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English for Specific Purposes – Getting the balance right

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Businesspeople shaking handsLewis Lansford discusses the four key elements of success for teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Lewis has written a wide range of ESP teaching materials, including Engineering 1 and Oil and Gas 1 in the Oxford English for Careers series, and English for Cabin Crew.

Most teachers come to ESP teaching with no specialist background in the field they’re teaching (English for medicine, robotics, aviation, law, the military, etc.) It can be intimidating teaching experts in a field that you yourself know little about. The key to success is getting a good balance of four basic elements: special lexis, general English language/grammar, special context and pedagogy.

Special lexis

This is generally the most intimidating part of ESP for teachers and learners. Teachers, who are used to being the expert, find themselves trying to help students communicate clearly using words that they – the teachers – don’t understand. That’s tough. Here are three ways that teachers overcome this feeling of lack:

  1. They learn as much as they reasonably can about the field;
  2. They are honest with themselves and their students about the things they don’t know, demonstrating that their expertise is in language teaching, not engineering or medicine or aviation;
  3. They remember that special lexis is only one part of the whole picture.

English language/grammar

This is an area of ESP teaching where the teacher is the expert. Think of ESP as a pyramid. Special lexis is the small pointy part at the top. The wide foundation of the pyramid is the English that everyone needs every day – the grammatical building blocks of sentence structure, verb tenses, adverbs and so on. Special lexis is important, but is useful only with the support and structure of English sentences to put it into. This holds up the whole pyramid.

Specialist context

Getting things done in English involves discourse – conversation, extended texts, and negotiations. Like grammar, this is familiar territory to the teacher: asking for information, clarifying, interrupting, making suggestions and all the other familiar functions. People in almost any professional or academic situation must do these things. Some specific situations differ across fields. Students of English for medicine need to develop an understanding of the discourse of the hospital, which involves communicating in a very hierarchical environment, often under intense pressure, sometimes with lives at stake. Business people need to learn non-linguistic negotiation skills, and often must learn about how these differ across cultures. The teacher’s job in this case is to develop the best understanding possible of their learners’ target context and to create lessons that give students the opportunity to use English appropriately.

Pedagogy

This is where it all comes together. The key to learners’ success is well-crafted lessons that provide exposure to authentic language, but not too much; allow for plenty of practice and recycling; give the teacher and the learner opportunities to measure and mark progress. Without sound pedagogy – well-planned and well-executed lessons – language learning and development are unlikely to take place. When the teacher gets it right, the other elements fall into place, and balance is achieved.

Teachers often start their first ESP job feeling intimidated by what they don’t know and worried about their ability to deliver useful lessons. Those who stay with it discover that their own expertise in running effective classes using appropriate materials balances perfectly with their students’ knowledge and experience in their own field. Many go on to relish the expertise they develop in teaching pilots, nurses, or engineers – comfortable with what they know, but also confident in what they don’t – which may be the hardest lesson for a teacher to learn.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

7 thoughts on “English for Specific Purposes – Getting the balance right

  1. Reblogged this on Evelyn Izquierdo and commented:
    Hi!
    Here is an interesting article posted by Oxford Universty Press which I recommend for ESP/EAP teachers. Your comments are welcome!

  2. Pingback: English for Specific Purposes - Getting the balance right | Dalhousie ESL Programs | Scoop.it

  3. Good article, Lewis.

  4. Pingback: English for Specific Purposes – Getting the balance right « Oxford ... | Teacher Training | Scoop.it

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