Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses, Part 2


In Part 1, I gave a brief summary of the main differences between synthetic and analytic syllabuses, emphasizing how little time synthetic syllabuses give to the development of implicit (procedural) knowledge of the L2. I argued that the synthetic syllabuses used in coursebooks contradict robust findings from SLA research by wrongly assuming that the explicit teaching of declarative knowledge (knowledge about the L2) will lead to the procedural knowledge learners need in order to successfully use the L2 for communicative purposes. I further argued that the analytic syllabus used in Long’s TBLT is likely to be more efficacious, because it conforms to SLA research findings which support the view that SLA is essentially a matter of learning by doing. If communicative competence is the goal, implicit learning is far more important than explicit learning, and it follows that classroom time should be devoted to the accomplishment of communicative tasks, during which, attention can be given to formal aspects of the L2.

In this Part 2, I look in more detail at the two types of syllabus, in order to clear up confusion caused by equating synthetic / analytic syllabuses with product / process syllabuses and Type A / Type B syllabuses.

Synthetic vs. Analytic Syllabuses

Long & Crookes (1992) updated Wilkins’ (1976) original distinction between these two types, and in doing so, moved Wilkins’ own notional-functional syllabus from the analytic category, where Wilkins had put it, into the synthetic category.

Synthetic syllabuses cut the L2 up into linguistic “items” which are treated one at a time in a step-by-step sequence. Items include words, collocations, grammar rules, sentence patterns and pronunciation norms, and examples of synthetic syllabuses are grammatical, lexical and notional /functional. Coursebooks series such as Headway, Outcomes and English File implement a synthetic syllabus. Items of the L2 are first selected for inclusion in the syllabus, and then sequenced for treatment. Once the content and sequencing decisions have been made, the items are contextualized, presented, explained and then practiced. Thus, learning an L2 consists of gradually accumulating knowledge of its parts. The syllabuses are called synthetic because they expect the learner to “re-synthesize” the language that has been broken down into a large number of small items for practical teaching reasons.

Analytic syllabuses work in reverse. They start with the learner and learning processes. Students are exposed to samples of the L2, which, while they may have been modified, are not controlled for structure or lexis in the way a synthetic syllabus demands. The learners’ job is to use the samples in communicative tasks in such a way that they analyze the input, and thereby induce rules of grammar and use for themselves. There is no overt or covert linguistic syllabus. More attention is paid to message and pedagogy than to formal aspects of the L2. The idea is that, much in the way children learn their L1, adults can best learn an L2 incidentally, through using it. Analytic syllabuses are implemented using spoken and written activities and texts, modified for L2 learners, chosen for their content, interest value, and comprehensibility. In the classroom, the focus is on students using the language in communicative tasks, as opposed to treating the L2 as an object of study. Grammar and vocabulary presentations, drills, and strictly controlled oral practice are seldom used. TBLT, Dogme, some immersion programmes, and some CLIL courses use analytic syllabuses.

Product vs Process Syllabuses

Breen (1987) classified syllabuses into two basic types: “propositional” and “Process”.  (Note that the first type is more usually referred to, although not by Breen, as a “product” syllabus.) According to Breen, the propositional syllabus represented the “dominant paradigm” in 1987. Two examples of propositional syllabuses given by Breen are the “formal” (grammar) syllabus and the “functional” syllabus; both see the syllabus as a propositional plan giving a detailed description of what is to be taught. Once the content of the syllabus has been determined, the teacher works through the syllabus using appropriate materials and (variations of) a “Present -> Practice -> Produce” (PPP) methodology.

In contrast, a Process syllabus is concerned with “how something is done”. It is interested in two “How?” questions. First, how is communication in the L2 done? In other words, how is the L2 used so that correctness, appropriacy, and meaningfulness are simultaneously achieved during communication within a certain range of events and situations? The syllabus is derived from an analysis of language use in a variety of events and situations, and maps out the procedural knowledge which enables a language user to communicate within them.

The second “How?” question is what really distinguishes a Process syllabus from the rest. It asks: how should learners participate in the experience of language learning? Breen says: “Just as tasks are socially situated in real communication in everyday life, the Process syllabus recognises that communication and learning in classrooms are also socially situated in the classroom group. In a sense, the Process syllabus addresses three interdependent processes: communication, learning, and the group process of a classroom community” (Breen, 1987b, p. 161). As a result of this all-important concern with the group process, Breen rejects the task-based syllabus because although it addresses the first “How?” question adequately, it does not sufficiently address the second one. Breen’s Process syllabus is “primarily a syllabus which addresses the decisions which have to be made and the working procedures which have to be undertaken for language learning in a group. It assumes, therefore, that the third process – how things may be done in the classroom situation – will be the means through which communicating and learning can be achieved” (Breen, 1987b, p. 166).

