What Is English For Specific Purposes And How Do I Teach It?

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No, this is not a code to decipher or another language!

In the field of English Language education, there are more acronyms and abbreviations than there are banana pancakes in Thailand. It can be downright confusing if you’ve just got a handle on the difference between EFL and ESL to then suddenly find there are loads more acronyms and abbreviations out there that you have absolutely no idea about. Even if you have already done a TEFL course you might not know what they all mean.

In this piece we will ask what is English for Specific Purposes and how do I teach it?

Read more: 10 Abbreviations And Acronyms You Should Know Before Becoming An EFL Teacher

Today, we’re going to talk about just one of these little guys that you might come across on your TEFL journey: ESP. ESP stands for extra-sensory perception….uh, except in this case. In the TEFL world, ESP stands for English for Specific Purposes and you might have to teach it at some point in your career.

How can you teach a class you know nothing about? Don’t worry, you probably do, but you just don’t know you do. 

What is English for Specific Purposes?

In English Language education, ESP means learning English for specific purposes. Unlike General English, which covers everyday situations, ESP focuses on language needed in specific jobs or fields. For example, it includes areas like English for Hospitality or English for Aviation, where learners study industry-specific words and communication needed for their work.

Of course, a student learning English for a specific purpose will likely also need to know how to use and understand English in a more general context, but this is a secondary concern for these classes.

Who needs English for Specific Purposes?

English language learners who take ESP classes do so for a very specific purpose. They have a particular language goal in mind, related to their lives and often their jobs.

ESP students already have some foundation of the language and are usually adults with higher levels of English. These students are usually highly motivated because their goal is clear. Many times, their work will depend on their English proficiency. As a result, their motivation and dedication levels are high. 

Examples of ESP classes are English for Aviation (for air traffic controllers or pilots), English for Hospitality (for hotel staff), English for Tourism (for travel agents and tour guides), English for Medicine (for nurses, doctors and other medical staff), English for Banking, and Legal English. Business English and English for Academic Purposes are ESP courses but they are mainstream so have their own categories. 

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How to teach English for Specific Purposes

The first need that is important in an ESP class is a needs analysis.

A needs analysis will tell the teacher exactly what language and skills the students need to know and why they need to know it. It will provide a background for the teacher so they have a better understanding of the necessity of the classes for their students. ESP classes will often focus on a particular language skill or particular language points, which is in contrast to General English classes which will be sure to include all four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

In contrast, ESP classes are more focused on specific language and contexts rather than grammar and language structures. In other words, instead of teaching the present perfect for past experiences, or phrasal verbs, an English for Hospitality teacher will focus on functional language such as greetings or dealing with customer problems. Any language work that comes out will be a result of necessity rather than focus. 

One important aspect of teaching ESP which you must remember is that these lessons are essential for the learners for their daily lives.

While they will naturally be highly motivated, they will expect you to be professional and knowledgeable. They will want to enjoy the learning situation but they will not want to do activities without a clear purpose or without a direct relation to their goal. They will expect to see results.

In other words, ESP classes are generally more serious than other classes – but that doesn’t mean they have to be boring!

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Can I teach English for Specific Purposes?

There is no reason any TEFL teacher cannot teach any ESP class.

There is no need to panic if you find yourself about to teach an ESP course related to a field you know nothing about. You do not need to have any experience in that field – just like you don’t need to be a businessman or –woman to teach Business English – though of course it will help if you do.

If you don’t, all you need to do is do your research.

These days there are books dedicated to specific ESP courses which you can use to identify the language and the skills needed for that particular class and as the basis for your lessons, just as you would any General English coursebook.

Read more: Can Only Businessmen Teach Business English?

Resources for teaching English for Specific Purposes

OneStopEnglish has a comprehensive section dedicated to teaching ESP. There are lesson plans related to English for Aviation, Oil, Marketing, Sales, Human Resources and many others. Some of the lessons require a subscription to access (which is a worthwhile investment), while others are free. 

Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Macmillan are just three major publishers which offer coursebooks for many different ESP courses, as well as resources for Continuous Professional Development and online resources. Many other publishers do as well. 

National Geographic Learning provides a number of online resources not only for General English but for Exam Preparation, Business English and ESP courses too. 

Considerations when teaching English for Specific Purposes

Teaching ESP is a bit of a juggling act; it’s not the same as teaching a General English class.

For the most part, you won’t be familiar with the content, which means you will have to do loads more research and preparation before your classes.

The language is really important and, in some cases, can mean the difference between keeping and losing a job (in hospitality, for instance) or even life and death (in medicine or aviation). So it is vital that your students walk out of your classes with high levels of accuracy.

There might not be as much support in your institution with regards to your ESP classes, because there is a chance no one has taught that particular class before. The onus is on you as the teacher to find the resources that you need and prepare as best you can. 

Teaching English for Specific Purposes can include teaching Business English

Teaching English for Specific Purposes can be tricky but it’s totally doable.

Any TEFL teacher with the correct training will be able to handle an ESP class, if that means teaching air traffic controllers from Reunion, security guards from Angola, or electrical engineers from South Korea.


I’m interested in teaching English, how can I apply

Sinethemba Mhlongo, 18th August 2020

Thanks for sharing, very explicit. Keep them coming.

Mary, 27th July 2020

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