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Centre for English Language Studies, University of Birmingham

Unit 1


1.1 Aim

The aim of this unit is to give you an understanding of what is meant by syllabus and by syllabus design, and to encourage you to consider your own experience of following and/or designing syllabuses.



The objectives of the unit are as follows: To distinguish syllabus from curriculum; To explore ways in which researchers have approached syllabus design, including: o Broad and narrow definitions of syllabus o Product and process syllabuses o Analytic and synthetic syllabuses o Linear and cyclical syllabuses.


Readings Richards J C (2001) Curriculum Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 1. White R (1988) The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management Oxford: Blackwell. Chapter 1 and pp 44-47.

As in the other units in this module, it is suggested that the readings are tackled as you work through the unit, and then completed as a follow-up activity.

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Unit 1 1.4 Distinguishing a syllabus from a curriculum

Reflection/Discussion Task 1

a) Before starting work on this unit, try to define what you understand by the term syllabus. What does a syllabus include? for? Write a brief definition below: What is it for? Who is it

A syllabus is _______________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________

b) Now think about the term curriculum. differ from a syllabus?

What is a curriculum, and does it

Write a short definition below:

A curriculum is _______________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________

c) Now that you have defined each term, how do they appear to differ? Note down what you think are the main differences between a curriculum and a syllabus, according to your definitions. _______________________________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________.

Dont worry if you are not sure at this stage. You will have the chance to come back to your definitions later. Now you are ready to begin the unit.

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Unit 1 The terms syllabus and curriculum are used in various ways by different writers, and so some clarification of how we will be using both terms is needed. Our definitions follow those of Richards (2001), which in turn

reflect earlier distinctions made between the two terms.

Activity 1

Read Richards (2001) definitions below and complete with the words syllabus or curriculum:

a) A __________ includes the processes that are used to determine the needs of a group of learners, to develop aims or objectives for a program to address those needs, to determine an appropriate ___________, course structure, teaching methods, and materials, and to carry out an evaluation of the language program that results from these processes.

b) A __________ is a specification of the content of a course of instruction and lists what will be taught and tested. Thus the _________ of a speaking course might specify the kinds of oral skills that will be taught and practiced during the course, the functions, topics, or other aspects of conversation that will be taught, and the order in which they will appear in the course. (Richards, 2001:2)

See Commentaries on Activities.

According to Richards (2001:2), the distinction between curriculum and syllabus is firstly that of scope: more specifically, syllabus design is one part in the process of developing a curriculum. Curriculum development is therefore

more comprehensive than syllabus design, incorporating at least three aspects of language teaching: first, course planning, including needs analysis; second, the curriculum in action, that is, materials and methods in the classroom; and, third, course assessment or evaluation (Nunan, 1988:4-5; White, 1988:43
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Unit 1 6). In contrast, syllabus design is concerned more narrowly with the selection

and sequencing of course content and can therefore be considered as part of the planning process of curriculum development. However, the distinction

between syllabus and curriculum also reveals different approaches to course design. To take an example explored later in this module, while syllabuses

were traditionally concerned with the ordering of grammatical items to be learnt, the rise of functional syllabuses and the growing need for English for Specific Purposes led to increasing concern for needs analysis and hence the need to adopt a broader approach to course designand it is this approach which is now known as curriculum development. As Richards (2001)

suggests, curriculum development is therefore a more recent concept, reflecting a broadly-based perception of course design. Consequently, while

the above distinction between syllabus and curriculum appears a useful one, we must acknowledge the influence that the curriculum and factors such as needs analysis and evaluation necessarily have on syllabus design.

Reflection/Discussion Task 2

Reflecting on the above (and on your own reading including, if possible, Richards, 2001:1-4; and White, 1983:3-6), look back at your original definitions of curriculum and syllabus. Would you like to amend them, in the light of what you have read?

Please note, however, that it cannot be assumed that all writers, researchers and educational institutions will recognise the distinction between the two terms. As White points out:

Some confusion exists over the distinction between syllabus and curriculum, since the terms are used differently on either side of the Atlantic. In a distinction that is commonly drawn in Britain, syllabus refers to the content or subject matter of an individual subject, whereas curriculum refers to the totality of content to be taught and aims to be realized within one school or educational system. In the USA, curriculum tends to be synonymous with syllabus in the British sense.

