What is English for specific purposes?

elt english for specific purposes esp Aug 26, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Don’t you know the meaning of ‘key signature’ [a technical music term]? I thought you were an English teacher!

This comment reflects a lack of understanding of the idea that that language is used differently in different contexts. If you are not a musician or a music student, you probably won’t be talking about key signatures.

Let me give you another example. I once told a friend that I work as an invigilator twice a month. She paused for a second and asked me what an invigilator is. Although my middle-aged New Zealand friend has spoken English all her life, she should not be expected to know technical terms from the education domain. On my part, I should have used the term test supervisor instead.

A holistic view

The idea of English for specific purposes (ESP) came about when linguists started to understand that language use is context driven. This understanding resulted in the development of courses such as business English, English for academic purposes, English for medical professionals, and English for tourism.

At the core of ESP, I believe, is a learner-centred pedagogy. This means that an ESP course is designed to meet learners’ specific needs within their purpose for learning English. For example, an ESP course that is designed to prepare students for university studies will focus on developing specific skills, such as reading academic texts, writing academic essays, listening to lectures, and presenting seminars.

Theory and practice

When designing ESP courses in specialised areas, it is important to consult content experts (Johns & Dudley-Evans, 1991). For example, course designers designing an ESP course for flight attendants should consult experienced flight attendants to identify course content. In order to ensure the course participants’ needs are met, it is equally important to involve junior attendants in the course development process.

Drawing on ESP ideas, teachers can include in their classroom a wider range of texts that represent language use in a particular context (Seto, 2013). In an English for academic purposes (EAP) writing class, for example, learners can identify language features in authentic examples of the methodology section when they learn to write the section. Read more in What is the genre-based approach to writing?.

A short awareness raising activity is to have EAP students underline useful words or phrases for academic writing. They can compare the words and phrases with their classmates, and discuss whether they would use these words in casual conversations. This comparison reinforces the idea that language use is dependent on context.


Johns, A. N. & Dudley-Evans, T. (1991). English for Specific Purposes: International in scope, specific in purpose. TESOL Quarterly, 25(2), 297-314.

Seto, A. (2013). Speech acts annotation for business meetings. The Asian ESP Journal, 9(2), 119-147.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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