2008): target language-removed
(roughly equivalent to the old foreign language or FL) and target language-embedded contexts
(second language or SL). For this purpose, I simply use TL to cover all situations where
learners are developing proficiency in a language that is not their mother tongue. The
second clarification involves the terms, syllabus and curriculum. While the two are some-
times treated as synonymous, the literature generally makes a distinction. From a general
education point of view, Posner (2004) lists seven common curriculum concepts: scope
and sequence, syllabus, content outline, standards, textbooks, course of study and planned
experiences. In language education terms, Johnson (1989) also emphasises that curriculum
is the wider concept, syllabus the narrower. He includes both ‘‘all the relevant decision
making processes of all the participants’’ and ‘‘the products ... for example policy docu-
ments, syllabuses, teacher-training programmes, teaching materials and resources, and
teaching and learning acts’’ (1). Johnson notes that the former is harder to describe and
assess. Again, syllabus is subsumed under the curricular umbrella.
Krahnke (1987:7) plays down the differences in his survey of syllabus types: ‘‘The dis-
tinction between curriculum and syllabus is not a major concern here. While a distinction
is usually assumed in the literature, it is rarely clear’’. However, he adds that syllabi are
usually regarded as more specific or concrete than curricula, while the latter may embrace
a number of the former. Breen (2001:151), in a later survey of syllabus design, begins
with this sharp distinction:
Any syllabus is a plan of what is to be achieved through teaching and learning. It is part of an
overall language curriculum ... which is made up of four elements: aims, content, methodology
and evaluation.
I would add that curriculum should also include the resources (instructional and support
staff, library, computer lab and the like). Crabbe (2003:10) offers a more concise general
account of curriculum as follows: ‘‘an organisation of learning opportunities, or means, for
achieving certain outcomes or ends’’. This suggests a fluidity and dynamism in curriculum
design which are echoed elsewhere: Graves (2000) adopts a systems approach to course
design and shows how processes are overlapping and interconnected. Carroll (2007:3)
similarly views curriculum as a complex of information gathering, decision-making,
implementation and outcomes in a particular setting. He compares top–down and
bottom–up design processes and underscores the value of the latter:
... curriculum innovations will succeed or fail according to the extent to which teachers in par-
ticular, and to some extent students, feel they are meaningfully involved in the process of
Graves (2008) also sees the teacher as a catalyst for curriculum change as the classroom
learning community interacts with the TL world, both actual and virtual. Curriculum is
consequently defined as the planning, implementation and evaluation of what is learned

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1268 Peter A. Shaw

as a coherent set of processes and content with specific and locally relevant purposes. In
such an emergent view of curriculum, the broader framework becomes paramount and
the concept of syllabus tends, as we shall see, to fade into oblivion.

The Historical Context: From Grammar to Communication

The teaching of SL or FL was structured for a long time by the rigid scaffolding of the
grammatical syllabus. The unit-to-unit progression from one grammatical rule (or struc-
ture) to the next, accompanied by an appropriate amount of new vocabulary, sustained
both deductive (the Grammar Translation Method) and inductive approaches (the Direct
Method, the Audio-Lingual Method or ALM), which dominated the twentieth-century
pedagogies. However, by 1970, parent fields had undergone significant changes as psy-
cholinguistics rejected behaviourism as an account of language learning, linguistics turned
away from structuralism to more sophisticated accounts of syntax and discourse and the
emerging Sociolinguistics began to offer data-based insights into language use and com-
munication in the real world. These significant shifts were echoed in language education
by a search for more communicative approaches and by a questioning of the role of
formal properties of the TL as the basis for instruction.
This upheaval appeared initially as two distinct cracks in the existing façade. From a
curricular point of view, alternatives to the grammatical syllabus were offered: David Wil-
kins was writing about the notional (or notional-functional) syllabus as early as 1972.
Wilkins’ 1976 book summarises his work. Other models followed (see Krahnke 1987, for
a concise survey): the situational syllabus, which catalogues the physical contexts for TL
use; various versions of a lexical syllabus (Willis 1990; Lewis 2001); a discourse syllabus
(McCarthy and Carter 2001); skill-based syllabi, basing each unit on a component of, say,
the reading or writing skills (Omaggio-Hadley 2000); the task-based syllabus, presenting a
sequence of activities, which ranged from the purely pedagogic to the academic to the
real world (Prabhu 1987; Van den Branden 2007); and content-based, where the focus
shifted from teaching the TL directly, to teaching a body of relevant subject matter
through the TL (Mohan 1984; Stryker and Leaver 1997; Met 1999; Kaspar 2000; Pally
2000; Jourdenais and Shaw 2005).
The second locus of change was in classroom pedagogy. As the prevailing methods
were called into question, a rapid outpouring of possible alternatives ensued. These
included: James Asher’s (1969, 1982) Total Physical Response (TPR); Tracy Terrell’s
(1982) Natural Approach (which incorporates TPR); Charles Curran’s (1976, 1982; also
Rardin 1977) Community Language Learning (CLL); Caleb Gattegno’s (1973, 1976)
Silent Way and Georgi Lozanov’s Suggestopedia (Racle 1975; Bancroft 1979; Lozanov
1979, 1982). After a rather intensive period of initial interest in these methods, however,
the absence of documented success and the recognition of severe limitations returned the
focus of the field to the promising but ill-defined approach known as Communicative
Language Teaching (CLT). Once this became established as a broad attempt to engage
learners in identifying and expressing meanings in relevant contexts, there arose a com-
plementary group of principles and procedures known initially as Consciousness Raising,
subsequently (and currently) as Language Awareness (LA). In this aspect of learning and
instruction, students are engaged, not in communication, but in examining how the TL
uses forms to express particular meanings in particular contexts.
In other words, by the turn of the century, the cutting edge of the field had reached,
in broad strokes, the following: in a particular unit of work, learners turn to a new topic
and are exposed to spoken and written TL texts in such a way that they are able to grasp

