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Who qualifies to monitor an ESP course: a content teacher or a language teacher?

As it is known, ESP materials are developed in order to respond to the specific needs of English learners. ESP is a branch of applied linguistics in which investigators attempt to put their fingers on the specific needs of individuals or groups of individuals in English in order to design materials related to their specific interests or specialties. And there is always a need to look at ESP within the context of language teaching in general, i.e., it should be considered as an offshoot of English language teaching. As Alan Davies (1990) argues, all language teaching can be perceived within a broader context of language for specific purposes (LSP). Therefore, the pedagogic problem is whether the general (ELT) and the particular/specific are so different that it is useful to teach them separately. Since there is a general misconception among subject teachers at non-English faculties that ESP courses should/must be taught by teachers of the subject matter, the question is how it is possible to come to a judgment on who is qualified to monitor an ESP classroom: a content (subject) specialist or a language teacher.

The ESP point of origin, according to Hutchinson and Waters (1987), can be pursued in three ways. The end of the Second World War was simultaneous with the demand of the world for technology and commerce in the consequence of which the requirement of an international lingua franca arose.

Therefore, the goal became that of teaching English, which would be useful in technology and commerce. This was the beginning of placing value to the demands of the learners. Synchronically, new ideas began to emerge in the study of English. Traditionally, the aim of linguistics had been to teach the rules of correct grammar. But now the world witnessed a shift of focus to the rules of use. The line of improvement was all around the needs of the learner or what the learner needed the language for.

Improvement in educational psychology also prepared the ground for the rise of ESP, by emphasizing the learners’ needs and their attitudes and motivations to learn. The effect of this improvement was also extended to materials as they became more course-related, such as medical texts for medical students.

Gueye (1990: 31) has developed the concept of English for development purposes (EDP). By this he means that English in developing countries is used as a medium through which people will get access to technology, science and world culture. If this is the objective of teaching English to academic students, he claims, then ESP classes should help the learners understand the significance of the roles they will have after their formal studies are finished to increase their consciousness of the issues and problems in the society. This objective is tacitly respected by teachers and students as they both participate in its formulation.

It is worth mentioning that ESP has developed at different speeds in different countries and situations due to the different needs and specifications that arise in each language-learning environment. Thus, it is not considered a monolithic universal phenomenon (Hutchinson & Waters 1987).

But the common factor in all ESP programs is that they are designed for adults who have a common vocational or educational concern for learning English and who bring content knowledge of their field of study and well-developed learning strategies.

In traditional, skilled-based ESP courses, it has generally been thought that the trainer does not require specialized academic knowledge of the learners’ major subject of study. This is because such training focused on developing language and study skills and not on the academic subject itself. The learners, it is often argued, can deal with complexities of terminology and ambiguities of subject content that may be beyond the trainer’s knowledge of the specialist subject. ESP trainers were typically told to exploit queries about subject content, so as to provide opportunities for the students to develop their fluency, produce extended spoken discourse, and effectively share their knowledge of the subject, even if this knowledge goes beyond the trainer’s command of the subject. This strategy however, involves a high degree of risk for the trainers, particularly in terms of credibility with the learners (Bell 1996: 3).

The emergence of subject content-based (as opposed to skill-based) ESP courses in the 1980s (Brinton, Snow & Wesche 1989, cited in Bell 1990: 5) raises the issue of which types of skills and knowledge are necessary for ESP trainers to deliver effective and professional courses for ESL/EFL students intending to follow college degree programs in English speaking countries. Krashen (1982: 172, 1985: 70) identified what he calls a “transition problem”, which refers to a perceived gap in the English language and study skills abilities of learners who have passed through traditional language classes, and those required for study purposes within universities. He argues that subject content-based courses can impart both subject knowledge and language competence at the same time, and points to evidence from the Canadian immersion programs at the University of Ottawa (Edwards et al. 1984; Wesche 1984 cited in Bell 1990: 6).

