More Notes on Creating Syllabi in Small Courses

I’m really into thinking about complex, sound course syllabi for my private courses. Besides my other hobby, writing worksheets for my classes and forcing my colleagues to try them out, thinking about “what we’ll learn” on a course is fascinating. That is to say, I’m not so much into collecting activities and whenever you ask me: Kamila, what’s your favourite vocab revision activity, you’ll hear me gasp and my brain just goes blank. But thinking about what people need, I like that.

So I’d like to give you an example of how much the needs of different students differ.

I teach three small groups in a Prague-based company. Two 2-1 and one indi class. The two groups are high-intermediate and the indi class is low-intermediate. All the students are highly motivated, hard-working and (almost) never late. At the start, I talk to them about their needs, give them a grammar test from the ESL Library and invite them to test their vocabulary size. I hastily take handwritten notes (mind-maps, usually) which I always hope to copy later in a perfect G-suite spreadsheet but I never do, so I just tick items off with a highlighter.

Now let’s look at what the low-int indi class needs:

This student, let’s call her Alena, needs to communicate in basic business situations, small talk, dealing with visitors, some telephoning, making arrangements. Then Alena needs English for travelling, checking-in hotels etc; she also likes to improve her general vocabulary, learning to describe clothes and speak about food, etc. We also work on her grammar, targeting areas where she’d made mistakes in the placement test.

The second group, Barbora and Charles, need a lot more work-related English: presentation skills, meetings with clients, e-mail writing, small talk on business topics – we use this wonderful “Feedly Method” by Adi Rajan. They also love creative writing so Stories Without End is the perfect tool with them.

The third group, “Dana and Emma”, also need enlarging their vocabulary, a LOT of presentation skills, but also a lot more fluency speaking activities to enable them to improvise during presentations. They love a light-hearted activity every now and then, and also general conversation on topics that interest them – veganism, Chinese horoscope, mobile phones at schools, etc.

With me having all this information, I can really create different lessons for each of the groups, using very little materials. I have the ESL Library subscription (great dialogues, enjoyable topical lessons, some good grammar lessons). I have an ancient copy of English for Networking which has some useful dialogues that I can play to my students; I use the Jungle Listening book to target bottom-up listening and connected speech; plus some other finds online. I make sure I don’t overwhelm my students with materials and leave enough space for practice – so that I know that Charles can fluently and accurately introduce a Very Important Client to Barbora, which, however, is not what Alena needs because well… it’s not a situation she would commonly find herself in.

I use the lesson time for revision, intensive work and fluency work. The “homework” is for the students to do extensive reading and listening, writing activities, and grammar exercises.

What’s my point with all this? I am fairly sure that were I teaching these groups through a language school, I would be assigned a coursebook, maybe Business Result Low-Int and High-Int or a New English File or something – I don’t even know the names since I stopped using them ages ago. So they would all be following the same syllabus, even though their actual needs are SO MUCH different.

I’d like to hear your views. Do you find this reasonable? Too much work? Too difficult? Or am I missing a point somewhere? Let me know!


16 thoughts on “More Notes on Creating Syllabi in Small Courses

  1. First I have to say I love how indi classes sound – they make me think of an indie band and I imagine you guys having a cool time. 🙂 We call them individualci in Croatian but I’ve always thought of them as just 121 in English, which sounds kinda dull compared to indi students.

    The coursebooks you mentioned are from back when I was still teaching in-company courses, so I remember those. You made me think about whether you’d have been assigned a coursebook at Octopus and I think it’s likely you would have been for groups but for mini-groups (which is what we used to call 2 students) and indies I’m pretty sure you would’ve been able to choose what you wanted to use in the way of materials, provided the students were okay with this. We often had students who didn’t care to have their progress defined by having a book that first said they were intermediate and then upper-intermediate.

    I’m sure this would have also depended on how much experience you’d had and we as owners often felt safer if new teachers were using a coursebook. Plus, actually, I don’t remember teachers coming up to me and saying, hey, I’d like to try and design a syllabus; i.e., they weren’t unhappy with coursebooks. Now I think it would’ve probably been a good idea to encourage them to experiment a little.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Vedrana,

      First of all, thank you for the wonderful, thoughtful comment. As for indi – I call them that, but I never thought of them as “indie”, but I can only think of them as such right now!