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both the overall significance and the key detailed meanings; they then engage with the
messages of this material through such speaking and writing activities as detailed compre-
hension tasks, problem-solving, discussions, analysis and offering their own personal inter-
pretations and reactions. Finally, they return to the TL texts and their own output and
examine the use of particular forms. If, for example, a particular written text is rich in
passive or subjunctive forms or in relative clauses, after it has been mined for the relevant
messages, it may be approached by first locating and identifying these forms and then
analysing why the speaker or writer makes particular formal choices to express particular
meanings in particular contexts (see Suzuki and Itagaki 2007, for an example).
Parallel to these developments in syllabus and pedagogy was a series of moves that
pushed language programmes to become more specific and relevant to the population of
learners. The first of these was Languages for Specific Purposes (LSP) with English (ESP)
leading the way (see Mackay and Palmer 1981 for an influential early account; Jordan
1997 for a helpful account of possibilities and resources; Orr 2002 for a dozen insightful
case studies, covering contexts as disparate as law and business, shipbuilding and brewing).
Specific purpose programmes were driven from the outset by needs assessment procedures
that outlined the objective and subjective needs of learners and often pointed to relevant
tasks and materials, which would be incorporated into the course design. The rapidity
with which other languages are catching up with English is apparent from a survey by
Murray (2007) indicating how many university programmes in the United States are
combining LSP courses with particular academic and professional specialisations. Examples
range from French and Italian for ballet and opera apprentices to Chinese and Interna-
tional Business, Spanish for Business and Tourism, Spanish for Health Professionals and
Arabic and Economics. The general principles behind this language–subject matter
integration in tertiary level curricula can be found at the ACTFL (American Council on
Teaching Foreign Languages) website (
The localisation of this process is exemplified by Davies (2006:3), who describes the
use of ‘‘teacher-designed class-specific questionnaires intended to obtain context-relevant
data from learners as an aid to better course provision’’. Davies emphasises that the focus
must be on an individual class, rather than the programme or institution, as that is where
data-based plans are implemented. The benefits of course-specific surveys include a more
cohesive course, more effective materials selection and enhanced learner-centeredness.
Second, investigation of language students’ learning strategies and various learning style
preferences (Oxford 1990) established two related needs: to recognise learners as different
one from another along a variety of dimensions and to accommodate this reality by
building variety and choice into the language curriculum (Tudor 1996).
Combining the contributions of LSP and the emphasis on learning styles and strategies
has produced a more learner-centered approach to language education. By focusing
closely on the wants, needs, preferences, purposes, interests and goals of their students,
language programmes have become more specifically and locally relevant. White
(2007:321) offers an updated account, listing features that might now be used to characte-
rise contemporary language learning: ‘‘lifelong, self-directed, relevant, authentic, global,
flexible, constructivist, negotiated, collaborative, virtual, international...’’. This variety is
then condensed into four key dimensions: the relevance of learner needs, interests and
goals to curricular decision-making; the responsiveness, or adaptability or flexibility,
required of language teachers in incorporating learner inputs; the commitment to co-
construction of knowledge by learners and teacher through meaningful interaction and
sustaining a culture of enquiry, in which students and teachers never stop exploring both
the TL and the most effective means for learning it. White then relates each dimension

