ESP Teachers: Reluctant Dwellers in a Strange and Uncharted Land

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ESP teachers are all too often reluctant dwellers in a strange and uncharted land. What do I mean by that? Well, teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is challenging, and often you find yourself out of your comfort zone, with no clue about the content you are teaching and even less of a clue about where everything is going to end up.

On a personal level, the ESP teacher must do five things to be successful:

1) show interest for the area of specialization of the students, and

2) the specific vocabulary and terminology related to that specialization area, and

3) be respectful of the fact that the students will usually know more about the area of specialization than the ESP teacher does (which means flexibility to change from teacher to student at times), and,

4) have flexibility to manage the learning of many different kinds of students, and most importantly,

5) have the flexibility to reconsider the contents of the course according to the progress and/or changes in the topic that is the object of study.

As if all that weren’t enough by itself, the ESP teacher must also be a Good Practitioner. You need to be good at helping your students learn.

What is a Good Practitioner?

According to Swales (1988: 177), a “Good Practitioner” is someone who teaches, designs curricula, prepares materials and carries out various kinds of investigations, some of which definitely deserve the name of “research”.

According to Strevens (1988), students come to ESP courses with three types of expectations, which the teacher should know and must deal with:

1) a cultural-educational expectation which is the product of the student’s experience with learning. Therefore, if the ESP course is going to be different from what the student is expecting (from a socio-cultural-educational standpoint), then the ESP teacher must help the student accept this new situation.

2) secondly, there is the personal expectation related to the student’s optimism or pessimism about their success or failure in the course. This will affect the student’s behavior and motivation throughout the course.

3) finally, there is an academic-occupational expectation due to the obligation to do a “Needs Analysis” at the beginning of the course. What are the student’s needs? The answer to that question will be critical for success, for obvious reasons.

Ultimately, the question that both the student and the ESP teacher is asking themselves is: “Will we be able to overcome the gap between the specialised knowledge the students have about their area of expertise and the lack of knowledge that the teacher has? That’s the key question.

This brings me to something quite remarkable.

None of what I just said above applies to the teaching of English to high school vocational school (Técnico-Profesional) students in Chile.

The question is “skirted” quite nicely by simply teaching general, non-specialised English to the vocational school students.

This “General English For Everybody” approach works really well for teachers. For example, there are 15 economic sectors, 35 specialties (major areas), and 17 mentions (minor areas). Clearly, no human being could have expert knowledge in such a large amount of technical careers.

That’s understandable.

But it also begs the question: Is it fair to the vocational students?

They chose vocational education as a pathway to enter the work force after graduation. If you are going to be an electrician, or an auto mechanic, or an accountant, or a nurse, or even a cook, then being able to order a hamburger at McDonalds is not going to help you get a job, and most importantly, perform well and keep your job.

Would it be better to be able to explain Ohm’s Law?

Would it be better to be able to explain a malfunction on an electronic ignition?

Would it be better to be able to explain a tax deduction?

If you agree that this is the kind of vocational, specific English that vocational students need, and have a legitimate right to recieve based on their education choice (to attend vocational school rather than take university prep courses in an academic focused school) then the question we are left with is difficult to answer:

How do we provide high school vocational students (and their teachers) with the kind of empowering, specific English language course that they need to enhance their ability to successfully enter the work force?


STREVENS, P. (1988) The learner and teacher of ESP. En D. CHAMBERLAIN and R. J. BAUMGARDNER (eds.) ESP in the classroom: practice and evaluation. (pp. 39-44). ELT Document 128. Oxford: Pergamon Press/British Council.

SWALES, J. M. (1988) Episodes in ESP. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Educación Técnica Profesional, Education, Higher Education Teaching & Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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