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The language syllabus: building language study into a task-based approach by Dave Willis

In my last article in Issue 29 (The language syllabus: why not start with lexis?), I demonstrated the importance of the most frequent words and phrases in the language and suggested that these words and phrases should form the basis of the language syllabus. But I also identified three problems:

  • The most frequent words of the language, words like the, of and is, have a complex grammar. They cannot be fully covered in an elementary course. How do we go on to develop learners’ familiarity with the words and phrases associated with them? 
  • How do we provide coverage of basic grammar – things like tenses and articles?
  • Although 700 words account for 70% of all the words we regularly use and encounter, we need 3000 words to provide a basic competence in the language. How do we ensure coverage of this wider vocabulary?


I will begin this article with a task-based lesson plan. I will then go on to show how this plan suggests answers to the questions set out above.

The lesson involves travel plans, a topic frequently covered at the early intermediate level. You might like to do this task yourself before you read on.

 Janet’s friend begins a conversation by saying: Janet, I hear you’re planning a trip to Africa. Work in groups and think of four questions you might ask Janet to find out more about her holiday. Try to think of one question which none of the other groups will ask. 


Learners might be asked to prepare this task for homework, or it may be introduced in class. As they work in groups they will try to formulate questions focusing on future plans and intentions. Their language will work all right, but it will probably not be entirely accurate. They will say things like How you will travel? You going in plane? and so on. They will not be too concerned with formal accuracy at this stage, they will be working at getting their ideas together in a small informal group. The last part of the task is designed to stretch them in terms of both their language and their imagination. In the past we have had suggestions like Will you take your cat? and Is your grandmother going with you?


At the next stage, the planning phase, the teacher asks learners to work in groups to prepare a spokesperson who will represent the group in the final (report) phase of the task cycle and present their questions to the class. They have already prepared their ideas and they are preparing to present them in a more formal setting speaking to the class as a whole. They will recycle their questions with a greater focus on accuracy. Of course this does not mean that they will be 100% accurate, but they will be focusing on accuracy within a meaningful context.

As each spokesperson offers one or two questions, the teacher comments on these questions and makes a list of different questions on the board. Inevitably there is some correction, but this is part of the discussion. So the teacher says things like You going in the plane. Yes that’s a good question: Are you going by plane? Are you going by plane?’ treating the question as a useful contribution to the discourse rather than as a sample of English to be corrected.

Once the class has given a list of questions the teacher might encourage more discussion

  • Which questions are most likely to be answered in the conversation?
  • List the five most likely questions in order.


This provides an opportunity for repetition in a natural context. It also gives learners a reason to listen at the next stage when they listen to the conversation to see how many of their predicted questions have been answered. Here is a transcript:

B: Janet, I hear you’re planning a trip to Africa.

J: Yes it’s very exciting. Going in September to see my son who’s doing volunteer work in Zambia. So I’m going to fly to Lusaka and he’ll meet me there and we’ll do a bit of travelling round. I think we’re going to be staying most of the time in Monze, where he’s working. It’s about a hundred miles south of Lusaka. But we’re planning all sorts of exciting things. We’re going to go on safari…

B: How long are you actually going for?

J:  Oh, six weeks. Quite a long time so we can do quite a lot. I think we’re going to one of the big game parks – Luangwa – a game park – for a few days.

B: Right.

J:  Probably going on down to see the Victoria Falls. And we’re actually going to Zimbabwe as well.

B: Matter of interest. What airline are you planning to fly by?

J:  Sorry? Er, Air Zambia.

B: Air Zambia.

J: I’ve had to do it as cheaply as I could and I looked online and got this flight. I mean it’s a regular flight. It’s not a charter or anything.

B: Yes, yes.

J:  But it’s er … I think it’ll be okay… I don’t know.

The text is now familiar to learners. They have listened to it and understood it and are ready to use it for language study.

The text is incredibly rich. Look at it for yourself and identify:

  • phrases containing part of the verb GO
  • phrases containing the word TO
  • phrases with words ending in -ing
  • ways of referring to the future
  • expressions of time
  • expressions of place


You could ask learners to identify any one or two of these and use that as a way into the grammar exemplified in the text. In some cases there are a large number of phrases so you might split the text and ask different groups to work with different parts. Once they have made a list of phrases you can work with them to show how these phrases exemplify features of the grammar.

You might take a detailed look at the text by gapping it and asking learners to recreate it from memory. You might, for example, remove all the determiners, including of course the definite and indefinite article, and pronouns:

B: Janet, I hear you’re planning ***  trip to Africa.

J:  Yes ***’s very exciting. Going in September to see *** son ***’s doing volunteer work in Zambia. So ***’m going to fly to Lusaka and ***’ll meet me there and ***’ll do a bit of travelling round. *** think ***’re going to be staying most of *** time in Monze, where ***’s working. ***’s about *** hundred miles south of Lusaka. But ***’re planning all sorts of exciting things. ***’re going to go on safari…


The sequence of activities we have outlined answers the first two of the three questions we mentioned at the beginning of this article. As learners experience text we can draw their attention to phrases containing the most frequent words in the language – determiners, prepositions, pronouns and so on – and so begin to tease out their grammar. The text above provides a number of useful insights into the word to. These can be enlarged and recycled as learners experience the same word in future texts. Other texts will exemplify the use of other frequent words. Over a series of texts we can help learners to build up a picture of the verb BE, prepositions like of or any other complex frequent word.

