Help! I've been asked to teach ESP!

elt english for specific purposes esp Sep 22, 2021

By James Jenkin

ESP – English for Specific Purposes – describes an English course tailored to a specific job, such as English for Doctors, English for Hotel Receptionists or English for Pilots. In ESP ‘the purpose for learning is paramount and related directly to what the learner needs to do in their vocation’ (Harding, 2007:6). See What is English for Specific Purposes?.

The term is also used to include English for a specialized area of study (such as Engineering or Finance), as opposed to the more general English for Academic Purposes.

ESP came to prominence in the 1960s, thanks to the rapid internationalization of work. It was initially a fairly common-sense approach, focusing on the teaching of technical vocabulary. Then in the 1980s the rise of discourse and genre analysis ‘introduced the idea of relating language form to language use’ (Dudley-Evans, 2001:22). This meant developing oral communicative competence in workplace environments, and understanding and producing authentic text-types, for example business reports or research presentations. To do this, we need to find out exactly what doctors, receptionists or pilots do with English in their job, and teach these skills in the classroom.

This sounds daunting to many teachers. ‘I know nothing about medicine. How can I teach doctors what to say in their job?’

And in fact, involvement of a content specialist was initially seen as a given. Preferably the expert could deliver the classes; if not, at least serve as a ‘subject-specialist informant’ in the design of the course (Johns, 2013:8).

But what do students think?

Numerous surveys (e.g. Maleki, 2008; Ahmadi, 2008; Ahmadi & Sajjadi, 2009; Delvand, Sabet  & Zafarghandi, 2013) show quite definitively that students want an English teacher over a non-English-teacher specialist. In the view of students, ‘language teachers are more qualified to teach ESP than content teachers and ESP courses should be taught by language teachers instead of content teachers’ (Delvand, Sabet & Zafarghandi, 2013:154).

The reason is that students are already the content experts. They want to learn language, so they want a language teaching expert.

Of course, ESP teachers should have a positive attitude towards the specialized subject matter. They need to try to understand students’ workplace communication needs, and source relevant materials. But they should also be confident in what they can offer as a language teacher, ‘honest about their role in the classroom and … not try to deceive students into believing they are all knowing experts in the field’ (Anthony, 2007:3).

In fact, when a teacher is open about their level of understanding, it creates a genuine communication need in the classroom, as students have to explain their area of specialization to the teacher.

My personal experience in the 1990s, when organizing an ESP course for oil and gas engineers, accords with the survey findings. Surprisingly, students even seemed to prefer teachers without a background in the field. Classes delivered by teachers with both teaching and engineering qualifications invariably strayed into teaching the subject matter. Students complained they felt patronized by ‘baby engineering classes’.

So if you’re called on to teach ESP: be aware there’s a boundary between English and content teaching, and feel confident students do not want you to cross it.


Ahmadi, M (2008). Who should teach ESP: EFL teachers or subject-specialist teachers? TESOL France Journal, 1, 21-33.

Ahmadi, M. & Sajjadi, S. (2009). Who should teach English for medical purposes (EMP)? Journal of Medical Education, 13(3).

Anthony, L. (2007). The teacher as student in ESP course design. 2007 International Symposium on ESP.

Delvand, S., Sabet, M. & Zafarghandi, A. (2013). Evaluation of teachers’ efficacy in an ESP context of Iranian universities. Journal of Basic Applied Science Research, 3(11).

Dudley-Evans, T., & St John, M. (1998). Developments in English for specific purposes: A multi-disciplinary approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harding, K. (2007). English for specific Purposes: Resource books for teachers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johns, A. (2013). The history of English for specific purposes research. In B. Paltridge & S. Starfield (Eds.), The handbook of English for specific purposes. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Maleki, A. (2008). ESP teaching: A matter of controversy. Proceeding of the first National ESP/EAP Conference, 1.

James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.

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