4 Ways to Address the Question: What Is English for Specific Purposes?

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

I was recently reading an article (Smoak, 2003) being discussed in the reading group (for TESOL ESPIS members) conceived, launched, and moderated by Robin Sulkosky, who is on the ESPIS steering board. (You can access the reading group here; you must be a member of the TESOL Community for access.) In the article, Smoak concludes:

So, what is English for Specific Purposes? At this stage in my career, my answer is this: ESP is English instruction based on actual and immediate needs of learners who have to successfully perform real-life tasks unrelated to merely passing an English class or exam. ESP is needs based and task oriented. Teaching ESP is demanding, time consuming, and different for every group of students. ESP is a challenge for all who teach it, and it offers virtually unlimited opportunities for professional growth. I encourage other ESP practitioners to contribute their answers to the question, “What is ESP?”

It is a great question—What is ESP? How would you define ESP based on your own experiences in the field and at your own “stage in your career”? In my activities as a member of the TESOL ESPIS, I have addressed this question in four ways.

1. The first was through a PowerPoint presentation created in collaboration with veteran leaders of the ESPIS—Anne Lomperis, Margaret van Naerssen, and ESPIS cofounder Kay Westerfield. In 2008, I was the new face on the ESPIS steering board at the TESOL convention in New York City. I therefore accepted the nomination by Karen Schwelle, the outgoing ESPIS chair, to create a PowerPoint to educate practitioners and clients about our field. After the convention, I enlisted the support of the ESPIS community, and Anne, Margaret, and Kay responded to the call. We worked entirely online to create English for Specific Purposes: An Overview for Practitioners and Clients (Academic & Corporate). The PowerPoint was eventually published in the TESOL Resource Center in 2010.

2. The second was through the “TESOL ESPIS Community Discussions 2011-2012.” During that year, I was the ESPIS chair. The TESOL Community Network had been launched recently. It was an ideal time to have month-long professional development discussions about ESP. There were five discussions. One was led by David Kertzner. Another was led by Najma Janjua. Ethel Swartley and I were coleaders of a discussion. The fourth discussion was a collaboration between two TESOL interest sections: ESP and IC (intercultural communication). The fifth discussion, which has had over 19,500 views to date, was the TESOL ESP IS & IATEFL ESP SIG Joint Online Discussion (you must be a member of the TESOL Community for access). As I wrote in an opening post:

In this historic discussion, our purpose is to look at English for Specific Purposes (ESP) from a variety of perspectives – personal and professional. We will tell our own stories as well as the stories of others we know, exchange views, explore concepts, ask and answer questions, learn from our similarities and differences, and share resources. We envision the discussion as an engaging brainstorming session on current ESP topics, where, as a global community, we will discuss connections between topics/ideas/methodologies throughout the discussion. At the end of the discussion, we will hopefully have come to understand ESP and each other in new and valuable ways.

3. The third has been through the creation and launch of the ESP Project Leader Profiles. At the time of this blog post, 19 profiles have been published. In addition, the profiles have become a reference in TESOL’s ELT Leadership Management Certificate Program, and I am pleased to say that I received my certificate in June! In fact, what I am writing here appears in part in my own profile below.

  1. May 5, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Kristin Ekkens
  2. June 2, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Charles Hall
  3. July 14, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Ronna Timpa
  4. August 11, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Evan Frendo
  5. September 8, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Jaclyn Gishbaugher
  6. October 6, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Anne Lomperis
  7. October 20, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Ethel Swartley
  8. November 3, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: David Kertzner
  9. December 1, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Margaret van Naerssen
  10. December 15, 2015: ESP Project Leader Profile: Marvin Hoffland
  11. January 12, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: John Butcher
  12. January 26, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Karen Schwelle
  13. February 23, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Esther Perez Apple
  14. March 8, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Kevin Knight
  15. April 5, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Shahid Abrar-ul-Hassan
  16. May 3, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Robert Connor
  17. May 17, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Jigang Cai
  18. June 14, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Ismaeil Fazel
  19. June 28, 2016: ESP Project Leader Profile: Yilin Sun

4. As the fourth, I should note that I have been involved in two TESOL webinars that have addressed ESP. The first, which was co-led by David Kertzner, Ethel Swartley and me, focused on “principled ESP.” The three of us created the webinar online and moderated the webinar from Oregon and Colorado (in the USA) and Kanagawa (in Japan). We were all in different time zones. The second was a collaboration between the TESOL ESPIS and the IATEFL ESP SIG titled TESOL-IATEFL Online Discussion About How ESP Projects Can Create Positive Social Change. The discussion leaders included Andy Gillett, Kristin Ekkens, Ronna Timpa, Jaclyn Gishbaugher, Anne Lomperis, and Margaret van Naerssen. I was the organizer and moderator.

In view of the above, I am very pleased to see a new face, Robin, taking the lead in creating and moderating a reading group on ESP, and I strongly encourage you to participate! So, “What is ESP?” Don’t reply here. Post your response to the ESP reading group!

All the best.



Smoak, R. (2003). What is English for specific purposes? English Teaching Forum 41(2), 22–27.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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