Product or Process? Teachers or Learners?

In 1987 Breen attempted to persuade the ELT world to make a fundamental change in direction by changing from a product syllabus, which concentrates on what is to be learned, to a process syllabus, which concentrates on how the learning is to be done. He failed, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong, or that the change he argued for isn’t still needed today.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the product syllabus flies in the face of generally-accepted findings of SLA, but here I’d like to focus on the roles of teachers and learners. My inspiration comes from the latest posts on 2 very different blogs:

(1) Rose Bard’s Teaching Journal, which highlights work going on in some primary schools in Brazil.

(2) Demand High, which gives a link to Scrivener’s “Demand-High Teaching” article

Before I discuss these two posts let me outline the differences highlighted by Breen (and by White, 1988) between the two syllabus types.

In the Product Syllabus the teacher implements a syllabus which has been previously constructed by a syllabus designer who determines the objectives, and divides the content into what are considered to be manageable bits. The syllabus is thus external to the learner, determined by authority (the syllabus designer’s boss). The teacher’s job is to deliver the course, making all day-to-day decisions affecting its implementation. Assessment of success and failure is done in terms of achievement or mastery, using external tests and exams.

In the Process Syllabus the focus is on how the L2 is to be learned. It involves no artificial pre-selection or arrangement of items and allows objectives to be determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners after they meet, as a course evolves. The syllabus is thus internal to the learner, negotiated between learners and teacher as joint decision makers, emphasizes the process of learning rather than the subject matter, and assesses accomplishment in relationship to learner’s criteria of success.

To summarise:

Product Process

The process syllabus recommends itself to all teachers who take a liberal, learner-centred approach to education, and who believe that education is about empowering students by helping them to develop both individual and collective solutions to their problems. The process approach helps people to realise that they have agency, and the power to change and control their lives. In ELT, a process syllabus has a far greater chance than a product syllabus of addressing learners’ needs and of providing the kind of communicative classroom environment most likely to foster fast development of the learners’ interlanguages. Furthermore, teachers implementing a process syllabus are, in my opinion, likely to find their jobs more rewarding than those implementing a product syllabus.

Rose Bard’s post has a video giving an account of the work being done by over 400 teachers working in some of the poorest areas of Brazil.  Here, the learners are centre-stage; and dialogic education is the prime concern. This is what Rose has to say:

By talking and listening, and listening and talking, we go through the process of communicating that implies a certain need to comprehend and know the other person at the same time that you try to make yourself understood while both investigate reality, in other words, you can’t really understand what is going on without engaging in dialogue. ………………………………

Sitting as equals does not mean that we lose our roles in the process or who we are, but that we respect each other; and that by listening and understanding one another we contribute to one another’s development.The goal of the English class is to achieve a level of communication for one to become independent …………………

The goal of the educator should never be to create dependence, but to lead the way, to show how to become independent. And learners who understand the value of autonomy will lead the way for others. Therefore, that is why I honor dialogue in my class. I want everyone to know they can contribute.

Paulo Freire’s work has a big influence on Rose. Friere’s emphasis on dialogue strikes a strong chord with those concerned with popular and informal education in Brazil and resonates with Dogme. Dialogical (or conversational) education emphasises cooperation and mutual respect. Education should not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. Bad teaching, Paulo Freire argues, involves ‘banking’ – the teacher making ‘deposits’ in the learner.

When I read Rose’s blog, I notice

  • the discourse: It’s informal; enquiring ; passionate; engaged; honest and sincere.
  •  the reach: It’s global. Rose talks to the world.
  • the content: It’s packed with practical, detailed teaching suggestions.
  •  the principles: every line of the blog is suffused with a commitment to learner-centred teaching, and to the struggle against poverty and oppression.

The product syllabus is foisted on teachers by coursebook writers, by CELTA , DELTA, and assorted teacher trainers and examiners, and by bosses. All these powerful stakeholders in ELT find that chopping English up into chunks (which are placed in successive units of successive levels of coursebooks) makes it easier to sell, and the business easier to manage. In this approach the boss controls the teacher and the teacher controls the students. The teacher organises everything and learners are given no real say in decisions affecting what is done to them.

Scrivener, J. (2014). Demand-high teaching. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 3(2), 47-58.

In his article (in the very undemanding EJAL), Scrivener urges teachers to awake from their complacent, self-satisfied slumber, demand high, and bring “quality and depth of learning” back into the ELT classroom. You might think that such an ambitious project would involve re-thinking the basic principles of ELT, or at least re-visiting the arguments for product and process syllabuses. But not a bit of it: Scrivener sees no need to look further than the model already presented in his own books 20 years ago. He simply assumes, as if it were a self-evident truth, that teaching can only take place inside the confines of a synthetic, teacher-led syllabus. Anything else is unthinkable and literally unmentionable.

