When developing an English for Specific Purposes (ESP) curriculum for new clients, there is one thing at the forefront of my planning – objectives.
Objectives mean different things to different people. When we talk about objectives, teachers, trainers and lecturers often talk in terms of lesson objectives and learning objectives. Indeed, these are an indispensable part of the teaching process, and critical to effective instruction. To go blindly into a course with no real idea what you want to achieve is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.
When I talk about objectives, however, I am equally concerned with – and far more interested in – the long-term objectives of the client. I try to think beyond just the individual session or programme, focusing instead on how my work is going to help clients to achieve their professional goals outside of the classroom, after the course, now and in the months and years to come.
It is very much part of my personality and professional character to get excited by long-term goals, and I am very much drawn to the “big picture”. I am driven by the way in which my work contributes to the achievement of my clients’ personal and organisational objectives.
Teaching and training in the ESP field enables me to pursue and embrace a fulfilling, long-term, goal-oriented, big-picture-driven professional practice, and to achieve this, my process for designing and developing ESP curriculum is centred around four objective-based questions.
I want to explore these questions in a little more depth, and offer suggestions for how to figure out the answers.
Why is the client here?
Most importantly you need to know what long-term objectives the client is seeking to achieve by working with you. The most obvious answer to this question is “to learn English” or, at least usually, at ESP level, “to improve English skills”. However these represent only short-term objectives, as it is unlikely that a client’s very purpose for existing, and the focus of everything they do, is to improve their command of the English language. There has to be a reason. There has to be a why.
Developing ESP curricula allows you to get to grips with what the client really needs, and why they need it.
To understand what a client intends to achieve by working with you, you can look at their organisation. You can ask what projects or activities they are working on at the moment, or will be working on in the future. You can ask who is going to benefit from these projects or activities. You can ask what kind of impact that they are looking to achieve, and what kind of legacy they want their work to have. You can ask how they think English communication can help contribute to their success, and how you can work together to make this a reality.
Once you can fully understand the big picture, you can put into effect a more targeted and more meaningful client experience, where each and every teaching objective is directly linked to helping the client to achieve their purpose.
Which linguistic functions does the client need to master?
Understanding the communication objectives of clients can help shed some light on the linguistic functional objectives. Language and communication is functional. Whether you are buying a loaf of bread, or making an inaugural address to an audience of hundreds of thousands. Getting to the bottom of what those functions really are is essential to a successful, objective-oriented ESP programme.
To give a practical example, I was putting together a seminar programme on written English for drafting project funding and grant applications, targeted at public sector organisations and NGOs looking to obtain European funding. Whilst designing the programme, I was exploring some of the core elements associated with funding applications. One such element is the problem statement or project rationale. I noted that, in order to craft an effective problem statement or project rationale, you need to engage various language functions:
To craft an effective problem statement or project rationale, you need to be able to master multiple functions, and to use them interchangeably to the best effect.
This is the case with all elements of proposal writing, and this is the case with all ESP programmes. If you know what functions the client will need to work with, then you will be able to integrate these functions into the programme, within the context of the client’s goals and objectives.
Which words and word combinations does the client need to understand?
Vocabulary is usually at the top of the client’s wish-list. Understanding – and being able to use - specific words and phrases within a particular field, are key elements of effective communication.
Individual words may be especially prevalent with a specific academic or professional discipline, and being able to express yourself using standard and specific word combinations or collocations tends to indicate that you know your field, you know what you are talking about, and you know how to communicate it correctly. Whoever the client might be, it is imperative that you understand the discourse that they need to engage with.
As a native (or near-native) English speaker, and as an expert in a certain field, you might have a good feeling for the kind of lexis that might be required for your client to achieve their objectives. It is, however, highly unlikely that you can rely solely on your own judgement to determine what is lexically important or relevant, and what is not. There are too many options. Too many variables. Too many words.
An approach I have taken to using is corpus analysis – that is, utilising big data to tell me what my client probably needs the most. In my writing and in my lesson planning, I have taken to using a fabulous piece of free software called AntConc. While this software is pretty nerdy and assumes some level of background understanding of statistical frequency analysis, it’s quite easy to get the hang of. I can input 10, 20, 50, 100 or more text files, and this software will tell me which words and expressions are most common. It will report the range and frequency of each and every collocation, subject to me setting some basic parameters.
Let’s say you have an ESP client from the Ministry of Social Affairs, responsible for social insurance and welfare policy. You can perform a basic Google search on all English-language, government-published reports on social insurance and welfare policy, from all over the world. You can download the top 100 results, feed these documents into AntConc, and within less than a minute, you can precisely identify the key words, phrases, and collocations that your client needs to be able to work with. This saves you a lot of time, and gives your clients the confidence that what you are teaching them is practical, relevant, and in common usage internationally. Integrating specific, objective-oriented lexical corpora into an ESP programme is an extremely useful and highly-efficient way to ensure that you are designing your curricula with those clear objectives in mind.
What kind of communication tasks will help the client learn in a meaningful manner?
The final stage is to create real-world, meaningful tasks that enable the client to develop and put into practice those language skills and communication competences that they need to pursue their personal and organisational agenda.
I am a huge fan of task-based learning, particularly in ESP. Task-based learning turns language into a tool, rather than an objective. Communication becomes a means, and not an end – just like in real life. I think this is essential in ESP, because the tasks that clients are performing in their day-to-day activities – those tasks which help them progress towards their goals and objectives – are not concerned with learning, but with doing.
If you can replicate as best as possible the real-life communication tasks that clients need to be able to perform in their work, and if you can enable clients to draw upon their linguistic and communicational resources to perform these tasks in a controlled, safe environment, with constructive feedback and correction, then their ability to use English to achieve their objectives outside of the training room will be greatly enhanced.
As with other elements discussed in this article, this requires some degree of research. When I work with a new client, or design a new curriculum for an ESP programme, I read a lot about the field, and speak in depth with the client. I keep notes of the types of tasks that professionals in this field have to perform, across all 4 sub-skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. The more realistic I can make a programme, the more engaged the client, and the better the learning outcomes.
My chief advice to ESP trainers would be as follows: You are a resource, not a commodity. You can help bring about change, progress and impact in whatever field you are specialised in. You can use your skills and professional competences to support people in achieving their long-term objectives. Create your own legacy. Think big, think long-term, and you can use your valuable talents to help make a real difference.