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For Evaluation Only.
to current issues in technology-mediated instruction. In terms of relevance, for example,
a profile of learner needs will often feature using Web resources and participating in
online communities.
The tendency towards learner-centeredness has been accompanied, perhaps reinforced,
by a move towards authentic materials, defined broadly as spoken and written texts cre-
ated by native speakers for other native speakers and not to serve the purposes of those
learning the language (see Van Lier 1996; for a critical discussion of the core issues and
Gilmore 2007 for a helpful update). Again, technology mediation plays a key role, as the
Web provides instant access to a huge range of information sources, permitting students
to make personal choices about which topics to research and which resources to explore.
Most recently, in fact, language educators have been systematically exploring the possibili-
ties of computer technologies and the Internet, an examination that was initially tentative
(see Hyland and Hamp-Lyons 2002) but which has subsequently gathered impetus and
boldness, along with sophistication in analysing learner behaviours and learning outcomes
(Warschauer and Kern 2000; Belz 2003; White 2003; Holmberg et al. 2005; Belz and
Thorne 2006).
It must be stressed here that curriculum innovation is always challenging. Markee
(1997:172–80), reviewing the lessons from a case study in curricular innovation, derives
nine principles, including that developing new curriculum is a complex phenomenon;
curriculum change is an inherently messy, unpredictable process, which always takes
longer to institute than first anticipated; and it is very likely that proposals made by a
change agent will be misunderstood.
These trends combine to move language programmes away from rigid syllabi delivered
through published textbooks, towards flexible and nimble frameworks which maximise
relevance to learner needs and interests and involve students in identifying topics and
real-world resources. It must be emphasised, however, that there are a number of real-
world conditions which slow down, even completely impede, this movement. These
include: large class size, lack of resources (especially technology and Internet access, but
often more basic items as well), teachers with limited proficiency in the TL, teachers with
limited pedagogical training, low student motivation and standardised tests, in which stu-
dents’ performance has a great impact on their future academic or professional prospects.
It is safe to conclude, in fact, that the majority of SL or FL programmes in the world are
far from the post-method, post-syllabus conditions outlined in this study. Indeed, there is
considerable documentation (Holliday 1994; Byram and Fleming 1998; Littlewood 2007)
of the difficulties which continue to constraint the import of some form of CLT into
many language-learning communities. In a curricular version of Zeno’s Paradox, the
grammar-based, textbook-driven, heavily tested tortoise may never catch the self-deter-
mining, autonomous, technology-driven hare, who defies Aesop’s version by never sitting
still. From experience, I can attest that one of the more intriguing ironies of a career in
language teacher education is an involvement in coaching one and the other of these two

Methods and Pedagogy: How We Reached the Post-Method Era

Over at least the past century and a half, one might posit two broad traditions in language
learning and teaching (see Howatt 1984 for an excellent review of the facts and
Musumeci 1997 for a compelling account that the longer, broader view of the history of
language education reveals a more unified approach). One (see Figure 1) we may label
the Naturalist approach (examples are in green), which is based on a relatively

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Rationalist Naturalistic
tradition tradition

Dialogue-based approaches

The grammar-translation The direct

method method

The reading
1955 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Total physical
response Natural
Cognitive Community
code language

1980 situational Communicative
method language teaching

1990 Language awareness Notional Task- Content-

functional based based

Fig. 1. Two traditions of language teaching methods.

subconscious, effortless process of exposure to TL input under circumstances which ren-

der that input comprehensible to the learner. The Direct Method emerged in the latter
part of the nineteenth century as a specific instantiation of this idea and continues today,
often as a lively, private language school alternative (or supplement) to the more aca-
demic, effortful and conscious rigours of school language programmes. During the meth-
odological splintering of the 1970s, James Asher’s TPR and Tracy Terrell’s Natural
Approach grew from this same naturalistic soil and flourished briefly.
The Rationalist tradition (examples in red), in contrast, is based on a view of language
learning as a conscious, effortful endeavour in which formal rules are mastered, memor-
ised and then applied through manipulative tasks, such as translation (both into and out
of the TL) or completing sentences by filling in blanks. This deductive emphasis
dominated the Rationalist side of the street until the Chomsky revolution forced a
re-evaluation, and a rather awkward hybrid called Cognitive Code was proposed, but had
little impact before being supplanted by the more centrally inductive Consciousness
Raising (Rutherford 1987), supplanted by the more sophisticated LA movement
(Hawkins 1984; Donmall 1985; Bertoldi 1988; James and Garrett 1991; Van Lier 1995).
There are other versions of the distinction proposed in this study. Diller (1978), for
example, summarised the issues of the time in terms of an empirical choice (represented by
the ALM) versus the rationalist alternative (Grammar Translation). While this dichotomy

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1272 Peter A. Shaw

was certainly very meaningful in the 1960s and 1970s, Musumeci (1997:111), after a care-
ful historical survey, places the ALM in context as a ‘‘brief hiatus’’. In Figure 1, therefore,
ALM is bracketed in a separate, short-lived tradition with its own unique hue (blue).
By the early 1980s, it was possible to see that the Naturalistic ⁄ Rationalist distinction
was insufficient for explicating the range of alternatives being proffered. At this point,
language teaching methods could be categorised according to the central tenet, or the
crucial key to successful learning, and five such categories might be proposed:

• cognitive, where the central precept indicates the chosen model of conscious learning;
again, the Grammar Translation Method is the most common exemplar; others
included the Silent Way and Cognitive Code;
• behaviourist, where learning lies not in conscious, cognitive behaviours but in a stimu-
lus–response model, with massive repetitive practice with constant feedback; the parent
ALM gave rise to the Audio-Visual Method and a UK derivative known as the Struc-
tural-Situational Method (see Davies et al. 1975);
• humanistic, where the basic principles call for treating learners as individual human
beings with their own affective and cognitive profile, learning style preferences and
specifiable target needs; these ideas made significant contributions through Suggestope-
dia and CLL before being absorbed into CLT;
• comprehension-based, where central learning processes stress understanding of the input
over the productive skills; TPR, the Natural Approach and the Reading Method all fit
• communicative, culminating in the flagship CLT, which simultaneously caused a stirring
in curricular waters, producing syllabus frameworks such as notional-functional, situa-
tional and content-based.