Here’s Scrivener at the start of the article, explaining what teaching is for him:

What I mainly worry about is how tasks and activities will work, how I can run them, how I can give good and clear instructions for them.

I have done what I was trained to do. I have set the task, run it, monitored it, closed it, run feedback on it, and then moved on to the next thing….

But something was missing. Everything had become too automated, too easy, and after years of nagging worry, Scrivener’s epiphany finally arrived when he and Underhill realised that

…teachers who had become very competent at operating ELT tasks and activities…… were not pushing students, not challenging them to tangibly improve. ….. We started asking questions such as: “Are all my learners capable of more?”

Are all his learners capable of more? Well of course they are – but only if he himself is capable of taking off his self-imposed blinkers and ditching his preconceived notions of how ELT should be organised. If he were to drop his assumption that teachers must run the whole damn show; if he considered using something other than a Made in England coursebook with learners (whether they be “secondary school students in Hangzhou or preliminary year undergraduates in Tegucigalpa”); if he questioned the wisdom of teaching a pre-selected sequence of grammatical structures and lexis; if he stopped giving them Made in England tests and exams; if he just stopped telling them what to do all the time, invited them to plan and deliver the course with him, and allowed it to evolve unpredictably and dynamically, driven by real learner needs, well then maybe he would see just how much his learners are capable of. But, alas, that’s not going to happen, because none of it, absolutely none of it, is part of Scrivener’s stunted vision of ELT.

Scrivener’s aspirations for ELT  rest on teachers doing the same old thing, inside the same old confines of the same old product syllabus, but “demanding high”. Teachers will still do what they are trained to do. They will still set the task, they will still run it, monitor it, close it, run feedback on it, and then move on to the next bit of the coursebook. But now they’ll “tweak” it so as to do it better. And that’s it! That’s the cumulative result of all those years of tea-drinking, heart-searching, blue-sky thinking sessions with Underhill: tweak the teaching! Demand-high is about the teacher doing things a bit better inside a framework which remains totally unchallenged. In Scrivener’s ideal ELT world, learners are still done to; learners still take no part in planning or decision-making; coursebooks are still used in such a way that impoverished language is served up in unlearnable chunks; objectives and assessment are still externally decided in advance.

Everything’s the same, except that teachers will use the coursebook more carefully, check comprehension more comprehensively; do grammar practice more thoroughly, re-cycle vocabulary more systematically, give feedback more challengingly; and so on. The unexamined, unquestioned reliance on the tired and bested product syllabus, and the resultant lack of vision demonstrated in this article is so wilfully negligent as to be puzzling, until you appreciate that Scrivener (in his own words, “best known as author of a number of popular ELT methodology titles”) is part of the current ELT establishment, an august body of important people who between them are drowning communicative language teaching under what Thornbury describes as “a grammar-driven materials tsunami”.

When I read Scrivener’s article I notice

  • the discourse: It’s formal; pedantic; remote.
  • the reach: It’s parochial. Scrivener might think he talks to the world, but his writing has the stamp of a culturally-bound Englishman all over it.
  • the content: It’s tentative, confused; please-don’t-get-me-wrong; puffed-up, meta-methodology.
  • the principles: I refrain from guessing what Scrivener’s principles might be.

I should make it clear that Rose has no part in this, doesn’t know I’m writing it. Needless to say, Rose Bard herself may not agree one jot with my criticisms of Scrivener, and in any case would most certainly not express herself the way I do.

My aim here is to challenge the hold of the coursebook-driven product syllabus, which is championed by Scrivener, and to recommend a learner-centred approach to ELT, which is championed by Rose Bard.


Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in syllabus design. Language Teaching (20, 02, pp 81-92) It’s in 2 parts.

Scrivener, J. (2014)  Teaching Demand-High. European Journal of Applied Linguistics

White, R.V. (1988). The ELT Curriculum, Design, Innovation and Management.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

27 thoughts on “Product or Process? Teachers or Learners?

  1. Hi Geoff, thanks for giving voice to the process I’m going through as a teacher. I only hope that more and more teachers reading your blog and joining communities like iTDi understand that they can do it and fight for having the freedom to teach THE student, not the coursebook. In my context, it has been a work in progress. I’m happy to say that now my supervisor has more understanding and continue reminding us that we have the freedom to do what is best for our learners and she encourages teachers to do what it takes. My supervisor has always been a teacher I admire. I remember when we first started working together and door to door we would hear each other teaching. Leaving the school at the same time we would comment about how we talked loudly and could hear our students laughing. But back them we both focused on the product. It has been a great journey for our school. We are still a work in progress but much more a community of teachers today and thanks to iTDi I learned how to be the changed that was needed and discovered that together we can do wonders if we are open with one another.

