ESL2ESP session - Jan 31 -Feb 6
Week 3- January, 24 - 30

On Needs and the Need to Analyze Them

Welcome to Week Three. Below are comments from this week's guest lecturer,

Mary Ellen Kerans. We hope you'll read them and post any questions or comments you
have about needs analysis.

Chris Parkhurst and Buthaina Alothman

On needs and the need to analyze them—in target situations and genres, in the
opinions of stakeholders, and through personal observation

I’ve never done a thorough pre-course needs analysis like a spectacular one I
admire from a team in Hong Kong in TESOL’s ESP case studies volume (Baxter,
Boswood, & Peirson-Smith, 2002). Like the needs analysis I’ve seen others do in
ESAP, mine is piecemeal but ongoing—partly because the demands of life are
relentless and partly because we don’t always have stable work situations or
much warning that predicted classes will “go”.

So, to start off discussion, I reviewed what’s been said about needs analysis in
fairly recent, easily available sources I had on hand. (Dudley-Evans & St. John,
1998; Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001; Hutchinson & Waters, 1996; Jordan, 1997)—you’ll
find a list of what they say below. Then I listed FAQs I’ve heard and wrote some
of my own answers and some questions I have too. I hope those thoughts are
controversial enough to get a rise out of experienced ESP teachers who disagree
or see gaps! And I hope that newcomers to ESP will make us all think about how
theories and examples relate to their real classroom and market constraints.

To begin with, I see widespread consensus among the “experts”—reinforcing my
opinion that there aren’t any theoretical controversies in our present notions
about needs analysis, at least not since the shift away from emphasizing target
notional-functional competencies toward giving balanced consideration to the
learner’s present situation and attitudes, feasibility, and wants. Experts seem
to agree that we’re interested in real target-situation language communication
needs to guide us in deciding how to help real sets of learners. If we define
ESP widely enough to encompass academic courses (ESAP), I think we can say that
we mainly emphasize the short-term needs of the learner—partly for the practical
reason that they are perceived by them and have face validity I think—but we
also take into consideration likely eventual needs.

Here’s what I find to be the consensus, followed by those FAQs and issues for
Where I found an idea in a particular source, I cite it. But
unreferenced concepts on the following list are mentioned by all the authors
listed above.

What the experts say about needs analysis

  • We’re interested in target situation language use (communicative
    competence—but in the notional-functional use of the term, competence does not
    mean perfection).
  • Information about communicative needs can be gathered through
    ethnography (questionnaires, interviews with learners or informants plus our
    observation as participants or flies on the wall) and through corpus analysis
    (elegant way to say “examination of real texts, spoken and written”).
  • Information gathering covers ways language is used in the learner’s
    situation (types of activities), frequency, level of demand (exposure to risk or
    judgment). Examples of questionnaires can be found in Dudley-Evans & St. John
    (1998) and in case studies like those in TESOL’s volume on ESP (Orr, 2002).
  • Needs can be classified for analysis in various ways. For example, less
    vs. more immediate; objective (grounded in facts or plain observation) vs.
    felt/perceived by the learner; defined by different stakeholders (learner vs.
  • Learners don’t always want what our analysis of the data suggests they
    need or what authorities say they need.
  • Learners’ immediate needs might override their undeniable long-term
    ones—like a Chinese graduate student who studies grammar assiduously to pass a
    screening test for a grant, even though she’ll soon need better oral skills if
    she wins the grant (Hutchinson & Waters, 1996).
  • Needs analysis is used to indicate syllabus priorities, which in turn
    suggest assessment strategies.
  • Needs analysis is ongoing.
  • An awareness of constraints (learning needs, resources, time,
    permissibility) is relevant to deciding how to use the results of a needs
  • Time needed for interviewing powerful stakeholders will be saved, and
    we’ll make a better impression by asking better questions, if we learn something
    about the target situation and the learners before interviewing starts
    (Dudley-Evans & St John, 1998).
  • Implicit in needs analysis is new fact finding—we want to be able
    triangulate from recently gathered facts (from corpora, observations, reports),
    explicit demands (authorities’ real and covert instructions), and perceptions
    (wants and beliefs).

Some FAQs, some answers and some questions of my own

1. Do you really do a formal needs analysis? Aren’t there already syllabi
written? Aren’t you re-inventing the wheel? If you’re experienced and know the
type of learner, can’t you skip needs analysis?

No, I can’t skip it. Evan Frendo mentioned that sponsors can be out of touch.
Teachers can get out of touch too, too invested in beliefs, if we’re not careful
to get new facts.

But I’m not always formally documenting ongoing needs analysis in my context.
Still I never stop thinking about it and gathering data. If information is
inconsistent, I get more and ask informants how they view the inconsistencies. I
also have to be prepared to explain our program constantly, so I need new facts
for both public relations and syllabus re-design.