As noted before, the short-lived expansion of the methodological menu provoked a great
deal of interest in language pedagogy (see Stevick 1976, 1980; Blair 1982; Oller and
Richard-Amato 1983; Larsen-Freeman 1986). When this began to recede, the outcome
might well have been to consolidate practice around CLT, with some elements from
other methods accommodated in subordinate roles. For example, the role of TPR
became largely confined to the early days and weeks of a language course, the period
when learners are not yet ready to produce the TL and are more comfortable responding
to input non-verbally. CLT, however, failed to proceed directly to a stage of maturity
and dominance.
One possible explanation is that interest now swung back to the nature of the optimal
communicative syllabus. Interest in the notional-functional syllabus waned as the content-
based revolution began and practitioners turned to the possibility that the communicative
language syllabus was not linguistic at all, but based on subject matter areas identified as
relevant to a particular learner population.
At the same time, one of the challenges for CLT was to incorporate four of these five
categories (the communicative, humanistic, comprehension-based and cognitive), leaving
behind only the discredited behaviourist approach. For example, in terms of humanistic
influences, while methods such as CLL and Suggestopedia left little in the way of usable
technique, their spirit and basic principle of the learner-as-person combined with the
activity menus of proponents such as Moskowitz (1978) to infuse CLT with the intent to
facilitate learners’ efforts to express in the TL their own ideas, opinions and feelings.
Kumaravadivelu (2003), in characterising the post-method condition, points to the
idealised nature of the theory, concepts and procedures in any method: there is no

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flexibility for adjusting to the needs and preferences of a given learning population. In
addition, multiple studies have confirmed that teachers who claim to base their practice
squarely on a particular method in fact follow neither the theoretical principles nor the
recommended classroom procedures. By the early 1990s, in fact, more and more teachers
were claiming to have adopted an eclectic approach, rather than following any one
method. This came in for some sharp criticism: Stern (1992:11), for example, declared
that the eclectic approach
offers no criteria according to which we can determine which is the best theory, nor does it
provide any principles by which to include or exclude features which form part of existing the-
ories or practices.
Leaving pedagogical decisions to the judgement of individual teachers is, for Kumarava-
divelu, too vague and broad to be a satisfactory solution.
The post-method condition, Kumaravadivelu (2003:33) suggests, leads to a search for
an alternative to methods, a search that is based on ‘‘location-specific, classroom-oriented
innovative strategies’’. This means much greater autonomy for individual teachers, who
must be prepared to adopt a reflective, self-critical approach to monitor the impact of
their practice and especially of their innovations. However, this autonomy is tempered by
a principled pragmatism, with teachers retaining an awareness of theory-practice relation-
ships as manifested in their teaching. Kumaravadivelu proposes to delineate the particular
possibilities of this pragmatism with a set of ten principles, or macrostrategies. These
range from general stipulations for conducting a language class (maximise learning oppor-
tunities, raise cultural consciousness), guidance for designing tasks (contextualise linguistic
input, integrate language skills) to learner-centered mandates (promote learner autonomy,
facilitate negotiated interaction). From each macrostrategy, Kumaravadivelu derives
lengthy menus of microstrategies, specific and concrete ideas for classroom practice.
For practitioners closest to the post-method, post-syllabus condition described in this
study, even this principled framework and rich activity menu may be too constraining.
There is a tradition in our field (starting, perhaps, with Fanselow 1987) of encouraging
language teachers to experiment, for example, by making small pedagogical adjustments
and then observing the outcomes. This has become the emergent pedagogy as seen, in the
case of the writing class, with Skorczeweski’s (2005) focus on ‘‘teaching one moment at a
time’’ and in the work of Ganley and Sawhill (2007). I return to this thread next; first,
although, parallel developments in the curriculum must be sketched.

