Number one for English language teachers

Teaching approaches: the negotiated syllabus

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

An article discussing the notion of the negotiated syllabus.


Two recent articles in the EL Gazette (November 2000 and January 2001 respectively) have focused on the issue of the ‘negotiated syllabus.’

The negotiated syllabus in ELT is a term which means that the content of a particular course is a matter of discussion and negotiation between teacher and student(s), according to the wishes and needs of the learner(s) in conjunction with the expertise, judgment and advice of the teacher.

The original article was a provocative denunciation of the practice, while the second was a cogent defence of the same. Like many issues in English Language Teaching, there is, of course, no definite answer. One can make a convincing list of points in favour of a particular technique and one week later make an equally convincing list of points against. Perhaps it is one of the strong points of our profession that we are able constantly to question and evaluate in order to establish better practice.

As with many techniques and approaches in ELT, when taken to extremes the negotiated syllabus can arouse strong feelings. At the one extreme, learners may well respond extremely negatively to being asked on the first morning of their course "Well, what do you want to do?" The impression that question can give, particularly before a comfortable rapport has been established within the group, is that the teacher is unprepared and unprofessional. It is also worth remembering that many learners have no experience whatsoever in having a say in the content of their course. Their educational background has simply not provided for such an eventuality.

At the other extreme, the teacher who ploughs on regardless through reams of material that may be irrelevant to the needs and wishes of the learners is soon likely to encounter similar negative reactions. As usual in our profession, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. By being aware of the possible reaction of some learners to the wholesale application of the negotiated syllabus and by the reaction of others to the imposition of an external syllabus, a successful teacher should generally be able to keep most of the learners happy most of the time – an essential component of any course.

Those teachers who are required for whatever reason to follow a particular coursebook or course programme will probably find it productive to get regular feedback from their learners on what they find interesting and useful in the coursebook and what they find less important to their needs. Teachers who base their courses on more eclectic sources (teachers on short intensive courses, for example) may benefit from the use of a "menu" approach, offering their learners a list of possible areas to cover and inviting them to amend it and add to it. So we end up with the typical ELT balancing act but it just might be preferable to rejecting the approach outright or applying it wholesale without regard to the feelings of the learners.

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