ESP with a little e: Identifying and Meeting Learner Needs

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

One-on-one conversations with our students are valuable because we can often learn about their specific needs for English language communication skills. Such needs are not always apparent and not always covered in a particular kind of English class. You have to ask questions to get more details from the students before you can address such needs. (Think of a typical ESP needs analysis on a small scale here.)

Consider the following five conversations that I had with adult learners recently. Discussions 1 to 4 took place before or after a class. Discussion 5 occurred during a one-to-one session. I consider such one-to-one conversations to have the potential to be ESP on a small scale (or ESP with a little “e”). The conversations become “esp” when they focus on how to meet the learner’s needs for English language communication skills as a tool in their work or training.

1. “I want to study vocabulary. Can you recommend a book?”

I wanted to know “why.” Why did the student want to learn vocabulary? As a journalist, the student wanted to be able to participate in press conferences in English at the Olympics. After identifying his real need, we discussed the kinds of resources that could be helpful for him and where he might find these.

2. “Can you choose a textbook for this class that has a CD-ROM?”

From our conversation, I learned that the student valued the CD-ROM because she listened to the textbook conversations outside of class. Her intention was to influence my selection of textbooks for future classes. In the textbook that the class was currently using, there was a DVD, but it didn’t contain all of the conversations in the textbook. I will most likely choose a textbook with such a CD-ROM for the next class.

3. “I have been listening to NHK World English news stories.”

Although one student brought up the topic, another student joined the discussion because she had also been listening to such news stories outside of class. The students thought that the pronunciation of the NHK speaker was easy to understand. However, they told me that they did not have access to transcripts so they could not confirm whether their understanding of the news stories was correct. I then shared an experience where one of my students had transcribed the contents of a news story, but most of what he had transcribed was incorrect. We then identified other sources of news stories with free transcripts including CNN Student News and National Public Radio (NPR).

4. “It is not a big matter, but how do I communicate with the hotel in a way to make them realize that it is a big matter?”

By asking questions, I was able to understand the student’s problem. The student’s company had been doing business with a hotel. The student had called the hotel to reserve a room for a client. A hotel staff member had told the student that a room was available. The student informed her client about the room reservation. The next day the student received an e-mail that there were no rooms available. The student was asking me how to communicate with the hotel in this situation. After discussing the situation further, we came up with some ideas: who to contact, what to say, etc.

5. “This is the textbook that I am using to prepare for the entrance examination to medical school.”

During our conversation, the student indirectly asked me how to prepare for the English section of the entrance examination with a textbook that was written in Japanese. The activities in the textbook were very difficult for the student. It seemed to me that the student could not adequately prepare for the entrance examination in a short period of time. I offered some advice on test-taking strategies related to the activities in the textbook. I encouraged him to continue to study and also to take practice tests.

As an ESPer, I value such opportunities to work with students to help them to meet their specific needs and achieve their goals.

Good luck with the big “E” and little “e” ESP situations you face as an ESPer!

All the best,


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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One Response to ESP with a little e: Identifying and Meeting Learner Needs

  1. Thank you for the tip, professor.
    Claudio mattos
    Rio de Janeiro, /Brazil