Curriculum Developments: The Search for a Communicative Syllabus

As long ago as 1973, it was suggested that the more significant changes in approach and
practice would be located in the nature of the TL curriculum (what is taught), not in the
pedagogy (how we teach). A concise and accurate account of this is provided by Wilkins
(1976), who introduced the important distinction between synthetic and analytic types of
syllabus. The former is the building block approach, with new pieces of the target wall
or building being introduced one at a time, examined in isolation and then added to the
growing totality. An analytic syllabus, in contrast, permits learners to see large sections of
the target discourse (whole texts, conversations, stories and so forth) and to understand
the overall significance before focusing on discrete elements, which are always examined
in the context of the whole.
After the various experiments previously mentioned (notional-functional, situational
and the like), the most promising alternative to emerge was content-based instruction

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1274 Peter A. Shaw

(CBI; Mohan 1984; Met 1991, 1999; Stryker and Leaver 1997; Kaspar 2000; Pally 2000).
At its simplest, this means that units of work are primarily labelled not with FL categories
(The present perfect or Prepositions of place) or situations (At the airport) or speech acts
(Making requests or Asking for clarification), but with subject matter topics. Thus, for
example, a low-intermediate Spanish class might approach a geography module called
The geography of Mexico (or Spain, for students in Europe). Units in this syllabus would
have predictable themes (physical features, climate, main population centres, etc.) and be
supported by authentic materials, including maps, charts and tables of data.
In some cases, the TL is the medium of instruction and mastery of the content is cru-
cial (Met 1994, 1999; Genesee 1994 at:
epr11.htm; Cummins 2000 at:
html). In others, the content is a vehicle for enhancing TL mastery but subordinate as an
outcome (Lafayette and Buscaglia 1982; Stryker and Leaver 1997; Pessoa et al. 2007;
Grim 2008). In yet others, the position is more balanced (Shaw 1997; and for a valuable
survey and examples, see the CoBalTT website at:
modules.html). Whatever the content ⁄ language balance, I believe that all CBI approaches
have a lot in common, features which Jourdenais and Shaw (2005:10) tried to capture in
this extended definition:
The mastery of new subject matter and the provision of comprehensible L2 input and output
through cumulative tasked-based interaction sequences in academic style and driven largely by
authentic materials, such that learners’ language, academic, real life and learning skills are fos-
tered in a positive, co-operative, and supportive environment.
Clearly, this brings together both curricular and pedagogical features, neatly capturing the
intersection between key features of CLT, on the one hand, and a meaning-driven sylla-
bus on the other.
As noted before, one important version of content-based language learning is the
immersion programme, which has spread from its beginnings in Canada in the 1960s to
many contexts around the world (see Johnson and Swain 1997 for an array of case stud-
ies). In their introduction, Johnson and Swain point to features central to all such pro-
grammes: exposure to the L2 is confined to the classroom, where it is the medium of
instruction, in a curriculum that deliberately parallels the local L1 curriculum; overt sup-
port for the L1 is provided as the aim is for additive bilingualism – teachers, for example,
are bilingual and the classroom culture is that of the local community. On the other
hand, these programmes vary greatly along other dimensions: they may begin as early as
pre-school or as late as high school or even college.
One way to summarise these developments is the so-called ‘‘5 Cs’’, which represent
the Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the twenty-first century, created in
1999 by a consortium of foreign language education groups headed by the American
Council for Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL at: http://www.globalteachinglearning.
com/standards/5cs.shtml provides a clear summary). These five pillars, intended to
describe the recommended content for learning world languages, are: communication,
cultures, connections, comparisons and communities. Given the events of the preceding
two decades, it is not surprising to encounter communication and culture in this list,
and ‘‘comparisons’’ represent the need for students to compare and contrast languages
and cultures, uncovering patterns and making predictions about verbal and non-verbal
behaviours, resulting in a better understanding of not only the TL and culture but also
of the L1. More summoning are connections and communities. The former calls for TL
instruction to be integrated with other subject areas to produce theme-based units and

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For Evaluation Only.
lessons. The latter envisages learning moving beyond the classroom into available multi-
lingual ⁄ multicultural communities, whether local enough to be reached by field trips, or
the wider world, to be engaged through e-mail, web-based activities or exchange

