The ESP approach - Theory and reality of needs analysis and course design

Summary: Adapting the nice ideas of needs analysis and course design to the situations we actually teach in.

I did a two-week course in teaching Business English a couple of years into my teaching career, and the very un-CELTA approach it was based around probably changed my teaching more than the nine-month Cambridge DELTA that I did later on. However, I’ve also constantly come across limits to the applicability of what they taught me on that LCCI Teaching English for Business course, so this article is an attempt both to spread the good word about what my tutors taught me and to leaven that with some reality about the kinds of real teaching situations teachers are likely to come across. I am calling this the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) approach, Business English being just one (often quite general) specific purpose.

Although there is no nice catchy acronym, the basics of the ESP approach can be stated in the same number of steps as PPP and TTT, simply:

  1. Needs analysis
  2. Course design (taking those needs into account)
  3. Changing the course as you go along (depending on what the teacher learns about the students, student feedback, and changing needs such as a sudden change of job)

The first thing that might strike you about that description is how much more flexible and realistic it already seems than the typical approach of a General English course, which might be rather cruelly stereotyped as:

  1. Level check
  2. The class work their way through a textbook
  3. Most or all students go up to the next level

There are plenty of occasions, however, when the ESP approach as described above is just as unrelated to the realities of classroom learning of a language as this typical General English approach. I will mention these real life situations as I look at each of the three stages in turn.

Needs analysis – Theory and reality

In a perfect world, needs analysis would:

-    Tell you exactly what language, skills and knowledge (e.g. cultural knowledge) the students need now and in the future (by looking at both the things they need to do and what they find most difficult)

-    Help you prioritise those things, e.g. by telling you student strengths and weaknesses (by asking students and revealing those things during the needs analysis speaking tasks)

-    Be a useful language task in itself (e.g. a useful pairwork speaking task)

-    Tie in naturally with the (rest of the) first lesson and the rest of the course

-    Lead directly to the next stage in the process (course design)

-    Be done in plenty of time to adequately design the course

-    Take into account both needs and wants, including where those things clash (e.g. students who don’t want to talk about work too much)

-    Also work as some kind of diagnostic test (e.g. by allowing students to use a range of future tenses in their answers)

-    Include discussion of language learning (e.g. experience of and attitudes to self-study and previous classroom study)

-    Lead directly onto some student learning (e.g. advice on how to work on their weaknesses, or error correction)

-    Help find out general interests (useful for choosing interesting texts, writing conversation questions, etc)

-    Show what students’ expectations for the course are (e.g. what they expect to be able to do by the end of it and how much homework they expect)

-    Be manageable in English (or supplemented by L1)

-    Help them understand the other participants (e.g. their needs and wants)

-    Be tailored to the students

-    Give a positive impression to the student(s)/ Appear professional

Possible problems with the last of those include:

-    Students getting a negative impression, maybe due simply to being asked what should be taught rather than the teacher already having their own ideas

-    Students considering needs analysis during class to be a waste of class time

-    Students not trusting the needs analysis process, e.g. because they already know what the textbook is or even already have a syllabus

Other limits to the possibility of all the things above being achieved by a needs analysis include:

-    It being impossible to (fully) guess the language needs of the student(s) in the future, e.g. because the students aren’t aware of what their future job will involve yet

-    Needs which don’t come to mind during the needs analysis

-    Students being reluctant to share (some of) their real needs or wants, e.g. giving the expected answers about needs for work but really seeing the class as a “benefit class” (a free English class as a perk of their job that saves them from paying for one and studying in their free time), or having no real need but coming up with one to satisfy the teacher and/ or to save an uncomfortable conversation

-    The needs analysis task having to be a compromise between finding out the right information and being a useful language task

-    The language level of the students preventing finding out all the necessary information in English

-    Needs analysis being designed by and/ or undertaken by someone else and so probably not providing the right amount of and/ or kind of information

-    Time demands making needs analysis during class impossible

-    Students being absent during needs analysis

-    Students not filling in needs analysis forms or doing so without much thought

-    Expectations that they will be able to get (and achieve) exactly what they want raised too much by the needs analysis process

-    Students becoming demotivated by realising they have no particular reason to take the course

-    Students not asking each other the right questions during pairwork needs analysis

-    The teacher not knowing enough about the students and/ or the course to be able to include the right questions in the needs analysis

Solutions to the problems above include:

