The Negotiated Syllabus


I suggested in my last post that a real paradigm shift in ELT would involve throwing out the coursebook and standardised tests and replacing them with a process-driven approach which concentrates on the “how” more than the “what” of teaching. So far, so good. But I went further, and in fact, I went rather too far, and I now have to make amends. I suggested that the alternative paradigm was fundamentally defined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners, and that’s not so. I didn’t actually spell out what this negotiation amounted to, and neither did I make it clear that there are some very good alternatives to the present coursebook-driven paradigm which don’t involve any such “fundamental” negotiation.

For example, Mike Long’s detailed proposal for task-based language teaching, while it’s certainly learner-centred, and while it rejects the “product” or “synthetic” or “Type A” syllabus and hence the use of coursebooks and standardised tests, doesn’t include negotiation with learners about what tasks will form the content of the course, since these are determined by an external needs analysis, and then converted by teaching experts into peadagogical tasks. Various forms of task-based syllabuses, including many designed for business, or academic, or nursing, or other special purposes, while they are neither synthetic nor coursebook-driven (relying on their own materials), do not actually fit the “negotiated syllabus” brief. Even Dogme expects the teacher to be responsible for most of the important decisions about course content and methodology. So I need to explain the negotiated syllabus here, before finally presenting my own suggestion for an alternative to the present coursebook-driven paradigm in ELT.

The negotiated syllabus is the most extreme alternative approach to ELT, the one which most radically challenges assumptions held by most teachers today, the one which really turns everything on its head. Not only does the negotiated syllabus throw out the coursebook, it throws out the traditional roles of teacher and learner too. What follows is a brief summary, which relies heavily on an article by Sofia Valavani from the Second Chance School of Alexandroupolis. 

Second Chance Schools

Valavani explains.

Facilitating the fight against illiteracy of adults, the Adult Education General Secretariat implements programmes through which adults who have dropped out of schools have the opportunity to improve their academic and professional qualifications, so that they can get more easily integrated in the labour market or have a second chance for the continuation of their studies. This action addresses adults who were not able to complete their initial compulsory education and aims at offering them a second chance for the acquisition of a study certificate of the compulsory education.

Second Chance Schools is, therefore, a flexible and innovative programme, based on learners’ needs and interests, which aims at combatting the social exclusion of the individuals who lack the qualifications and skills necessary for them to meet the contemporary needs in social life and labour market.

Theoretical considerations

Valavani cites Freire’s view of adult education (Freire 2000: 32) that personal freedom and the development of individuals can only occur mutually with others: Every human being, no matter how ‘ignorant’ he or she may be, is capable of looking critically at the world in a ‘dialogical encounter’ with others. In this process, the old, paternalistic teacher-student relationship is overcome. She adopts Friere’s pedagogy and his “education for freedom”, and proposes a Second Chance Schools syllabus which provides “grounding for a learner-centred syllabus, reintroducing the SCS learners as the key participants in the learning process.”


Following Breen and Littlejohn (2000), teachers and students negotiate together so as to reach agreement in four areas:

  1. Why? The purposes of language learning.
  2. What? The content which learners will work on.
  3. How? The ways of working in the classroom.
  4. How well? Evaluating the efficiency & quality of the work and outcomes.

These four areas of decision-making are expressed in terms of questions. The questions are listed in a questionnaire (best format probably multiple-choice or Likert-scale) and the answers are negotiated by the teacher and the learners together-

The Negotiation Cycle

The negotiation cycle is illustrated below (Breen and Littlejohn (2000, 284)


The syllabus identifies different reference points for the negotiation cycle in terms of levels in a curriculum pyramid. The figure below (Breen and Littlejohn, 2000, 286), illustrates these levels on which the cycle may focus at appropriate times.



Decisions range from the immediate, moment-by-moment decisions made while learners are engaged in a task, to the more long-term planning of a language course (and in the Breen & Littlejohn model, through to the planning of the wider educational curriculum). Together, the negotiation cycle and the curriculum pyramid represent a negotiated syllabus as negotiation at specific levels of syllabus and curriculum planning. Breen’s figure (ibid: 287) illustrates this, with the negotiation cycle potentially being applied to a particular decision area at each of the different levels in the pyramid.


