Although the academic year is over here in the Czech Republic, my enthusiasm hasn’t dipped yet and I still keep myself occupied with the ELT stuff. I’m currently grappling with the syllabus for the next year senior students.
Let’s be honest; the coursebook always comes in handy during the planning stage. However, it’s different with this particular course, mainly because we don’t use a coursebook anymore. This is not a popular move I have suddenly decided to make – it’s simply the way it always is.
The main goal of the syllabus is clear – to prepare my students for the final state exam in English. This limitation predominantly determines the content of the course, but it also gives me, the teacher, a lot of freedom to choose 1) the order of the items that will be covered throughout the course, 2) the scope of the content 3) what exactly will be tested and how 4) the materials and 5) the tools that will be used to present the material.
There are 25 topics in the oral part of the exam, which need to be covered by the end of April. Although most of the exam is regulated by the Ministry of Education, these particular topics were agreed on a long time ago by the then members of our English Department, and they include general areas such as travelling, hobbies, reading, films, as well as factual topics, such as basic facts about English speaking countries.
As a rule of thumb, it’s good to cover 3-4 topics each month. It’s quite a challenge because there are other things that need to be practised, such as certain written styles and forms (formal/informal letter, e-mail, invitation, description, article, narrative, etc.). Also, throughout their final academic year, senior students need to practise listening, reading, and the Use of English type of exercises, which are part of the B1+ exam too.
All the aforementioned objectives basically constitute the framework I’m limited by. While creating the syllabus, I first consider the order of the topics. As I said, it is totally up to me which topic I start with. Nobody cares about the order in which we cover the topics, but once I produce the syllabus, I should stick to it. Thus, I find it important to carefully think things through in advance. I obviously try come up a logical order, i.e. after the summer holidays, we won’t discuss Christmas traditions, but we’ll do Travelling because the students will have visited various places around the world, so there will be a lot to share. Although I’ll provide my students with texts and materials to study from, the content of this unit will largely be created by the students’ experience and their own, personalised input.
Another topic that is closely related to Travelling is the Czech Republic and a separate topic – Prague. I assume many students will have travelled around the country as well, so they’ll be able to come up with loads of personalised content. Finally, we’ll slowly proceed to a slightly more demanding topic – the Education System. We’ll talk about the Czech education system first and then go on to discuss schooling in the UK. I find it highly beneficial when students are encouraged to juxtapose. Thus, while planning the syllabus, I try to create as many opportunities for comparison and contrasting as possible.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Czech teenagers don’t generally read a great deal. Luckily, they do have to read quite a few books for their Maturita Exam in Czech. Based on my observations, many of them postpone the compulsory reading till the very last minute. Thus, I have included the topic Reading, my Favorite Books and Writers at the end of April. By then, the students will have read some fiction and they’ll won’t feel awkward when I ask them about the books they’ve read.
This was some of the basic reasoning behind the order of the topics. As far as the written styles are concerned, most of them will be tightly related to the topics. For example, to practise narrating events, at the end of September, when we’ll have talked about holidays and travelling, I’ll ask my students to write a story about their best holiday experience. As soon as we’ve talked about friends, family and relationships later in October, we’ll go on to practise writing invitations.
In my plan, there’s also a column for grammar, which I also need to consider during the planning stage. To be honest, this is the hardest part for me. Most of the B1 grammar has already been covered. However, some of it has been forgotten and needs to be revised. Again, I look at the topics and estimate which grammatical features are likely to emerge at each stage. To put it simply, when talking about holidays, it is likely that we’ll most often come across the past simple/continuous and present perfect simple. This is what I have included in the plan, but I can’t obviously predict what other grammatical features will pop up and which will have to be dealt with. This is the emergent part which I look forward to most.
At the moment, I don’t really care about the vocabulary section of the plan. Vocabulary will always be determined by the topic and the materials we will use. It will emerge along the way, so to speak. I use several specific online resources to download the exam-related materials (this one is my favourite), but they keep updating the sites so I don’t know exactly which text or visuals I will ultimately choose for a particular class. Also, I have already a thick folder with assorted photocopiable materials from previous years, so I’ll decide on the best text when the time comes. Plus I don’t know what the students will finally come up with. Based on my experience, it’s not good to plan every detail in advance anyway because each class is different – some classes are faster, some need more time to process the content. Some classes will do with basic facts while others will appreciate a more challenging input.
Well, this was my sprinkling of wisdom about syllabus design. Next year, I’ll do my best when implementing what I have planned, but I’m too experienced to assume that things will go strictly according to plan.