A Note on Tasks and their Place in the SL Curriculum

The origins of task-based language learning lie in the 1980s and attempt to formalise
CLT by building clear links between the language classroom and the TL world beyond.
Krahnke (1987:58) puts it this way: ‘‘The defining characteristic of task-based content is
that it uses activities that the learners have to do for noninstructional purposes outside of
the classroom as opportunities for language learning ... Tasks are a way of bringing the
real world into the classroom’’. Over the last twenty years, a variety of accounts, many
based on SL acquisition research, have offered support for an array of individual tasks and
taxonomies: Lee (1995), for example, argues for discussion tasks as prime exemplars of
communicative tasks, while Willis (1996) is more concerned with generating meaningful
task sequences (see Skehan 1998 for the SL acquisition (SLA) dimensions and Skehan
2003 for a valuable survey of the whole picture). In general, SLA researchers have been
concerned with exploring and explicating individual tasks; teachers and pedagogy spe-
cialists have been exploring different types of tasks and how they might be sequenced to
create effective lessons and units (Legutke and Thomas 1991).
Vigorous discussion has continued into this century (Bygate et al. 2001). Lee (2006:32)
offers this bottom line: ‘‘The consensus is that task-based instruction views language as a
means to an end. Beyond that, variation characterizes the definitions’’. Lee then provides
a definition that
is offered within an instructional context and is, therefore, a pedagogically logical definition of
task. A task is (1) a classroom activity or exercise that has (a) an objective attainable only by the
interaction among participants, (b) a mechanism for structuring and sequencing interaction, and
(c) a focus on meaning exchange; (2) a language learning endeavor that requires learners to
comprehend, manipulate, and ⁄ or produce the TL as they perform some set of work plans.
For Van den Branden (2007:1), tasks represent ‘‘an approach to language education in
which students are given functional tasks that invite them to focus primarily on meaning
exchange and to use language for real-world, non-linguistic purposes’’. To such target
tasks are juxtaposed learning tasks to provide a balance between meaning and form. Willis
and Willis (2007) also continue to contrast focus on form and focus on meaning in
discussing tasks. They note the various definitions of task available and seem to prefer
Skehan’s (1998) account in which a task is an activity with characteristics including the
primacy of meaning, learners have opportunities to express their own ideas, there is a
relevance to comparable real-world activities and a clear outcome.
A study of proposed task typologies suggests a strong link with work in general educa-
tion. I see much in common between, say, the task categories in Willis (1996) and the
work of Bloom, whose taxonomy of six levels of cognitive activity has been revised by
Anderson et al. (2001). The comparison is offered in Figure 2, and while not exact, sug-
gests to me that the language teacher can learn from our colleagues in other subject areas
about describing and sequencing effective learning tasks – just as we can learn about
sequencing topics in a content-based syllabus.
It might arguably be a strength of the task-based approach that it blurs the traditional
distinction between syllabus and pedagogy because both are defined in terms of task.

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Revised Bloom’s taxonomy Willis (1996) task types
Remember Listing

Understand Ordering and sorting

Apply Comparing
Analyze Problem solving
Evaluate Sharing personal experiences
Create Creative tasks

Fig. 2. Comparison of a task typology with Bloom’s taxonomy.

Willis and Willis (2007) stress that accurate syllabus design is based on needs assessment
covering both tasks and topics. Two basic questions are asked: For what do learners need
to use the TL? What topics do learners want to learn about? This suggests to me, though,
that the syllabus is more accurately described in terms of content, while units and lessons
are built from a relevant range of appropriate tasks.
To grasp the possible wider palette of task types, we must return for a moment to LA.
Borg (1994) characterised LA as methodology by describing LA-oriented tasks, including
suggestions for language teacher training. Basically, LA pedagogy aims to engage the lear-
ner with the TL, describing (and not prescribing) formal features of the TL through a
process of discovery, and to have learners reflect on TL use in a variety of domains
(social, cognitive, affective and the like). In a useful summary of recent developments,
Svalberg (2007:292) notes
In general, approaches and techniques which make use of or engender conscious knowledge
and which stimulate engagement with the language in a specific context, within a constructivist
framework, are consistent with LA pedagogy.
Thus, tasks in the rationalist tradition can complement the more naturalistic communica-
tive type to provide learners with a balanced learning experience.
A simple dichotomy, however, whether communicative vs. awareness raising or target
vs. learning, conceals the true complexities of what is available to language teachers and
learners. A clear expression of the need for more categories of task comes from Little-
wood (2004, 2007), who proposes five categories:

1. non-communicative learning (e.g. grammar exercises)

2. pre-communicative language practice (e.g. question-and-answer practice where the
teacher asks questions to which the answers are already known
3. communicative language practice (e.g. information gap tasks)
4. structured communication (e.g. structured role-plays)
5. authentic communication (e.g. problem-solving tasks),

with the role of meaning increasing from the weakest in type 1 to the strongest in type
A recent contribution which I regard of great value in establishing a clear and compre-
hensive task typology is a pair of articles by Crabbe (2003, 2007). The first (2003:21)
combines the notion of quality in language education with the first of Kumaravadivelu’s
macrostrategies, maximising learning opportunities, suggesting that the latter might be
unpacked into seven ‘‘opportunity categories’’. These are: input, output, interaction,

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feedback, rehearsal, language understanding and learning understanding. The second
(2007) takes the further step of proposing that the full value of a particular task can be
assessed by examining how many opportunity categories are invoked. This leads to the
The primary purpose of a curriculum is to provide a range of learning opportunities. . . . and
to facilitate the take-up of those opportunities in order to achieve specified goals.
The bottom line is this: irrespective of exactly how many types of tasks there are, they
nevertheless represent the best means at our disposal for structuring units and lessons in
language education. Eventually, SLA research may tell us the optimal combination of spe-
cific tasks. As a practitioner, however, I relish the opportunity to work with a group of
learners to identify appropriate tasks and to combine them in meaningful sequences for
the local context.