In order to implement this design, a number of tools are needed, among them, the 4 below.

  1. Tools for establishing purposes: Initial questionnaires to learners, learning contracts, planning templates.
  2. Tools for making decisions concerning contents: A learning plan developed jointly by a teacher and learners; learner-designed activities; a materials bank including a wide variety of tasks, texts, worksheets, grammar work, etc..
  3. Tools for making decisions about ways of working.
  4. Tools to evaluate outcomes: Daily/ Weekly/ Monthly retrospective accounts, reflection charts, assessment (can-do) cards, work diaries, reflective learning journals, peer interviews, portfolios, one-to one consultations, etc..


This very brief outline gives a good idea of the principles involved, but doesn’t give us a good picture of what actually happens in the implementation of such a negotiated syllabus. I think that what’s most important is to see it as an extension of the task-based syllabus: tasks are what drive it, but the tasks are decided on by teacher and learners together. The negotiation part looms large, like a bogey man, but in fact 90% of the course would be dedicated to carrying out the tasks.  What we need to explore more is how the negotiation affects the selection, sequencing and evaluation of the tasks.  So, for example, at the start of the course, the teacher, having explained what’s going to happen, works through the first questionnaire which aims to make a plan for the first phase of the course, maybe the first 6 to 10 hours. The questionnaire is obviously vital here, as is the teacher’s ability to help members of the new group to articulate their views and find consensus. Objectives may  be quite broad (improve ability to communicate with people) or more specific (give a presentation in a business meeting), but  they have to provide a good idea of priorities in terms of “can-dos”, the 4 skills, etc.. The content at this stage is also broadly specified, but again, a general feeling for areas of interest is teased out, and, similarly, preferred ways of working are voiced and discussed.  What would the questionnaire look like? How long would be spent on discussing it and arriving at a plan?  What happens next?

My own version of this entails the teacher doing the first phase without any negotiation about the tasks to be done, in order to help the learners see the range of possibilities and get a feel for more “micro” levels of negotiation. In the next post, I’ll try to tackle some practical issues, flesh out the tools listed above, and suggest a syllabus for a group of lower intermediate students enrolled in a course of General English.


 Breen,M. and Littlejohn, A. (2000) The practicalities of negotiation.

Valavani, S. Negotiated syllabus for Second Chance Schools: Theoretical considerations and the practicalities of its implementation.

18 thoughts on “The Negotiated Syllabus

  1. Thank you for this, Geoff. Perhaps you could also describe a syllabus derived from this perspective with a group of elementary 12 – 14 year olds learning English in their own community? I’d be interested to see how you envisage this would work with young learners, given their different levels of cognitive and affective development as well as motivations (in comparison to adults), and the value that they, their caregivers and other stakeholders may place on having a coursebook as a primary resource (apart from themselves and the teacher, of course!).


  2. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for another interesting post.

    I definitely see the benefits of course books (this probably comes across in my own blog!). That said, I was thinking of experimenting with a negotiated syllabus with one of my classes this year (a very mixed level ESOL class). I’m looking forward to reading your next post and finding out about some of the practical issues involved.

    My main reservations regarding what I’ve just read here are more to do with sustaining the momentum of a negotiated syllabus as the year goes on. The tools you mention do seem to entail quite a lot of paperwork (charts, diaries, portfolios) which also sets off a little warning bell for me!
    Nevertheless, I do see the benefits in what you are talking about and will read on with interest.

    Thanks again,



  3. Hi Genny,

    I promise to go and see what you say about coursebooks on your blog.

    The tools I mentioned certainly do sound a bit intimidating, but I don’t think they seem any more so than a modern coursebook, with its texts, exercises, tests, grammar charts, activities, transcripts, answer keys, and all the rest of it.