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Unit 1
The hierarchical distinction usual in Britain places syllabus in a subordinate position to curriculum, and this is a relationship which I will continue to follow.

(White 1988:4)

In other words, the distinction assumed in this unit between the syllabus and the curriculum, as White (1988) explains, is typical of the British school. In contrast,

both curriculum and syllabus are used in the USA to refer specifically to the selection and sequencing of content. White uses the terms in the British sense, as does Stern

(1992:19-21). Stern reiterates how the inclusion of wider issues of planning, analysis and evaluation within curriculum development is a more recent one and emphasises that this view does not necessarily receive universal support. Breen (1984) and

Candlin (1984), for example, feel that issues beyond that of content specification should be open to negotiation between teachers and learners.

Discussion/Reflection Task 3 Think about your own teaching experience. a) Where can you access your syllabus? Who designed it, and how much

influence do you have as a teacher over selecting and sequencing course content? Would you like more or less influence? b) What does your syllabus include? How is the course content selected and sequenced? Are you aware of the rationale behind choice of syllabus? To what extent do curriculum-related factors influence the design of your syllabus? c) How is your syllabus evaluated? How often does it change, and why?


The textbook as syllabus

According to Sinclair and Renouf (1988), the syllabus followed in many courses is that found in the textbook. This may be for a number of reasons:

convenience, the textbooks embodiment of officially sanctioned perspectives on teaching, a lack of supporting documents and/or the nature of the examination system. The textbook is often seen as a necessary lifeline to 5
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Unit 1 teachers, especially those in more remote areas where access to other materials and to official guidance on course content is somewhat limited. Furthermore,

as examinations frequently draw on the content of textbooks, teachers may feel that they are obliged to follow the book in a rather slavish manner. Sinclair

and Renouf (1988:146), however, suggest a number of disadvantages to using the textbook as a syllabus, summarised below:

The textbook is a set of instructions regarding classroom activities and techniques, and should therefore be considered as just one way of realising the syllabus content. A syllabus incorporated into a textbook is often little more than a table of contents, and may even have been compiled after the materials. In order to play a functional role in specifying content, it needs to be produced independently or before the textbook material. Determining course content with reference to the textbook presupposes the adoption of a particular methodology: however, Sinclair and Renouf argue, content should be independent of methodology.

Further disadvantages are highlighted by Richards (1998:125; 2001:133) who agrees that it is often the case that the textbook is used to represent the syllabus. He argues that in such cases the needs of the learners cannot be The desire for

adequately met since textbooks are products of compromise.

financial success prompts publishers to play it safe, producing textbooks which sell well on the global mass market, but which may not be relevant to may not meet

many learning and teaching situations around the world, and the needs of specific learners or teachers (Tomlinson, 2003:7).

The above points are open to debate:

the extent to which the syllabus and

methodology can be distinguished is, for example, discussed later in this unit and the use of textbooks is further discussed in unit 6.

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Unit 1 Reflection/Discussion Task 4 Devise your own list of the advantages and disadvantages in treating a textbook as a syllabus. To what extent do you feel the textbook can adequately be used as a syllabus?

Reflection/Discussion Task 5 Think about your experience of using a textbook. To what extent is the textbook your syllabus? Why is this so? Are you satisfied with your textbook, and the role that it plays in your teaching? you like to make? What changes would


Ways of analysing the syllabus

Reflection/Discussion Task 6 The following statements cover some of the issues we will be discussing in this section. Before reading think about the scope of syllabus design. i. Syllabus design only involves the selection and grading of content. ii. Syllabus design involves the selection and grading of content and the selection of learning tasks and activities. a) To what extent do you agree with the above statements and why? b) To which of these views does the syllabus you use in your teaching context adhere?