The Process syllabus completely breaks the mould (the established paradigm) of syllabus design, and thus it can’t be described in terms of the five questions which Breen applies to other types of syllabus, including task-based. Breen replaces the five questions with three concerns: (a) what the Process syllabus provides; (b) the relationship between the Process syllabus and the content or subject matter to be learned and (c) the rationale of the Process syllabus. In terms of what it provides, the Process syllabus consists of a plan relating to the major decisions which teacher and learners need to make during classroom language learning, and a bank of classroom activities made up of sets of tasks. The plan is presented in terms of questions which teacher and learners together discuss and agree upon. Questions refer to three main aspects of classroom work: participation, procedure and subject-matter. “Teacher and learners are involved in a cycle of decision-making through which their own preferred ways of working, their own on-going content syllabus, and their choices of appropriate activities and tasks are realised in the classroom” (Breen, 1987b, p. 167).

Below is Breen’s summary:

In a separate post, I’ve updated a sketch of a “Process task-based syllabus” that I did some years ago, just to give an idea of what a Process approach might lead to in TBLT. Mike Long, not surprisingly, did not think much of it, and I agree with his criticisms. I won’t go through those criticisms here, suffice it to note that there are very important differences between Breen’s Process syllabus and Long’s (2015) task-based syllabus. While Long’s syllabus is clearly an analytical syllabus, it is equally clearly not a Process syllabus. Long thinks it’s a mistake to give students such a pivotal role in the design of the syllabus; his task-based syllabus relies on its special type of needs analysis, and on the protagonism of the students in carrying out the tasks, to ensure that the course is learner-centred, relevant and efficacious. In Long’s opinion, syllabus design should be carried out by experts who rely on the data collected from domain experts, language scholars, teachers, and the students themselves, in order to make pedagogic tasks, which together comprise the syllabus that all lessons in a course are built around.

Type A and Type B syllabuses (R.V. White, 1988)

Type A syllabuses, are “interventionist” – the content of the syllabus is decided by preselecting the language to be taught, dividing it up into small pieces or items, determining learning objectives, and assessing success and failure in terms of achievement or mastery. These syllabuses are thus, says White, “external to the learner”, “other-directed” and “determined by authority”.

Type B syllabuses, on the other hand, are “noninterventionist”. No preselection or arrangement of items to be taught is made and objectives are determined by a process of negotiation between teacher and learners  as the course evolves. They are thus, says White, internal to the learner, they emphasise the process of learning rather than the subject matter, and assessment is carried out “in relationship to learners’ criteria for success”.

Here’s a summary:

Like Breen’s Process syllabus, a Type B syllabus evolves as it goes along, and thus it is fundamentally different to Long’s task-based syllabus, where the pedagogic tasks which make up the syllabus have already been decided, albeit as a result of a detailed needs analysis.


Wales High Resolution Efficacy Concept

Long & Crookes, Breen and R.V. White used their dichotomous categories of syllabus types in order to argue for change. In the name of efficacy, they all wanted to move away from the dominant syllabus type, which they described in their own ways as synthetic, propositional (product) and Type A syllabuses, respectively. These syllabuses share the same fatal flaw: they reduce second language learning to one more subject in the curriculum, making the L2 an object of study, like the human body in biology or the globe in geography. As an object of study, the L2 is chopped up into bits to facilitate the sequential teaching of the items which make up its parts, on the false assumption that declarative knowledge can be transformed into procedural knowledge through a certain type of practice. All these syllabuses adhere to Caroll’s (1966) view that L2 learning starts with explicit knowledge: through presentation / contextualization /explanation / comprehension checks / etc., the students have the items of language under consideration explained to them.

“Once the student has a proper degree of cognitive control over the structure of a language, facility will develop automatically with the use of the language in meaningful situations” (p.66).

This contrasts with the opposite, modern view, eloquently expressed by Hatch (1978):

“Language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations. One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed” (p. 404).

Hatch’s view informs analytic, process and Type B syllabuses, all of which are based on the assumption that there is a weak interface between declarative and procedural knowledge and that procedural knowledge is best developed by engaging in relevant tasks where the focus is on meaning, but where the teacher provides scaffolding and feedback in order to improve the rate and quality of interlanguage development.

For all their agreement, it’s important to highlight the differences in the three accounts, especially the difference between Long & Crookes’ synthetic / analytic distinction, and the others. Breen and R.V. White are particularly concerned with the collaboration between teacher and students, as a result of which they both see “evolution” and “negotiation” as core elements of a syllabus. The syllabus is not pre-written, it evolves as procedures and content are continuously negotiated during the course. Long & Crookes (1992), on the other hand, use the synthetic / analytic distinction to argue for a certain type of task-based syllabus (one based on identifying target tasks and then designing pedagogic tasks), which, they claim, is more efficacious than Breen’s process syllabus, for various reasons.

The differences in the three dichotomies may help to sort out Chinaski’s doubts. I don’t know her real name, but “Chinaski” is the handle she uses on Twitter, where she has made quite a few comments about Long’s (2015) TBLT. Here’s an example:  

“I understand synthetic syllabuses to necessarily entail a product (Type A) approach to syllabus design in which the product covered by each unit of work, be it grammatical, discoursal, functional, situational, etc., is synthesised by learners and assimilated into their burgeoning language system. I would imagine Skehan’s process Type B approach to be further along the analytic continuum in that tasks are the medium and not the object of learning. Surely “building block” tasks and “exit” tasks are the hallmarks of a synthetic approach and reflect a concern for an accountability in ELT in line with neoliberal thinking”.