  4. Very thought provoking post. It made me think about whether students are able to / or want to take on the teacher role. My recent experiences with two different groups of students – one adult group and one group of mid-to-late teens – show that there is a relish for teaching the teacher their language. This could be used to illustrate similarities and differences in grammar and apply it to second language learning.

    Diana’s point about the value others place on a coursebook is very valid, it can be hard to wean people off what they have always known. Perhaps it is partially a matter of presentation. I would compare the course book to buying a coat from an average chainstore, it isn’t exactly what you want, it certainly isn’t designed for you but it’s ok , the price is right and it does the job for a while. A negotiated syllabus is made to measure, you’ve decided how it should look, and what materials, it has all the pockets you want, it fits you in all the right places and will last longer!!

    Yes, as joco75 says, maybe there is more paper work but if you are fortunate to be well resourced the task of identifying the syllabus, materials, exercises etc then organising and printing them is possible with access to a laptop and printer. Some of the material and resources may be online only. Creating the course jointly with students is, of course, a language learning exercise in itself as well as a great way of sharing the workload of creation.


    1. Hi Chas,

      Thanks for this.

      1. I think the idea is to get rid of the traditional teacher role rather than ask learners to adopt it.
      2. People haven’t always known the coursebook; it’s a relatively recent invention. When I started teaching, in the late 70s, it wasn’t widely-established.
      3. As for your interesting buying a jacket analogy, following your lead I’d compare an EFL course to going on holiday. The “Coursebook Way” is like buying a fully-equipped camper van (like Robert De Niro’s in Meet the Parents) complete with interior design, decoration, and furniture that you hate, 100 frozen dinners-for-one in the freezer that you’ll never eat, and a dazzlingly wide range of gizmos that you’ll never use, and then setting off for Disneyland following the route recommended by Liz Soars. On the other hand, the “Negotiated Syllabus Way” is like buying good walking shoes, a tent and a smart phone, and then, having agreed with your travel companions on a reasonable destination to reach before nightfall, setting out on the open road.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesting post as usual, Geoff. I tend to go with a hybrid of the Long and the Breen, that is ask learners about their expectations, goals, targets, likely language use beyond the classroom, etc. and then have them complete a task, which I use to analyse needs at a linguistic/pragmatic/communicative level. Because I am assigned a book, I then look for overlaps between goals, needs and such, and what the book has available. Sometimes it’s slim pickings so the book might be used for homework which I can check next lesson, or learners can check against the transcript. It’s working well so far and gets heads outside the books.


  6. I find your idea intriguing, but difficult to imagine without clear examples and maybe even the step-by-step process. How does this work for learners who can barely or not at all read and speak English? How much time does it take when time is precious. How do learners’ needs compete with the real world goals you are trying to prepare them for (and know more about, e.g. university courses).

    I look forward to your next post.


  7. This is something I’ve been doing for a few years now with one group–though I call it ‘Decentralised Teaching’. Geoff is right to point out implementation, which is key.

    The problem some of us ELT teachers are dealing with is: how to move learners from a state where they are (relatively) dependent on coursebooks, apps, etc. to a place where they are more autonomous. If you’re already studied English for a certain length of time your expectations are already set and difficult to change. This process is one of moving from Centralisation to Decentralisation, in my view.

    That’s why I proposed a ‘priming’ stage at the start–where the teacher could present a wider variety of task types and activities to the learners. Then they can make more informed choices about what, and how they want to learn, and learner expectations can be altered, or at least made explicit and examined. Here’s a quick guide:

    Regarding Antony’s post, I think Nunan’s original formulation: Learner-Centred Curriculum was based on work he did with the Australian Adult Migration Program, which definitely focused on real-world goals.

    I haven’t read the Valavani article yet, but will do!


