Saturday, 29 August 2009

Grammar syllabuses for ESP

(Apologies to purists who'd say the plural of syllabus is syllabi. To my mind, the word syllabus looks silly enough already without a fancy plural ending.)

One of the biggest differences between general English (GE) course books and ESP course books is that GE books tend to be driven by what I'd call a traditional grammar syllabus: Unit 1: Present Simple and Continuous; Unit 2: Past Simple; Unit 3: Present Perfect; Unit 4: The Future ... The syllabus may be prominent or disguised to varying degrees, but it always seems to be there.

Not so with ESP course books. Take International Legal English, for example. Here, the syllabus is very much topic-driven. We have units on contract law, company law, intellectual property law, and so on. The aims of the units are to help lawyers and law students to communicate in real-life professional situations such as lawyer-client meetings, contract drafting and discussions with colleagues. There may be some grammar input and practice to support those aims, but it's never the other way round (with the grammar aims leading the course and dictating the topics). What's more, the grammar is often field-specific, i.e. covering grammar topics that are unique to that ESP field. For legal English, field-specific grammar includes things like said/such, wherein/herewith/thereupon, and techniques for switching between legalese and plain English.

Another example comes from Cambridge English for Jobhunting, which teaches students how to write CVs and cover letters and how to perform brilliantly in job interviews. Now, imagine when we were creating that book we had started with a traditional grammar syllabus, and we were planning practice activities for present perfect. Hmmm ... how about job interviews? "Have you ever worked with children? How long have you worked for XYZ?".

The problem is, if you look at strong examples of authentic job interviews (as we did when we were researching the book), you find that present perfect isn't actually used in this way in real life. If the interviewers want to ask you about your experience, they'll ask you to "tell us about a time when you demonstrated ...". In other words, you'll need past simple, and perhaps some narrative tenses, but not present perfect. (There's also the issue that they won't ask if you've ever worked with children - that should come out of your CV, not the interview).

So what grammar do you need for job interviews? Let's look at this question: "Tell us about your weaknesses". It turns out there are several great techniques for answering this question. One is to talk about a weakness that you've actually overcome ("Well, I used to be a bit disorganised, but now ..."). In other words, it's worth teaching/practising used to. Another technique is to play down your weaknesses using phrases like "a bit", "very slightly" and "occasionally" ("Well, I can occasionally be a little bossy, but ..."). The interesting thing for me here is the use of can to show that the weakness is an occasional bad habit rather than a permanent character flaw. I've never seen can explained in those terms in a traditional grammar course, presumably because it's not an especially useful or common use of can. But it is an extremely useful piece of grammar for this particular situation.

So where does that leave the tradional grammar syllabus that I mentioned at the top of this post? I'd say that in modern ESP course books, there's no room for it. There are so many other teaching materials that contain systematic grammar syllabuses that we don't need to include them yet again in ESP books. Another way of looking at it is that there's so much specific language work that does need to be taught in ESP books (because it isn't taught in any other published materials), that it would be a waste of space to include traditional grammar. (This relates to my wish-list for ESP course design - we want course books to cover the difficult things like authentic listening materials and original language work, rather than the easy things that we teachers can make for ourselves).

What's more, ESP course books are often aimed at students with a much wider range of grammar needs than other books. For example, International Legal English will work well with students from B2 to c1 level and above, precisely because it doesn't focus on traditional grammar: the situation-based course aims will be broadly the same for both levels, where grammar-based aims would be very different.

The same goes for books aimed at different nationalities. My students in Poland need a lot of work on articles and present perfect, while native speakers of Spanish at the same level of proficiency would find that grammar work embarrassingly easy. And so on ...

BUT ... the key word in the above paragraphs was course books. There may be no room for a traditional grammar syllabus in the ESP books we use, but I'd argue we still need such a syllabus (tailored to our own students' needs, of course) in the courses we teach. But where do you get a grammar syllabus if not from your course book? You've got two options:

  1. Create your own worksheets to teach and practise all the target grammar structures. This is what I do, although I'll admit it's very tough to be systematic and to actually integrate a whole grammar syllabus into an ESP course.
  2. Supplement your ESP book with another book that does have a strong, systematic grammar syllabus. I'm talking about buying the book, of course, not photocopying it. Aside from the moral/legal issues surrounding photocopying, you and your students are more likely to be systematic if you have an actual book to work through. A grammar classic like Murphy would be fine, as would a GE or business English course book with a strong grammar syllabus. [My favourite used to be Business Opportunities, which had the best grammar syllabus of any book I've used. But it looks a bit dated nowadays, unfortunately.] So you could use your ESP course book on Mondays and your grammar-based book on Thursdays, for example.
Of course the ideal situation would be if ELT publishers brought out grammar books for each of the ESP areas, but for the time being at least, it seems there's not enough demand to justify the investment.

Perhaps one day in the future when I've got too much time and money on my hands I'll write them myself ... (I'll also try to post some grammar activities on this blog as I write them - look out for the 'grammar' label in the list of postings.)

So, what about you? Do you agree with my views on topic-based and grammar-based course books? Where do you get your grammar syllabus from (if you use one)? Or should we ESP teachers forget about grammar and leave it to the general English teachers? Add your comments below.

PS I've just been having an idle look around the blogosphere (still a very new experience for me, being very slow on the uptake) and I came across Alex Case's bank of 500 worksheets. I haven't checked them all out, but it seems to me you could make a pretty good free grammar syllabus for your ESP course just by exploring all the great ideas here.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Deadlines, deadlines ...

So much for my noble aims of writing a couple of times a week - it's now been more like five weeks that I've been neglecting this poor blog of mine. And all the time, I'm told, my interview with Lawrence Harris was badly formatted to make it unreadable. (Although on my computer it actually looked fine). Anyway, I hope that's fixed now - thanks to Karenne and Lawrence for helping me out!

The frustrating thing about being involved in publishing is that I can't tell you all the exciting things I've been busy with - it's all top secret until the new books are ready for publication. But I don't think I'll get into trouble for mentioning that my series, Cambridge English for ..., is growing. We launched the series last year with four titles, Jobhunting, Engineering, Nursing and the Media, but of course the plan is to keep adding to the series as long as there's demand for new titles. So I've been very busy working on the latest titles. Watch
this space for news of the new additions, probably within a month or so.

The thing that's kept me busiest over the summer has been an online course in technical English for a university, to which I've been adding content. I'll write up a blog entry about that when I've finished my work on that course.

I also did some legal English teacher training over the summer, which I mentioned
here. That was a great experience, and gave me lots of ideas for this blog ... if only I had time to write them up!

Anyway, enough complaining. Time to get on with some proper blogging!