More recently, the work of Kasper (1995, cited in Bell 1996: 9) has greatly strengthened the evidence for the effectiveness of content-based courses. She has reported both improved language and content performance among students exposed to content-based ESP programs, higher scores on measures of reading proficiency, and higher pass rates on ESL courses. She also provides quantitative evidence that such students establish and retain a performance advantage over students exposed to non-content based ESP training.

The trend towards content-based ESP training presents a clear challenge to ESP instructors. How much longer will ESP training be done by instructors who may lack specific background knowledge of their learners’ specialist academic disciplines? How much longer will the traditional emphasis on training in language and study skills be regarded as adequate in the face of the growing body of persuasive evidence for the effectiveness of subject content-based programs? It may therefore be necessary for ESP teachers to possess a certain level of background knowledge in their students’ academic subjects in order to meet this challenge.

Teachers may have difficulty teaching both language and content but in the real world, people learn language and content simultaneously, and teachers need to be able to address both language and content within their classrooms. To learn academic English requires the use of academic English. Content teachers cannot expect students to arrive in their classrooms totally proficient in academic English; nor can English teachers leave the task of presenting academic texts and tasks to the content teacher since students cannot develop academic knowledge and skills without access to the language in which that knowledge is embedded, discussed, constructed, or evaluated. Nor can they acquire academic language skills in a context devoid of content.

The overall objective behind this short paper is to arrive at a partial judgment on who deserves to monitor an ESP classroom: a content teacher or a language teacher.


An important factor, which affects materials design in ESP courses, is the kind of reference that one may make to the general language ability of the students who take part in ESP classes. These students take the ESP course after they have supposedly passed the pre-university and the general English courses. The content of the pre-university and the general English textbooks in current use at different universities includes a number of reading passages followed by a set of comprehension questions and a host of structure exercises to help students’ reading ability. However, due to the extremely limited amount of time available for these English courses on the one hand, and tremendously huge language content necessary for the student to acquire on the other, it might be reasonable that work on the language items goes on even within ESP classes.

Whether the text is one of a general or specific/technical kind, the main academic objective is to enhance the students’s ability and proficiency in handling English rather than providing them with a set of technical jargons since they are already way familiar with such jargons. Widdowson (1983: 54) expounds on ESP purposes as follows:

… it is a wrong assumption to claim that ESP is more specific in
its purposes than other English courses. It is known that every
English course which students are willing to pay attention to has
some specific purpose.

He also adds that, in ESP, the purpose is to develop a “restricted competence” to cope with a specific set of tasks which are atleast partially language tasks and tasks on content as well. In GPE, the purpose is to develop a general capacity for English usage. In other words, ESP is understood as a matter of “objectives” which are narrower, more concrete, observable, and specific while GPE is realized as a matter of “aims” which are broader, more abstract, and less observable. He rightly concludes that ESP purposes will not be achieved if they are so specifically defined to limit the learners to a very specific set of responses. According to him, ESP courses should take in both aims and objectives in order to accurately obtain the established goals. In other words, materials chosen for ESP learners should include portions of the subject matter and General English to actually guarantee the learners’ success in acquiring language. And since we ultimately want the students to acquire the language through the content of their specialism, I think it is the task of language teacher to monitor and teach ESP courses.

On the other hand, the underlying syllabus, which is predominantly employed in compiling the incumbent ESP textbooks in Iran, is ostensibly synthetic even though it is now open to a lot of criticisms by many curriculum writers insofar as different components of language are taught discretely and step by step. This implies that language is to be taught as units of linguistic competence for investment and grammatical difficulty is still considered as a determining criterion in this syllabus (Wilkins 1976). If there is any justification in having a synthetic syllabus as a point of departure, then it seems reasonable to “focus on the linguistic items that students will learn or the communicative skills that they will be able to display as a result of instruction” (Nunan 1991: 18). To achieve the above, I again think that it is the role of language teacher to monitor and teach an ESP course.


