English for Specific Purposes (ESP) involves more than just working with texts and examples relevant to a particular professional area. Coursebooks and support materials are useful in offering a generalized approach to many ESP areas but, unless you can also focus on precisely what your learners need to do when they use English, it can never be a complete course. Here are some ways of addressing those elusive SPs.

Get away from token needs analysis

Nowadays, a lot of needs analysis is done in English language teaching. Unfortunately, much of it is fairly token. Finding out that your student(s) are interested in English for computing or work as a receptionist doesn't give you more than an approximate general direction. To address a specific need you have to find out more than that.


Ask a learner, 'Tell me one specific task that you need to use English for.' When they answer that, ask further questions that uncover more and more wide-ranging details, e.g. 'What does the hotel counter look like?'; 'What's the first thing that happens?'; 'What kind of questions does your customer ask?'; 'How do you feel when that happens?', etc. Each time you get an answer, ask more questions – like a miner digging deeper into the situation – moving slowly from the general situation to specific task difficulties and language problems. Aim to build up a focused detailed picture of a single occasion where your student needs English.

Simply talking it through in this way can be helpful for a learner as they clarify for themselves where some real problems are. Beyond this it can form the basis of real-play and reformulation activities.


Real-play is essentially role-play in which at least one person is playing either themselves or another person in the room.

Once you have done some purpose-mining (see above), use the information to set up a real-play of the situation. For example, imagine that you have found out about an office receptionist's difficulties with visitors who ask questions about the company. Ask her to take part in a real-play of this situation – but with her playing the customer and another student playing herself, the receptionist. This can be followed by a feedback discussion. The original student considers how the receptionist dealt with the situation compared with her own way, and what she has learnt from seeing someone else do it. Now repeat the real-play – with the student playing herself.

Reformulating oral production

A useful and very powerful variation on the real-play is for the teacher to take the student's role after he/she has seen the student play the role herself. In doing this the teacher can communicate naturally and appropriately for the task. Whether audio or video is recorded or not, at the end students can analyse the differences between the student's and teacher's versions. Encourage students to go beyond specific language chunks to general manner and approach. After this analysis phase, ask the student to try the task again herself. It is likely to be much improved.