-    Have both a classroom-based needs analysis task and a questionnaire to complete outside class after more thought

-    Give students sufficient notice of what kinds of things you will ask them so that they can think about their needs or even ask other people (e.g. ask their boss what their trip abroad will involve)

-    Research everything you know about the students and their job, using that to help design the needs analysis and combining that information with the needs analysis results during course design

-    Share the results of the needs analysis with the students (so that they can correct anything that they think is wrong, understand the needs of the other students, etc)

-    Prompt more details in needs analysis, e.g. with a suggested number of words, bigger boxes to write things in, suggested answers, or monitoring during pairwork

-    Have some needs analysis in L1, e.g. a German questionnaire before the class plus interviewing each other in pairs in English during the class

-    Have an actual diagnostic test

-    Ask students to provide real examples of things they come across or have produced in English in their work

-    Spend enough time on needs analysis for students to be able to really think about their choices (making that time worthwhile with study tips, language input, useful skills practice etc)

-    Bring further needs analysis into later classroom tasks, e.g. in a class on giving advice get them to ask each other about how they can prepare for their real English needs at work, or brainstorming of phrases that they already use at work before presenting new ones

-    Do some needs analysis again later, e.g. as part of a mid-course feedback questionnaire (maybe done before mid-course)

Theory and reality of course design

Many of those points are already moving onto the next stage, which is actually designing the course that those students will study. Ideally, the course syllabus should:

-    Have a combination of the most important things first, a logical progression, and taking into account needs that will come up while the course is ongoing

-    Have the right mix of skills

-    Have interesting content for the student(s)

-    Meet the needs and wants of all people concerned (students, the people paying for the course, etc)

-    Fit what the students and people paying for the course have been told

-    Include enough details to satisfy the student(s) and people who are paying and for another teacher to be able to take over the class, e.g. if the teacher who designed the course is sick

-    Help the students prepare for future lessons, catch up on ones they miss and revise previous lessons

-    Take into account (likely) student attitudes to different kinds of learning

-    Take into account student interests (including ones not related to their ESP needs, e.g. their hobbies)

-    Take into account teachability

-    Be based on both SLA theory and practical experience

-    Include learner training and cultural training

-    Include regular recycling and ways of checking progress

-    Prioritise – by most important, most difficult, things students are ready to learn, when things are needed outside the classroom, teachability, being building blocks for later things, boosting confidence, etc.

-    Provide variety, e.g. a range of topics, graded and authentic texts, a good mix of skills, both new language and activation/ practice of language they have come across before

-    Be clearly linked to the needs analysis results

-    Be understandable and welcomed by the students and people paying

-    Be realistic (in terms of time available, concentration levels, motivation, limits to learning)

-    Be both structured and flexible

Obviously one big restriction that usually makes doing all the above impossible is time. This means time in class and time that students are willing or able to spend studying outside class, but also time that teachers are willing or able to spend designing a course and putting together materials that match that course outline. Other less than ideal real situations include:

-    Needs analysis results contradicting what has already been decided about the course (and perhaps even the title of the course!)

-    Impossible demands (e.g. everything being a priority)

-    Needs as stated by different people (e.g. the person who commissioned the course and the students themselves) clashing

-    Demands for a textbook from the school, teacher, student(s) or people paying for the course – something that obviously interrupts the process above however specialist the textbook is and can make the whole process seem pointless, especially when it is a general Business English or even General English textbook

-    The course materials, e.g. textbook or course booklet, have already been decided before the needs analysis stage, and there is pressure to stick to it or even to cover all of it in order

-    Copyright, technological restrictions, photocopying budget and/ or lack of access to ELT materials severely limit the range of texts etc that the teacher can choose from

-    The teacher doesn’t know what materials have already been used on earlier courses, or all the obvious materials have already been used

-    The need is so specialist that the teacher doesn’t really understand what it entails and/ or can’t develop or find any suitable materials

-    Putting things in a logical order clashes with putting priorities first, e.g. they need Present Perfect right away but that would mean doing it before Past Simple

-    No information before the first class

-    Little time for course design between the needs analysis and the first class (or even before the whole course if it is intensive)

-    Students in a group class having very different needs from each other

There can also of course be problems with sticking to the course however realistically you have planned it:

-    Things taking more or less time than planned

-    Students missing classes, arriving late, leaving early, having questions that take a long time to answer (e.g. bringing in something to proofread together), and not doing homework