If we agree upon the fact that it is the language teacher’s task to monitor or run the ESP classes, the related question is whether s/he needs to understand the subject matter of the ESP materials, the answer to which is absolutely positive. Teachers who come to ESP classes are not expected to know little or nothing about the content of the text to be taught. However, as mentioned by Hutchison and Waters (1987), we need to ask the following questions:

* Does the content of ESP materials need to be highly specialized? * What kind of knowledge is required of the ESP teacher?

As far as the first question is concerned, Hutchison and Waters (1987) claim that the research has elucidated little linguistic justification of having highly specialized materials. Actually, there is no explicit relationship between grammar and specialization of knowledge. In specialized texts, the discourse structure may be denser and more formalized, but this does not necessarily account for the difficulty level of texts. In fact, due to the presence of some internationally used technical terms, such texts may become even much easier. The only reason to have highly specialized texts is probably to keep the learners motivated. And to put it badly, if such texts are so difficult, learners will soon lose their inspiration to continue. I guess that ESP is one point on the continuum of teaching/learning English. And texts should so meticulously be selected that they facilitate the learning of English.

Harking back to the second question, which is of course more relevant to the purpose of this paper, Hutchison and Waters (1987) argue that ESP teachers do not need to learn the subject matter’s specialized knowledge. Rather, they are asked for the following requirements:

* A positive attitude towards ESP content,

* A knowledge of the fundamental principles of the content, and

* An awareness of how much they probably already know.

To put it simply, I need to say that an ESP teacher should not become a teacher of subject matter but a teacher of English through a subject matter. Of course, in a learning-centered approach, an ESP teacher needs to negotiate the texts with the learners. In this way, the reciprocal contribution of the teacher and the learners in negotiating the meaning helps the ESP teacher to take in/acquire the basic knowledge of the subject matter.

One source through which the subject may have some influence on language is vocabulary, which is of four types:

* Structural

* General

* Sub-technical

* Technical

Inman (1978) found that in an extensive corpus of scientific and technical writing, technical vocabulary accounted for only nine percent of the total range of lexis. These technical terms are likely to pose the least threat to learners as most of such words are internationally used, and on the other hand, the percentage of these technical terms is too low to affect comprehension drastically. In other words, the possible effect of technical words which scares the language teacher is not tremendously so enormous that a subject specialist takes over. Therefore, I think, in terms of language content, there is little justification for a content specific approach to ESP, and it becomes less significant when we take into account the underlying skills and strategies required to comprehend the text. Widdowson (1983: 82) states that “there is no reason why register, varieties or rhetorical types should not be characterized by reference to the communicative properties of linguistic forms in context,” which are the major priority but by the subject matter to which a subsidiary role should be assigned.


Provided that we come to the judgment that it is the role of the language teacher to monitor ESP classes, there are certain things that ESP teachers should do. One thing that ESP teachers can do is to try to develop their professional competence. This may involve specialism in a particular discipline or profession, or undergoing further training, or carrying out research alongside their teaching. Kennedy (1991, cited in Bell 1996: 11) even argues for teachers to carry out “action research”:

… I want to suggest that we should create conditions whereby the
teacher himself undergoes research in his classroom which can feed
back into his own teaching and so create the possibility for
self-renewal so important for teaching.

As Kennedy goes on, the teacher is usually “at the bottom of the decision-making hierarchy,” so that such action research helps to give him/her some degree of control over his/her own professional life.

Inman, who refers to the “gap between the learners’ knowledge of the special subject and the teacher’s ignorance of it, “recommends three techniques:

* Become familiar with the ESP course materials.

* Become familiar with the language of the subject.

* Allow students to put you right.