Synthetic syllabuses don’t “necessarily” entail covering a “product” in each unit of work – they “cover” bits of language. More precisely, each unit in a coursebook that implements a synthetic syllabus focuses on a few specific, discrete linguistic entities – structures, lexis, and notions and functions. Long’s task-based syllabus doesn’t use linguistic entities, but rather tasks, as its “course currency” or “unit of analysis”. His syllabus consists of a sequence of pedagogic tasks; these are derived from target tasks which are identified by a needs analysis. Examples of target tasks (described in Long, 2015) are flight attendants serving food & drinks; migrant workers in California dealing with a police stop while driving to work, and writing an article in English for a Catalan newspaper. The aim of the pedagogic tasks is to build students’ interlanguages so that they can eventually perform the identified target tasks. The pedagogic tasks use “elaborated” and “modified”, as opposed to “simplified” oral and written texts to provide input, and the “exit” pedagogic task is often a simulation of an identified target task. These pedagogic tasks might well be seen as building blocks, but that doesn’t make them “products”; they are not parts of a propositional syllabus as Breen uses the term, nor are they well-described as parts of a Type A syllabus. Using elaborated and modified texts to perform a relatively simple version of a target task is not the same as using simplified texts to teach a particular formal aspect of the L2, like the comparative of adjectives, for example.

Nevertheless, while to describe Skehan’s approach as “process Type B” is wide of the mark, and while I don’t think the synthetic / analytic distinction is best seen as a continuum, I think Chinaski points to something interesting when she says that Skehan’s approach to TBLT is “further along the analytic continuum in that tasks are the medium and not the object of learning”. Long’s syllabus lays out a course aimed at giving students the ability to complete certain target tasks. In Long’s words, the syllabus aims “to help students to develop their language abilities gradually to meet the demands of increasingly complex tasks, linguistic problems being treated reactively, as they arise” (Long, 2015, p. 222). Skehan, meanwhile, as I think Chinaski suggests, sees tasks as the best framework for teaching an L2, rejects Long’s reliance on identifying target tasks, and is not particularly concerned with the detailed design of pedagogic tasks.

In Ellis, Skehan, Li, Shintanti & Lambert’s (2019) TBLT, Theory and Practice, Skehan follows Rod Ellis in arguing that an “operational” syllabus is better than an “illuminative” one (these are Prabhu’s (1978) terms). An operational syllabus is said to have the relatively modest aim of providing course content from which teachers can make their own lesson plans and reach appropriate goals for their learners in their local contexts. It specifies only what will be taught, not how it will be taught. “The content is fixed, but how the teacher uses the content is flexible” (Ellis, et al, 2019, p. 212). On the other hand, an “illuminative” syllabus is much more thorough and makes a considerable effort to ensure that “what is taught and what is learned are carefully aligned”. The examples given of illuminative syllabuses are “those used in workplace training where employees are briefly trained in how to perform key tasks (e.g., cleaning bathrooms at an airport, preparing a hotel room)”. Ellis and Skehan argue that an illuminative syllabus is undesirable, because it’s too prescriptive and it thus limits teachers’ and learners’ freedom to make the many intuitive decisions and adjustments which “optimize learners’ mastery of syllabus content”.

I personally find Ellis et al’s discussion of operational and illuminative syllabuses wholly unconvincing and very lacking in substance; but while it certainly needs a response, here is not the place. I mention it only because I think it’s interesting that Skehan seems to sign up to Ellis’ view of TBLT, and because it has some relevance to Chinaski’s doubts. My aim has been the modest one of clarifying how three different accounts of syllabus design have used three similar, but not identical terms to classify syllabuses into two opposing types.


Breen, M. (1987a). Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part 1. Language Teaching, 20,2, 81-92.

Breen, M. (1987b). Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part 2. Language Teaching, 20, 3, 157-174.

Carroll, J. B. (1966). The contribution of psychological theory and educational research to the teaching of foreign languages’ in A. Valdman (ed.). Trends in Language Teaching. McGraw-Hill, 93–106.

Ellis, R., Skehan, P., Li, S., Shintani, N., and Lambert, C. (2019). Task-based language teaching: Theory and practice. Cambridge University Press.

Hatch, E. (ed.) (1978). Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings. Newbury House.

Long, M. (2015) TBLT and SLA. Wiley.

Long, M. H., & Crookes, G. (1992). Three approaches to task‐based syllabus design. TESOL Quarterly, 26(1), 27-56.

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

Wilkins, D. A. (1976). Notional syllabuses. Oxford University Press


3 thoughts on “Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses, Part 2

  1. Pingback: A Sketch of a Process-influenced, Task-based Syllabus for English as an L2 | What do you think you're doing?

  2. Pingback: Synthetic and Analytic Syllabuses, Part 1 | What do you think you're doing?

  3. Pingback: A Summary | What do you think you're doing?

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