ESL Syllabus Design


If you are an instructor of second language learners at the college level, ESL syllabus design will be a key component of your course preparation. The effectiveness of your class will greatly depend on how the lessons unfold over time. Many factors will play a role: what readings you select, what homework you assign, the quizzes you prepare, the writing prompts you create, and so on. The following suggestions are designed to help you quell your fears and develop a useful strategy for ESL syllabus design.

ESL Syllabus Design: Basic Premise

One of the myths that must be dispelled is that ESL instruction is fundamentally different in some way than the instruction of native speakers. Over the last 30 years, research in rhetoric and composition studies has proven the same pedagogical methods that work with traditional populations also work with ESL populations. Of course, some of the content will possibly need to be adjusted depending on the reading and writing levels of the ESL students. However, the general approach to learning is no different for an English learner than for a native English speaker.

Student Learning Outcomes

The first obstacle to overcome when trying to solve the problem of ESL syllabus design is to figure out where to begin.

A good place to start is to consult the institution's student learning outcomes for the course you are teaching:

  • What is it that you are supposed to teach?
  • When a student completes your class with a passing grade, what are the abilities that he or she is expected to possess?

For example, a student learning outcome for a freshman composition class might be something like:

  • Students will be able to construct a thesis driven essay supporting their argument with external sources.
  • Students will be able to format their papers and incorporate citations following the guidelines provided by the Modern Language Association.

Sometimes this can be quite a long list with 10 or more items. With a little ingenuity, this list can be turned into a helpful guidepost. Grab your calendar and try to get a rough idea of how long you think it would take to cover each student learning outcome. If there are 15 outcomes and you are teaching a 16 week class, you could use one outcome per week as a rough outline to begin designing your syllabus.

Student Centered Learning Lessons

When designing a syllabus, instructors typically bounce back and forth from a macro view to a micro view. You must have some overall idea of where the course as a whole is going. In addition, each individual class session needs to have its own purpose and needs to be designed to provide optimal student engagement and retention.

When planning individual classes, a student centered approach should be followed whenever possible. While student centered learning benefits all student populations, it is particularly important for second language learners. Instructor driven courses, where the professor stands at the front of class and lectures, are generally an unsuccessful model. This is particularly true for ESL students.

When ESL students are enrolled in these types of coursework, their difficulty with the language combined with their lack of familiarity with the topic is a recipe for very little retention. As a native speaker, think back to how boring some lecture hall courses you took were. Imagine how much worse the experience would have been if you didn't understand the language being used!

Student centered learning involves these factors:

  • Briefly introducing a new topic at the beginning of a class
  • Giving students ample time to apply it on their own
  • Reviewing the concepts at the end

Using a 50 minute course as an example, a typical class would include:

  1. Begin with a 10-15 minute lecture that would introduce the concepts to be covered that day.
  2. Ask students to perform some sort of task to apply that concept on their own. This could be in the form of group work or some kind of individual exercise. This is the most important part of the student's time spent in class and would typically last 20-25 minutes.
  3. Reconvene during the remaining 10-15 minutes at the end of the class to share the students' experiences with the material. This sharing period encourages students to apply themselves to the task because they may be asked to address the class as a whole. It also provides a period of review where the concepts are reinforced.

Follow Your Instincts

The work of a college instructor has more in common with the self-employed business owner than you might initially think. It's very common, particularly among adjunct and part-time faculty, to be handed a key to a classroom and to be left alone. While this can be a bit intimidating in the early stages of your career, it is ultimately a liberating aspect of the job. The classroom is your landscape to shape as you see fit. Plan your strategy, teach to your strengths, do your best, and try to have fun.