* M. Long On Syllabus Design


Here I give a summary of Long, (in Doughty, C. J., & Long, M. H. (eds.). (2003) Handbook of second language acquisition. New York: Basil Blackwell., and Long, M. H. (2007) Problems in SLA. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates) where he argues that SlA findings dispel any notions that learners learn what teachers teach when they teach it, and that synthetic syllabuses should be thrown in the dustbin. He then suggests 10 “Methodological Principles” for Task-based learning and 4 criteria by which they can be judged.

From here on, just about everything is verbatim Long.

Despite the fact that learners do not learn what teachers teach when they teach it, it is still the implicit assumption underlying synthetic approaches to ELT that learners do just that. The results of SLA research are simply incompatible with the use of a synthetic syllabus, where syllabus content consists of a pre-set list of linguistic (phonological, morphological, syntactic, lexical or collocational) forms and functions. As distinct from one-off uses in demonstration lessons or controlled experiments with simple structures carefully selected for specific groups of learners, a synthetic syllabus will almost always have been written without reference to students’ present or future communicative needs, as identified via a thorough needs analysis, and so is inefficient. It risks teaching more skills, vocabulary, genres, etc., than students can use, but also less, through not teaching language abilities they do or will need. It will also almost always have been prepared in ignorance of any particular group of students’ current developmental stages, especially if enshrined in commercially published textbook materials. Moreover, as any experienced teacher knows, and as shown, e.g., by the Pienemann (1984) study, learners within a group will often be at different developmental stages, even when labelled as having attained X or Y level of proficiency or having scored within a specified range on a placement test.

The research clearly shows that attempting to impose a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) is largely futile and counter-productive. It is largely futile because it only works if a form coincidentally happens to be learnable (by some students in a class), and so teachable, at the time it is presented. It is counter-productive for two reasons. First, attempts to teach forms that are unlearnable when introduced lead to frustration and failure on the part of teachers and students, alike. Second, the inappropriate focus, typically instantiated through presentation of isolated model sentences intended to provide minimal contexts for the target forms, results in impoverished input and output opportunities and means that richer input that would have been appropriate is not provided. So-called spiral, or cyclical, grammatical syllabi, which systematically revisit previously presented forms increase the chances of ‘hits,’ but are still inefficient because they attempt to work independently of the internal learner syllabus. By focusing on full native forms, typically with early forced production, followed by “correction” of the inevitable errors, as in ALM and the Silent Way, for example, synthetic approaches also implicitly assume that learners can move from no knowledge of a form to native-like mastery in one step, which the research shows almost never happens. They also assume that discrete forms and structures can be learned in isolation from one another, whereas the reality is far more complex. Native-like (stage 4) command of English negation, for example, requires control of verbal auxiliaries, tense, person, number, and word order.

It is worth noting that not just traditional linguistically based syllabi, but also most thematic, topic-based, and content-based approaches sit uneasily with the same research findings. With a few notable exceptions, e.g., work in the Vancouver School Board project (Early, 1991; Early, Mohan, & Hooper, 1989), most content-based teaching, for example, is largely synthetic. Instead of starting with the structure of the day, learners are typically presented with texts – static models of L2 use, but above the sentence level, where genuine texts are modified by removal of complex syntax, or texts written for non-native speakers with the same linguistic constraints in mind are offered.

As demonstrated by the results of evaluations of French immersion programs in Canada (see, e.g., Lapkin, Swain, & Hart, 1991; Lightbown, Spada, & White, 1993; Swain, 1991) high level communicative abilities are achievable through systematic experience of communicative target language use over extended periods of time. Except in the cases of the most talented learners, however, such accomplishments take an inordinate amount of time and generally fall far short of native-like proficiency.

