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 ESP Needs Assessment Reading
Home • ~Alexandra Rowe • ESP Needs Assessment Reading
The excerpt below is taken from pp. 59-63 of English for Specific Purposes:  A Learning-Centred Approach by Hutchinson and Waters (Cambridge University Press, 1987).  Though “old,” this book is still considered by many to be the foundational document for ESP.

The ellipsis ( . . . or . . . . ) below indicates that some of the text has been omitted.  Three dots indicate that the omitted text is at the beginning or middle of a sentence.  Four dots indicate that the omitted text is at the end of a sentence.  As much as possible, the text below is presented as printed, including the British English spelling and usage.

p. 58

. . . the analysis of target needs involves far more than simply identifying the linguistic features of the target situation.  There are a number of ways in which information can be gathered about needs.  The most frequently used are:

data collection e.g. gathering texts;
information consultations with sponsors, learners and others.

p. 59

. . . it is desirable to use more than one of these methods.  The choice will obviously depend on the time and resources available.  It is also important to remember that needs analysis is not a once-for-all activity.  It should be a continuing process, in which the conclusions drawn are constantly checked and re-assessed . . . .

The analysis of target situation needs is in essence a matter of asking questions about the target situation and the attitudes towards that situation of the various participants in the learning process. . . .

A target situation analysis framework

Why is the language needed?
-       for study;
- for work;
- for training;
- for a combination of these; for some other purpose, e.g. status, examination, promotion.

How will the language be used:
- medium: speaking, writing, reading etc.;
- channel: e.g. telephone, face to face;
- types of text or discourse: e.g. academic texts, lectures, information conversations, technical manuals, catalogues.

What will the content areas be?
- subjects: e.g. medicine, biology, architecture, shipping, commerce, engineering;
- level: e.g. technician, craftsman, postgraduate, secondary school.

Who will the learner use the language with:
- native speakers or non-native;
- level of knowledge of receiver: e.g. expert, layman, student;
- relationship: e.g. colleague, teacher, customer, superior, subordinate.

Where will the language be used?
- physical setting: e.g. office, lecture theatre, hotel, workshop, library;
- human context: e.g. alone, meetings, demonstrations, on telephone;
- linguistic context: e.g. in own country, abroad. (Alexandra adds: abroad by distance means, such as email, teleconferencing, Internet, etc.)

p. 60

When will the language be used?
- concurrently with the ESL course or subsequently;
- frequently, seldom, in small amounts, in large chunks.

Till now we have considered needs only in terms of target situation needs.  We have been considering the question: ‘What knowledge and abilities will the learners require in order to be able to perform to the required degree of competence in the target situation?”. . . . what we have done do far is to consider the starting point (lacks) and the destination (necessities), although we have also seen that there might be some dispute as to what the destination should be (wants).  What we have not considered yet is the route.  How are we going to get from our starting point to the destination?  This indicates another kind of need:  learning needs.

To understand what is meant by learning needs, let us look a little more closely at what happens in the analysis of target situation needs.

In looking at the target situation, the ESL course designer is asking the question:  ‘What does the expert communicator need to know in order to function effectively in this target situation?’  This information may be recorded in terms of language items, skills, subject knowledge etc.

p. 61

What the analysis cannot do, however, is show how the expert communicator learnt the language items, skills and strategies that he or she uses (Smith, 1984).  Analysing what people do tells you little, if anything, about how they learnt to do it.  Yet, the whole ESP process is concerned not with knowing or doing, but with learning.  It is naïve to base a course design simply on the target objectives, just as it is naïve to think that a journey can be planned solely in terms of the starting point and the destination.  The needs, potential and constraints of the route (i.e. the learning situation) must also be taken into account, if we are going to have any useful analysis of learner needs.

An example of what this means may be seen in the matter of choosing texts.

Let us say, we are preparing materials for a group of learners who need to read texts on Systems.  Most of the available texts are long and dull.  Should these texts be used for ESP?  We would say no.  The learners’ motivation in the target situation will not necessarily carry over to the ESP classroom.  They may well have to read very dull texts in their work or studies, but they probably have some strong motivation to do so.  This does not imply that they will accept or learn from dull texts in ESP.  It may be more appropriate to look for texts that are more interesting or humorous in order to generate the motivation needed to learn English (Hutchinson and Waters, 1983).

. . . ESP learners are people.  They may be learning about machines, but they are not the word-crunching machines which too many approaches to ESL seem to imply.

p. 62

In the target situation they may need, for example, to read long, dull or complex texts, but their motivation to do so may be high because:
- they like the subject in general;
- examinations are looming;
- job/promotion prospects may be involved;
- they may be going on to do very interesting experiments or practical work based on the texts;
- they may like and/or respect the subject teacher or boss;
- they may be very good at their subject, but poor at English.
For all manner of possible reasons learners may be well motivated in the subject lesson or in their work, but totally turned off by encountering the same materials in an ESP classroom.  The target situation, in other words, is not a reliable indicator of what is needed or useful in the ESP learning situation.  The target situation analysis can determine the destination; it can also act as a compass on the journey to give general direction, but we must choose our route according to the vehicles and guides available (i.e. the conditions of the learning situation), the existing roads within the learner’s [sic] mind (i.e. their knowledge, skills and strategies) and the learners’ motivation for traveling.

A framework for analysing learning needs

Why are the learners taking the course?
- compulsory or optional;
- apparent need or not;
- Are status, money, promotion involved?
- What do learners think they will achieve?
- What is their attitude towards the ESL course? Do they want to improve their English or do they resent the time they have to spend on it?

How do learners learn?
- What is their learning background?
- What is their concept of teaching and learning?
- What methodology will appeal to them?
- What sort of techniques are likely to bore/alienate them?

p. 63

What resources are available?
- number and professional competence of teachers;
- attitude of teachers to ESP;
- teachers’ knowledge of and attitude to the subject content;
- materials;
- aids;
- opportunities for out-of-class activities.

Who are the learners?
- age/sex/nationality;
- What do they know already about English?
- What subject knowledge do they have?
- What are their interests?
- What is their socio-cultural background?
- What teaching styles are they used to?
- What is their attitude to English or to the cultures of the English-speaking world?

Where will the ESP course take place?
- are the surroundings pleasant, dull, noisy, cold etc?

When will the ESP course take place?
- time of day;
- every day/once a week;
- full-time/part-time;
- concurrent with need or pre-need.


. . . we have looked at the most characteristic feature of ESP course design—needs analysis.  We have  tried to show that it is a complex process, involving much more than simply looking at what the learners will have to do in the target situation.  Most of all, we have tired to stress that both target situation needs and learning needs must be taken into account.  Analysis of target situation needs is concerned with languages use.  But language use is only part of the story.  We also need to know about language learning.  Analysis of the target situation can tell us what people do with language.  What we also need to know is how people learn to do what they do with language.  We need, in other words, a learning-centred approach to needs analysis.