Course Syllabus Design

Units of Design

Syllabi are classified according to the units of analysis in their design of language courses (Long & Crookes, 1993; Rahimpour, 2010; Robinson, 2009, 2013). For example, units of analysis can be structures, notions and functions, situations, words or tasks, projects, and genres. Robinson (2009) underscores that these units and the way in which they are sequenced are essential components of a syllabus (p. 294). The unit of analysis chosen will clearly reflect the designer’s views on the nature of language and language learning (Nunan, 1988). Central to language syllabus design are the following questions: “Is the language best learned explicitly, by understanding and practicing a series of formal units of language, however characterized, or is it best learned incidentally from exposure to the L2 during communicative activities and tasks” (Robinson, 2009, p. 295)? 

Synthetic syllabi are built on the components of the target language’s linguistic system that “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” (Wilkins, 1976, p. 2). It is thus the responsibility of the learner to synthesize these discrete elements of the language into meaningful utterances. Synthetic syllabi support a pedagogy in which L2 learning is the result of a form-focused, linear, systematic, and cumulative process. 

Whereas synthetic syllabi use the target language grammatical system as their starting point for design, analytic syllabi start with the communicative purpose for which language is used. Nunan (1988) explains that “analytic syllabi are organized 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” (p. 28). Analytic syllabi support a pedagogy in which L2 learning is understood as a meaning-driven, non-linear, and recurrent process. 

In the United States, it is well documented that this debate around synthetic and analytic syllabus informs syllabus design and determines the nature of the units of classroom activity and the order in which they are presented over the course of an academic term. Examples of syllabi on both ends of the spectrum can be found in postsecondary language programs; however, we must also acknowledge that mixed or layered syllabi, sometimes referred to as proportional syllabi, which incorporate, to a greater or lesser degree, elements from both the synthetic and analytic syllabi, also exist. Mixed or layered syllabi have a semantic grammatical organizational base, a linguistic component based on language functions, and themes that play a linking role through the units.

Learning Activity:

Below are examples of activity schedules that are typically included in syllabi. Look at each of them and decide under which category they each belong: synthetic syllabus, analytic syllabus, or mixed syllabus.

Example 1 would be found in:

Week Focus Topic Text Culture  Register Grammar / Vocabulary / Phonology Final Tasks
W1 Transactional conversations At the convenience store Video of conversations in convenience stores in the US and Spanish-speaking countries Purpose of simple conversations in convenience stores in the US and Spanish -speaking countries

Turn taking and relationship between turns in simple conversations related to buying food items in the US and Spanish -speaking countries
Level of formality based on context and relationship between shoppers and merchants Numeratives and expressions and vocabulary related to food

Expressions and structures related to shopping

Intonation of questions vs. statements.
Students go shopping in Nogales, Mexico

Students write a reflection on their shopping experiences.

Example 2 would be found in:  

Week Ch Grammar Vocabulary/Topic Homework: Reading 
W1 7
  • Review of который
  • Review of adjectival case endings
  • Formation and use of active participles: present tense
  • Russian theatre
  • Alexander Ostrovsky – p. 169

Example 3 would be found in:

Week Ch Theme  Topic Grammar Vocabulary Final Task 
W1 1 My family and friends My family members - Subject pronouns
- Possessive adjectives
- Adjectives
- The verb to have
- Negation
- Expressions to
    introduce oneself
- Family members
- Family relations
Go to Flipgrid, introduce yourself and your family to your peers using the vocabulary and grammar learned

Although choices about syllabus type might be determined by L2 research, most often they are a matter of preference based on the approach the LPD is most familiar with, the approach used in the selected course textbook, or the approach recommended by the institution (Herschensohn, 1990; Scida & Jones, 2017). Few empirical studies have examined the outcomes of specific syllabus choices; those that do exist have been conducted outside the United States in English as a Foreign Language contexts. The picture that emerges from these studies is one that supports analytic over synthetic syllabi (Cubillos & Ilvento, 2019).

Reflective Question:

  • A mixed or layered syllabus is often the syllabus of choice in many foreign language programs. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of that choice for your instructional context?


Choosing Among Course Syllabus Types

Scholars who have been interested in language syllabus design Breen, 1987; Feez, 1999; Krahnke, 1987; Long & Crookes, 1993; Nunan, 1988, 2001; Rabbini, 2002; Rahimpour, 2010; Robinson, 2009, 2013) have outlined several primary syllabus types that are commonly used in postsecondary language programs in the United States. Table 1 lists these syllabus types, which fall on a form-meaning continuum.

Table 1. Syllabus Classifications, Types, and Content

Focus Classification and
Type of Syllabus
Content of Instruction Content Examples


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Forms and structures of the language students are learning 

Subjunctive, adjective placement, subordinate clauses 


Frequently used words of the language students are learning

Common words or expressions

Notional / Functional

Set of “notions” or real-life situations in which people communicate that are broken down into “functions” or specific aims of communication

Shopping  →  asking for prices

Studying  →  requesting a clarification on a homework assignment


Language used in/for different real or fictitious situations 

At the restaurant    ordering a meal

At the bank  →  applying for a loan


Various abilities in the language students are learning that are used for different purposes such as reading or writing independent of context

Reading for the main idea, writing a summary, giving an oral interview 




Series of complex and purposeful tasks performed in the language students are learning

Filling out a job application, writing a restaurant review


Real-world problem or complex question that students tackle using the language they are learning

Designing an app to improve residential recycling  →  environment, pollution, health, sustainability


Textual genres in the language students are learning are used as the basis for developing tasks and activities so that students can produce socio-culturally purposeful whole texts

Narratives, information report, blog post


Content taught using the language learned as a means to convey information

History class taught in the target language

As you look at this table, you probably notice that the form-meaning continuum is reflective of a chronology with structural/synthetic approaches considered to be older and more traditional and communication/analytic approaches considered to be newer. As our understanding of L2 language learning processes has grown so has the number of conceptual frameworks that support language course syllabus design.

Reflective Questions:

  • Looking at Table 1 can you identify the type of syllabus used in your language program? How easy was it for you to decide? Why?
  • What role did the textbook play, if any, in adopting a particular syllabus type for your language program? How?


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