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Online peer-reviewed Journal for Teachers

English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World)

English for Specific Purposes World

ISSN 1682-3257

English for Specific Purposes World (ESP World) Home    Information   ESP Encyclopaedia    Resources    Contacts

Designing an ESP Program

For Multi-Disciplinary Technical Learners

Chen, Yong
Chongqing University, P. R. of China

Abstract The article describes many issues in a course design and its implementation of a four month full-time ESP project provided to a designing institute. Since the course participants are from multi-disciplinary areas, they have various objective and subjective needs. The course designers tried to identify the common needs and specific needs and make an integrated course design. Besides, language features of this English training program are identified as three levels and discussed in the article. The practice of material development and methodology adoption for this particular program is also contributed to readers. In addition, the methods of testing, evaluation and their impact on the course progress are presented subsequently. Finally, in concluding remarks, other issues are touched, such as collaboration with the client institute in the course management, evaluation panel operation and some other keys to the success and continuance of the program for the past four years and for the future.

Key words: common core, specific, needs analysis, course design, materials


An ESP program designer usually looks at the specific purposes of learners, designs the course and prepares materials for the learners of a particular profession with special needs. However, the English training project we have designed over four years for a designing institute serves multi-disciplinary technical participants, so it focuses on mixed purpose-based course design. To design such a program, we have conducted a special needs analysis and found their general needs and specific needs; we have made an integrated course design and rendered it dynamic rather than static; we have developed both common core and special language; we have used published textbooks and also produced in-house or tailor-made materials; we have organized a learner-centered class instead of teacher-centered class; we have given comprehensive pre-course tests and separate final sub-course tests; we have made ongoing assessment as well as post-course evaluation for each program.

This workplace English training program was initiated in 1994 when needs analysis began. The program involves a 16-week full-time intensive course offered every year to each class of over 20 participants of post-experienced engineers and technicians from different areas of specialization. The Education Section in the designing institute is responsible for student registration, management and coordination with us as for project affairs, while we design the course, produce and write materials, teach or instruct classes, design and organize tests and also offer our help for course evaluation.

For the past years, the project has experienced ongoing improvement and become more and more satisfactory. This article is intended to discuss how to design an ESP program for multi-disciplinary participants, how to integrate the special language/content input with technical core language/content input and how to organize ESP classroom activities for the post-experienced technical participants, to apply ESP course design principles and language/learning theories to a practical project and to share/exchange our practice in this project with all the ESP practitioners.

Mixed Needs Versus Specific Needs

The needs analysis consists of pre-course and ongoing needs analysis. In pre-course needs analysis, we employed means of questionnaires, interviews and pre-course tests. Questionnaires were filled by potential course participants, from which we seek their necessities, lacks, wants and also their subject areas, work experiences and other relevant information. In addition, the potential course participants were required to take pre-course tests to reveal their English level, which is essential for course design. Interviews were conducted with administrative personnel in the Education Section and the chief engineer in the institute, from whom we found out the objective communication needs in jobs. Besides, we made ongoing needs analysis before each new class began every year to guide and improve the training project. From the analysis, participants' background, target needs, learning needs, or objective and subjective needs were identified.

The course participants are from various technical disciplinary areas. They are all university graduates and a few of them are postgraduates. But they have different work experiences: some have worked for over ten years, some have worked several year, while a few only left universities two or three years. All these indicate the complexity of target needs and difference of their English levels.

Objectively, the engineers need English in reading their specialist literature, academic journals, English drawings, instructions and computer software (such as CAD), attending conferences/lectures/technical or business negotiation in English, communicating with foreign engineers in design and at work-site, going abroad for visits and receiving foreign visitors, etc. These are all perceived as target needs which are very much language-centered and content-centered. But as Hutchinson and Waters (1987:56-58) believe it that they also have their subjective needs, or wants, which can't be ignored since the subjective needs will form and stimulate their learning motivation. Brindley (1989:63) also considers "trying to identify and take into account a multiplicity of affective and cognitive variables which affect learning, such as learners' attitudes, motivation, awareness, personality, wants, expectations and learning styles". From questionnaires and informal talk with participants, we recognized such wants as professional promotion, job transfer, study/work abroad, improvement of listening and speaking, looking for a part-time job, doing translation, personal interests in English and etc. So their wants involves improvement of both special English and general English including all the four skills listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

By looking at learners' background situation, lacks, necessities and wants, we recognized that the individual participants have their own general and specific needs both objectively and subjectively, but their needs can be mixed and filtered as some core needs need to improve general English in four skills and need to advance in common-core technical English in five skills (including translation). This significant identification of needs became the basis of the course design.