Focus on Communication

To avoid a return to lessons full of grammar rules, overt error “correction” and pattern drills, with all their nasty side-effects, as many of the problem areas as possible should be handled within otherwise communicative lessons by briefly drawing learners’ attention to some items as and when problems arise, i.e., by focus on form. In this reactive mode (part of the definition, not an optional feature, of focus on form), the learner’s underlying psychological state is more likely to be optimal, and so the treatment, whatever PPs are employed, more effective. For example, while comparing car production in Japan and the USA as part of a pedagogic task designed to help students develop the ability to prepare and deliver a sales report, the target task, a learner might say something like “Production of SUV in the US fell by 30% from 2000 to 2004.” If the very next utterance from a the teacher or another student is partial recast in the form of a confirmation check, e.g., “Production of SUVs fell by 30%?,” as proposed in Long (1996b), the likelihood of the learner noticing the plural -s is increased by the fact that he or she is vested in the exchange, so is motivated to learn what is needed and attending to the response, already knows the meaning he or she was trying to express, so has freed up attentional resources to devote to the form of the response, and hears the correct form in close juxtaposition to his or her own, facilitating cognitive comparison. These are all reasons why implicit corrective recasts are believed to work as well as they do, without disturbing the fundamental communicative focus of a lesson, and why negative feedback is believed to work better than provision of the same numbers of models of a target form and/or tokens in ambient input (positive evidence). In contrast, with focus on forms, the teacher or the textbook, not the student, has selected a form for treatment. The learner is less likely to feel a need to acquire the new item, so will likely be less motivated, and less attentive. If the form is new, moreover, so, typically, will be its meaning and use, requiring the learner to process all three simultaneously.


22 thoughts on “* M. Long On Syllabus Design

  1. I haven’t had the time to read Long’s new book, but I’m sure I’ll find it really useful. 😉 Thanks for sharing material that are relevant. In my opinion your blog is not only relevant to postgraduate students, but to all teachers out there!


  2. Dear Geoff,

    “The research clearly shows that attempting to impose a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) is largely futile and counter-productive.”

    So, I guess, the theory is that interlanguage should dictate the syllabus. How do we know the state of students’ interlanguage? Why would motivation play a role if the determining factor is the readiness for learning? How fine grained is interlanguage? Does interlanguage / teaching miss-match, language input is not available for learning (I am not sure what this entails), impede communication?

    I am looking at the first reference to Long (2003). Is this where I can find the research that shows that teaching collocations is counter-productive? I would be very interested to know as I have very much shifted to teaching vocabulary in that way, i.e. never in isolation, always with co-text.


    Thomas K.


  3. Hi Thomas,

    The theory of interlanguage is just that: a theoretical explanation of the process of SLA. The theory itself says nothing about syllabus design, but Long suggests that those interested in syllabus design should take the theory into account. The theory is limited; while it makes a pretty conclusive case for there being a set order of acquisition of various parts of English, it doesn’t include any map of the process which could be used to inform those trying to decide in what order to present and practice parts of the language. Long argues that if you base teaching on the presentation and practice of bits of the language, whatever criteria you use for selection, you’re going to hit the same problems, so a better approach is to base teaching on first doing a needs analysis which identifies “Target Tasks” (tasks that the learners need to perform in the target language), and then designing “Pedagogic Tasks” which take into account questions like valency and criticality; frequency; learnability; complexity and difficulty. The best book on this is Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT.

    It’s not that teaching collocations is counter-productive, just that teaching anything out of context in a PPP kind of way is unlikely to be what most learners need most of the time.


  4. Hi again,

    That’s what I have come to see about interlanguage. I do not think it is a very useful construct for language teaching as we are left in the dark as to when doors open for this or that language feature to be incorporated. Also, it seems to me that the object of the learning task as interlanguage theory perceives it is structural and systematic. I wonder how we would address the vocabulary load. It is one thing to discuss third person s and definite article acquisition and another to understand and suggest ways of incorporating vocabulary. I guess interlanguage does not provide any leads as to how students can manage 10 to 50 thousand chunks, phrases, etc.?

