What is a needs analysis? Alex Case explains all, offering tips on how to design and conduct one for your business English students.


‘There is no such thing as General English.’

The statement above is not an actual quote, but more a summary of a point of view that comes from the world of teaching English for Specific Purposes (of which Business English is really just a part). The idea behind it is that nobody needs ‘General English’, because they all have their own specific needs for the language. I think that General English textbooks still serve most of my ‘General English’ students fairly well, but it does give an idea of how an ESP approach, and ESP students, are different. 

The magic word is the word ‘needs’. We can only start teaching an ESP student when we know what their needs for the language are. This is also true of all students, of course, even if the only thing we find out is that they have no specific needs. The other thing we need to know before starting is what the students want. These two things are often very different from each other!

We can find out student needs and student wants by asking the students questions about themselves and the language (which is what we will be calling a ‘needs analysis’ here) and then finding out how much you agree with what they just said (‘diagnostic testing’). Given the definition of diagnostic testing used here it seems obvious to tackle it after a needs analysis; check the first part of this article on first lessons with business students for some diagnostic testing ideas.

Designing a 'Needs Analysis' 

When we are deciding how to conduct a needs analysis with a student/group of students, we need to think about two questions:

  1. What do we want/need to know about them?
  2. How can we find it out?

I will cover these in more detail below.

What do we need to know about our students?

A good way of starting to design a needs analysis for a student (or a general needs analysis format for a school) is to brainstorm all the questions you could possibly want to ask them, and then edit them down. We can brainstorm and organise the questions they should/can be asked by several schemes:

1. By question word

  • What – e.g. What exactly do you do in English in your job?
  • When – e.g. When is your next meeting in English?
  • Which – e.g. Which parts of the language do you find most difficult?
  • Where – e.g. Where do you use English? – For example, in meetings
  • Who – e.g. Who do you speak English with – native / non-native speakers?
  • How – e.g. How formal does the English you use need to be? 
  • How much – e.g. How much homework can you do?
  • How long – e.g. How long have you been studying English?
  • How often – e.g. How often do you watch English language films?
  • How far – e.g. How far do you want/need to go with your English?

2. By skill and language

  • Which skills do you use / need / lack most?

3. By time

  • Past / present / future (e.g. study / use of English / exposure to English in each of these three times)

4. By place

  • Inside work (see above)
  • Outside work (e.g. travel/films/TV)

See 'What questions should I ask?' for a list I created as a result of brainstorming these questions, if you would prefer to see a ready-made list. Is there anything you would add/take away from this list for the students you usually teach?

Conducting a needs analysis

There are two times needs analysis can be done, with various advantages and disadvantages:

1. Before class

This can be done by giving them a form to fill in or by asking them questions in the level test and making notes to be passed onto the future teacher.

2. During the first class

The method depends on the situation.

  • In one-to-one classes, you can simply ask them the questions and write down the answers. For this, a reminder list of possible questions and a form to write the answers down on are useful (see below).
  • In group classes, they can ask each other questions about themselves and the language, or they can negotiate priorities or even the syllabus together.
  • To ask each other the questions, the teacher will need to give them some help by brainstorming some categories of questions; you could give them the list of question words from this article, for example. They will then need a format to write them down on (for example, the interview form found in the What form should I use? article).
  • Negotiating a syllabus can be done by giving them a list of things to prioritise by importance/usefulness, and then asking them to agree together on those priorities in ever larger groups (a pyramid ranking debate). An example lesson can be found here.