The narrow view versus the broad view of syllabus

The narrow view of the syllabus holds that syllabus design and methodology are entirely separate areas whereby the former entails the selection and grading of content, while the latter entails the selection of learning tasks and activities. The broad view of the syllabus however, considers this clear divide between content and classroom tasks and activities to be unnecessary (Nunan, 1988:5). 7
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Unit 1 As you read through this module you will need to decide which of these views you feel is most appropriate to your own teaching situation.


Approach-design-procedure and the syllabus

In order to further understand the issues underpinning the broad/narrow distinction, it is useful for us to examine how the syllabus is integrated into the tiered framework for evaluating methodologies put forward by Richards and Rodgers (2001:20-34). They refer to:


Specification of underlying theories of language, and of language learning and teaching.


Specification of syllabus (defined here as selection and organisation of course content), of objectives, and of types of classroom activities; as well as definition of the role of learners, of teachers and of teaching materials.

procedure: Specification of exactly how the teaching activities are carried out in the classroom.

In terms of the broad/narrow dichotomy, it would appear that Richards and Rogers hold a narrow view of syllabus. However, whether or not you take

the broad or narrow view of the syllabus, you will see that syllabus fits into the design level of the framework. It is important to realise that each of the since they are affected

elements listed under design are inextricably linked,

by the theories of language and language learning held by the syllabus designer (i.e., they depend upon the syllabus designers approach). As a result,

whichever view you adhere to, the choice of syllabus model will influence the type of classroom activities, which in turn will have an effect on what is expected of the learners, the teacher and the materials. For this reason, as

you read though the descriptions of different types of syllabus models in the following units, you will see that we include examples of how each one affects these elements.

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Unit 1 Reflection/Discussion Task 7 Think about the syllabus used in your teaching context. How does it affect the type of classroom activities you use? How does it affect the materials you use? How does it affect your role as teacher? How does it affect what is expected of your students?


The product syllabus versus the process syllabus

The different types of syllabuses that will be discussed in the following units may be described as following two main models: product and process. Within the British school of linguistics it has generally been thought that the two approaches are incompatible (Nunan, 1988:40). The product syllabus

can be defined as one in which the principal focus is on what is to be learnt i.e. the (linguistic) content that the learner should have learnt by the end of the course to enable communication. For example, the designer of a product

syllabus might take a list of grammatical structures or a list of functions as his/her starting point for design, or s/he might decide to use a wordlist, or alternatively, a mixture of all these elements may be used. What is important

is that they all take some form of linguistic content as a basis for designing the syllabus (such syllabuses are also described as content syllabuses). In

contrast, the process syllabus concentrates on the way in which the content is to be learnt; that is to say how the acquisition of the knowledge and skills for communicative purposes may occur. Such a syllabus may be designed

around different types of tasks which aim to develop certain learning processes, or it may be designed according to experiential content, for example from an academic area or a school subject.

White (1988:44-47) takes the distinction between product and process a little further, although using different terminology. The syllabuses he includes under Type A are product syllabuses, where the focus is on knowing about the language be it grammar, functions or lexis. His Type B syllabuses, on the 9
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Unit 1 other hand, focus on how learning can be brought about and are either learnercentred (the emphasis is on the learners) or learning-centred (the emphasis is on the types of activities which best enable language acquisition). He also

divides Type B syllabuses into process syllabuses and procedural syllabuses, each of which we will examine in later units. The way in which he extends this otherwise typical distinction lies in his identification in the Type A or product syllabus of what he calls an interventionist approach. This, he argues, is because the content (in the form of language or skills) is pre-specified, sequenced and presented by a person or body in authority, be that a teacher, a syllabus designer or indeed, a ministry of education. He claims this impinges

on the learning process by pushing learners towards conformity rather than independence. In practice, he suggests that product syllabuses may look very

dissimilar from each other because of differences in content (for example, a syllabus which is based on grammar looks very different in terms of content from one which is based on lexis) but the basis for each does not vary, since the focus is still on objectives to be achieved, content to be learned (1988:46). The implication is that the focus on learning content is such that it In contrast, he describes

fails to prepare learners for real-life communication.

the process syllabus as prioritising both the process of learning, i.e. a learningcentred approach, and the pedagogical procedures which best enable learners to learn, i.e. a learner-centred approach. Thus its basis, he suggests, is

psychological and pedagogical, and tends to avoid intervention because there is little or no pre-selection, sequencing or presentation of content by the teacher or syllabus designer. Instead the process and procedural syllabuses

aim to provide opportunities for real communication within the classroom through tasks and activities and so equip learners for real communication outside the classroom.