    I think the notion of “students do not learn when we teach, what we teach” has its effect. I like to bring up the argument myself in teacher meetings. It is the antidote to PPP. At the same time, I think the idea must be qualified. While we cannot predict and pinpoint learning, we know that ultimately students do learn and teaching has an impact. It is just much messier than hoped for (and, in my opinion, we look for evidence of learning in the wrong place). I had terrible French lessons, but the little French I know I know exclusively due to my grammar/translation experience.


    Thomas k.


  5. Hi again, Thomas,

    IL theory suggests that SLA is a process involving all sorts of chaotic, ill-defined, non-linear features, but that learners follow a route which teachers can’t do much to influence. This in turn suggests that trying to calculate what doors open when for this or that language feature, in order to find the optimal sequence for the presentation and practice of target language features (whether they’re prosodic or lexical or grammatical or whatever), is a basically–flawed way of going about syllabus design. And also a powerful argument against systematically working your way through a coursebook with students.

    You say we know that ultimately students do learn and teaching has an impact. We also know that most students enrolled in English language courses fail to reach their objectives, and we have good reasons to believe (from research findings in instructed SLA) that some frameworks for classroom-based second language teaching are more likely to give good results than others. The problem, of course, is that there are too many variables (charismatic teacher, urgent need to learn, comfortable classroom in a safe and accessible environment, etc., etc. etc.) to ever be sure what’s causing what.


  6. Dear Geoff,

    If the contribution of IL is the understanding that learning a language is “chaotic”, a point I would agree with, we have not covered much new ground. I think we can get to this conclusion by other ways as well. The unique contribution of interlanguage, it seems, would be this somewhat opaque notion of fixed learning route. The futility of aligning teaching content along linguistic criteria, if I understand you correctly, is due then to these two factors, a) chaos, and b) hidden route. Above, you suggest as remedy focusing on students’ needs. I guess meaning that if a student needs to prepare for a business trip, we would teach travel language, etc. We would then have to face the puzzling question of appropriateness. Hence, your point about

    “Pedagogic Tasks” which take into account questions like valency and criticality; frequency; learnability; complexity and difficulty”.

    The problem of classroom sequencing, even with tasks, presents itself with the same underpinning difficulty. We cannot avoid selecting. And we select according to common sense appraisal of what is complex, advanced, and difficult. Having done a needs analysis, negotiating a syllabus, does not overcome the problems that complicate linguistic decisions. In my own teaching, I have attempted to “overcome” this dilemma by dropping “teaching language” and moving towards helping students cope with the memory load. (That’s why my question about vocabulary learning.)

    I completely agree that language programs notoriously over-promise. I also agree that NOT everything goes in the classroom. I agree that grammar teaching, with grammar being understood to be the things written in Raymond Murphy’s Grammar in Use, is pretty much a waste of time. I think PPP is a dangerous idea as it grossly oversimplifies the learning process. I think learning is responds to what students feel and think. Motivation seems important, and giving students a voice is a good thing. And yes, the variables, it is a rather frustrating thing to be groping in the dark for causes that might have given way to learning.

    Thomas k.


  7. IL theory suggests that SLA is a process which follows a more or less fixed route, not affected by either context or teaching to any great extent. Long (2015) suggests that classroom teaching should be informed by an external needs analysis which is used to construct pedagogic tasks. These tasks attempt to involve the learners in meaningful, contextualised communication about things they’ll have to do in English and, while questions of level, difficulty, etc. need to be addressed, the 3 big assumptions made by PPP-driven syllabuses and most coursebooks (see 2nd para here https://canlloparot.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/dellar-defends-the-coursebook/) are avoided.

    The problem of classroom sequencing mostly disappears with the use of Long’s pedagogic tasks, and is mostly irrelevant to a Dogme approach, or to a real process syllabus. Of course decisions remain to be made, but they are completely different decisions once we reject coursebooks and product-based syllabuses. Rejecting the coursebook and product-based syllabuses is very difficult for all sorts of reasons, but, IMHO Thomas, you won’t find a way of getting over your obvious frustration with ELT until you make that leap.