Separate Syllabuses Versus Synthetic Syllabuses

Based on the findings from needs analysis and the belief "that ESP is not a separate discipline from general EFL or ESOL" (Holme 1996:1), we could identify the global aims of this course as: to enhance the participants' listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in general English; to bridge the gap between general English and common core technical English; to introduce linguistic element input along with specialist subject input and to activate learners' interests, awareness, confidence, autonomy and exploitability in learning by employing communicative classroom activities. Therefore, considering that the learners have both a common need to improve general English and various specific needs to learn some technical English, we initially designed an integrated course which is constituted by seven sub-coursesSpeaking, Listening, EST, Reading, Writing, Pronunciation, Video. These sub-courses are designed to develop both general English and common core technical English. Afterwards, the special objectives in each sub-course were specified and the corresponding learners' guidelines were made separately.

However, this is not a static course design. Over these years, it has become quite dynamic or flexible both internally and externally since there have been some constraints as Robinson (1991:41-44) notes, from administrative factors, financial factors, learners' expectations and the status of English in society. For example, in the last year's course, a sub-course business English was added to take the place of pronunciation. One reason is that the learners' lack or necessity in pronunciation is not so important as that in other areas, while the other reason for this change is that the learners' want has partly shifted to business English area. So the course design was also changed to meet their needs. In addition to the course external change, there has been some internal syllabus reformation in sub-courses. One instance occurred in EST syllabus. For the first two classes in 1995 and 1996, EST focused on technical English in building construction and architecture. But there were a few participants of civil engineers, architects and HVAC engineers. For them, the syllabus is pragmatic, but not for others. So in the following two years, EST syllabus was revised to include common core technical English in more specialist subjects.

This course design appears language-centered for each sub-course seems to develop a separate language skill. We designed these separate sub-courses not in order to only improve one language skill in isolation, but in order to synthesize all the linguistic pieces and language skills developed in each sub-course and finally to make language accumulation. Synthetic syllabus can be a structural one as Wilkins (1976) described and a functional one as Nunan (1988) commented. In a sub-course, the learners, for instance, in Speaking class, not only learn vocabularies and structures to express themselves, but also use functional and notional communication means to make themselves understood. By separate, we make each sub-course focus more on a certain skill than other subordinate skills; while by synthetic, we emphasize on correlation of all sub-courses and the total language development to reach the programs global aims.

Common Core Versus Special Language

In accordance with the theories of language description and the findings from needs analysis, we decided the language input in the program as three levels general English, general technical English and technical English. But we do not sequence them in terms of priority, namely, general English first, general technical English second and technical English at the end. Instead, we distribute all the input of three levels in sub-courses simultaneously. However, we do sequence language in each level internally in terms of degrees of difficulty and complexity and from generality to specificity in each sub-course.

In general English level, the course participants are facilitated to review their old knowledge of English and also to learn new Lexis, structures, content as well as improve all the skills in sub-courses of Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing and Video. It is based on cognitive view of language learning and the affective factor in language learning as Hutchinson and Waters (1987) consider learners as feeling being. When new knowledge is input with familiar language elements and in the familiar topics, the learners would feel easy to learn. In general English, the contents focus on general topics. So the learners feel interested in the topics and thus their study motivation is promoted. What's more, general English improvement can fill the gap to sub-technical English because scientific English, for example, uses the same structures as any other kind of English but with a different distribution (Kennedy and Bolitho 1984:19). So in sub-technical level, learners can easily deal with the sub-technical contents with the help of general English knowledge because in technical English, as Robinson (1991:21) pointed out, many common language words were being used technically. For example, a common core word preliminary learned in EST was uttered by many participants describing their technical drawings when taking the speaking test in the first class.