This discussion of product and process brings us back to our previous discussion about the broad/narrow views of syllabus, since it is the advent of the process syllabus which has blurred the traditional distinctions between syllabus and methodology. For Candlin (1984:32) and Breen (1984:49) 10
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content and process are difficult to separate since any syllabus will reflect

Centre for English Language Studies, University of Birmingham

Unit 1 assumptions about teaching and learning processes. Furthermore, White

(1988:109-111) admits that while some product syllabuses may indeed be incompatible with some process ones (since compatibility may only be brought about if the theoretical principles of one or the other are compromised), in practice in many teaching situations a hybrid syllabus combining product and process concerns (thus reflecting the broad view) is an acceptable comprise.

Reflection/Discussion Task 8 Think about the syllabus (or textbook if this is your syllabus) you use. Would you categorise it as a product or process syllabus? Why?


The synthetic syllabus versus the analytic syllabus

A syllabus in which structures of language are to be taught bit by bit as discrete items so that acquisition is a process of gradual accumulation of parts until the whole structure is built up (Wilkins, 1976:2) is described as a synthetic syllabus. This view implies that language consists of a finite

number of items which can be taught and learnt and that learning this finite set of items is a sufficient condition for communication to take place. It sees individual grammatical structures as building blocks which, once taught and learnt, can be added to with increasingly complex structures. Although the

term synthetic is most frequently applied to the grammatical syllabus, some researchers feel that it may be used to describe any product syllabus which bases its content, and thus its classroom activities, on a list of separate and discrete language items (Nunan, 1988:28).

When Wilkins first made the distinction between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, he defined an analytic syllabus as being organised in terms of the purposes for which people are learning the language and the kinds of language performance that are necessary to meet those purposes (Wilkins, 1976:13). In other words, if the syllabus designer identifies the communicative reasons for language learning, s/he can specify chunks of language which will enable 11
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Unit 1 the learner to achieve those purposes. Although at the time Wilkins saw the

notional-functional syllabus as fitting this description, in practice, many syllabuses described as notional-functional are now seen to differ very little from grammatical syllabuses in terms of content and type of activities, despite the functional titles given to the units. As a consequence, they are considered

by many to be synthetic (Nunan, 1988:37).

More recently, the analytic syllabus is generally seen to have a wider meaning, since it has come to encompass syllabuses whereby learners are exposed to ungraded language. Such an approach to syllabus design often tends not to

use linguistic content as the starting point, but may use topics, situations, or even other academic or school subjects as a basis for design. This does not

mean that the designer of an analytic syllabus does not include grammar or lexis when selecting and grading content, but it does mean that grammar and lexis may be of secondary importance in terms of selection criteria and thus may be integrated into the syllabus once the designer has chosen the topic, situation or subject (Nunan, 1988:38-9).

Having clarified the differences between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, it should be noted that it is frequently the case that a syllabus is predominantly synthetic or predominantly analytic depending on the choices made at the design stage, rather than being purely one or the other.

Reflection/Discussion Task 9 Decide whether the syllabus which you use in your own teaching situation is predominantly synthetic or analytic.


The linear syllabus versus the cyclical syllabus

The linear and cyclical syllabuses reflect opposing theories about the process of second language acquisition. Firstly, a linear syllabus implies a belief that

language learning is an additive process, meaning that once a structure or function is taught, the learner simply adds it to his/her pre-existing knowledge. 12
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Unit 1 It could be argued, however, that the opposite is true: frequently learners do not always remember what they have previously been taught. Secondly, it

implies a belief that the learner will learn what he/she is taught, in the order that it is taught, and that this will lead to acquisition. However, it is now

generally recognized that the teacher has little direct control over what language the learner acquires and at what moment s/he acquires it, since second language acquisition research has shown that acquisition is an internal and natural process (Skehan, 1996:18-19).