The Role of Technology in the Death of the Language Syllabus

At this point, while the reader may not find particularly fatal the catalogue of factors con-
spiring against the formal language syllabus, the accumulation is surely considerable: idea-
lised methodological frameworks giving way to pragmatic principles interpreted and
applied under specific, local conditions; the replacement of lock-step methodological pro-
cedures with a flexible menu of communicative, reflective and awareness-raising tasks;
the locating of language content as a post-communication component of authentic input
and output, subject to subsequent exploration and analysis; the LSP emphasis on meeting
learner needs and matching interests with relevant content, tasks and materials; the trend
towards learner-centeredness, autonomy and life-long learning; the stress on learning
opportunities in communities beyond the classroom; the replacement of the textbook
with multiple, multimedia resources and the value of a lightly specified framework, pro-
viding a nimble flexibility for the learning community to react to unfolding events both
in the classroom and in the world beyond (Kasumi and Rosen 2007).
Let me match this general list with a concrete example. A group of Chinese journalists
working in the English language print and online media are in California for an intensive
programme of study, focused largely on improving their writing and translating skills.
The curriculum includes a course in American culture and institutions, for which there is
no pre-existing syllabus. An ad hoc needs assessment reveals considerable interest in,
among other topics, the presidential election, now reaching its climax. Exploration begins
with candidate websites, video clips from the party conventions and print media accounts
of campaign events and trends. Visits to local party headquarters allow interactive ques-
tion-and-answer sessions with party faithful and the collection of campaign literature, to
be studied back in the classroom. Daily conversations are fuelled by a steady input of
newspaper and magazine articles, audio clips (radio, Internet), video clips (TV, Internet),
guest speakers and field trips. Reflection and analysis generate a glossary of technical
terms and a lengthy menu of concepts and issues, all identified and organised by the stu-
dents and which are exploited in the students’ written and spoken discussions. This sylla-
bus is rich, relevant and unique: the same sequence of resources and activities will never
again be assembled. It lives and dies with this group of learners in this context at this
point in time.
One paragraph in the obituary of the language syllabus is being written by Barbara
Ganley and Barbara Sawhill (2007:4), who see a world where everything and everyone is
interconnected and pose the following questions:

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What tensions present themselves in the classroom when we invite into our teaching spaces the
user-centric, social software tools our learners are already using to communicate, collaborate
and play with their peers? What possibilities and what impediments are created in this highly
participatory, creative, ‘mashed up’, hyper-networked world that parallels, encircles and inter-
connects with our face-to-face teaching space? How is our teaching transformed when we
engage with each other and the world without boundaries, borders or hierarchies?
I quote these questions in full because of the compelling juxtaposition of the traditional
‘‘classroom ⁄ face-to-face teaching space’’ with the various characterisations of the huge
potential of the twenty-first century universe of virtual learning. Ganley and Sawhill also
remind us, in a deliberate echo of hooks (1994), of the tremendous difficulty for teachers
of changing one’s practice; of how much easier it is to talk about new ideas and experi-
mental practice than to actually engage in the disruptions of real change.
The challenge of the post-syllabus world lies not just in incorporating new technolo-
gies or switching to new online formats; the best of our existing practice must be
conserved and integrated. Ganley and Sawhill (2007:5) argue strongly that the ‘‘traditional
literacies of critical reading, thinking and communication’’ must be accommodated in the
‘‘emerging literacies of collaboration, online communication and multimedia navigation’’.
This is illustrated by a series of examples of student blogs, how individual learners use
multimedia tools to express their ideas and interests and how responses from around the
world lead to conversations that ‘‘fling open the doors and windows of our isolated class-
room environments’’. At the heart of blogging is the traditional practice of reflective
writing; it permits connectivity and recycling with the student’s own previous writing; it
enables meaningful exchanges with oneself, with classmates and with the teacher. The
true power, however, lies in the open blog’s flexibility and accessibility. Ganley and
Sawhill (2007:10) catalogue the many possibilities from the Web 2.0 catalogue: images,
video clips, podcasts, digital stories, interactive timelines and links to images and texts
elsewhere on the web. ‘‘Learning objects of all sorts’’, they conclude, ‘‘suited to learner
goals, skills, needs and preferences can easily be integrated into the blogging class’’. In the
classroom (the examples are drawn from Spanish courses), once students have learned to
use the blog, the focus of discussion is not the TL or the technology, but the content of
what students are presenting and what readers around the world have contributed. Formal
language issues are largely addressed in subsequent reflection and analysis, through peer
interactions or one-on-one sessions with the instructor.

