Saturday, May 25, 2013

6 Tips for new ESP teachers

I was wondering how to start this blog when it hit me: from the beginning. So fiat lux: here are the things I wish I'd been told when I began teaching English for Specific Purposes. It's a bit long-winded, but I hope you like it.

6 Tips for new ESP teachers

1. Defer to your students' expertise.

ESP practitioners often teach professionals of fields in which they were not trained: medicine, law, business, oil and gas, aviation, tourism, catering... The list is endless! I, for one, didn't know what air traffic controllers did, let alone the language they used, before I found out I was going to be one of their teachers. Scary. Overwhelming. A challenge, no doubt. 

But here's an ESP mantra to help you cope: you don't have to know everything. You-don't-have-to-know-everything. In English and in teaching, you're the expert. In the specialized field, your students are. Learn from them and provide them with the English they need to teach YOU what they know. Just one caveat: remember that you'll still need to be able to guide them in how their peers use English internationally, which leads us to tips #2 & #3.

"Relinquish power. Listen to your students. You don't have to know everything."

2. Search for published material.

Fortunately, publishers have caught on to various ESP niches. To get your bearings, look for textbooks that cater for your audience. Finding out that you don’t have to start from scratch will lower your anxiety. Also, when leafing through the books, check whether the Teacher's Manual explains the jargon used in the lessons. That'll sure come in handy. But don't stop there.

3. Conduct a needs analysis.

As teachers, it’s our second nature: if we have a new group, we will find ourselves going over their characteristics. Take that instinct and amplify it: in ESP the need for tailoring the course is paramount. Investigate what your students can do with the language and what they need and want to do; find out the genres and skills your students use more often and what characterizes them; check out if they need to focus on accuracy or mainly getting their meaning across. You can accomplish that by interviewing your students, their supervisors and other professionals in the field, and if possible, by observing them at their workplace and reading up on the literature which describes their language use. It may be a little time-consuming, but it will sure be time well spent, as it will help you become a more effective teacher for your students. 

4. Don't overemphasize technical vocabulary.
Classic ESP rookie mistake: you spot all these words and phrases you didn’t know and instantly assume that vocab is what your students need to learn, right? Well, yes and no. They may be acquainted with some of it already, and other words may not be that relevant. Also, there must be more to ESP than drilling a glossary. Remember: you're trying to increase their overall proficiency, not to have them memorize a phrasebook. 

5. Find some backup.

No matter how unique the field seems to you now, chances are that someone else in the world is teaching the same profession. And it's very likely that this someone has an internet connection. So build yourself a personal learning network to have someone to turn to in times of need. There may be specific groups on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook or other social networks, as well as blogs and discussion lists and forums. TESOL and IATEFL, for example, both have interest groups in ESP. 

6. Enjoy yourself!

You've conducted an initial analysis of the field; you're open to your students' input; you have your peers to back you up; you even have some published material to help you plan your lessons. In other words, you’ve got it covered. It is now time to seize the challenge. If you are getting a bit tired of teaching the same syllabus over and over, ESP may be a welcome breath of fresh air. In any case, a change is as good as a rest. 

Something that helped me:
Hutchingson, T., & Waters, A. (1987). English for specific purposes. Cambridge: CUP.

Are you teaching ESP, too? What field? I'd love to read your tips! :D


This blog post has only been written and published because of the encouragement and huge help from Marcia Santos, Luiz Otávio Barros, and Nadhir Moghli. Thank you very, very much! Thanks also to Higor Cavalcante and Danilo Pereira for believing I could be a TESOL blogger! I hope I don't prove you wrong. lol

You may also like to read this post on the subject. I assure you I hadn't read it before, but I am glad to realize those great minds and I think so alike.