Thus, a cyclical syllabus may be more appropriate since it provides learners with the opportunity to revise pre-existing knowledge while also allowing that knowledge to be gradually consolidated and extended. Indeed, White

(1988:80) advocates such a syllabus because he sees recycling previous knowledge as being a feature of any good syllabus. Such a feature is not Perhaps this

often explicitly written into a syllabus (or textbook as syllabus).

is because it is assumed that a good teacher automatically allows time for revision and consolidation without these being explicitly prescribed. On the

other hand, if we consider coursebook series such as Headway or Cutting 13

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Unit 1 Edge, they do reflect this cyclical pattern from level to level, as students progress from the elementary coursebook to the intermediate and advanced coursebooks, with language items being revised and consolidated before being extended.

Reflection/Discussion 10 Look at the content of the syllabus you use (or textbook, if this is your syllabus) and decide to what extent it is cyclical. making it more cyclical? Are there opportunities for

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Unit 1 Activity 2

Look at the following textbook content pages and complete the table by ticking () the characteristics which you think they feature.

Book 1 product-based process-based predominantly synthetic predominantly analytic

Book 2

Book 3

Book 4

See Commentaries on Activities.

Book 1

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Unit 1

Book 2

5 Treasure Hunt directions using movement pairs, game about

Giving and following Understanding and prepositions of Co-operating in groups and teams Playing a reading Giving opinions the unit

Following a treasure hunt Playing a game to locate treasure Matching words and pictures Making a Picture Dictionary

cave grass hill river beach forest island sea volcano jungle sun hut over under up through across map compass north south east west walk He's climbing up the tree North 3 squares Where's the treasure? It's a volcano

My day Recognising times and half past the Talking about the duration of events Producing a model Making a pie chart typical day Listening and sequencing a story Singing a song and creating new verses Asking and answering questions about daily routines Drawing and writing about a typical day half-past morning evening It's six o'clock It's half-past two 1 have a shower 1 eat my breakfast 1 brush my teeth 1 read my book 1 watch TV 1 go to bed What time do you get up? What time does s/he eat breakfast? 1 watch TV for two hours She sleeps for ten hours He has lessons for... She does homework for... He plays computer games for...

on the hour hour

sentences to of a

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Unit 1 Book 3: An example of a skills taxonomy for listening skills (Brindley, 1997, reproduced in Richards, 2001:140)


Orienting oneself to a spoken text 1.1 1.2 1.3 Identifying the purpose/genre of a spoken text Identifying the topic Identifying the broad roles and relationships of the participants (eg, superior/subordinate)

Identifying the main idea/s in a spoken text 2.1 2.2 2.3 Distinguishing main ideas from supporting detail Distinguishing fact from example Distinguishing fact from opionion when explicitly stated in text

Extracting specific information from a spoken text 3.1 3.2 Extracting key details explicitly stated in text Identifying key vocabulary items

Understanding discourse structure and organisation 4.1 4.2 4.3 Following discourse structure Identifying key discourse/cohesive markers Tracing the development of an argument

Understanding meaning not explicitly stated 5.1 5.2 5.3 Relating utterances to the social/situational context Identifying the speakers attitudes/emotional state Recognising the communicative function of stress/intonation patterns 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Recognising the speakers illocutionary intent Deducing meaning of unfamiliar words Evaluating the adequacy of the information provided Using information from the discourse to make a reasonable prediction.

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Unit 1 Book 4



What emerges from this introductory unit is that while we can distinguish syllabus design from the wider process of curriculum development, the question What is a syllabus? is far from clear-cut. agreement regarding the extent to which a Firstly, there is little syllabus incorporates

methodological concerns (the broad view) or should be restricted to matters of content (the narrow view); secondly, as we saw by considering the syllabus within Richards and Rodgers approach-design-procedure model, it is clear that syllabus design remains integrally linked to other elements of language teaching. This is apparent from a review of how various ways of approaching

syllabusas product or process, synthetic or analytic, linear or cyclicalare shaped by theories of language and learning, and how they in turn affect what goes on in the classroom.