The important question to be asked if the language teacher is to monitor an ESP course is how far the ESP teacher should know of the students’ specialism. There seem to be conflicting views on this issue, and many key variables should be kept in mind. First, a lot depends on whether the students are experienced in their specialism or not. Do the students have pre-experience, post-experience, or are they studying their specialism concurrently with English? In each of these cases, we might expect the learners to have different views about the teachers’ engagement with their specialism. Second, we must consider the sponsor’s requirements: in some cases, these may include specific teaching of aspects of the specialism. Third, we should take into consideration the students’ views about the role of the teacher and the nature of English language teaching. If the students expect that the teacher should be an authority, they may find it hard to accept a teacher who is forced to admit ignorance of their specialism. If the students believe that English language teaching should consist of practice in grammar and general vocabulary, they may be disconcerted when the English teacher appears to be teaching their specialism. And finally, we must see what help is at hand to the ESP teacher. Is an appropriate ESP textbook available? Is the teacher working alone or is there an ESP team, who are able to share in the needs analysis, the syllabus design, and the materials preparation? Are there helpful specialist informants around for the ESP teacher to consult? Has the teacher enough time to learn something of the students’ specialism?

Strevens (1974, cited in Robinson 1991) recommends: “Become familiar with the language of the subject,” and refers to the “educated layman.” Is this possible; is it appropriate? He suggests that “the ESP teacher’s most acceptable and effective role, in addition to that of pure language teacher, is not as a pseudo-teacher of subject matter students have previously learned or expect to learn in their specialist studies or occupations, but as a teacher of things not learned as part of courses in these specialisms.

A number of ESP practitioners would seem to share the view that a knowledge of the technical area will be of great help to the language trainer, but it is not a pre-requisite for successful technical training. As a matter of fact, the chief value of experience and of knowledge of the students’ specialism is to give the teacher some confidence (Robinson 1991).


In sum, as far as the programs in Iran are concerned, these programs have most probably not met with success, and part of the blame may go to the subject teachers. Teachers’ insufficient knowledge of the methodology of language teaching and the ineffective pedagogic techniques lead them to act anachronistically and, consequently, encourage the students to take turns and read aloud and rely on the often-vicarious habit of translation which is not so productive.

One major problem affecting students’ reading ability is “language related information” (Schleppegrell 1991: 21) which has to be taken into account even at the advanced levels. Such discourse factors as length, connectors, embedded constructions, anaphoric and cataphoric expressions, referential pronouns, etc affect the reading ability of students, and to actively and effectively teach these materials, a skillful language teacher is needed. It seems that decisions on who to teach in ESP programs should be rescrutinised and readjusted so that students can become independent readers.

It is likely that most of these subject-teacher specialists, anxious to convert to language teachers, would have to take the training in areas of basic language teaching skills as well as relevant linguistic information which the subject teacher does not presumably possess. Therefore, within the domain of ESP, the teaching of information skills presupposes study skills, which require a motivated language teacher to establish and validate learning materials.

In the end, I hope that this short article has offered sufficient rationale to justify the position of a language teacher inside an ESP classroom.


Bell, T. 1996. Do ESP Teachers Require Knowledge of their Students’ Specialist Academic Subjects? 4 June 2005. Available online

Davies, A. 1990. Principles of Language Testing. Oxford: Basic Blackwell Inc. Gaughan, D. E. 1998. Introduction to Analysis. California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Gueye, N. 1990. One step beyond ESP: English for development purposes (ESP). English Teaching Forum, 33/3, 31.

Hutchison, T., & Waters, A. 1987. English for Specific Purposes: A Learning-centered Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Inman, M. 1987. Lexical analysis of scientific and technical prose. In M. Todd Trimble, L. Trimble & K. Drobnic (Eds.), English For Specific Purposes: Science and Technology. Oregon: Oregon State University Press.

Krashen, S. D. 1982. Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

–. 1985. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. London: Longman.

Nunan, D. 1991. Syllabus Design. London: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, P. C. 1991. ESP Today: A Practitioner’s Guide. Great Britain: Prentice Hall International (UK) Ltd.

Schleppegrell, J. M. 1991. English for specific purposes: A program design model. English Teaching Forum, 39/4,18-22.

Widdowson, H. G. 1978. Teaching English as Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

–. 1983. Learning Purpose and Language Use. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Wilkins, D. 1976. Notional Syllabuses. London: Oxford University Press.

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