The End of the ‘Grammar-based Syllabus’?

Treetops Town

I recently had the pleasure of buying my first course books aimed at young learners. I say pleasure, but actually finding materials that I found both engaging and well illustrated was a much larger struggle than I’d anticipated.

Long story short I eventually settled on ‘New Treetops’ (Oxford Press), a cute EFL course aimed at Italian primary students. It focuses on teaching grammar through four modules based around the seasons. Each one tells stories of some little elves and animals who live together in ‘treetops town’.

The book is nicely illustrated, comes with loads of extra activities and is gives just enough new language and grammar in each module without overloading the students. So far I’m impressed and it has made my 121 students so much more engaged.

It got me thinking about where I stand on materials creation. Treetops does follow the CEF and definitely has clear ‘vocabulary’ and ‘grammar’ sections but, and this may just be because it’s aimed at kids, they are much less ‘in-your-face’ as in the more often used adult course books such as Cutting Edge or Headway.

I started to wonder – why are our adult course books always so blatant about their following of a grammar-based syllabus when it can be much more engaging to disguise language like this?

The Coursebook Dilemma

I’m a relatively recent graduate of CELTA so was frequently taught about the general love/hate attitude towards course books in our industry. In fact it was a crucial part of the syllabus. I do, however, find the problem quite perplexing.

On the one hand, the majority of teachers bemoan course book syllabuses as being too restrictive and uninspired, whilst on the other hand many of these same teachers continue to use them and are unable or unwilling to suggest alternatives – probably because this alternative may mean creating all our lessons from scratch!

Scott Thornbury’s talk at the end of the IATEFL conference last year talked about a similar thing. His words were along the lines of ‘we’ve been talking about moving away from a grammar-based syllabus for 30 years. We know the pitfalls of the grammar-based syllabus and we know the alternatives. So why are our course books still so rooted in the idea?’

Another teacher and blogger Peter Viney caused a stir last year with his post ‘The Dead Hand of The CEF’ which pointed the finger directly at the Common European Framework for this lack of creativity and desire to think outside the box. Again, many teachers agreed. So what now?

A Different Approach

I recently worked at one of the more modern school franchises in Italy called My English School. Their method utilises aspects of blended learning and positive psychology in SLA with a communicative focus. Their course breaks the CEFR into 13 individual levels where 80% of the lessons are based around a functional syllabus. This means they spend the majority of their lessons learning functional language (ordering a coffee, discussing recent events, describing your town) and the ‘grammar lessons’ are much shorter and spread less frequently throughout.

When grammar lessons do occur (five times per ‘level’) they are blended. The student completes a task online before the lesson. They practise the language during the lesson and do a final task online afterwards.

After every level there is a revision lesson reviewing all the grammar that they have covered and a final ‘test’. After passing this test the student can move onto the next level. If they fail, they simply repeat the lesson or lessons on which they need to focus while continuing their spoken practise with the multitude of functional language lessons through the week.

I have to say I liked the method and so did the students. It’s not perfect but it did show what can be achieved with a little creative thinking. I would love to see some research on it’s effectiveness over a longer term but generally it was just refreshing to see a different approach.

The Future

Now with DimmiDeck having reached it’s Kickstarter goal we’ve started to focus on the future. Downloadable materials and worksheets are absolutely part of this, but where do we start? Do we stick with grammar based activities? Should we look at functional language? Do we try a situational approach? Or do we take aspects of all three and create something totally new?

I guess over the next few months we will see. For now though, I can’t help wondering if there’s a good reason why course book writers are hesitant to change. The research is there. The information is out there for us all to find and we study it on just about every further development course we do.

So why are we still not doing it?

If you know of any course books or schools with an alternative and interesting syllabus structure please let us know in the comments!


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The Correction Dilemma

Few of us would argue that correction is one of the most important things we can provide as language teachers. Taking someone’s own, often carefully crafted response or utterance and helping them to perfect it is something that students often only receive in the classroom. This makes it valuable, desired and ultimately expected by your students.

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