We have also shown how to draw attention to the basic grammar. The function of articles and pronouns is to provide cohesion in a text. We can draw attention to this by blanking them out. The text also provides insights into ways of expressing the future in English. Other texts will help to fill out this picture and yet other texts will provide insights into other tense forms.

If we make sure that the texts we select for learners to study provide coverage of the most frequent words in the language they will inevitably provide detailed coverage of prepositions, pronouns, determiners and so on. And they will certainly offer coverage of the tense system of the language. It is then simply a matter of designing activities to highlight these items.

How do we provide satisfactory coverage of a range of lexis, particularly of the most frequent 3000 words? Nation (2006: 387) (and others) recommend that for optimum learning, words should be encountered in meaning-focused contexts in normal language use. So the materials writer needs to identify relevant topics and select suitable texts, both spoken and written, based on those topics, which learners will process as part of their language course. Many of the 3000 target words will occur in texts associated with these topics and more words will occur naturally as part of the classroom discussion of the texts. Willis (2003) refers to a collection of texts of this kind as a pedagogic corpus. Grammarians and lexicographers assemble a research corpus to enable them to identify and illustrate insights into the language, both grammar and lexis. In the same way we can assemble a corpus which provides learners with appropriate insights into the language. We can then go on to find ways like those shown above to highlight useful items and make them available for study.

The lesson we have used to illustrate these arguments uses a task-based methodology. One of the criticisms of a task-based methodology is that it cannot provide systematic insights into the grammar of the language (see, for example, Swan, 2005). But the assembly of a pedagogic corpus enables us to highlight systematically for learners the basic words, phrases, patterns and grammar of the language. Indeed the notion of a pedagogic corpus enables us to offer a much more principled and systematic treatment of words and phrases than anything proposed by grammar-based approaches to syllabus design. (See Willis and Willis (2007: 177-198) for a detailed analysis of syllabus design based on a pedagogic corpus).

How can you begin to apply the principles I have outlined in this paper?

  • Perhaps the first thing to notice is that this kind of lesson is familiar to you as what is often called a skills lesson. There is a lot of speaking and listening as learners work out their questions. Some of the discussion is in groups and some of it is teacher led. Learners then go on to listen to a conversation or read a transcript to check whether or not their questions have been answered. This is followed by another teacher led discussion.
  • Secondly there is a systematic focus on language. I have offered a number of possible language items. You would probably choose no more than two of these for a given lesson.
  • Language focus requires learners to focus on the text for themselves. You can enable them to do this by asking them to identify phrases built round a particular word (TO; GO), part of a word (-ing) or a concept (the future; time; place).
  • Once phrases have been identified this leads into a discussion or explanation of the grammar involved. This could be followed by a look at the grammar book to provide a summary of what has been covered.


One of the basic principles of a task-based approach is that the task phase, or skills work if you like, comes before language study. There are two very good reasons for this:

  • If you begin by presenting the grammar and then go on to a task, learners will be concerned primarily with producing the language that has been highlighted rather than using all the language they can. If this lesson were to be about the going to future, for example, it would begin with a very sharp focus on going to, probably with lots of controlled repetition. When the class moved on to identify questions to do with the future they would not be thinking about meaning, about doing things with language, they would simply be trying to produce samples of a particular form.
  • A lesson which focuses sharply on mastery of a particular form is probably doomed to failure. We know from experience that learners do not move smoothly from controlled practice and grammatical explanation to spontaneous mastery of a given form. Language development is much more gradual and unpredictable. If learners are led to believe that we are aiming at the ability to produce something spontaneously and accurately they will constantly be conscious of failure. If, however, they believe that we are aiming at more general language development, awareness of a range of phrases, the ability to get things done through the medium of English, they are much more likely to experience success and the positive motivation that goes with it.


So a task-based lesson can and should focus on specific language forms, but that focus should come at the end of a teaching cycle. And a series of task-based lessons can and should provide systematic exposure to the language, both grammar and lexis. But meaning always comes before form in sequencing activities.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M.  (2005) Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction Applied Linguistics 26/3: 376–401 Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willis, D. (2003). Rules, patterns and words: Grammar and lexis in English language teaching.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Willis, D. and J. Willis (2007) Doing Task-based Teaching Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author’s Bio:
Dave Willis has been in ELT for more than forty years. Apart from the UK he has worked in Ghana, Cyprus, Iran and Singapore, including twenty years as a British Council officer. His last job was at the Centre for English Language Studies at Birmingham University, where he worked until 2000, mainly on MA TEFL/TESOL and Applied Linguistics programmes. He is now an Honorary Senior Research Fellow.
His last book, Doing Task-base Teaching was written with his wife, Jane, and published by OUP in 2007. His main area of interest is language description and the place of language study within a task-based approach – the subject of his book, Rules, Pattern and Words (CUP 2003).

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