Monday, 18 January 2010

Two approaches to ESP course design

Another brief posting ...

There are basically two types of ESP courses, which we might call English-through and English-for

English-through means teaching English through the lens of an ESP field. The aim of the course is to bump your students up to a higher level of global language proficiency (e.g. from CEF level B2 to C1). That means teaching all the grammar, vocab and pronunciation that all other language learners have to study. And making sure your students understand the language structures at that level and can use them as well as others of the same level. It also means working on the four skills - to improve reading speed and listening comprehension, spoken confidence and written style. All that sort of thing.

In other words, it's just like any other English course. The only difference is that everything is done in the context of the ESP field. So you teach present perfect through examples from that field and practise it with a field-relevant role-play, or whatever. You work on their reading skills by giving them increasingly challenging things to do with texts about their field. The ESP field exists in the the course primarily as a means of keeping the course interesting and relevant. If you work in finance, for example, you might get more out of a report-writing task on the causes of the credit crunch than on the pros and cons of fox hunting. Or whatever.

English-for is different. This type of course focuses specifically on the language and skills that are directly relevant to your students' present and future work situations. It's all needs-based. Crucially, it ignores the non-essential language or skills and focuses exclusively on the target language. So if Nurse X never has to write reports for work in English, it doesn't need to be in his/her course. If Engineer Y only ever has to read and write technical English, and never needs to speak, why worry about his/her fluency or pronunciation?

In many ways, English-for is more short-term. It's about giving the students the language they need right now to do their job. Longer-term things, like what they'll need English for in 5 years, is not a priority.

Now, of course in real life, we tend to mix and match - I can't imagine many courses fit the extremes as I've portrayed them. But I think it's important to plan, right from the start, what sort of ESP course you're creating, (mainly) English-through or (mainly) English-for. Which would be more useful for your students right now and in the long run?

English-through courses are quite easy to create. You basically get your syllabus - created by you, the language expert - and find materials to fit it. OK, that's not exactly a piece of cake, but it's doable.

English-for courses are much more challenging for the course designer. You need to get a really deep knowledge of your students' field and somehow find out what language and skills they will need in their jobs. You can find out a lot by asking them, but very often they themselves don't know what they need until it's too late. Very tricky.

(That's one of the big reasons, by the way, why the books in my series, Cambridge English for ..., focus much more on this tricky side - to save teachers the hellish job (or at least reduce it) of finding out for themselves what language people need in particular professions. But I didn't plan this post as an advert for the series, so I'll stop going on about it!)

Anyway, I've got my terminology now, so I'll probably use those labels in other posts too. I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with the distinction, but I wonder if anyone's used the labels before ...

Related posts:


  1. Not so brief, but highly interesting - this is actually the 2nd time reading it because I couldn't think of anything to say earlier other than you've given me much food for thought here!!!

    p.s have a great time in Cyprus!

  2. Thanks Karenne - and sorry for taking so long to reply. I had no internet connection most of the time I was in Cyprus.

    I actually used this distinction during my Cyprus consultancy, and I think it was very useful while we were designing courses. I'll expand the idea and turn it into a presentation one day.

  3. Thank you so much for the concept related to the two types of ESP you mentioned. This is the first time I have heard and it is very convincing. I will apply this in my future research. Once again, many thanks.
    Ngoc, a Vietnamese English teacher

  4. Hello Mr. Day, I was paying a visit to your blog and I found it very interesting. Something that called my attention was your promoting of some textbooks related to specific areas. I wonder if you have material related to the maritime field, if it is so, would you post some information about the matter? I would appreciate it a lot. Professor Lisbeth Belisario.

  5. Hello Professor Lisbeth Belisario,

    The book you need is called "English for Maritime Studies" by TN Blakey, second edition, published by Prentice-Hall. This is a standard classic for maritime studies. It covers everything to do with navigation and the technical aspects of a ship in quite a lot of fine detail. I use it for my annual 6-week course with the Hamburg Wasserschutzpolizei - (The Hamburg port and river police). No doubt there are other books, but this is very professionally written with excellent grammar content and lots of pictures, charts and sketches.

    best regards
    Lawrence Harris,
    Technical English Language Services,
    Hamburg, Germany