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                  ESP Course Design: Matching Learner Needs to Aims



                  If a group of learners’ English language needs can be accurately specified, then this identification can be used to determine the content of a language program that will meet these needs. In today’s globalised teaching and learning contexts, ESP courses tend to focus on the process-oriented approach in aligning students’ needs with their present working scenarios.

                  Key words

                  ESP; needs analysis; course design





                  The work that has been done in the field of ESP has generally followed the assumption that if a group of learners’ English language needs can be accurately specified, then this identification can be used to determine the content of a language program that will meet these needs (Munby, 1978). Such interpretations were common in the 1970s and 1980s when needs analysis in ESP contexts was widespread in language teaching (Nunan, 1988; Strevens, 1988). Then, such procedures were used as the initial process for the specification of behavioral objectives which then explored different syllabus elements such as functions, notions and lexis in a more detailed manner (Nunan, 1988). To this day, this assumption is generally adhered to by most ESP practitioners when they design or mount a wide variety of ESP courses such as ‘English for civil servants; for policemen; for insurance staff; for medical students; for legal staff; for nurses; for human resource personnel etc.’ Such ESP courses are also prevalent in a young and rapidly developing country like Malaysia and China.

                  Needs analysis is neither unique to language teaching nor within language training but it is often seen as being “the corner stone of ESP and leads to a very focused course” (Dudley-Evans & St. John, 1998: 122). Although there are various ways of interpreting ‘needs’, the concept of ‘learner needs’ is often interpreted in two ways:

                  as what the learner wants to do with the language (goal-oriented definition of needs) which relates to terminal objectives or the end of learning; and

                  what the learner needs to do to actually acquire the language (a process-oriented definition) which relates to transitional/means of learning.

                  Traditionally, the first interpretation was widely used and accepted. However, in today’s globalised teaching and learning contexts, ESP courses tend to relate to both at the same time but tend to focus on the process-oriented approach in aligning students’ needs with their present working scenarios.

                  In view of these concerns, Dudley-Evans and St. John (1998: 145) discuss criteria for ESP course design and put forward useful steps for ESP teachers and course designers to consider. They list these concerns surrounding course design in the form of the following questions:

                  Should the course be intensive or extensive?

                  Should the learners’ performance be assessed or non-assessed?

                  Should the course deal with immediate needs or with delayed needs?

                  Should the role of the teacher be that of the provider of knowledge and activities, or should it be as facilitator of activities arising from learners’ expressed wants?

                  Should the course have a broad focus or narrow focus?

                  Should the course be pre-study or pre-experience or run parallel with the study or experience?

                  Should the materials be common-core or specific to learners’ study or work?

                  Should the group taking the course be homogenous or should it be heterogeneous?

                  Should the course design be worked out by the language teacher after consultation with the learners and the institution, or should it be subject to a process of negotiation with the learners?

                  By asking these questions prior to planning course design, the ESP teacher can be better prepared, more so if the teacher has to balance out some of these parameters which are linked to institutional and learner expectations (Dudley-Evans and St. John, 1998). In this respect, these parameters of course design were considered and adhered to by the researcher and will be addressed in the ‘findings’ section below.

                  In most instances, the content of any ESP course should only be determined by a comprehensive needs analysis as this first step is seen as being absolutely crucial if ESP practitioners wish to design a course that will maximally benefit their learners (Wright, 2001). In the literature of needs analysis, some of the following aspects are often recommended by experts:

                  Placement testing (administering tests designed to assess general English ability and ability to perform adequately in work contexts – this might help determine the starting level of courses in the ESP course)

                  Linguistics needs analysis (to identify skill development, linguistic structures, lexical items, language functions and levels of formality)

                  Learning needs analysis (identify learners’ attitudes towards different kinds of methodology, learning tasks and activities); and

                  Learner perceptions analysis (discover learners’ perceptions of themselves and others as part of their company culture, and their relationships with people from other company cultures)

                  In analyzing course design issues in any teaching and learning context, it is generally an accepted fact that the process of matching aim and method is not simply a mechanistic one of finding out what is the aim and then finding an appropriate method to achieve it. With reference to course design matters, an inescapable fact of most needs analysis is the amount of vast information collected and of deciding what may or may not prove to be relevant clues towards resolution of ‘hunches’ which may or may not be discarded (Alasuutari, 1998). Hence, ESP researchers need to realize that the accumulation of information about their prospective learners’ communicative events is a trial and error period and needs to be considered before some of it is discarded as it forms part of the continuous dialectic by which aims and methods, hunches and observations are fine tuned to suit the specific ESP teaching and learning environment.


                  Alasuutari, P. (1998). An invitation to social research. Sage: London.

                  Dudley-Evans, T. & St. John, M.J. (1998). Developments in ESP: A multidisciplinary approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

                  Hutchinson, T. & Waters, A. (1987). English for specific purposes. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressMunby, J. (1978). Communicative syllabus design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

                  Jordan, R.R. (1997). English for academic purposes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

                  Nunan, D. (1988). The learner-centred curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

                  Phan, L.H. (2005). Munby’s ‘needs analysis’ model and ESP. Asian EFL Journal, Vol. 6. Accessed on 20th November 2006. Available online at: http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/pta_october_07_plh.php

                  Strevens, P. (1988). ESP after twenty years: a re-appraisal. In M.Tickoo (Ed.), State of the Art. SEAMEO Regional Language Centre: Singapore.

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