What does English for Specific Purposes (ESP) actually mean?

ESP is a tailor-made approach to Business English learning content that focuses on the specific needs of learners in their specific work contexts. For example, industries such as crop science, healthcare, finance, insurance, pharmaceutical, and chemical all have language requirements that are more extensive than standard Business English. An ESP content developer must create materials that reflect the needs of both learners, and the company they work for. Learners will acquire the language needed to perform specific work functions. As a bespoke product, ESP comes with a much higher price tag, and is much more attractive to trainers who want to define their training niche.

How does ESP differ from standard Business English courses?

Standard Business English solutions are sold as off-the-shelf products. These products are normally good in core skills areas like telephoning, writing emails, running meetings, and giving presentations. In general, they generally lack flexibility and tend to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. On the other hand, ESP courses are normally customized for the client. The are difficult to resell and suffer from limited applicability. While this specificity of ESP has a lot of advantages, it will also limit the application of the materials to a narrow range of learners. Due to this, ESP comes with a much higher price tag, which reflects the additional effort required to continually create new content and customize courses. This can put the course prices out of the reach of many clients’ training budgets.

What is the best way to create ESP content?

Personally, I think ADDIE is the most useful instructional design cycle to create language training content. Each of the five letters stands for one stage: Analysis / Design / Development / Implementation / Evaluation. This is a very robust approach to creating any learning content.

What are the key considerations for creating effective ESP learning content?

1. Identify the learners’ needs and goals

Before designing any materials, the first step is to understand the learners’ jobs, their company, and the industry they work in. The best way to find out the basic information is by carrying out needs analysis, which involves gathering information about the learners’ company and products, their professional backgrounds, their current language proficiency, and their specific job roles. Everything you will create after this will be targeted at, relevant to, and addressed to your learners’ needs. It is absolutely essential to learn from your students. You are the language trainer, but they are the subject matter experts. Learners’ needs can also change over time, so it is important to reassess them on a regular basis. You may also find that you may have to address future needs and prepare learners for changes in their working environment.

2. Select authentic and relevant content

One of the key features of ESP is the use of authentic and relevant content that reflects the learners’ professional contexts. You will need to consider what kind of discourse takes place in that particular industry. This is known as a ‘community of practice,’ and can vary quite considerably from what we consider standard English communication. For example, think about the type of discourse that pilots have with air-traffic control:

Pilot: Good morning, ATC Tower. This is Flight 456. We are currently flying at 35,000 feet and are approximately 100 nautical miles southeast of your location. Requesting permission to descend.

ATC: Flight 456, this is ATC Tower. You are cleared to descend to flight level 240. Maintain present heading and expect further instructions once you reach your requested altitude.

Pilot: Roger that, ATC Tower. Cleared to descend to flight level 240. Maintaining present heading. We’ll await further instructions.

This is not the kind of discourse which takes place over a business lunch, is it? It is necessary to provide learners with authentic transcripts and audio recordings of the community of practice unique to their industry. All your real-world content will need to be up-to-date and reflect current industry practices and trends.

3. Express course objectives with can-do statements

The course objectives must be expressed in ‘can-do’ statements. These statements indicate what the learner is currently able to do and what the desired outcome will be after completing an activity or lesson. It is the job of the trainer to close the learning gap. These functional ‘competency’ statements are an essential tool for reporting learner data and helping trainers to evaluate their learners’ progress accurately. An example of a can-do statement for an English course for the pharmaceutical industry could be: “can describe the steps involved in a clinical trial using correct pharmaceutical terminology.” This clearly defines what the learners will be able to do after this particular learning step, providing a point of reference for student feedback.

4. Focus on specialized vocabulary and language structures

ESP courses often focus on vocabulary and phrases that are unique to the learners’ specialized work context. As a course designer, it is essential to identify and incorporate this vocabulary into your materials. Make sure that you scan a wide range of sources and compile a list of the key words and phrases necessary for the industry. For example, you might produce the following list for a course on English for aviation:

• cleared for takeoff on Runway 3
• requesting departure clearance
• final approach
• holding pattern
• requesting taxi instructions
• cleared to land on Runway 2
• altitude
• climbing to FL350
• mayday! requesting immediate landing.”
• hold short of Runway 6

The way an airline pilot and a HR manager would understand this list of phrases would be quite different. Each lesson should have realistic learning goals in terms of content. The acquisition of specialised language content can be achieved by exploiting industry specific texts, dialogues and implementing focused language exercises. If grammar content is required, this should be carefully mapped to the functional can-do statements. For example, a lesson focusing on negotiation would be a good platform for conditional sentences. Additionally, make sure you provide enough opportunities for learners to practice using this specialized language in context, through activities such as case studies, role-plays, simulations, and discussions.

5. Develop task-based activities

Task-based Language Training is the most effective way to engage learners and help them develop the specific language skills needed for their professions. The goal is to simulate real-life situations by completing a task, such as writing a report, giving a presentation, or participating in a meeting. Possibilities for feedback and reformulation are provided by the teacher. The activities are designed to promote collaboration, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills.

6. Incorporate cultural awareness

In many situations, learners interact with colleagues and clients from around the world who may have diverse cultural backgrounds. It is important to promote cultural awareness and diversity in your materials, helping learners recognize cultural nuances. This can be done through the inclusion of case studies, discussions, and activities that explore cross-cultural communication and the impact of culture on professional interactions.

7. Assess and evaluate progress

Think about what evaluation methods are needed to monitor progress and ensure learners are meeting their objectives. This should include a high degree of continuous assessment rather than summative tests. It also makes sense to use project-based testing, which assesses learner’s ability to carry out real-world tasks. Testing does not have to be boring, and testing strategies can include quizzes, and self-assessment activities that allow learners to reflect on their own progress.

Is there a way to deal with the problem of limited applicability of ESP training materials?

A possible solution is to create modules designed to cover core business English skills, along with specialized course modules, so that a proportion of the course content can be recycled for use with other customers. In a consultative sales process, it is possible to customize solutions with a certain amount of off-the-shelf content combined with more expensive bespoke, tailor-made solutions.

What is the most difficult aspect of both ESP and Business English training?

I would say that it is rapidly changing fields, especially due to advancements in technology. As a result, ESP materials developed for a particular field might quickly become outdated. Keeping ESP materials up to date requires continuous effort and resources to ensure their relevance and applicability. As soon as the paint has dried on your language training product, you will need to begin the next iteration, and repeat the entire development cycle.

Despite all the disadvantages, ESP material development is certainly the most exciting area of language training to work in. ESP materials provide learners with the most practical and applicable language skills. This relevance and contextualization enhance our learners’ motivation and engagement. This is rewarding for both the learner and trainer.

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