  8. Hi Geoff,
    As Anthony said, I find this idea very interesting, but the amount of paperwork etc that it involves does seem quite off-putting, especially because it seems all of the templates etc would need to be created from scratch. Do you know of anywhere where some of these things already exist? (I’m about a month behind on reading blogs, so apologies if that question is answered in a later post)
    I’ve just become a DoS at a school with 19 teachers, many of whom are new to the profession, and about 800 students, so a lot of what we do is based around course books. The main exception to this is 121 students, where it’s much easier to negotiate a syllabus. I’m very interested in investigating alternative ways of helping teachers provide what the students need, but I feel like I need to do a lot more research before I’m ready to train others to do this. Reading your blog and others is one step towards this, but I often feel like I’m missing a lot of the theoretical principles behind it, not having done an MA. What would you recommend as a beginner’s reading list for task-based learning or any of the other principles behind a negotiated syllabus?
    Thank you,
    Sandy Millin


  9. Hi Sandy,

    I don’t know why you think a lot of paperwork would be involved, or why templates would be involved. Perhaps you can explain.

    As for your second question, I recommend the following reading:
    Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary paradigms in Syllabus Design, Part 1. Language Teaching , Volume 20 / Issue 02.
    Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary paradigms in Syllabus Design, Part 2. Language Teaching , Volume 20 / Issue 03. (Part 2 explains both task-based and process syllabuses. This is the place to start. )

    White, R. (1988) The ELT Curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management. Oxford: Blackwell.
    (Ron White had an interesting running argument with Michael Breen so this makes interesting reading.)

    Breen, M. and Littlejohn, A. (eds.) (2010) Classroom Decision Making: Negotiation and Process Syllabuses in Practice. Cambridge: CUP. (Good Introduction and a few good chapters.)

    Crookes, G. (2013) Critical ELT in Action: Foundations, Promises, Praxis. Cambridge: CUP. )Madly expensive, but recent and cogently-argued.)


    1. Thanks for that list Geoff.
      I think the idea of needing templates came from the list of tools you have in the post – this would be if it was something to train teachers across a school, especially those new to the profession. It would probably be a huge challenge for them to come up with questionnaires etc, so more experienced/senior teachers would probably have to create templates for them to use, at least initially.


  10. Hi Sandy,

    Please forgive me for not replying sooner to your comment – I’m afraid I didn’t see it until today. Thanks for clarifying what you meant, I quite understand your concern, and there’s no denying that ditching the coursebook involves an initial investment of teacher time. But where there’s a will ….

    I really don’t think that much training is needed, and as for materials, there are very good questionnaires, etc. already available on line – just Google what you’re looking for (maybe start here: ). What if you had a meeting with a few of the more experienced teachers, those keen to try out an alternative approach, and you came up with a couple of pilot courses with their own process framework and bank of materials?


  11. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for this post. I worked as an English instructor in a Second Chance School from 2007 to 2011. We had no pre-specified curricula and there were no course books. We designed our materials based on negoation and collaboration with the learners as you point out in your post. Negotiation was not so prominent in the beginning of the course, where teacher decisions set the tone, but as the course of the two-year studies evolved more power and decision making were devolved to the learners.

    It was not a lot of paperwork as far as I can remember and I, alongside many of the colleagues I met during my four years there, liked the fact that the SCS culture encourages teachers’ initiative and offers wider scope for challenging traditional teaching culture. The initial contract (what, why, how) with the groups was done on large sheets of paper and placed on the classrooms’ walls as a constant reminder during the course of studies and regularly revisited through the different phases, initial questionnaires, one-to-one consultations for individualized help, a materials bank that was gradually built, portfolios and class assemblies to discuss and evaluate outcomes. Descriptive evaluation for each student, no tests or grades, along the lines of the consistency of attendance, participation and commitment to the school programme. We also regulary experimented with collaborative teaching, workshops and projects. When I returned to mainstream education I carried with me a precious experience which greatly informed my teaching thereon.

    The in-service training I had while working in the SCSs was not so much focused on teaching English as on the theoretical background of adult education. Freire was the inspirational prominent figure, but as adult education policies and practices became more institutionalized Mezirow’s transformative learning theory was favoured and there was a shift of attention from the social to the individual. Pity I was not familiar with the relevant elt background on the issue. Your posts and recommended reading would be just what I needed back then. I’ll try if any of these or relevant excerpts are free online.



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