Teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP)

Summary: How is English for Specific Purposes (ESP) different from English as a Second Language (ESL), also known as general English?

How is English for Specific Purposes (ESP) different from English as a Second Language (ESL), also known as general English?

The most important difference lies in the learners and their purposes for learning English. ESP students are usually adults who already have some acquaintance with English and are learning the language in order to communicate a set of professional skills and to perform particular job-related functions. An ESP program is therefore built on an assessment of purposes and needs and the functions for which English is required .

ESP concentrates more on language in context than on teaching grammar and language structures. It covers subjects varying from accounting or computer science to tourism and business management. The ESP focal point is that English is not taught as a subject separated from the students' real world (or wishes); instead, it is integrated into a subject matter area important to the learners.

However, ESL and ESP diverge not only in the nature of the learner, but also in the aim of instruction. In fact, as a general rule, while in ESL all four language skills; listening, reading, speaking, and writing, are stressed equally, in ESP it is a needs analysis that determines which language skills are most needed by the students, and the syllabus is designed accordingly. An ESP program, might, for example, emphasize the development of reading skills in students who are preparing for graduate work in business administration; or it might promote the development of spoken skills in students who are studying English in order to become tourist guides.

As a matter of fact, ESP combines subject matter and English language teaching. Such a combination is highly motivating because students are able to apply what they learn in their English classes to their main field of study, whether it be accounting, business management, economics, computer science or tourism. Being able to use the vocabulary and structures that they learn in a meaningful context reinforces what is taught and increases their motivation.

The students' abilities in their subject-matter fields, in turn, improve their ability to acquire English. Subject-matter knowledge gives them the context they need to understand the English of the classroom. In the ESP class, students are shown how the subject-matter content is expressed in English. The teacher can make the most of the students' knowledge of the subject matter, thus helping them learn English faster.

The term "specific" in ESP refers to the specific purpose for learning English. Students approach the study of English through a field that is already known and relevant to them. This means that they are able to use what they learn in the ESP classroom right away in their work and studies. The ESP approach enhances the relevance of what the students are learning and enables them to use the English they know to learn even more English, since their interest in their field will motivate them to interact with speakers and texts.

ESP assesses needs and integrates motivation, subject matter and content for the teaching of relevant skills.

The responsibility of the teacher

A teacher that already has experience in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL), can exploit her background in language teaching. She should recognize the ways in which her teaching skills can be adapted for the teaching of English for Specific Purposes. Moreover, she will need to look for content specialists for help in designing appropriate lessons in the subject matter field she is teaching.

As an ESP teacher, you must play many roles. You may be asked to organize courses, to set learning objectives, to establish a positive learning environment in the classroom, and to evaluate student s progress.

Organizing Courses

You have to set learning goals and then transform them into an instructional program with the timing of activities. One of your main tasks will be selecting, designing and organizing course materials, supporting the students in their efforts, and providing them with feedback on their progress.

Setting Goals and Objectives

You arrange the conditions for learning in the classroom and set long-term goals and short-term objectives for students achievement. Your knowledge of students' potential is central in designing a syllabus with realistic goals that takes into account the students' concern in the learning situation.

Creating a Learning Environment

Your skills for communication and mediation create the classroom atmosphere. Students acquire language when they have opportunities to use the language in interaction with other speakers. Being their teacher, you may be the only English speaking person available to students, and although your time with any of them is limited, you can structure effective communication skills in the classroom. In order to do so, in your interactions with students try to listen carefully to what they are saying and give your understanding or misunderstanding back at them through your replies. Good language learners are also great risk-takers , since they must make many errors in order to succeed: however, in ESP classes, they are handicapped because they are unable to use their native language competence to present themselves as well-informed adults. That s why the teacher should create an atmosphere in the language classroom which supports the students. Learners must be self-confident in order to communicate, and you have the responsibility to help build the learner's confidence.

Evaluating Students

The teacher is a resource that helps students identify their language learning problems and find solutions to them, find out the skills they need to focus on, and take responsibility for making choices which determine what and how to learn. You will serve as a source of information to the students about how they are progressing in their language learning.

The responsibility of the student

What is the role of the learner and what is the task he/she faces? The learners come to the ESP class with a specific interest for learning, subject matter knowledge, and well-built adult learning strategies. They are in charge of developing English language skills to reflect their native-language knowledge and skills.

Interest for Learning

People learn languages when they have opportunities to understand and work with language in a context that they comprehend and find interesting. In this view, ESP is a powerful means for such opportunities. Students will acquire English as they work with materials which they find interesting and relevant and which they can use in their professional work or further studies. The more learners pay attention to the meaning of the language they hear or read, the more they are successful; the more they have to focus on the linguistic input or isolated language structures, the less they are motivated to attend their classes.

The ESP student is particularly well disposed to focus on meaning in the subject-matter field. In ESP, English should be presented not as a subject to be learned in isolation from real use, nor as a mechanical skill or habit to be developed. On the contrary, English should be presented in authentic contexts to make the learners acquainted with the particular ways in which the language is used in functions that they will need to perform in their fields of specialty or jobs.

Subject-Content Knowledge

Learners in the ESP classes are generally aware of the purposes for which they will need to use English. Having already oriented their education toward a specific field, they see their English training as complementing this orientation. Knowledge of the subject area enables the students to identify a real context for the vocabulary and structures of the ESP classroom. In such way, the learners can take advantage of what they already know about the subject matter to learn English.

Learning Strategies

Adults must work harder than children in order to learn a new language, but the learning skills they bring to the task permit them to learn faster and more efficiently. The skills they have already developed in using their native languages will make learning English easier. Although you will be working with students whose English will probably be quite limited, the language learning abilities of the adult in the ESP classroom are potentially immense. Educated adults are continually learning new language behaviour in their native languages, since language learning continues naturally throughout our lives. They are constantly expanding vocabulary, becoming more fluent in their fields, and adjusting their linguistic behaviour to new situations or new roles. ESP students can exploit these innate competencies in learning English.

Read more: Preparing for your first Business or ESP class

Copyright © 2005

This article is for educational purposes only. It may be freely redistributed in its entirety provided that this copyright notice is not removed.

About the author:

Lorenzo Fiorito is a Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Naples and European projects manager for Aries Formazione.

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