      I am also very grateful that again, you’ve given my single-sided view a full perspective of a language school manager. I do tend a bit of a maverick and here I clearly didn’t realise that the school has their responsibilities for the teachers and clients, and offer support to the teacher. So what I see as a benefit (I can make my own syllabus) might be seen as a lack of support and guidance by another teacher. I guess ideally, the school’s academic manager/DoS would co-create a syllabus with the teacher?
      Also I have to admit that this type of negotiated syllabus isn’t easy to assess. I remeber mid-term testing was always done the smoothest way possible (assign a progress test from the TB) but it’s not possible here.
      This is all very interesting to think about. Thanks for giving me all this food for thought!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m glad you like the indi-indie connection. 🙂
        Re your reply, I wanted to add that teachers often brought in extra materials and tried to respond to students’ needs, as in, if they needed to practice for a presentation, that was what we did. I expect most language schools do this, as this is often a selling point (we’re flexible and cater to your needs). This was, of course, harder in larger groups where needs would differ, so CBs were more of a backbone there.
        But to be honest, before I started hanging out on Twitter more, I never realized CBs were thought of as evil or an instrument developed primarily to line publishers’ pockets and render teachers powerless and dependent. Maybe this was because we never had to go through a CB cover to cover; we had a responsibility to whoever was paying for the course but they wouldn’t check in detail if the students had gone through the present perfect simple vs continuous or the four Ps of marketing, so it always felt like we could pick and choose.
        I think that, yes, it would be the responsibility of the DoS to co-create a syllabus with the teacher; i.e., it would be their responsibility to check how much help the teacher needed/wanted with this and then provide support as necessary (having also checked with the student(s) in the first place what their expectations were).
        Re assessment, the easiest thing to do is definitely to assign a progress test from the TB, but we hardly ever did that – maybe just for (false) beginners. The teachers were always adapting these tests to what had actually been covered in class, particularly in terms of vocab or the writing and listening sections. We had some indi students who weren’t interested in being assessed (especially if they were the ones paying) and the kind of syllabus design you describe in this post would have been most easily done with them.
        I think I would try and do some things as DoS differently now (older and wiser, hopefully!)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Your way of running the school was exactly how it was when I first started in late 90s. I worked for a small, friendly school and everyone just did their best and English wasn’t a “product” yet then, but a way to connect with the world after the iron curtain had fallen and listen to the Beatles if you see what I mean:-) And books weren’t evil but necessary, because they were scarce. Which makes me think of the role language schools have these days and what they can do if they don’t want to be just agencies with zero connection with the client or the teacher. Otherwise – being older should mean wiser, that’s the good thing about it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. geoffjordan

    Hi Kamila,

    I tip my hat to you! Using your blog to share what you’re doing like this and inviting colleagues to give feedback is brave and a great example for us to follow.

    In my opinion, giving in-company English courses to individuals or small groups lends itself very well to the kind of TBLT course that Mike Long recommends. It starts with a Needs Analysis (NA) which focuses on identifying target tasks – things the students have to do in English in the course of their work and the rest of their everyday lives. The NA you do with your students is a good start, but Long would suggest that you ask them more about what they actually do. For example, get more detail from Alena about precisely what business situations she finds herself in, about her work dealing with visitors, telephoning, making arrangements, etc. and more about her travelling. All the things you mention – dealing with visitors, telephoning, etc. – cover huge areas, and too often they lead to abstractions, which then become prime targets for vocab. and grammar work which takes you away from the relevant task practice which Long (and I!) think gives better results. And ask Alena for any “texts” she might be prepared to share: job description, annual feedback, company policy on this or that.

    Also, it’s important to consult one or more domain expert. Ask Alena if you can talk to her line manager or the head of that part of the company, and ask them to describe the things Alena has to do – the business situations, the dealing with visitors, etc. Experience shows that the domain experts’ descriptions and the students’ descriptions throw up interesting and important differences. These short interviews can help a lot in identifying the target tasks – and you might well walk out with lots of useful material from the company.

    Once you’ve got all this, you should be able to identify target tasks – welcoming a visitor to this particular company in this particular city, showing a visitor around this particular company, taking a visitor to lunch, whatever it turns out to be. Likewise with telephoning; with one or two key business situations; etc. And likewise with travelling – you should end up with a clear picture of what Alena actually does when she travels.

    The target tasks now need to be broken down into a series of peadagogic tasks, which need materials, and I won’t go into that here, but it really isn’t that different to what you’re doing; it’s just a bit more focused, and, perhaps most importantly, it focuses on tasks, on learning by doing, on using the language for relevant purposes, and it radically downplays grammar work.

    The needs analysis only takes a few hours. Getting the actual syllabus together takes longer; there’s certainly some heavy lifting at the start. But once you’ve got it, you can use the syllabus again and again, year after year, with students who have similar needs. What’s more, at SLB we’re working on a bank of target and pedagogic tasks, and there are other outfits doing the same. When we get all the stuff properly sorted out, we’ll let you know. Meanwhile, I hope my sketch here will serve as a bit of useful input to the on-going development of your teaching programmes.



    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Geoff! I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing the expert advice. I agree that small courses are ideal for this kind of TBLT courses. I also agree that the more detailed the NA, the better the lessons and resulting effect for the students. So consulting the domain expert and getting holds of texts is incredibly useful advice and certainly something that I can include in the syllabus design.

