Taking Risks in ESP – A Sign of Expertise?

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

What does it mean to take risks as an ESP practitioner? Is such risk-taking a sign of expertise? This TESOL Blog post is inspired by an article in the area of professional communication that I first read several years ago. The contents of that article are applicable to our work as teachers in a classroom or as trainers in a company:

Candlin, S. (2002). Taking risks: An indicator of expertise? Research on Language and Social Interaction, 15(2), 173–193.

Sally Candlin (spouse of Christopher Candlin, by the way) focuses on expertise in summarizing the contents of her article above:

In this article, I analyzed and discussed the discourse of a nurse who does not take risks and compared it with that of the nurse with greater member resources who takes risks – in the framing of the activity and in the topic management – so that comprehensively coherent discourse, rich in assessment data, can be produced. The nurse, who can be identified as an expert, achieves this comprehensive coherence by coauthoring the discourse of a professional activity with the patient…

Candlin then quotes Benner (1984, pp. 31–32) to clarify the concept of expertise:

The expert performer no longer relies on an analytic principle (rule, guideline, maxim) to connect his or her understanding of the situation to an appropriate action. The expert nurse, with an enormous background of experience now has an intuitive grasp of each situation and zeroes in on the accurate region of the problem without wasteful consideration of a large range of unfruitful alternative diagnoses and solutions.

How does all of the above apply to the workplace of an ESPer? Think about “time.” It is in the present moment that we have the capacity to act and to create. (Those are leadership themes, by the way.) Experts are focused on the moment and on realizing a vision/goal (which is another leadership theme). We take action to create our vision: successful learning experiences for our students. If something is not working well in the classroom, we sense it and change it. All of this happens very quickly and intuitively when we are experts.

Ito (in a TED Talk I mentioned in a previous TESOL Blog post) touches upon what we are doing as experts when he talks about the “power of pull”:

One of my favorite principles is the power of pull, which is the idea of pulling resources from the network as you need them rather than stocking them in the center and controlling everything….So I think the good news is that even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. I think it’s about stopping this notion that you need to plan everything, you need to stock everything, and you need to be so prepared, and focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware, and super present. So I don’t like the word “futurist.” I think we should be now-ists…

I think this is what experts do very quickly; i.e., they make the connections (mentally) and pull together what they need (physically) in order to create in that moment. In connection with this focus on creativity, a 2013 plenary speech of Richards comes to mind:

Creativity depends upon the ability to analyse and evaluate situations and to identify novel ways of responding to them. This in turn depends upon a number of different abilities and levels of thinking.

According to Richards, creative teachers are knowledgeable and much more; e.g., creative teachers are risk takers, reflective, etc. In view of the above, it seems that creativity and expertise overlap.

I would encourage us all to be reflective practitioners (Schön, 1983) and in that role to consider what we do in the classroom and why, with the intention to build up our expertise as ESPers! As reflective experts, we should strive to have a good impact on our professional environments worldwide!

How are you building up your own expertise as an ESPer? Let us all know!

All the best,


Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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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2 Responses to Taking Risks in ESP – A Sign of Expertise?

  1. Brian King says:

    Thank you for such an inspiring post.

    I currently teach ESL and Business Studies at a new international school in Malaysia. I just started researching ESP, but I have a few questions. Would you consider all content teachers who teach to English learners ESP practitioners? Do you have any tips for educating content teachers in this situation on the importance of incorporating research-based strategies for teaching English learners? I have found that many of my colleagues see themselves as content teachers, who have little time for tailoring lessons and creating positive environments for English learners.

    This issue manifests itself in the worst way during exam times. Many of these teachers write their exams without much consideration for the English language proficiency of the test takers. This is an area that I am passionate about changing in my current school, so I appreciate such an inspiring post!

    • Kevin Knight Kevin Knight says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thank you for your two questions.

      1) “Would you consider all content teachers who teach to English learners ESP practitioners?”

      In response to your first question, the following resources may show how ESP and CBI (content-based instruction) differ:




      2) “Do you have any tips for educating content teachers in this situation on the importance of incorporating research-based strategies for teaching English learners?”

      It sounds to me like you may be able to approach this problem from a leadership perspective. In other words, as a leader, you have a “vision” (i.e., a plan based on knowledge/experience/research) of how content in language classes should be taught in your specific context. You need to get the “buy in” (or agreement/support) of your colleagues and other stakeholders (e.g., students, program administrators).

      In order to get such buy in, from an academic debate perspective, you would first identify the “need for change.” Why should your colleagues change the way that they are teaching now? What harm does such teaching cause? What needs are not being met? What goals/objectives (of the stakeholders) cannot be achieved?

      Then you would explain your solution to the problem, which is your “vision” as described above. How does your “vision” of teaching content meet the “need for change” and provide “advantages”?

      Such a “vision” (solution/plan) would probably focus on “communication.” How do the students need to be able to communicate the content? Do they need to write academic papers or make presentations? Do they need to participate in class discussions or business meetings? Further, what is the teacher’s role in helping the students to “communicate” the content? Should the content teacher work alone? Should there be an ESP class to support the students to succeed in a content class? Etc.

      From such a leadership perspective, research is important because it provides insights that help us to create and achieve our “visions.” For example, if the students need to write academic papers, genre related research publications may be very helpful.

      When you know what you want to create, you can start to identify the resources that you will need to do the creating. Good luck!


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