ESP: What you don’t know can help you

Before teaching my first adult ESL class about five years ago, I queried the program director, “Should I ask my students what they want to learn?”

“All they’ll say is they want to improve their English,” she replied. “You know what they need to know; just teach it.”

Having just completed the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) summer intensive course in the New School MATESOL program it’s stunningly clear how useless that advice was.

Everybody is special

I believe that all students need survival English when they begin learning. I also believe that learners at all proficiency levels also have specific needs, needs shaped by such factors as whether they rent or own a home, whether they have children or a child with special needs, whether they are in college, the kind of work they do or aspire to do, and so on. Would it make sense to teach landscaping vocabulary to academics or essay writing to house-cleaners? Of course not. Is it important to know if any students are in a landlord-tenant dispute and whether they have opportunities to practice English outside of class? Absolutely.

Specifically speaking

Technically, “specific purposes” refers to the language needed to communicate effectively in a particular workplace or in academia, be it general or discipline-specific. Needs assessment, aka needs analysis (NA), is a core component of ESP in general and in Emily ReynoldsESP elective course in the New School MATESOL program.

According to Emily, an ESP teacher is typically invited by an employer to teach a group of non-native English-speaking workers. This gives us the “admittance ticket” into the target work place to gather intel. We do interviews and make observations, taking copious notes on speech acts, communication modalities, vocabulary, industry jargon, and the topics our students need to discuss with various stakeholders.

Pushing in

To carry out an NA for Emily’s course, this scenario was flipped on its head: I had to identify a hypothetical group of students and then figure out a way to breathe their air. The group I chose was nurse’s aides in assisted living facilities. Aging Baby Boomers are poised to take assisted living by storm, and aides do 90 percent of the hands-on care. Their job is physically and emotionally demanding, low-wage, and underappreciated. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost one in four healthcare support workers is foreign-born. Many experts say a shortage of aides is looming, so one solution is hiring more aides from foreign countries. It would be nice if they could all speak English.

I knew this would be a good target for my NA, but how to get into an assisted living facility to gather intel? I called the handful of facilities in my area, but none called me back. This was one of several stressful junctures where Emily really shined. She provided guidance, encouragement, and more stress relief than Xanax. She reminded me that “the learning process is supposed to be fun.”

“Don’t sweat it if a site visit isn’t possible,” she said in one of her reassuring phone calls. “Gather information from the internet and just do your best with it.”

Ultimately, I managed to arrange a site visit, thanks to a friend whose mother is in assisted living. I spent an entire day there, observing and interviewing aides, nurses, supervisors, and residents and their adult children. This experience optimized my ability to create my final project: an ESP syllabus based on real-world language use.

You don’t know what you don’t know

If you’re only interested in teaching general ESL/EFL, you might be wondering: “Why waste an elective on ESP if I’ll never need it?” Consider this: When I was in journalism school back in the day, one of my professors taught a long unit on the justice system. I learned the difference between a preliminary hearing and a grand jury, a judge and a bailiff, a plaintiff and a defendant, dismissing charges with and without prejudice, and much, much more.

“Why are we learning all this?” I complained in class one day. “We’re going to be journalists, not lawyers!”

“Because you’re going to need it,” my professor said.

Boy, was he right. My first beat at my first newspaper job out of college was county government and courts. If I hadn’t learned so much about the criminal justice system in school, I would not have been prepared to cover a grisly murder that took place in my little desert town. I would not have been prepared to write about the subsequent investigation, hearings, and trial. And my coverage probably would not have been good enough to earn me three national and statewide journalism awards.

I doubt I’ll ever earn a TESOL award, and I have no idea whether I’ll ever teach ESP. But Emily’s course fundamentally changed the way I think about learner needs and classroom practice. Most importantly, it has given me the skills and confidence I need to meet the needs of each of my students going forward. What could be more rewarding than that?

Author’s Biography:  Robin K. Levinson was a journalist for 15 years before becoming an English Language Learning assessment specialist at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey. An author of 13 books, she has been chipping away at her MATESOL degree at The New School one online course per semester and is poised to graduate after completing a fall 2017 practicum.