Reading the ESP literature and going to some conferences help too. Needs
analysis is the backbone of ESP and needs are specific to a set of learners.
However, I do sometimes read about the needs of distant groups and how they were
met. Partly, others’ reports are models for how I go about needs analysis, and
partly, I want to check I haven’t forgotten something!

It is true that a person who’s been in the profession (a lawyer like Debby or an
engineer like Irina) or who’s been a participant-observer (an author’s editor
like me or Adam) has a head start. I didn’t need to collect a corpus to learn
about research article structure when I started teaching science undergraduates,
who would soon be reading them. But I did need to look at more specific corpora
to learn that dentistry students have vocabulary needs I didn’t know about, that
physical therapy students have surprisingly reduced specific vocabulary needs,
and nursing students have dauntingly wide-ranging language needs. And I also
needed to monitor what my co-faculty’s hopes for these students would be while
studying and how the students’ immediate role models use English.

So needs do have to be analyzed and re-analyzed—but the process might be
sophisticated (Baxter, Boswood, & Peirson-Smith, 2002) if the means are
available or simpler if done by conscientious teachers doing their best for
students within a framework of conflicting constraints (Zaki, 2001). The Forum
article by Smoak (2003), mentioned by Debby last week, has some good stories
about the sort of seat-of-our-pants needs analysis we do in our
less-than-perfect world.

2. What’s a real “need”? Do you mean vocabulary? Do you mean writing vs.
speaking? Whose needs?Does everybody in the class really feel the same needs?

Hutchinson & Waters (1996) say needs are “what the learner has to know to
function effectively in the target situation.”

But what does “effectively” mean? If ESP is restricted to teaching what the
learner needs to know to be effective immediately after the course ends, the
real answer to what s/he absolutely needs might be “nothing at all”. (In my EFL
context unambitious students can muddle along without English.) If it’s defined
too widely to encompass what a triumphant researcher will need to know someday,
then neither learner nor instructor is likely to feel much has been accomplished
in a course. So “how effectively” is something I have to look at while
investigating needs.

Negotiation and common sense are in order. When I analyze needs I look at short-
and long-term ones. And since one of my hardest jobs is dealing with the
intellectual, emotional and social needs of undergraduates, I know I have to
make a persuasive case in the classroom for some real-world needs they may not
feel yet but their educators want them to prepare for. I try to challenge the
ambitious at the same time I try to engage the unambitious, but I don’t expect
miracles. That can be said of all education, though.

3. What about the “analysis” part? How do we do that?

Analysis involves triangulation, working from different types of data. And all
the wisdom you can muster. I don’t find that general theorists on ESP have much
that’s helpful to say about how to analyze data. But you can learn a lot by
reading about how others have done it in practice. That splendid account I
recommend as a model is about a workplace situation (Baxter, Boswood, &
Peirson-Smith, 2002). Another one I admire, precisely because the analysis is
thoughtful, is in the writing volume of the same case studies series—and it’s
about an ESAP situation (Flowerdew, 2001).

I don’t think we’re all in a position to carry out elaborate data collection. My
colleagues and I started a new university’s program seven years ago with only
two weeks’ notice, and that’s not uncommon in Spain. I bet it’s the same in a
lot of other educational settings. But we’re all able to gather some data and,
especially, to subject it to serious thought. To do that, the more we see of the
big picture, the better. For instance, corpus analysis can tell me I needn’t
bother fussing over present simple vs. present continuous if immediate reading
and writing of medical literature is a priority. On the other hand, I might
decide it’s relevant if I’m training for a clinical situation. But adding
knowledge of how English is taught in my environment will tell me more. Can I
simply teach and practice the use of gerunds in science texts? They’re highly
frequent and are almost never verbs. Or are my pre-intermediate students likely
to have been overtaught continuous vs. simple tenses in general English? If so,
in addition to new information about uses of gerunds in science, they might need
patient unlearning of the automatic association of gerund and verb. I’ll have to
make syntactic clues more salient throughout the sentence.

To see many angles, it helps to work in a team.

4. “Ethnography”—how do I do that?

Formal ethnography involves both observation and structured interviews. Boswood
& Marriot (1994) advocate that new ESP teachers be trained to do this, and I
agree, but most of us are self taught. So how can we learn without going back to
school? The way practitioners in all professions do—reading our literature and
learning from colleagues.

But basically, the gist of ethnography is, talk to people systematically and
don’t settle for using only your students or only sponsors as sources. That’s
just as limiting as only looking at target competencies implied by finished
genres. Talk to other stakeholders, like bosses or potential bosses. If you’re
training nurses, interview people who’ve been patients in large hospitals

If you’re in ESAP, interview older students about what their English use is
really turning out to be like. Interview and observe potential role models your
students might want to emulate—find out what it was like for a doctor to go to
Canada for a fellowship for example. Don’t take everything at face value. Have
both closed and open-ended questions prepared and gently challenge informants
with what other informants say or inconsistencies you see. Don’t let informants
stop with clichés: “English is a lingua franca” isn’t much help.