      As for narrowing down the tasks, two things – I may have simplified the blog text so as not to make it too long and so omitted some details, but more importantly, some students actually don’t use English that much. It’s not so much of a need, but rather a “want”. Or a mix – like a memory of one failed encounter in English and the resulting need to prevent failure in the future. I see this a lot with my students. Many think they need English for their work and travelling, just like they need to work with MS Excell and drive a car, but they don’t use the language much. So your NA involves a lot of the guess work, and consequently a fair portion of abstraction.

      Otherwise, I’m always keeping an eye on what you very cool SLB guys are up to – and a bank of pedagogical tasks will, surely, be of great help to anyone in the field. I myself am constantly thinking about using TBLT for teaching Czech and might be in touch regarding your recent grammar post – but I need to think about that first. As you said, one becomes rather vulnarable online.

      Hope you had a glass of beer reading my reply. Cheers:-)

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Hi Kamila,

    Thank you for this. I’ve just discovered your blog and actually started teaching a company class a few weeks ago where I have the freedom to create my own syllabus, so this is a welcome read and I will be following with interest.

    The more I research, the more I am convinced by this approach, and of a coursebook-free syllabus, too. That said, I can’t help feeling a bit out at sea without the life jacket I have been so used to wearing over the years – albeit not always fully fastened. I also worry about what students might think if they don’t have something structured in front of them, like the exercises and tasks found in a coursebook, because it has been normalised by publishers and language schools. Luckily my class is open to not using a book, so up to now we have been doing a speaking&vocab-focused-TBLT-style course (which, based on their Needs Analysis, just made sense and I really don’t like teaching grammar and vocab too explicitly anyway) but I have been scrutinising and selecting appropriate coursebook content from my shelf – freebies picked up from various ELT events over the years – and things I find online. So far so good, but I like the idea of creating my own materials and hope to eventually pluck up the courage to go completely TBLT-coursebook-free soon!

    I do worry about the time it will take me to plan the course, though. The thing is, I spend far too much time already on planning even the most straightforward of lessons because I am a hopeless perfectionist. I get so engrossed in imagining things from the students’ perspective and what could possibly go wrong. This is where coursebooks are just so appealing. I think if we are confident in what we are doing and committed to making the lessons as relevant as possible, always checking in to make sure we are catering to their needs, the students will be on board with whatever we do and I bet your classes leave feeling like they have really learnt something.

    I’ve never used ESL Library or Jungle so will have a look at those, thanks!

    Good luck with your classes and looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Hannah,

      I thank you for reading and getting in touch! I love your metaphor of the not fully fastened life jacket. First of all I have to say that I am not a teacher trainer and have never worked in academic management so all I can offer is sharing my experience. But true, I have taught many many small classes.
      What, in my view, helps students feel the structure of a course: (1) an organised teacher – I keep a table with what we did every lesson, we have a revision lesson every ten lessons when we go over the tasks done again, revise vocabulary, reassess the NA, tick off items on our to-do list. So taking notes from lessons and reminding students of where we are and what needs to be done is is useful. (2) wordlists – keeping track of emerging and studied vocabulary. I share them via Quizlet so there is something tangible that the students can look at at the end of the term. (3) reading books – have them choose a graded reader, read a chapter a week, ask some questions, let them read out their favourite paragraph to you, talk about it. Everyone loves reading and it provides a great sense of accomplishment. And English has so many graded readers. See, for Czech as a FL, we don’t have many, so reading becomes a great challenge for the learners. I am really grateful that there are all these simplified books to be used in English, at different levels.
      As regards time, well… SOME lessons do take ages to prepare – see my Office English course. But I did get paid for the prep. But otherwise, you don’t really need that much. If your lesson lasts 60 mins, you could start by reviewing vocabulary and previous tasks (10 mins), going over homework (book club/exercises/writing) – 10 mins; small talk on a business topic of Ss choice (see the Feedly Method above) +feedback/vocabulary (5-10 mins); new task – say introducing people at a meeting: you play a dialogue, Ss write down useful phrases as dictoglos, do a bit of listening decoding, then practise with different people/situations; wrap up the lesson – create a word list, get feedback, etc. With small classes, you don’t need much material/worksheets or anything. Don’t waste your precious energy on creating stuff unless you’ll use it again. Also, in small classes people just want to talk for a while and tell you what’s up – you need to allow time for that (I call it “the priest role”).
      Finally, thanks to your comment, I finally got round to putting up a resources page on the blog – so if you go to EFL Resources in the main menu, you should be able to see it.
      Let me know how things work out! Cheers! K. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello The English Kitchen and thank you so much for leaving a comment! I’m glad you share my perspective on this, although it is important to pint out that such a way of designing a course is much easier with small courses like those I describe. I think school courses are probably better off with a more specific syllabus. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Cheers! PS: I am really fond of your internet handle name – it brings to mind all sorts of home-made yummy stuff:-)


  4. Pingback: Course Planning: Removing the Guesswork – Kamila of Prague

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