Instructional Materials in Language Lessons: The Meaning of Authenticity

The call for authentic materials is not new. Gilmore (2007) quotes Henry Sweet’s
(1899:177) diatribe against ‘‘artifical’’ materials, which ‘‘tend to cause incessant repetition
of certain grammatical constructions, certain elements of vocabulary, certain combinations
of words to the almost total exclusion of others...’’. Clarke (1989) provides a detailed nar-
rative of the events following Allwright’s (1979:173) categorical imperative requiring
teachers in the English for Academic Purposes programme under his supervision to ‘‘use
no materials, published or unpublished, actually conceived or designed as materials for
language learning’’. Much was made of different shades of authenticity: of interaction, of
task, of situation, of assessment. Gilmore (2007:98), rightly in my view, brings the con-
versation back to the basic question: What are we trying to achieve with classroom materials?
His response: ‘‘... the goal is to produce learners who are able to communicate effectively
in the TL of a particular speech community’’. To attain this goal of communicative com-
petence, Gilmore proposes that ‘‘teachers are entitled to use any means at their disposal,

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regardless of the provenance of the materials or tasks and their relative authenticity or
contrivance’’. Again, this permits the flexibility for a given programme to assemble a
uniquely relevant curriculum for a given population of learners.
Nonetheless, the drawbacks and limitations of published materials are well established.
Waugh and Fonseca-Greber (2002:126) point to the ‘‘large gulf between . . . the authen-
tic spoken language and the language we teach’’, in a study which demonstrates the reali-
ties of the former from analyses of large corpora. A comprehensive review of eight
current adult English as a Foreign Language courses (Masuhara et al. 2008), while
acknowledging certain strengths (‘‘. . . the move towards stimulating more personal
responses from the learners, . . . attempts to stimulate real conversation, . . . the realism
of many of the audio-visual components . . .’’), call for more flexibility:
In our view, what teachers want are not prescriptions, but good texts, advice, and suggestions
so that they can personalize, localize and adapt the global coursebooks to suit the learners in
their classroom (Masuhara et al. 2008:311, my emphasis).
Numerous alternatives to inauthentic materials have been presented in the literature:
examples include: Washburn (2001), arguing for the value of situation comedies for learn-
ing pragmatic language use; Fluitt-Dupuy (2001), on teaching argumentative writing
through film; Abbott (2002), laying out a variety of uses for various genres of music and
Herron et al. (1999), describing a video-based approach to the TL and culture. These will
doubtless continue to exist alongside those made available by Web 2.0 tools and the tech-
nologies yet to come.

Implications for Language Teachers’ Training and Professional Development

The traditional patterns of pre- and in-service preparation for language teachers involved
establishing and then expanding a pedagogical repertoire, which was then applied to
existing curricular components – syllabi, textbooks, other materials and tests. Practice was
tightly bound to quite narrowly defined theories and concepts of language and learning.
In Figure 3, we see a different picture. While various other sources are available to
inform and enrich the language teacher’s approach, the basic structure (the purple path-
way of pedagogical practice) involves the practitioner in assembling a relevant set of prin-
ciples, from which, under local constraints (needs, interests, goals, resources), are derived
guidelines for practice that directly inform the classroom approach, dictating which items
appear on the task menu, what content, materials and technological resources are available
as options for students to choose.
The localised practitioner continues professional development both by observing and
reflecting upon learning outcomes and by conducting small-scale, classroom-based
research projects. In both cases, the resulting insights are fed back into the system,
expanding or adjusting the instructional repertoire.
Before proceeding to a sketch of possible future developments, I want to emphasise
again, first, that different sectors of the SL ⁄ FL education field are at very different stages of
development; second, that the best SL ⁄ FL curricula are, to use a phrase from anthropologist
Clifford Geertz, ineluctably local and third, that the operationalisation of ‘‘local’’ is signifi-
cantly impacted by computer technologies and the Internet. That said, there is an exciting
future in language education in which learning communities (teachers, learners and their
network) move fluidly back and forth among assessing needs, identifying interests and
goals, selecting topics and materials, setting corresponding task menus, reflecting upon
learning processes and raising awareness of TL and culture features. In this restless seascape,

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1280 Peter A. Shaw

Coherent principled
General learning
Research theory
Localised needs
& educational

[task menu +
local resources] Reflection
Action and
research observation



Fig. 3. A model for professional practice and development in language education. Towards the post-method and
post-syllabus era.

syllabi arise from the richly infested waters, flourish for a time and then sink back beneath
the waves to be replaced by the next. The syllabus is dead; long live the syllabus.

Short Biography
Peter Shaw is a language teacher, teacher educator, curriculum specialist and textbook
author, and has worked in Nigeria, Mexico and, most recently, California. He is cur-
rently professor of Educational Linguistics in the MATESOL ⁄ MATFL programme at the
Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, where he works on developing
new concepts and procedures for needs assessment, curriculum design and instruction.
This practical work in turn informs his research and scholarly interests in SL curriculum
and pedagogy. Professor Shaw holds a BA in Philosophy from Oxford University, an
MA in Linguistics from Reading University and a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the
University of Southern California.

*Correspondence address: Peter A. Shaw, TESOL ⁄ TFL Programme, Graduate School of Language and Educational
Linguistics, Monterey Institute of International Studies, 460 Pierce Street, Monterey, CA 93940, USA. E-mail:

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