How to Make a Syllabus (when you’re freaking out)

My first teaching job was stressful. I was working in South Korea as the native speaker English teacher at a middle school. About a day before classes started, I asked one of my Korean co-teachers,

So, um…What should I teach?

At that point, I had never had any substantial teacher training and I hadn’t even been given a textbook to work from. Needless to say, I was looking for a little guidance.

Her response?

It doesn’t matter. Teach whatever you want. We just want you to try hard.

The next few months were a little difficult.

And when I say “a little difficult,” I mean agonizing. I spent several school nights staying up until two or three in the morning combing the internet for standalone lessons that would work with classes of 30-35 middle school students of varied proficiency. I’ve been teaching for several years since then and I think I’d still find that situation challenging.

At the time, I was desperately in need of some structure and order to ease my cognitive load. The solution would have been to create a syllabus. But that’s easier said than done, especially for a novice teacher without any guidance. I wouldn’t have known where to start.

Since that period of chaos, I’ve created different syllabi for the various teaching situations I’ve found myself in. In this post, I’ll talk about a few of those situations and how to create an appropriate syllabus for each of them.

What you need to know before you start

Before you even get started on your syllabus, you need to know a few things about your class. You can (and should) come up with some kind of syllabus for any class that lasts longer than a couple sessions (which would be more like a workshop). Even if you’re just tutoring one student, it really helps to have some sort of structure.

Here’s a list of questions that will give you the information you need:

  • What is the duration of your class (8 weeks, 16 weeks, twice a week indefinitely, etc.)
  • What do your student(s) need to know? (what are the Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)?)
  • Is there an assigned textbook?
  • If not, can you choose a textbook on your own?
  • What is the level of your student(s)? (How fast can you go?)

You should be able to answer all of these questions before classes even begin, through conversations with your students, directions from your administrators, and diagnostic tests.

Syllabus Type 1: The Whole Textbook

If you’re working for a program or institution, you’ll often be required to use a certain textbook in your class. Even if you aren’t mandated to use a specific textbook, I still recommend choosing a good textbook that fits your students’ needs. It’s easy to gripe about the imperfection of textbooks, but they often make it so much easier on teachers.

Once you’ve got your textbook, the first way to approach syllabus creation is by going straight through the book. Just spread the table of contents out over the duration of your class. For example, if you’ve got a textbook with eight units and you’re teaching for eight weeks, it’s easy: do a unit a week.

Most good textbooks are arranged progressively: they start off simple and become more complex. The Fundamentals of English Grammar from Azar and Hagen progresses from simple grammatical patterns and moves up to more complex forms. The book is created in such a way that teachers can go through the book in the order that it’s written.

Now, of course it’s more complicated than that. Your students might move slowly and you won’t be able to cover everything in each unit. Or they might move too quickly and you’ll need to find extra materials to supplement your class.

You might also want to switch the order of the units in your book to match up with certain times of the year. For example, if a unit on restaurants comes up earlier in the textbook, but you know your class will go to a restaurant as a celebration at the end of the year, you might want to save that unit until later.

Syllabus Type 2: Parts of the Textbook

Sometimes it’s impossible to get through the entire textbook in the length of a course. In the cases where you have a huge textbook and a short class, you’ll have to pick and choose which parts to do.

Again, think about your student needs and/or SLOs. Pick the parts that you think will help your students the most. For example, if you’re using a book like Pronunciation Pairs for your speaking or pronunciation class, only include the units that cover the phonemes that your students struggle with.

Some textbooks are organized by topic. Consider the Issues  is a good example. Each unit is structured around an NPR interview about an interesting topic, such as social media, marriage, medicine, etc. If you have a textbook of that ilk, pick the topics that will be either be the most interesting for your students or the most relevant to their lives.

Another option is to let your students decide! This is what I did when I taught a short class with Consider the Issues. During the first week of class, I had my students look at the textbook’s table of contents and choose the three topics that they were most interested in. I tallied the survey, and then chose the five most popular units.

Syllabus Type 3: Themes

OK, so you’re set adrift without a textbook. Don’t panic. You can still create a syllabus that keeps your class organized. One way to give yourself and your class some structure is to come up with a set of themes.

After struggling for my first few weeks in Korea, bouncing aimlessly from unrelated lesson to unrelated lesson, I eventually taught a really fun and useful class on fables and thought:

Hm…That went well. Maybe I’ll just do something similar next class.

I brought in new fables for the following classes, did reading gap-fills, practiced past tense, etc. The students were learning and enjoying themselves. And I wasn’t under as much stress. I knew the students were going to like another lesson on the same topic (as long as it wasn’t too repetitive) and all I had to do was tweak a few things or come at the theme from a different angle for future classes. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel by finding a completely new topic for every class.

The selection process for my off-the-cuff theme syllabus was simple: “stuff that middle school students might like”. But if you’re teaching a group of adult students who want to learn English to help them with their everyday lives in America, your themes might be different: applying for a job, going to the store, calling the police, etc.

Whatever the selection criteria, I would recommend picking a number of themes that will correspond well to the duration of your class. A theme a week is good, and it’s always possible to spend more time on something that is especially interesting or useful.

If you need help choosing your themes, take a look at ESL Flow’s website. They have several resources for different topics. And if you have your theme already but need materials or ideas, just use Google. There are so many materials out there to teach English for almost every topic.

Your Class Routine: Another Consideration

Once you have the content of your syllabus, it’s often helpful to have a weekly or even daily routine that your class can follow.

I recently taught a reading and vocabulary class that used three different books: True Stories in the News, The Heinle Picture Dictionary, and different graded readers. It was a lot to cover, and it was difficult to organize since the three books covered so many different topics. So I organized my class with a weekly schedule:

  • Monday: Vocabulary work with The Heinle Picture Dictionary
  • Tuesday: Book clubs: Reading graded readers in groups
  • Wednesday: Whole class reading: True Stories in the News
  • Thursday: Quiz on vocabulary and reading presentations
  • Friday: (no class)

I didn’t follow this pattern religiously; activities from one day often spilled into the next. But it was a good pattern for me to follow and it was helpful for the students as well. Everyone knew what to expect.

This can even be applied to each class. I’ve written more about my test-prep tutoring plan before, but here’s a simplified class plan:

  • Vocabulary quiz (teacher checks homework essay while student completes quiz)
  • Go over vocabulary quiz and essay
  • Vocabulary work (roots, synonyms, definitions, analogies)
  • Reading passages (read and discuss answers)
  • Assign homework (essay and vocabulary study)

If you have enough materials, you can use this plan indefinitely. It’s not exactly a syllabus, but it provides a similar level of structure and organization.

Take Control

Teachers can never completely control what happens with their classes. It’s important to include the word tentative  on any syllabus you hand out because things change. But creating a good syllabus early on will give you a sense of order and keep you on track.

A lot of the tips I’ve included here are no-brainers for veteran teachers. Most teachers figure out how important a good syllabus is very early on in their careers. It takes a lot of creative stress off your shoulders when you have a rough idea of where you’re going with your class.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Allan Rotgers
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