ESL2ESP session - Jan 17-Feb 26
Week 2 - January, 24 - 30

Learn How to Learn about Your ESP Field

Debby Lee is the guest lecturer for this week.

General Comments:

After each section, I've place a question in BOLD. Take time to think about the questions and respond to the yahoogroups site. Please feel free to disagree with my ideas. Discussions (even heated ones) are often how we learn. I'm looking forward to reading the responses of this multi-year, multi-continent, multi-field group.

Do we have to be content experts?
As you probably know from my introduction, my specialty is legal English and I came to TEFL after a career in law. I've been ESP for 12 years now and have co-authored a text on legal English. I've also taught business English, EAP, and co-authored a text on English for the Mechanical Trades. I have content knowledge of the law-I have a law degree- and content knowledge of general academics-I went to college. I don't, however, have business or mechanical knowledge.

I have heard of total quality management and I've sat in meetings. I also know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver, a nut and a bolt. In business English classes, however, my students are the experts. Mechanics-My father made me change the oil and tires a few times in my old VW Beetle-"In case, you ever need to know how to do this, Debra. You never know what will happen." I vowed then that I would never change oil or a tire again once I had a paying job and I have kept that vow. However, I have been involved in the mechanical trades again. I found it enlightening, especially since I didn't have to work on cars.

What I mean is you don't have to be a content expert to teach ESP. However, you do need certain qualities [some of these are my own thoughts, others come from great conversations or reading materials from people like Hutchinson & Waters, Robinson, or Dudley-Evans & St. John]:

ESP-Specific Skills:
  • Curiosity and a willingness to learn about the content subject
  • Tolerance for content ambiguity (You aren't the expert and your students may not be either.)
  • The willingness to let your students be experts
  • Confidence in yourself and your ability as a language, not content, teacher
  • The willingness to ask for content help (i.e., your colleagues in the Science Department or a conversation with an in-field expert)
  • The ability to adapt content materials to meet the levels and needs of your students
  • The willingness to forego a vocabulary-driven class
  • The ability to tie language to content (discourse analysis/concordancing)
Two General Skills:
  • The ability to share your enjoyment of language learning with your students
  • Understanding that it is your language ability that makes you a great ESP teacher

QUESTION: I know you have other qualities to add to this list. What do you consider essential when teaching ESP?

Can you have too much content knowledge?
My answer to this is a resounding YES! I've seen too many people with dual degrees who end up teaching the content and not the language. I used to be one of those people-I hope I've reformed. When I first started teaching legal English-the first year after my M.A. TEFL program, I had serious problems deciding what to teach. I was in Germany, the want of the students was for an introduction to the Anglo-American legal systems, but I was housed in a language department and their wants/needs were for students to speak and write English. The exams were based on a student's ability to read, translate, speak, and listen to English on content-related topics, but not to explain the law. What to do?

I pondered, I reflected, and in retrospect, spent too much time on the LAW. Of course, I included language components. We discussed vocabulary-general and specific. We looked at language in letters. I videotaped mock trials so that we could review language. We did grammar exercises. Even though I was doing language, I remember discussions with TESOL colleagues about the wants of my students for a legal system introduction and not just language. I gave them their wants, but in doing so, partially neglected my students' needs for language, especially the lower-level students.

Rebecca Smoak in 2003 article in the Forum discusses John Swales' [also known as the father of ESP] view of ESP teachers. "[N]ew ESP teachers seem to have to go through the same stages of development personally that the field has gone through since the 1960s- beginning with an urge to teach general English with technical vocabulary, moving to an awareness of the importance of sub-technical vocabulary and needs analysis, and emerging eventually to recognition of the need to use discourse analysis and linguistic corpora. At this point, they understand what ESP is." [http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol41/no2/p22.htm].

I think people with a great deal of content knowledge go through the same stages, except they begin by teaching more content than language, then move to Swales' latter two stages.

QUESTION: Can someone have too much content knowledge? Are there non-equivalent ESPs* that require more content knowledge*?

*Charles Hall and I coined this phrase during a discussion/argument about what actually constitutes legal English. As ESP professionals, we depend upon our students to be the content experts in ESP, but what happens if they aren't?

In equivalent ESPs, a business student or businessperson has often studied similar business concepts, such as total quality management. However, in non-equivalent ESPs, such as law, many of the concepts are different. If you are teaching legal English in Germany, the law students/lawyers are experts in civil law or code systems. However, they are not experts in the common law systems that are used in many English-speaking countries. For the German audience, consideration for a contract is non-equivalent; that is, consideration in the contractual sense does not exist in the German legal system. This means that legal English, a non-equivalent ESP, requires the addition of new content knowledge. Often the ESP teacher is the one providing that knowledge. Remember, however, that there are many ways to gain content knowledge. A legal English specialist does NOT have to become a lawyer.

How do we become ESP experts?
There are, of course, many ways to become experts in the content field we are teaching. Below is a partial list. Talk to your students

  • Sit in on a content class.
  • Read content journals/magazines-even widely-read magazines, such as Time or The Economist provide interesting insights into various content fields, such as law or business.
  • Read content textbooks.
  • Talk to colleagues in the content field.
  • Surf the web [my favorite].
  • Read the ESP or EAP Journals-great resource for discourse and corpus studies in content/university fields.
  • Read online journals, such as ESP World or The Internet TESL Journal

QUESTION: What else should you do so that you feel comfortable with your ESP hat?


Smoak, Rebecca. (2003). What is English for Specific Purposes? English Teaching Forum Online. U.S. Department of State. http://exchanges.state.gov/forum/vols/vol41/no2/p22.htm

ESP Journal

EAP Journal

ESP World

The Internet TESL Journal


Favorite Websites:
http://www.streetlaw.org (for its freely downloadable mock trials)

(Click HERE to see what some participants have added to Debby's list)

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