In the sub-courses of Speaking, Writing and EST, we organize the language input from general to specific. For example, in speaking class, topics are sequenced at three stages. At the first stage, very general topics are involved, such as personal details, weather, traffic problems and story telling. However, the second stage goes on a little further to cover general technical topics, such as talking about buildings, advantages and disadvantages of dams, modern and old vehicles. The third stage of topic selections is most relevant to participants work including designing projects, technical negotiation and holding specialist conferences. The participants feel very comfortable to produce the language utterances since the productive skills are gained gradually from simplicity to complexity and from generality to specificity.

Since the learners are from multi-disciplinary areas, their needs in technical English vary greatly. In such a mixed ESP class, common core or nucleus (Robinson 1991) of special English has to be identified. Considering that all the participants are engineers and designers, we selected common core subject contents as language input. Furthermore, the contents are organized in the very generally technical to more specific way. As the content inputs get more and more technical, the language inputs in the contents grow more and more specific. In addition, quite a lot of visual inputs are included in EST. Johns (1998) has stated the importance of visual representations in ESP, which include graphs, charts, maps, technical drawing, plans, etc, because engineers read these visual literature very frequently in their work. The visual information includes language input as well as content input, so it can be transferred to verbal information or vice versa. The course participants are very familiar with the visual input of content so that they feel very interested to obtain this language feature and try to express themselves with the learned language knowledge. In this way, their language learning has been promoted.

Tailor-made Materials Versus Textbooks

According to Hutchinson and Waters (1987:96), there are three possible ways of material application: existing materials, materials writing and materials adaptation. Robinson (1991:56) called these as textbooks and in-house materials. In the light of the aims and objectives of course design and separate sub-course syllabuses, both tailor-made materials and published textbooks are used in the program.

In some sub-courses, such as Pronunciation, Listening, Reading and EST, textbooks are selected to exploit the syllabus objectives. As Robinson (1991:58-59) points out that published textbooks have advantages of time-saving, less cost than in-house materials, greater availability, easy access for learners to reviewing and referring. When we evaluate and select textbooks, the following are emphasized: 1) avoid selecting so advanced textbooks in language because learners would be confounded by difficult language added with complexity of content information, and lose interest in the text full of new Lexis; 2) select textbooks with appropriate subject contents relevant to learners common knowledge, personal interests and professional fields; 3) pay attention to both verbal and visual information existing in the textbooks; 4) match difficulty extent of textbooks between sub-courses. In addition, we carried out the strategies of ongoing textbook evaluation and selection based on learners ongoing needs analysis. For example, reading textbooks have been changed several times, even within the course of one class because of difficulty levels and the learners changing needs. In the first two years, a published textbook, Nucleus: Architecture and Building Construction was selected as the EST course material. However, it has been changed to a tailor-made textbook in the following years, because it didnt meet the objective specialist needs nor personal interests of the most course participants.

In some sub-courses, materials adaptation is applied, such as Speaking, Writing and Video classes. One reason for materials adaptation is that adapted materials are less time consuming and less expensive than in-house materials. Besides, adapted materials are more suitable to ESP learners than textbooks because no textbooks can fully satisfy the particular needs of any ESP learners. Adapted materials are also reliable, available and various to select in physical sense. During materials selection, reorganization and sequencing for the program, the three points are stressed: 1) select materials with properly difficult language input in terms of vocabularies and structures which should be chosen from simplicity to difficulty; 2) pay attention to subject content input in the adapted materials, usually from general topics to specific topics; 3) adapt adequate and appropriate activities in the selected materials, namely, the activities in each unit should be coherently matched to avoid discretion and isolation in materials adaptation and to make the adapted textbooks complete.

Another way is material writing. According to Robinson (1991:56-58), in-house produced materials are more specific for unique learning situation, have greater face validity in terms of the language dealt with and the contexts it is presented in and more suitable methodology for the intended learners. However, they are also more expensive and time consuming to produce than published textbooks or adapted materials. Moreover, they will appear more difficult to deal with in both contents and language if the authentic materials are not carefully or cautiously organized, or if the data are not properly collected. In the sub-course of EST, we adapted some units from published textbooks and also wrote some units ourselves. We produced the mixed materials for two reasons. First, there are various disciplines involved in the course, so it is hard and impossible to gather authentic subjects information from all the areas. We have to make a mixed package from both existing and authentic materials. Secondly, authentic materials produced with academic information/data in disciplinary fields are usually more subject-specific. Therefore they seem more difficult in terms of content complexity and subject lexis. We had an experience using all in-house authentic materials in a previous ESP project, in which we had spend much time writing materials from the specialist academic journals, literature and data. The materials were very specific and suitable for the learners' target needs and. But the learners felt it too difficult and lost interests in learning. Based on that experience, we produced EST materials of this program in appropriately difficult language and right complex contents.

