Saturday, 20 June 2009

Can non-experts teach ESP? Part 1: Stereotypes

This issue keeps coming up again and again in various groups I belong to. Basically, ESP teachers seem to come from two directions: subject specialists who become ELT teachers; and ELT teachers who start teaching a particular specialisation. Needless to say, there’s a lot of potential for conflict between the two camps.

There’s too much to say on this issue for a single posting – and I expect to come back to it again and again, which is why I’ve called this posting ‘Part 1’. I’ll start with some stereotypes.

Samantha Smug has got a law degree and thinks she knows everything about Legal English. She didn’t get a very good law degree, which is why she ended up as an English teacher. Her lessons are pretty dull – lots of explanations and translations, but at least she knows her stuff. She charges a lot for her lessons, and clients are happy to pay for her expertise.

Ken Cool, is currently working his way around the world, using income from ELT to support his life as a surfer. One of his classes is with a group of lawyers, but they rarely touch on the subject of law. His lessons are very touchy-feely – lots of jazz chants, self-expression and kinaesthetic group dynamics. He's discovered a new technique is called dogme, which he used to call ‘winging it when you’ve forgotten to plan’.

Well, obviously those are not real people, but too often the debate about who has the right to teach ESP focuses on stereotypes rather than the reality. I’ve seen some pretty fiery debates arguing that it’s a disgrace and an insult to students to try to teach them (and charge good money for it) without having a solid knowledge of their subject. From the other side, one of the best put-downs I’ve heard is “What sort of teacher moves into ESP? Usually one of the most intelligent, informed and experienced. What sort of lawyer becomes an English teacher? One who couldn’t get a job as a lawyer."

Needless to say, I don't believe in either of these stereotypes.

My own view is that both groups of teachers can and should learn a lot from each other. I think there's room within the world of ESP for both. I think there are good teachers and less good teachers, and those categories cut right across the expert/non-expert divide. But I know there are plenty who would disagree with me. That's why I’ve created what I hope will turn into a debate.

I’ll return to this subject soon with some practical ideas for both camps. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your anecdotes and your views – however fiery. Leave a comment or write me an email.

PS For a great introduction to dogme (which is not actually the same as winging it), see this posting on Kalinago English.


  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I'd like to another ESP trainer, if I may.

    Her name is Katy Keen and what she did was figure out there was really a lot more money in ESP English than teaching kids or general adults.

    So she looked at what she could most comfortably learn, what books wouldn't put her to sleep, who the leaders of that field were -checked out their blogs... and then she began asking the institutes for that type of class specifically.

    As most of the other teachers shunned all that extra prep work, (I mean, come on, downloading from OneStop is just so much easier)...

    Katy got the classes with little bother.

    In class, Katy pumped the students for more and more information, how does x work, why do you do y and not z - essentially getting them to teach her everything that would be useful to her in the long run and of course, getting the students to authentically practice the English they needed anyway.

    Her students loved it!

    They knew they were getting more and more fluent and noticed the differences in conference calls with international partners and in important meetings.

    Pretty soon they started talking about Mrs Keen to colleagues in their field.

    And eventually, all that knowledge, experience and WOM over the years led Katy to become a specialist and she could leave those poorly paying institutes behind.

    With some of her clients, Katy now earns double the normal fee and with others, almost triple.

    It was really, really worth Katy's time to become a specialist.


    The character in this story are entirely fictional and any similarities in names, places or institutions is entirely accidental.

    Kind regards,

  2. Interesting debate. I think the profile of the teacher depends on the expectations and objectives of the ESP learners.

  3. Hi Karenne
    Great advice, and it's nice to hear you ... sorry, I mean KK, earns double the normal fee!

    Hi Betty
    You're absolutely right. Some will love one type of teacher and hate the other, ...

    I'll pick up on both these important points in later posts.


  4. Jeremy, many congratulatons on a site I'll definitely be wanting to return to. You're so right - there's reams to be written on this topic.

  5. The people who learned everything in kindergarten weren't ESL teachers! I'm for the Katy Keen model.

    Even survival ESL becomes ESP when the learners are: graphic artists, furniture craftsmen, steelmakers, inventors, engineers of all types, lawyers, CEOs, marketing specialists, printers, textile designers, architects, historians, gardeners, winemakers, lawyers, pilots, medical personnel of all types - and so on!

    And, from these students and one's own curiosity and scholarship comes a qualified ESP teacher. NOTHING helps a learner lock language into place more than using it to explain whatever (teach!) to another.

  6. Hi Jeremy
    It was very interesting to bump into this ESP teacher/subject specialist debate because I have looked into such a situation very closely (my MA thesis was on comparing an ELT teacher and a chemical engineer teaching English for Engineers in a University department in Greece). I totally agree with you on that there are good and bad teachers regardless of their specialty. In my research I found that they both put emphasis on what they know best, what they like and consider themselves better at. Also learning culture comes into play which is why they used similar methodology. If you know of such cases (I mean subject specialists who work as ESP teachers), I would be grateful if you told me about it, maybe I can continue my research.

    Thanx a lot and congratulations on your blog

  7. Hi Vicky

    Glad you found us here in this quiet corner of the blogosphere. Your MA thesis sounds very interesting ... maybe I could interview you about it?

    The only subject specialists I know who teach ESP are people I've worked with on books, people like Virginia Allum (English for Nursing) and Matt Firth (Legal English). You could also have a look at my interview with Lawrence Harris (on this blog - sorry, I don't know how to add links to comments).

    thanks for you comments


  8. Hi Jeremy,

    Thank you for your reply. I read your informative interview with Lawrence Harris, he surely raises some interesting points on the different types of ESP teachers. I wonder, however, how many specialists (especially with high level studies in their specialty) would be interested in giving it all up and pursuing a career in ESP.

    Besides, Greek Universities would hire for an ESP teaching position only people with a BA in English language and a PhD (preferably in Linguistics). The only reason I found a chemical engineer teaching ESP (for one academic semester only) was because he was a lecturer under one year contract in a newly founded department with little financial resourses, and he needed one more course to supplement his teaching hours. (I don't know whether the Greek situation makes any sense to a non-Greek).

    Anyway, the aim of my study was to describe and compare the two ESP teachers in terms of course and syllabus design, materials and methodology, and not to evaluate the effectiveness of their courses or their effectiveness as teachers. So, I can't really take sides in this debate, but I believe that they both can learn a lot from each other, because an ESP teacher with no interest in the student's specialism would be as ineffective as a subject specialist with no interest in the English language or teaching methodology.

    Of course I would be happy to share with you the points that came up in this research (based on which I submitted an article to the ESP Journal waiting for reply). If you would like to contact me, my e-mail is Thanks again for your interest and your great blog!

    Vicky (Vasiliki) Kasiakogia