-    The mix of the class changing, e.g. a student leaving

-    The students being too tired, bored or unmotivated to cover or take in the work-related materials that have been prepared

In addition to the solutions mentioned in relation to needs analysis above, possible ways to solve problems with course design include:

-    Plan a first lesson (or first few lessons) that will probably be suitable for all students (e.g. a numbers review or talking about trends) and do the course design as soon as you can or even as you go along

-    Indicate on the course where things might change (and maybe why)

-    Use general headings in the course design that you share with students and/ or people who are paying, e.g. “Read a recent relevant business news story”

-    Have two streams to the course, one following a logical order like a textbook and one decided by the importance or the timing of particular needs

-    Explain any differences between the results of the needs analysis and the actual course, e.g. by a need to build up their general level as well as look at things they need right now

Solutions specific to being stuck with a textbook include:

-    Tell students how much time (e.g. 20%) or how many classes (e.g. alternate ones) will be spent doing things not in the textbook

-    Use the textbook in a way that subtly shows students how much it needs adapting, e.g. asking them how similar the things described are to their own experience

-    Explain or agree parts of the book that can be skipped or adapted (in advance or as you go along)

-    Cover everything but spend less time on some parts of the book to make room for other things

-    Stick to the syllabus of the textbook but adapt as much as possible to match student needs, e.g. doing a text on marketing but in their own industry

-    Use the textbook in an order that is decided by the needs analysis rather than working through it in order

-    Make the last task in each class one that is more closely related to their work, e.g. asking them to do the same dialogue but more closely matched to a realistic situation for themselves

-    Ask students to adapt the materials, e.g. rewriting a dialogue for homework to be realistic for them

Solutions to the copyright problems include:

-    Get students to read, listen to or watch things online during the class, e.g. on their smartphones

-    Ask students to bring in suitable texts or publications, or to send such things to the teacher before the next class (e.g. things they read in a trade magazine or emails they have received)

-    Use texts belonging to the company the students belong to

Theory and reality of adapting the course

Perhaps the most important solution to the problems with course design above is adapting the course as you go along – something which I mentioned at the beginning of this article as fundamental to the ESP approach. This should:

-    Take into account what the teacher has since learnt about the students and their needs (from homework, things they have mentioned about work, feedback questionnaires, the teacher reading about their industry, etc)

-    Take into account what the teacher has learnt about student interests, e.g. things they found most interesting in the course so far or hobbies that they have mentioned

-    Revise and/ or expand on things that students have found particularly difficult and useful in the course so far

-    Be welcomed by the students and the people paying (e.g. not be seen as a failing of the original needs analysis and course design process)

-    Be announced in general terms at the beginning of the course (so students aren’t caught by surprise by changes)

-    Not be seen as a criticism of anyone (e.g. not obviously showing up any lack of student progress) and appear something positive (e.g. include new things rather than just consisting of negative things like cutting out things and adjusting down the level due to lack of student progress)

Perhaps the only major problem with adapting the course as you go along is that there may be pressure to not do so, for example because the students and/ or the people who paid for the course take changes to mean that the teacher doesn’t know what they are doing.

Problems with the whole ESP approach

There also more fundamental problems with the whole ESP approach as described at the beginning of this article. One potential issue with the whole approach that this article has been outlining is that it may contain the assumption that what we teach is what students learn that approaches like PPP are accused of. However, if this is a concern the problem is easily solved by doing the things that students need to do in class rather than (or as well as) teaching them the language they need, e.g. doing realistic roleplay negotiations.

A larger problem with concentrating on student needs and satisfying them is that this may almost force us into giving such things too much importance. For example, for many students the long term development of their language and skills is just as important as the specific language for their needs, making the many similarities between most Business English textbooks and General English ones less silly than they might seem. Also, finding out that our students need to “reject requests” or “apologise for delays” may make us focus too much on the sentence stems needed for those functions and not enough on the general grammar and vocabulary that they will need to complete those sentences. The solutions are again having realistic tasks as well as realistic language and also having an emphasis on a step by step approach to general language and skills development as well as a “needs first” approach.

The two problems above are examples of a more general issue, which is that having a list of things that our students need may make us neglect other things that we know about teaching from our other classes, such as teachability, grading, “emerging language”, L1 interference and other common student mistakes, extrinsic motivation, the importance of revision and showing progress, and just generally making classes interesting or even fun.

Copyright © 2013

Written by Alex Case for

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