Choice of the unit of analysis in syllabus design is crucial for all aspects of a language teaching program. A variety of units, including word, structure, notion, function, topic, and situation, continue to be employed in synthetic, Tape A, syllabuses. While each is relevant for analyses of the target language and its use, native like linguistic elements find little support as meaningful acquisition units from a language learner`s perspective. Task has more recently appeared as the unit of analysis in three analytic, (primarily) Type B, alternatives: procedural, process, and task syllabuses. Each of these has certain limitations, too, but when the task syllabus is combined with a focus on form in task-based language teaching, the task receives more support in second language acquisition research as a viable unit around which to organize language teaching and learning opportunities.
Three new, task-based syllabus types appeared in the 1980s: (a) the procedural syllabus, (b) the process syllabus, and (c) the task syllabus. They are distinguishable from most earlier syllabus types by the fact that part of their rationale derives from what is known about human learning in general and/ or second language learning in particular rather than, as is the case with lexical, structural, notional, functional, and relational syllabuses, primarily from an analysis of language or language use. In addition, while differing from one another in important ways, all three reject linguistic elements (such as word, structure, notion, or function) as the unit of analysis and for some conception of task. Despite their considerable potential, they are not yet well known outside specialist circles and, perhaps for that reason, have not received the testing and investigation that they deserve. In this paper we present and contrast these three approaches to task-based syllabus design and argue that the third approach, the task syllabus employed in task-based language teaching, in particular, holds special promise.
Syllabus types can be divided into two superordinate classes, synthetic and analytic, although it may be more accurate to view synthetic and analytic as two points on a continuum rather than as a strict dichotomy (Wilkins, 1976). Synthetic syllabuses segment the target language into discrete linguistic items for presentation one at a time:
Different parts of language are taught separately and step by step so that acquisition is a process of gradual accumulation of parts until the whole structure of language has been built up.... At any one tome the learner is being exposed to a deliberately limited sample of language.
Synthetic, that is, refers to the learner`s role:
The learner`s task is to re-synthesize the language that has been broken down into a large number of small pieces with the aim of making his [sic] learning task easier. (Wilkins, 1976, p.2)
The synthetic syllabus relies on learner`s assumed ability to learn a language in parts (e.g., structures and functions) which are independent of one another, and also to integrate, or synthesize, the pieces when the time comes to use them for communicative purposes. Lexical, structural, notional, and functional syllabus are synthetic. Although they need not be, so also are most so-called topical and situational syllabuses, for examination of teaching materials shows that topics and situations have traditionally been used as vehicles for structural syllabuses.
Analytic syllabuses offer the learner target language samples which, while they may have been modified in other ways, have not been controlled for structure or lexis in the traditional manner.
Updating Wilkens` definition a little, analytic syllabuses are those which present the target language whole chunks at a time, without linguistic interference or control. They rely on (a0 the learners` assumed ability to perceive regularities in the input and induce rules (or to form new neural networks underlying what looks like rule-governed behavior), and/or (b) the continued availability to learners of innate knowledge of linguistic universals and the ways language can vary, knowledge which can be reactivated by exposure to natural samples of the L2. Procedural, process, and task syllabuses are all examples of the analytic syllabus type: situational, notional, and functional. Notions and functions are clearly linguistic units, however, isolation of which in practice always results in a synthetic syllabus, such that exercises practicing requests or apologies replace exercises on relative clauses or the present perfect.
The analytic/synthetic distinction is partially reflected in a second classification, whereas Wilkins` categories turn on differences in the way input and learner interact, White`s conceptualization is broader, capturing differences in two general approaches to course design, instruction, language learning, and evaluation.
Type A syllabuses focus on what is to be learned: the L2. They are interventionist. Someone preselects and predigests the language to be taught, dividing it up into small pieces, and determining learning objectives in advance of any consideration of who the learners may be or how languages are learned. Type A syllabuses, White points out, are thus external to the learner, other-directed, determined by authority, set the teacher as decision maker, treat the subject matter of instruction as important, and asses success and failure in terms of achievement or mastery.
Type B syllabuses, on the other hand, focus on how the language is to be learned. They are noninterventionist. They involve no artificial preselection or arrangement of items and allow objectives to be determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners after they meet, as a course evolves. They are thus internal to the learner, negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, emphasize the process of learning rather than the subject matter, and assess accomplishment in relationship to learners` criteria for success.
As will become clear, in addition to being analytic, all task-based syllabus types focused on in this paper are primarily Type B in nature: Each allows both language and task to be negotiated in the classroom. Procedural and task syllabuses do have one Type A characteristic, however, for each makes an initial specification in substantive terms of the kinds of tasks learners will work on before teachers and students ever meet. That is to say, they specify the target tasks learners ultimately need to be able to handle, and then allow the tasks teachers and learners work on in the classroom, that is, the pedagogic task, to be negotiated. Process syllabuses, conversely, are Type B thoroughbreds; they allow negotiation of language and task and, in theory at least, place no constraints on the tasks chosen.
Every syllabus needs some unit around which to organize lessons and teaching materials. A case for tasks as the unit of analysis may be made on the basis of the problems with potential alternatives and/or on the merits of task itself. In this section, we will briefly consider the problems with word, structure, notion, function, topic, and situation. Since the rationale for task, as well as its definition, varies among advocates of procedural, process, and task syllabuses, we will postpone consideration of the merits (and problems) until we examine the task-based approaches themselves.
Syllabus designers who choose a linguistic element-word, structure, notion, or function-as the organizational unit simultaneously commit to a synthetic, Type A, syllabus. They sometimes attempt to disguise the underlying focus on isolated linguistic forms by avoiding overt drills in the teaching materials that embody the syllabus and instead, while ostensibly dealing with a topic, situation, or most recently task, seed dialogues and texts with the linguistic item of the day. This approach is notorious, however, for producing stilted samples of the target language-artificial because they are written to conform to a set of linguistic specifications supposedly defining «levels of proficiency», and so do not reflect how people speak or write the language concerned. Variants of this position include advocacy of tasks as carriers, or classroom practice devices, for traditional syllabus items, and the use of pedagogic tasks that are either likely or guaranteed to elicit particular structures.
Beyond the lack of authenticity, synthetic, Type A, syllabuses are flawed because they assume a model of language acquisition unsupported by research findings on language learning in or out of classrooms. Where morphosyntax is concerned, research shows that people do not learn isolated items in the L2 one at a time, in additive, linear fashion, but as parts of complex mappings of groups of form-function relationships. Nor, in principle, could languages be learned in that way given that many items share a symbiotic relationship: Learning English negation, for example, entails knowing something about word order, auxiliaries, and how to mark verbs for time, person, and number. Progress in one area depends on progress in the others.
Synthetic syllabuses not only present linguistic forms separately, but also attempt to elicit immediate targetlike mastery of those forms. Where syntax is concerned, research has demonstrated that learners rarely, if ever, more from zero to targetlike mastery of new items in one step. Both naturalistic and classroom learners pass through fixed developmental sequences in word order, negation, questions, relative clauses, and so on-sequences which have to include often quite lengthy stages of nontargetlike use of forms as well as use of nontargetlike forms. As indicated, these developmental sequences seem to be impervious to instruction, presumably because linguistic items have to be comprehensive and processable before they are learnable and, hence, teachable.
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