    As it is a process, we are never really the product of anything quite yet as learners change along the way too. As they improve their knowledge and abilities, they also continue to improve their understanding on how to learn and become more and more independent. New groups are formed, new students join the groups, and the dynamics of the process changes too.

    Viva to working in progress!

    Ps. I’m very grateful to have you reading my blog and analysing critically what I do.


    1. Hi Rose,

      Thanks very much for this – I’m relieved to hear that you don’t mind my using your blog to argue my case.

      I confess that I’m not very familiar with the work iTDi does, but I’ll find the time to check it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. HI Geoff, I liked your article on the process and product approach. I agree with what you say and have myself been wondering for years why we don’t have an alternative. The thing is the learners, many anyway, like the course books they buy and I am not sure what they would think about not having one. How would they measure what they perceive as progress?


  3. Hi Steve,

    Learners are quite right to expect to see evidence of progress. While progress is far from guaranteed by the fact that you’ve worked your way through 6 units of a coursebook and have 6 more to go, it certainly gives the impression of orderly progression, and if teachers don’t use coursebooks they have to find ways of assessing what progress has been made. Actually, I think 2 things are involved. The first is progression through the course, so that everybody feels that they’re following a plan and not stumbling around lost. The second is progress in language proficiency.

    In a process approach, the teacher does the first bit of the course (Unit 1 you could call it) to show some of the options, and then has planning sessions with the learners where each subsequent “unit” is decided upon. At the end of each unit there’s a chance to look back and then plan the next one. These reflection-and-planning sessions help give a feeling of progression. Breen (1987, Part 2, see above for the reference) has a good discussion of this.

    As for measuring progress in language proficiency, the best way to do this, in my opinion, is through on-going assessment which looks at the learners’ accomplishments in relationship to their own criteria of success. There’s a lot of literature on “alternative assessment” (just search that phrase in Google), but it includes “performance assessment”, “authentic assessment” and “portfolio assessment”. Maybe I’ll do a post on it soon.

    Thanks for your interest. Rest assured that there are well thought through alternatives to a coursebook-driven product syllabus, and if you believe in the principles behind learner-centred education, you can easily persuade the learners in your care to try it out with you. Of course you’ll all have to be sensitive to cultural norms, social expectations and all that, and it does require an initial effort, but it’s worth it. Scrivener thinks the best way to raise energy levels is to get the teacher to demand high; I and others think that a much better way to do it is by making learners co-decision makers with the teacher, involving them in planning, materials selection and production, task and activity selection, feedback procedures and ongoing assessment.


      1. Geoff, one of the things that scares me to death is that learners also are afraid to do things differently at times and it is kind of hard to change their perceptions of what learning is (not from outside but from them), but I keep trying. This semester new groups of learners and each one of them specific needs that have to be negotiated as a group. They also expect us to have all the answers and lead the way. Changing that is not easy either and takes time. A colleague was asking me how I work with my 9th graders, because he was just assigned one. After telling him about it, he looked at me kind of puzzled and asked: “How do you do with the CB we have to work with?” After explaining, he said that he was wondering how I could work with CBs having the perceptions and beliefs that I have. I thought him something I learned from John FF. We do changes in small doses and a large doses of patience. 😉


      2. Seriously I don’t feel great about any of what I do. It’s not the ideal classroom or pure learner-centered but as you have said many times before, my search for it is honest and learning from and with my learners is essential to my practice. I can teach without bringing them on board. It’s a painful process too, but rewarding at some point. I hope I’m making some sense. Feeling kind of gloomy today.


      3. Hi Rose,
        It would be very surprising if you didn’t feel gloomy now and then! As they say in the UK, “Nobody said it was going to be easy”, but however difficult it is, it’s surely more satisfying than just doing what you’re told. Anima-te, Rose!


      4. Gloomying phase is over. Just prepared today a reflection session for my students next week including for instance: how they like learning words, assessing the strategies they used for retelling a story we’ve been working with for the required speaking test, assessing also the tools we are using, the content and the material. Taking it a bit further, I asked them to assess where they are, from I don’t know much English (1-10 continuum) to I can talk about anything well; as well as thinking what content they think they should/need to be learning, topics they want to suggest and whatever else they think of what we’ve been doing so far. I’ll let you know in couple of weeks time what they say. 🙂


      5. As we are discussing Syllabus and the right of the learner to participate in the process, I’d like to remind you Geoff that changes is a slow process and teachers in order to implement it need not only time to work on it but a good framework to work with. You probably remember that last year I was experimenting with a framework that worked really well for me. I’m using it this year again, but this time refining it.
        And my presentation in Wiziq:

        It took years on my own and then with the support of my PLN to start the change. 🙂 I hope this shows that it is possible to change.