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Unit 1 As teachers, we may often feel we have little say in syllabus design, and are instead responsible for implementing syllabuses dictated to us by government agencies, linguistic theory, or commercial textbooks. What this unit suggests

is that the ability to interpret, evaluate and adapt the syllabuses with which we work is nonetheless crucial for all aspects of language teaching. We will

look at this in more practical terms in the following unit, and it is hoped that the subsequent units will also help you to develop this ability.

Follow-up activity As a follow-up activity, and having read the suggested (or other) readings for this unit, you might like to look again at Reflection/Discussion Task 1 in which you considered certain aspects of your syllabus.

Are you able to better address any of the questions having completed this unit? What questions remain unanswered? What questions would you like to ask the people who are responsible for designing and/or evaluating the syllabus with which you work?


Commentaries on activities

Commentary on Activity 1 a) curriculum b) syllabus.

Commentary on Activity 2 Book 1 The long list of pre-selected, graded grammar points and expressions in this syllabus indicate that it is product-based and that the course designer sees language learning as being the acquisition of a finite set of rules with each rule becoming increasingly complex. For this reason we can say that it is

also synthetic (taken from Hartley and Vines (1978) Streamline Departures).

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Unit 1 Book 2 Because of the clear focus on activities which reflect the communicative purpose of learning and the list of skills showing how learners will achieve those activities, we can describe this as an analytic syllabus. The

pre-selected linguistic content is minimal and not the main focus and since it is the carrying out of the activities which is the most important, it may also be described as a process-based syllabus (taken from Wilkes, McHugh and Occhipinti (1994) Fanfare).

Book 3

As above this syllabus is process-based and analytic.

There is no

pre-selected or graded linguistic content and it focuses on the communicative purposes of learning. However, it should be noted that White includes skills-

based syllabuses under product syllabuses (ESL standards for grades 4-8, taken from TESOL (1997), reproduced in Richards (2001: 140).

Book 4 With its specification of pre-selected and graded grammatical and lexical items, this is a product syllabus and is predominantly synthetic. This

is despite the fact that each unit finishes with tasks, because in effect the tasks are simply included to provide further practice of the pre-selected and graded language which has been taught, rather than to allow for real communication (taken from Cunningham and Moor (1998) Cutting Edge Intermediate).

Book 1: Streamline Departures product-based process-based predominantly synthetic predominantly analytic

Book 2: Fanfare (Book 1)

Book 3: ESL standards

Book 4: Cutting Edge (Intermediate)

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Unit 1 REFERENCES Breen, M. (1984) Process syllabuses for the language classroom in Brumfit, C.J. General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon. Brumfit, C. J. (1984) General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon. Candlin, C. (1984) Syllabus design as a critical process in Brumfit, C.J. General English Syllabus Design. Oxford: Pergamon. Carter, R. A. and McCarthy, M. J. (eds) (1988) Vocabulary and Language Teaching. London: Longman. Cunningham, S. and Moor, P. (1998) Cutting Edge. Longman. Hartley, B. and Vines, P. (1978) Streamline Departures. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nunan, D. (1988) Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richards, J. (2001) Curriculum Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Richards, J. (1998) Beyond Training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001) Approaches and Methods In Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sinclair, J. M. and Renouf, A. (1998) A lexical syllabus for language learning in Carter and McCarthy (1988). Skehan, P. (1996) Second language acquisition and task-based instruction in Willis, D. and Willis, J. Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann, 17-30. Stern H.H. (1992) Issues and Options in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 21
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Unit 1

TESOL (1997) ESL Standards for Pre-K-12. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. Tomlinson, B. (2003) Developing Materials for Language Teaching. Continuum. White, R. (1988) The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management. Oxford: Blackwell. Wilkes, B., McHugh, M. and Occhipinti, G. (1993) Fanfare (Teachers Book Level 2). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wilkins, D.A. (1976) Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (1996) Challenge and Change in Language Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan Heinemann.

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