Over the past years implementation of the project, we feel these integrated materials development quite acceptable.

Learner-centered Class Versus Teacher-centered Class

All the sub-courses in the program are conducted in the communicative way of language teaching and learning, that is more stress on learner-centered class than teacher-centered class. It is based on our beliefs in modern learning theories including: 1) learning is a thinking process (Robinson cites Hutchinson 1991:46), language can only be properly understood as a reflection of human thought process (Hutchinson and Waters 1987:39), the cognitive view takes the learner to be an active processor of information (ibid:43); 2) learning is an emotional/affective experience (ibid:129), success of learning depending on learners internal generated motivation or wants; 3) learning a language is not just a matter of linguistic knowledge (ibid ), but a developmental process with existing knowledge to make the new information comprehensible (ibid:128); 4) classroom procedure should reflect the purposeful, task-based, interactive nature (Williams 1986); 5) more learner-directed activity, less dominant role of teacher (Littlewood 1981); 6) learn in natural setting (a lot exposure) (Krashen 1981); 7) speaking encourages intake (ibid:108), etc.

Based on the above beliefs, classroom procedures are designed as such patterns as student-student, teacher-student(s), student-students, students-students. So, a variety of pair work, group work, games, role plays are adopted. The learners interests are aroused in such activities though they could only speak very broken sentences at the beginning stage. But their learning motivation and confidence are activated in participating in these activities. Therefore they could gradually produce more and more accurate and fluent utterances. One example is in EST, which is conventionally considered very dull specialist English full of boring technical vocabularies and technical graphs. We tried to apply learner-centered class mode in this sub-course and take advantages of learners subject knowledge, for example, drawing plans, designing technical programs and solving simulated problems in pairs and groups. Since they are put in a familiar situation, the learners get encouraged and make their greatest efforts to express in English during these activities so that they can finally produce correct and fluent sentences.

In such a learner-centered class, it doesnt imply that the teacher should become a passive observer (Littlewood 1981:19). The teachers roles have become instructor, facilitator, role-adviser, monitor, co-communicator, classroom manager and consultant. The basic teaching activities are changed to shaping the input, encouraging the learners intention to learn, managing the learning strategies and promoting practice and use (Robinson cites Strevens 1991:80). I observed several sub-courses, Speaking, Video, Writing, Pronunciation and sometimes become co-communicator with learners. I am especially impressed by an eloquent learner who played my opponent in a simulated business negotiation in Speaking class and he won the negotiation. Although he frequently uttered some incorrect sentences, he could express himself clearly and logically without correction from a teacher. In activities, the teachers role as an errors corrector has changed to a helper and co-communicator. Learners could be aware of the errors they have made during speaking and would try to correct them in the following utterances by themselves. Teachers, then, should become more tolerate of errors to avoid interrupting learners progression and hindering their confidence.

Sub-course Testing Versus Comprehensive Testing

In this program, two kinds of tests are provided pre-course tests and post-course tests. The pre-course tests are placement tests used to place learners in the ESP course most suited to their needs (Hutchinson and Waters 1987:146). The aim of the placement test is to determine the learners state of knowledge before the ESP course begins (ibid). For this purpose, a comprehensive test consisting of two parts, written and oral forms, is designed to find out the learners existing language proficiency and the learning needs.

In contrast, the post-course tests are achievement tests given separately in all the sub-courses except Video and Pronunciation classes which are tested integratedly with Speaking, Listening and EST. Tests in sub-courses of Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing mainly focus on one particular skill. But, in a sense, one test, for example, speaking test, can certainly not avoid involving in listening, nor can writing test avoid reading skill. They are intercrossed, but each test concentrates more on one skill. However, EST test consists of three parts reading/writing, listening and information transfer. The speaking part of EST is involved in speaking test in which IELTS (International English Language Testing System) module is employed. The third part of speaking test is contributed to EST speaking, in which examinees bring their own designs to describe their technical drawings in English.