      6. Hi Rose,
        Good to see you back on top of things! Your article in TESL-EJ is very informative – highly recommended to all . and thanks for sharing the other links. It certainly does show that change is possible!!!


  4. If a student is not given the right to choose how he wants to learn, we are seriously limiting the possibility of his being successful in the language learning process. Choice is the key factor. In the product classroom, the student is rarely given the choice to choose. Decisions about what he is to learn, when and how he is to learn it,are built into the programme he has had no input into. He is in Legutke´s words ” a dead body with a talking head” Breen said in 1985, ( yes ..30 years ago ) A language classroom should consist of students and teachers intent on creating ” a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process” Incredible really that 30 years down the road we´re still stuck into the strictures of the bloody course book .


  5. I really enjoyed this, Geoff. Thanks. I feel like, until recently, I last thought carefully about this stuff many years ago and have, in the meantime, settled into a kind of dreary, hedge-betting eclecticism. I’m finding a lot of your posts very invigorating, especially this one.


  6. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for this. I always find your posts thought provoking. It is quite necessary for the Jim Scriveners of this world to be questioned effectively. I have looked up this article and will read it later today.




    1. Thank you, Lee. It shouldn’t take you long to read the article, so there’s not much chance of its spoiling your weekend 🙂


  7. Hi Geoff ….
    im new in this group and find it very interesting, though I’m teaching german in a foreign setting which makes many things different …
    I’ve been trying to teach for many years without a coursebook and when reading the ideas of Rose Bard, who also teaches students with a romanic mother tongue, two cuestions came quickly to my mind:
    – ‘listening and understanding one another’ are done just in the target language?
    – how are students expectation treated when they contradict basic convictions of the teacher? …. In concrete terms: my students always expected me to teach them grammar ….. while I intented to foster communication skills ….
    I hope the Rose gets this contribution as well ….
    Anton Haidl


    1. Hi Anton and Geoff,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.
      ‘listening and understanding one another’ are done just in the target language? nope. I work with two particular contexts with teens for example. In one of them they are groups by level and we use a CB, and in the other one it is multi-level group and no CB. In context 1, the higher the level the less need to use L1. I use L1 in beginners to discuss what we are doing etc. They can barely understand things I say, let alone interact in English. So we work to build up their vocabulary and encourage the use of English as much as possible. More confident students can interact in short exchanges. In context 2, week 1 we have to decide when and how L1 will be used and for what purpose. Those in higher level are expected to use English at all times. To support lower levels, I plan activities that they can either work with a more competent peer or in groups of 3 to balance things out. When comes to reflecting on learning and helping me making decisions of what to bring to class, I prefer to use forms where I can use L2 and L1. But I prefer them to use L1 to answer it.

      I work with an EFL context and monolingual. What works for me, works because I have been working toward understand my students needs for the past 4 years and making changes every year. At the end of the year for example, I ask my 9th graders (context 2) questions to what to keep and what to add for the following year for the new students. For example, in 2012 and 2013 my students asked for me to work with the Walking Dead. I ran a survey among the students and some students did not like in particular the Walking dead (to gross) but almost everyone like Zombie’s theme. In 2013 with the publishing of Zombies in Tokyo graded reader, I was able to bring the reader to class and do a number of activities based on it. Last November, English for Zombie Apocalyse was published. So this year I’m using them both. Understanding each other takes time and space to listen to each other and reflect on each others reason. I always try to meet my students halfway which takes me to your second question.

      – how are students expectation treated when they contradict basic convictions of the teacher? …
      I don’t think there is an easy answer to that because it depends on the teacher personality. I deal with things in a rational way. If a find a student or group of students too resistent, I’ll meet them halfway, try to see it from their point of view and continue trying to show them the benefits with kindness. I have a group of adults right now and they are quiet resistent to do the ask and answer practice without actually reading the questions. You know those activities in a coursebook where you complete the questions and then ask your partner. Every week when they have to practice asking and answering, I catch them reading the questions to each other. After 5 weeks of gently asking them to do the practice again but this time without reading, they finally are doing it. The girl in the same class who was my student last semester in another group, same level, do it with her eyes closed. She only takes a quick look to register the information, raise her head look at her partner’s eyes and ask. Once they get used to do that they can even react to each other’s question more naturally and sometimes I catch them extending their answers and asking more questions.

      We have to be open to understand what is best for a particular learner, but we also imho have to do what we know it is best. I am ok with them prefering to talk about music instead of food, but when comes to how to learn I guess after learning more than two myself I have the right to teach them a thing or two.

      Do you blog? I’d love to hear more about your context.


  8. Hi Anton,
    Good to hear from you. I think I should leave it to Rose to answer. If she doesn’t read your comment, I’ll email her and ask her to reply to your questions.


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