And observe. Use contacts to get free access to an international medical
conference in your city and observe how participants give presentations and how
they interact afterwards. Do some pro bono work if necessary. I did some just
the other day! In my field, manuscripts aren’t usually submitted on paper in the
classic double spaced format anymore, but you don’t get to see the whole
submission process unless you’re an author. So I invited an insecure young
author to my home office and we submitted her finished manuscript together—I now
have information I need for the design of some online writing tutorials I’m
responsible for. I could have charged her hospital for the time, but ethically,
I thought, better to give it as good will since I’m receiving equal benefit for
another project.

5. If John Swales is the father of ESP and I’ve done a thesis using his system
of genre analysis, I’ve analyzed what’s needed, right?

Genre analysis is a very necessary part of needs analysis I think. In hiring,
I’d give a lot of credit to a person who knows relevant genres, because I’ve
seen programs billed as ESP based only on students’ or stakeholders’ opinions,
with no research into how language is used in target situations. Success is then
defined as satisfaction alone.

But analysis of moves in a finished genre isn’t enough, just as stakeholders’
opinions aren’t enough. (Is nothing “enough”!?) Ethnography in the target
situation is necessary too. Ideally, we also need to learn about the steps
proficient users go through in creating genres in real life—and compare them to
the ones our specific learners have been using. And, too, there are what Swales
called pre-genres (like hallway conversations) and occluded genres—ones we
outsiders can’t even dream about until we ask or participate. Along this line,
Adam Turner has mentioned he learned about problems with certain types of email
correspondence by observing. Our ESP literature also holds information—Gosden
(2001, 2003) has written about one of the occluded genres Swales mentioned—the
point-by-point letters scientists must write to peer reviewers. Along the same
lines, I’ve learned about writing peer reviews themselves through participant
observation as an author’s editor—for accomplished authors who aren’t native
speakers of English also write peer reviews of others’ work, and they need help
doing it.

Finally, circling back to the shift in our thinking I mentioned at the
beginning—toward giving balanced consideration to the learner’s present
situation and attitudes, feasibility, and wants along side target competencies—I
think we can see that genre analysis is necessary but not sufficient.

Now, toward discussion
All of this is disconcertingly ideal, so we need to talk about it with
colleagues from time to time, in forums like this EVO. In daily practice, year
in and year out, we do the best we can and gradually move toward expertise over
time. But a tenet of ESP is that we are indeed basing our teaching on analysis
of needs. To me, it’s part of the fun because it keeps me learning. It’s
wonderful to be able to say I feel challenged and surprised pretty often after
nearly 30 years of teaching!


Baxter, R., Boswood, T., & Peirson-Smith, A. (2002). An ESP program for
management in the horse-racing business. In T. Orr (Ed.), English for Specific
Purposes. Alexandria: TESOL, Inc.

Boswood, T., & Marriot, A. (1994). Ethnography for specific purposes: teaching
and training in parallel. English for Specific Purposes, 13(1), 3-21. (Also
posted by the author for free access: HYPERLINK

Dudley-Evans, T., & St. John, M. J. (1998). Developments in English for Specific
Purposes: a multidisciplinary approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flowerdew, J. (2001). Toward authentic, specific-purpose writing at the lower
levels of proficiency. In I. Leki (Ed.), Academic Writing Programs (pp. 21-33).
Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc.

Flowerdew, J., & Peacock, M. (2001). The EAP curriculum: issues, methods, and
challenges. In J. Flowerdew & M. Peacock (Eds.), Research Perspectives on
English for Academic Purposes (pp. 177-194). Cambridge: Cambridge University

Gosden, H. (2001). “Thank you for your critical comments and helpful
suggestions”: compliance and conflict in authors' replies to referees' comments
in peer reviews of scientific research papers. Ibérica, 3, 3-17. (Available by
open access: HYPERLINK "http://www.aelfe.org/documents/text3-Gosden.pdf"

Gosden, H. (2003). “Why not give us the full story?” Functions of referees'
comments in peer reviews of scientific research papers. Journal of English for
Academic Purposes, 2, 87-101. (Abstract only available through the publisher:

Hutchinson, T., & Waters, A. (1996). English for Specific Purposes. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Jordan, R. R. (1997). English for academic purposes: a guide and resource book
for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Orr, T. (Ed.). (2002). English for Specific Purposes. Alexandria, VA: TESOL,

Smoak, R. (2003). What is English for specific purposes? English Teaching Forum
Online. (Available by open access: HYPERLINK

Zaki, A. (2001). From needs analysis to student analysis, The ESP Newsletter: A
Publication of the Moroccan Association of Teachers of English. (Available by
open access: HYPERLINK "http://www.mate.org.ma/mateweb/esp1contents.htm"

M.E. Kerans

Barcelona, Spain - Up to Top

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