Hutchinson and Waters (ibid:147) commented, The achievement test is, however the kind of test the ESP teacher is most likely to have to construct. More than that, it is also one part of our program assessment because from the test results, we can find out how much progress the learners have made and how successful the project has been.

Ongoing Evaluation Versus Post-course Evaluation

There are two kinds of evaluation embedded in the program ongoing and post-course evaluation. With ongoing evaluation, we obtain some information about the course itself during the course implementation through discussion with learners and administrative staff from the Education Section of the institute and questionnaire feedback from learners every other week. This might seem that there is some overlap between evaluation and needs analysis as Robinson notes (1991:66). Nevertheless, from the findings of this evaluation, we can frequently adjust the course design and keep improving the program.

Post-course evaluation is conducted by an evaluation panel made up of three sides ? the client (learners' institution), the ESP practitioners' employer (our university) and outside English specialists (from another university). They collect assessment data by class/test observation, interviews/discussions with learners and education administration staff, questionnaires/checklists distribution and gathering, looking at learners test work, etc. Then, they process the information, make comments and give appraisal of the program in the report both orally and in written form to the client and course designer. There are many possible purposes and uses of project evaluation as Robinson cites others (1991:67). Most important of all, the evaluation findings can be looked at as a guide to course change and improvement for the course provider, while for the client, they help to justify whether the learners levels are effectively upgraded so 'to ensure that money is being or has been well spent' (ibid).


Besides all the above account of the program, such issues as staffing and management are also essential to the course implementation and completion. All in all, the following remarks can be concluded about the ESP program for multi-disciplinary technical learners:

1) always leave the flexibility to practitioners in dealing with potential problems: for example, making dynamic needs analysis, keeping ongoing assessment, making innovation or changes in course design, material development and methodology adoption to keep strengths and get rid of weaknesses.

2) grasp the common core: since the program is supplied to multi-disciplinary post-experienced learners, it is very essential to identify the common core in course design; find out core needs; decide language features as three levels common core English, common core technical English and common core special English in specific disciplines.

3) organize team teaching: we have regular team meetings to discuss and solve the teaching problems and difficulties in materials; experienced teachers help inexperienced teachers; we make mutual classroom observations and carry out co-teaching.

4) offer staff development: an in-service staff training is provided for the practitioners; irregular workshops and seminars on methodology, ESP language features and video demonstration are given.

5) collaborate with educational administration staff of the client: the Education Section prescribes some very strict regulations to guarantee smooth course implementation; there is a harmonious institutional culture which is beneficial for learners; education management is very effective.

6) supply adequate resources: the client offers suitable furnished classroom and language laboratory; there are a meeting room and a facilitated office for teaching staff; there are sufficient materials/books and other teaching aids, such as tape recorders, tapes, a video recorder and technical facilities, for example, TV sets, a photocopier, computers, a printer; a self-access library is set up during the program in the client institute supported by the course provider with a plenty of book and tapes.

7) establish a good relationship between learners and teachers: some parties and week-end outings are organized for all the learners and teachers to boost the close relationship of all; in these activities, we get to know more about one another and the learners feel more comfortable and confident to practice English.

In a word, initiating and implementing such an ESP program for multi-disciplinary learners have to involve the integrative consideration at every stage so that the learners mixed needs could be met and the learners could be able to build their language proficiency.


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Chen, Yong is an associate professor of English in Chongqing University, having been teaching for over 20 years. She received M. Ed in TESP in UK and has been working in several ESP projects. She also works as a translator and interpreter in various technical fields. Her interest is in course/syllabus design, materials development in EST and ESP, ELT methodology and classroom research. In recent years, she has got a second master degree in M.S. in Business Administration at Computer Information Systems in US. Therefore, her interest in ESP extends to business English.

Contact Information:


Address: College of Foreign Language

ChongQing University

ChongQing, 400044

P. R. of China

Tel: ++86-23-65118617(H), ++86-13368150885(cell)


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