Saturday, 11 July 2009

Needs, lacks and wants

I've been thinking a lot this week and last about student needs. You see I've just taken over a couple of groups of lawyers for a month, while their regular teacher is doing the dreaded CELT-YL qualification. And the book we're using ... English File Upper Intermediate.

Don't get me wrong, it's a fine book. I like the grammar presentations, and the topics are interesting. But last week, after a quick get-to-know-you, I found myself asking the lawyers "What do you know about chimpanzees? Have you ever seen one in a zoo? Can they think?"

Hmmm ...

The weird thing was, though, that I was the only one who seemed distressed by the silliness of asking lawyers to talk about chimps. They were quite happy, and answered all the questions fully and intelligently. It turns out that these students, as well as their bosses (who had arranged the contract with my employer, the British Council), had specifically requested a general English course. I was actually not allowed to touch on legal English. Fair enough ...

And this reminded me of the famous trio of things to consider during a needs analysis: not just NEEDS (what they have to do in their jobs in English) but also their LACKS (what they're currently unable to do) and their WANTS (what will motivate them to study during and between classes). I'd become too focused on NEEDS, and overlooked their WANTS. I also discovered an important LACK during my second lesson with them: serious holes in their understanding of Present Perfect Simple and Continuous (hardly surprisingly, I suppose, given that they're Upper Ints). And that was something they WANTed to overcome.

So I decided to swallow my ESP pride and give them what they lack and what they want.

I've got another group of lawyers who are slightly more complicated. At the start of the course, they and their bosses agreed that they needed to learn about legal English, so we got them copies of International Legal English, and I started working my way through unit 1. But it turns out that what they need and what they want are actually very different. They spend all day dealing with legal problems in English and Polish, and by 5.30pm they're sick of legal English. When I take the book out of my bag they roll their eyes and beg for interesting articles from the internet. Hmmm ...

Here I have a delicate balancing act, because ultimately it's their boss who is the customer, and my brief is to teach them legal English. But I also need to motivate and engage them. So I try to hide little nuggets of legal English in 'internet articles' (such as the one I talked about the other week
here). Very tricky.

And what of LACKS? The best example of this was a few years ago when I was working on a course called 'English for European Patent Attorneys' (you see - my imaginative course-naming system doesn't get any better over the years), which I wrote for the British Council in partnership with the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich. The aim was to have a course for patent attorneys in countries such as Spain, Poland and Italy, which had large populations but whose languages are not official EPO languages.

I was flown to Munich for a couple of days' intense training, including sitting in on some amazing hearings about disputed patents. I learnt about the language needed to apply for a patent, to challenge someone else's patent, to take part in face-to-face hearings, and all the rest of it. Needs, needs, needs. I was even given a big pile of excellent materials developed by the EPO's in-house English teacher.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I came back to Warsaw and started writing and then teaching my wonderful course. It went pretty well, and the patent attorneys were very happy (not least to have a teacher who had more than a very basic idea of what they did). But it was pretty obvious that they knew all the stuff in the course already. This was their job, what they did every day. It was all new to me, and of course they were interested in the materials, but I was focused too much on their NEEDS and not enough on their LACKS.

So what did they lack? What they were desperate for was the language to write to an important client who hadn't paid for work done several months earlier. It turns out that this is extremely common in the world of patents - it's really quite shocking how often this happens. So that was one of the things I added to the course: some model letters with focus on the ability to be firm but polite.

That's of course only one example, but it taught me an important lesson: focus on what they can't do, not on what they do every day.

By the way, last year I wrote up my lesson on delicate-but-firm emails and put it on Professional English Online. You can download it
here. I've used patent attorneys as the context, but of course the language is suitable for all sorts of professionals. I've used that lesson with most of my students, no matter what their background is.

Over to you: how do you determine your students' needs, lacks and wants? Are they all equally important? Do students really know what they want? (Or what they need or lack, for that matter.)


  1. Thanks for this great posting. I am teaching needs analysis in my ESP course here (at Sydney University) and we came across your entry on needs. It makes some really great points which resonate exactly with what the class has been saying.

    Best, Brian Paltridge

  2. Hi Brian

    That's fantastic - thanks for letting me know.

    I have to confess the theory behind this posting wasn't my own: the idea of needs, lacks and wants came from "English for Specific Purposes" by Hutchinson and Waters (, although I may have distorted their arguments here - it's been a long time since I read that book.

    All the best


  3. The point you make is great though. Your piece is going to be standard reading for my students..
    Best, Brian

  4. Excellent explanation. It's helped me so much. Thanks a lot!

  5. i have been doing some readings about ESP and found this piece of writing very useful and very concise. thank you.

  6. i have been doing some readingsabout ESP and found this article very useful and very concise. thank you.