    1. Hi again,
      I will look for the Long reference.
      I read the posts on the coursebook debate. Whenever I find a either/or argument I get cautious. I have done both, Dogme and coursebooks and some shades between, and I think that the extreme positions are appropriate in certain contexts. Dogme and negotiated syllabus, task-based, and bottom up in its undiluted form would be difficult to implement when English is part of a national language policy. The approaches you recommend call for students that are actually interested in assuming a novel role as a student. This is not an argument to suggest that process syllabi are to be dismissed. It is part of realpolitik. I think we need to consider different contexts. There is a language learning sub-culture that grows out of a leisure society. I am very familiar with that. Where I am from people learn languages the way you would take a tango course–it is what you do in your free time. Then you have the language tourists. Germans spending some weeks in the UK. Then there is the purpose driven learner–I urgently need to be trained in presenting skills. Then you have the dislocated individual who got pushed out of his or her homeland and needs English to survive, ESL. But I think the vast majority of language learners are unintentional language learners. I just made a professional move from one context, the leisure and purpose driven learner, to another less fortunate one. That is, my students today are studying English because their program says so. And there are thousands. So, for the moment I try to optimize the learning environment taking into consideration the context, the teachers, the infrastructure, students, socially acceptable models of education, etc.

      If I could put up my add by the roadside, English for You, I am sure I would start designing my own stuff and engage in endless philosophical discussions on avocado growing principles with my students.




      1. Hi Geoff and Thomas,

        I agree “that attempting to impose a pre-set series of linguistic forms (pronunciation contrasts, grammatical structures, notions, functions, lexical items, collocations, etc.) is largely futile and counter-productive” but I see no need to replace it by some other kind pre-determined syllabus. Even if the syllabus is decided on in collaboration with the students at the beginning of the course, a month, a day, a minute later the content has become “dead” language. The only live language expresses what the students want to say “here and now”.

        Nearly all the syllabuses I’ve come across focus on the “language content” and on how to transfer this pre-existing content into the students. The techniques may be old-fashioned, boring “grammar translation” and “Presentation, Practice and Production” or modern, fun “Communicative learning” and “Task Based learning”. But the basic paradigm is the same: input of “texts” leads to output. Modern syllabuses select language content (written texts, audio and video recordings) that is relevant to the students needs or interests and expect students to internalise it through games, role plays, activities and tasks in the classroom or outside. I’ve never seen TBLT in practice but I gather from Wikipedia that the tasks proposed are non-linguistic “visiting a doctor, conducting an interview, or calling customer service for help”. Ellis (Ellis, Rod (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford Applied Linguistics) is quoted as defining a task by 4 main characteristics:
        1) A task involves a primary focus on (pragmatic) meaning.
        2) A task has some kind of ‘gap’ (Prabhu identified the three main types as information gap, reasoning gap, and opinion gap).
        3) The participants choose the linguistic resources needed to complete the task.
        4) A task has a clearly defined, non-linguistic outcome.

        Importing non-linguistic activities into the classroom to “spice up” the lessons with “interesting” texts and activities implies that language learning in and of itself is not an exciting human activity – it’s a pill that needs to be sugared. You might have guessed I disagree with this viewpoint. I feel it is a condescending attitude that deprives students of the opportunity of exploring one of the most intriguing achievements of human kind and of developing their own mental powers in the process.

        My focus on the classroom was not on “teaching the language” but on helping students to express themselves using English (Standard English) as a vhehicle for their thoughts and feelings.



      2. Hi Thomas,

        I don’t think the debate about syllabus design is best seen as “either / or”. IMO, it’s a debate about the pros and cons of using a coursebook to present and practice a pre-determined sequence of bits of the target language. IL theory serves as an argument against such use. Those who oppose coursebooks have a variety of alternatives to offer.


