The Common Sense Approach: The Flexible Syllabus--Balancing Time and Content
by Steve Schackne

The length of language classes varies greatly. I’ve seen classes as short as forty minutes, and I once taught a class that met once a week (Sunday) for 8 hours! That’s right, I flew from Kaohsiung, Taiwan to Taipei, Taiwan every Sunday morning for six weeks to teach an eight-hour class. The norm is usually an hour to an hour and a half, but two- and three-hour classes are not uncommon. Add to this the variable of weekly scheduling and holidays, and you have a wide range of teacher-student contact hours over the course of a semester. At my university, the grid ranges from 80 minutes x 2 to 120 minutes x 2 to 80 minutes x 4. Regardless of the setup, one unwritten rule at most traditional schools is “you teach or engage the students for the whole period.” I disagree with this approach.

In previous articles I have argued for variable teacher-student contact ( The Common Sense Approach: How One Teacher Organized a Speaking Course for 200 Chinese Graduate Students) and for progressively reduced teacher-student contact (The Common Sense Approach: Liberate Your ESL Students, Lead Them Out of the Classroom) If a lesson plan consists of introducing language, controlled practice, free/communicative practice, and communication, common sense would dictate that the more minutes spent on practice-communication the better; that is, the quicker you can get students to the stage of communicative practice--real communication, the more students will be able to improve their language.

Communicative activities involve a spontaneity which is unpredictable by nature. The student starts speaking (or writing) and the feedback, immediate or delayed, determines the length of the communicative event. A student writing an essay may find, through teacher feedback and/or editing that a second, third, or even a fourth draft may be necessary. Depending on what each individual student produces, ideas may have to be added, discarded, or re-shaped; structure and language might need minor or major revision. In other words, the process has a time span of its own, resistant to artificial limits set by the teacher or the syllabus. The assignment might last a week or several weeks depending on class schedule and individual progress.

Similarly, speech events, which most often have immediate feedback, can be hard to shape temporally in a syllabus. A student has three minutes to express an opinion, times fifteen students, that takes up forty-five minutes, leaving fifteen minutes for transition (in a one hour class). In reality, an opinion may need to be clarified; an opinion can give rise to a counter opinion which, in turn, may engender a third opinion or, at the very least, vocalize supporters and opponents of the original opinion. The student delivering the message and sitting down within three minutes may fit the confines of the lesson plan, but it is unnatural. The reality is that speech events have time spans of their own dictated by confounding variables such as logic, agreement, clarity, and an evolving reality which can be dependent on each individual utterance. For an example of what I am describing, simply watch a jury deliberation; better yet, watch the movie, 12 Angry Men. It takes place in a jury room during a murder trial—each exchange leads one to view events and realities in a different way, so an open and shut guilty verdict at the beginning evolves into an acquittal at the end.

Syllabuses and lesson plans are great tools, especially for visualizing and organizing a course, but trying to meet the time deadlines in a lockstep fashion can be both unnatural and pedagogically unsound. How many times have we seen teachers rush through a section because of time constraints, with the result that students have an insufficient grasp of the material.

A flexible syllabus makes the most sense and is the most natural approach. I currently walk into each eighty-minute class determined to cover one or two basic concepts, and reinforce them with activities. On some occasions, this is done in sixty minutes—I don't use filler to lengthen the class; the students are free to leave early, question the teacher, or simply reflect on the material. Sometimes, the material can not be completed in the eighty minutes. This most often occurs because of the unpredictable length of language events mentioned earlier, and is often a positive—students have become energized and are questioning, analyzing, re-forming, voicing opinion, and acting in any number of ways that reflect a real communicative situation.

In a course I currently convene, we are using a text with ten units, five planned for each semester. In the first semester, each teacher covered four chapters; in the current semester we have teachers who may cover four or five chapters; we anticipate all teachers to work beyond three chapters, but even that is not a guarantee. It sounds rather disorganized, but it mirrors real communication where digressions, twists, turns, and unpredictability, most often described in applied linguistics as an information gap, determine the time boundaries of a language event.

Getting through an entire syllabus in a set amount of time can often result in students covering material, but not mastering it. The flexible approach recognizes the unpredictability of real language events where students bring a communicative purpose into the classroom, a communicative purpose that will take an indeterminate time to fulfill. And in the end, which is better? Simply covering a 100% of the material or reaching a thorough grasp of 70-80% of the material?

Further Reading

Schackne, Steve. “The Common Sense Approach: How One Teacher Organized A Speaking Course For 200 Chinese Graduate Students,” in DevelopingTeachers.Com, 2005.

Schackne, Steve. The Common Sense Approach: Liberate Your ESL Students, Lead Them Out of the Classroom in TEFL Asia Magazine, January, 2006


Steve Schackne has spent 25 years in the field of linguistics. In addition to teaching, his background includes teacher training, program administration, and online-distance learning. He was educated at the University of North Carolina and the State University of New York, and has taken post graduate language training at Taipei Language Institute and the University of Macau.
His postings have included Taipei Language Institute, Tunghai University (Taiwan), Kansas University, Culver Educational Foundation, University of California--Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State University, University of Macau, Ming Chuan University (Taiwan), and Fooyin Institute of Technology (Taiwan). He has lectured and published all over the world, but is now best known for his educational resource web site, Schackne Online.

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