Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners

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Designing a topic-based syllabus for young learners
James M. Bourke

In recent years there has been a good deal of debate on the teaching of English to young learners. Although the article looks at the teaching of English to lower primary children in an E S L context in Southeast Asia, it is not specific to one region. The young learners in question are aged 6 to 8 years. The main focus of thearticle is how best to design a syllabus and classwork materials suitable for young learners wherever they may be. The writer stresses the need for appropriate targetsetting and makes the case for a topic- based/task-based syllabus. The underlying rationale is that a second language syllabus should reflect the world of the child and facilitate the bringing of acquisition into the classroom.Introduction

Although it is clear that different young learners have different English language needs, priorities, and motivations, it is now generally agreed that an early start is desirable and beneficial. Language acquisition seems to be one of the things that young children are particularly good at. The question is how best to get acquisition into the second language classroom and to provide thenecessary conditions for its growth and development across the primary curriculum. One of the major considerations is the matter of a syllabus. The syllabus is much more than an inventory of teaching items. It also defines the approach to teaching/learning. Every syllabus has to take account of contextual variables and constraints, and at the same time pay due regard to the principles of secondlanguage learning. In this paper it will be argued that there is a strong case for a topic-based/task-based approach to designing English language programmes for young learners. Second language syllabus design is an inexact science. Language syllabi are written with the specifics of a particular situation in mind. It is difficult to define linguistic outcomes precisely for learners of different agegroups, different socio-linguistic backgrounds, and different curricular experiences. Clearly, however, one needs overall goals within which specific outcomes or objectives can be set. For instance the goals of an English language syllabus for young learners might be the following (adapted from the primary English syllabus for Brunei): n to help pupils communicate effectively in English, in order todiscuss personal experiences, and to meet the demands of the school curriculum

Syllabus design: goals and content

E LT Journal Volume 60/3 July 2006; doi:10.1093/elt/ccl008

279

ª The Author 2006. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.

n to facilitate the acquisition of fluency and accuracy through active participation in a range of appropriate tasks n to developemergent reading and to inculcate in pupils a fondness for reading n to introduce language items (e.g. structures, vocabulary) within the context of appropriate topics which can be talked about, read about, and written about. Assuming that the function of a syllabus is to generate appropriate units of work for a specific group of learners, one can see that a syllabus constructed to implement thefour broad goals above would have the following characteristics: n communicative activities such as games, cued dialogues, role-play, information gap exercises, and various other interactive tasks n communicative tasks supported by ‘enabling’ (i.e. language-oriented) tasks. The rationale here is that children will acquire the language as a byproduct of the activities in which they are engaged ngradual introduction of pupils to reading in English by means of the shared reading of Big Books, using both ‘look and say’ and phonic approaches n topic-related units of work derived from the syllabus. The topics provide the scaffolding around which the language grows and develops. They also provide the motivation for personal and group writing tasks. In all of this the needs and experiences of the...
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