      3. Hi again,
        Maybe your strong anti course book position leads me to think that it is an either/or matter. With a pros and cons approach I would think the coursebook option is not a complete negative. I am not sure if IL theory provides such a strong backing to reject the product syllabus. We can agree that acquisition is oblivious to linguistic input (for the sake of the argument, I am not truly convinced that it is so). This will hold true regardless whether we present language in some designed, sequenced manner, or as a result of negotiated interest and need. The mind, or whatever does the acquiring, will pick and choose what it is ready for. The difference seems to be, and it is an important one, that students are more likely to enjoy, engage, etc a language learning experience that puts them center stage. These are humanistic goals, which, I think, was partially the impetus behind the IL model. If this is the point, some students are actually served quiet well with a structured, sequenced, logical presentation of the language. They need to make sense of what they are learning. I make it a point though that learning about language is not learning the language. If they are happy with meeting tenses one at the time, would I need to correct them in that?

        I am looking forward to reading the coming post.




      4. Hi Thomas,

        1. “Pros and cons” suggests, does it not, that there are arguments for both sides. Coursebooks are not a “complete negative”, they have much to recommend them, but those who argue against them say that the net effect is negative and that ELT would be better if it relied less on them.

        2. Nobody suggests that “acquisition is oblivious to linguistic input.”

        The rest of what you say is uncontroversial.

        It’s important to be clear about where those who promote coursebooks and those who object to their current dominance in ELT disagree.


      5. Hi again,
        1. Oh. This comes as a surprise. I got the impression that your position is much less “appeasing”. I do prefer this way.
        2. Poor wording on my part; I wanted to capture the idea that IL would see language acquisition as not directly responding to teaching effort. That would be true for any kind of syllabus.

        Off to class.



  8. Hi Glenys,

    Thanks very much for another valuable contribution to these pages. In response to growing criticisms of the modern coursebook, three alternatives are being increasingly discussed, and all of them offer answers to your central concern, viz.: that the current ELT paradigm, so often exemplified in a coursebook, focuses “on “language content” and on how to transfer this pre-existing content into the students.”

    1. Dogme. This seems to most closely reflect your views.

    2. Long’s TBLT, which is absolutely opposed to the R.Ellis description you cite. Although it carefully specifies some “language content”, I think it deserves your consideration.

    3. Breen’s process syllabus, which I made a rather poor attempt to promote last year.

    In response to your, Thomas’ and other recent comments I intend to write a post on all this shortly


  9. Part 1
    Hi Geoff,

    You’re very sweet to me!

    I’ve known about Dogme for a long time and am still enrolled in the Dogme Yahoo group though I haven’t participated since 2004, because, as I wrote in February of that year, ‘I don’t often write to this list because I’m not sure if what I do is really “Dogme”‘. I’m still not sure though I’m often in agreement with what Scott Thornbury writes. It’s not clear to me what Dogme teachers actually do in the classroom to get students to produce correct English. They seem to rely quite a lot on “materials”. Of the 10 key principles listed by Thornhill and quoted here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogme_language_teaching#cite_note-Thornbury2005-4 only 2, 5, and 6 relate to what I mainly did in the classroom. There is no mention of what I found most important: helping students to acquire internal criteria of how the language functions and so become autonomous.


  10. Part 3/5
    You say here: https://canlloparot.wordpress.com/2014/10/09/task-based-language-teaching/ MP6 that Long’s most well-known contribution to pedagogy is “focus on forms” and give a list of focus-on-form techniques. I couldn’t agree more with you and Long that learners do not necessarily learn what teachers teach when they teach. (They sometimes do – human beings love learning if they haven’t had their natural curiosity physically or metaphorically beaten out of them at school.) Most of the techniques described there I never used and would never wish to use as a language teacher – they mainly seem concerned with “texts” and non-linguistic “tasks”. I don’t mean to imply that studying texts (written or video) and carrying out tasks and projects are not worthwhile activities in their own right – in fact, if they’re chosen and carried out in the way you and Long suggest they are immensely beneficial to university students’ general culture, to developing their critical thinking abilities and preparing them for further academic studies. It’s just that I don’t believe they are the most efficient way to learn to speak a language, that is, to produce a sequence of sounds in the order and with the pronunciation and rhythm that is acceptable to the language community concerned.


    1. Hi Glenys and Geoff,
      I have tried to do focus on form married to Lewis’ suggestions for the classroom. I understand that Geoff does not have much good to say about Lewis’ ideas. At the same time, I have found the focus on form coupled with explicit vocabulary teaching rather useful. I say this for myself as language learner. I got a hold of a collocation dictionary 10 years ago. Just reading the various entries on words I felt I had well-learnt helped me activate, become aware of, futher options. Then I took it to the classroom trying to find ways to help students come up with better vocabulary learning habits. So, I guess I do focus on form by making explicit reference to the way words tend to “attract” each other.


  11. Part 4/5
    Speaking a language is a know-how and like any know-how you learn it by doing it and putting one’s attention on “how” one says it, not on “what” or “why” one says it. Speaking mechanically is not sufficient either, of course. All one’s attention needs to be focussed on the process and not on the outcome. I decided to learn drive because I knew it was a handy way for travelling from A to B, but when I was in the car, sitting in the driver’s seat, I had to put all my attention on controlling the car and coordinating the movements of hands, legs and eyes and not without forgetting to be aware of what other road users were doing and taking that into account. I had no time to think of what I’d do when I’d mastered the skill and it would have made no difference anyway. My final objective could have been to become the Queen’s chauffeur or to be the getaway driver for bankrobbers, I’d still have had to go through the same learning process.


  12. Part 5/5
    By the way, I’m very grateful to you, Geoff, for introducing me to William O’Grady. I downloaded his book How Children Learn Language and am having a most enjoyable and informative read. (Long and Breen will have to wait.) I didn’t know I was an emergentist before but now I do … and I’ll be able to show off because I’m pretty sure most of my friends and relations have never heard of it. O’Grady has some wonderful examples of how children learn.



  13. Hi Glenys,
    The Long and Larsen-Freeman book is very good, IMO, although not easy to read.
    I don’t actually love to hate Larsen-Freeman’s recent work, I just hate it 🙂


  14. Hi Geoff,
    Another point. You and Long seem to think “implicit corrective recasts” by the teacher work in oral lessons. That is not my experience either as a teacher or a learner. When a speaker is focussed on communicating a meaning (the “what’) they don’t pay attention to the “how” of a reformulation by another person. They notice – and appreciate – that the other person is really listening to them which stimulates them to invest even more in communicating their ideas with minimal attention to form. I found that to get students to pay attention to form in their oral expression I had draw their attention much more vigorously to their mistakes. Just an example:
    1) I’d write -s on the board and point to it when a student omitted it.
    2) Then I’d make students responsible for pointing to the -s.
    3) Then I’d rub off the -s and students would just point to the empty space where the -s had been as a hint to another student.
    4) After a while, even pointing wasn’t necessary to get a student to self-correct – just an eye movement by me or another student would enough.
    5) Later, I’d notice students who’d omitted the -s looking themselves at the empty space and self-correcting without any outside help.
    6) The step-before-last was when they’d stop and correct themselves without looking at the board at all – they could “see” the -s in their own minds.
    7) The final step would be to produce the -s without any hesitation.

    Written reformulations worked a bit better because students could compare the two versions because they remain static on the page and the chances of their noticing the difference is therefore greater. Even then I found I had to write the -s large and red for most students to notice what I was doing. Otherwise they paid attention only to the content of what I wrote – that’s what they were used to doing with teachers comments.



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