A Student-Centered Approach to ESP (English for Specific Purposes). Students Needs Analysis in Iran
A Student–centered Approach to ESP:
Students’ Needs Analysis in Iran
Muhammad Javad Moafi
Based on the various researches regarding ESP courses, a great deal of issues such as the origins of ESP, ESP practitioners, absolute and variable characteristics of ESP, curriculum design, ESP teacher training course and so forth have been the major concern for the researchers. However, the role of learners in the issues has been remained vague and untouched. Since the role of students as a crucial factor in developing an ESP course is neglected, students’ and teachers’ frustration, students' poor motivation and interest, ineffectiveness of the course and inflexibility of ESP course have come about. In the present study some appreciable points about the role of ESP students in developing a new course of ESP has been taken into consideration, aiming at introducing the ESP learners as indispensable part of ESP courses.
Keywords: ESP needs analysis, learner–centered approach, CLT, evaluation
Indubitably, a great deal about the origins of ESP could be presented. Notably, there are three reasons common to the emergence of all ESP: the demands of a Brave New World, a revolution in linguistics, and focus on the learner (Hutchinson & Waters, 1987). Two key historical periods breathed life into ESP. First, the end of the Second World War brought with it an age of enormous and unprecedented expansion in scientific, technical and economic activity on an international scale for various reasons, most notably the economic power of the United States in the post–war world, the role [of international language] fell to English. Second, the Oil Crisis of the early 1970s resulted in Western money and knowledge flowing into the oil-rich countries. The language of this knowledge became English.
The second key reason cited as having a tremendous impact on the emergence of ESP was a revolution in linguistics. Whereas traditional linguists set out to describe the features of language, revolutionary pioneers in linguistics began to focus on the ways in which language is used in real communication. Hutchinson and Waters (1987) point out that one significant discovery was in the ways that spoken and written English vary. In other words, given the particular context in which English is used, the variant of English will change. This idea was taken one step farther. If language in different situations varies, then tailoring language instruction to meet the needs of learners in specific context is also possible. Hence, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s there were many attempts to describe English for Science and Technology (EST). Some prominent descriptive EST pioneers are Ewer and Lahore, Swales, Selinker and Trimble.
The final reason Hutchinson and Waters (1987) cite as having influenced the emergence of ESP has less to do with linguistics and everything to do with psychology. Rather than simply focus on the method of language delivery, more attention was given to the ways in which learners acquire language and the differences in the ways language is acquired. Learners were seen to employ different learning strategies, use different skills, enter with different learning schemata, and be motivated by different needs and interests. Therefore, focus on the learners' needs became equally paramount as the methods employed to disseminate linguistic knowledge. Designing specific courses to better meet these individual needs was a natural extension of this thinking. To this day, the catchword in ESP circles is learner–centered or learning–centered.
ESP before and now
Tracing back the history of ESP, as we just did it above in brief, we come to the fact that ESP is a young branch of EFL studies, yet it is constantly developing more and more. Iran is one of those countries struggling to be better equipped in terms of ESP too. Before the emergence of some communicative approaches to TEFL, the approach used in ESP was a traditional one restricted to structure, lexicon and translation, while modern ESP pays attention, for the most part, to the students' communicative professional needs. The traditional methods failed to reflect learners’ interests and resulted in low motivation and interest and thus low participation of the students in ESP classes. Instructors thought about designing a modern ESP course which could fulfill the learners' needs and interests, a type of ESP which could make students more involved in the class participation. These views are the first glimmers of hope in developing a learner–centered approach to ESP.
Students’ or learners’ analysis as an indispensable part of needs analysis
It seems that if the target group of students for whom, we are designing a course are neglected, the effectiveness of the course will go under question. A great deal of problems in ESL or EFL classes are the result of teachers not paying attention to the learners’ interests, ignoring students as a good source of essential information which teachers need, and also ignoring the students' experience in previous similar classes. With the emergence of communicative language teaching (CLT), learner-centered instruction (target group) was emphasized in L2 pedagogy and methodology. As a result, needs analysis was considered the most important factor in making a particular course serve the needs and interests of a particular group (Graves, 1996; Hutchinson & Waters, 1987; Vorobieva 1996). "Notably, it is not important in which setting, for instance for adult learners or in a secondary school setting ESP is used; it is very important to consider that ESP is an approach to language teaching in which all decision as to the content and method are based on the learners' reason for learning” (Hutchinson & Waters, 1987, p. 19). As a matter of fact, students can provide much more valuable information for teachers of ESP than an expression of their needs (Sysoyev, 2007).
According to Sysoyev (2007), students’ analysis can give two kinds of information: The first reflects students' possession, capacity or preparedness; that is, the current level of students in L2 ESP, their field knowledge in L1 and L2, their present motivation and different methodologies they have experienced in previous ESP or similar courses. The second represents what learners want to achieve – what traditionally has been introduced as ESP needs.
The distance between the present knowledge of an ESP student and what he or she wishes to reach; that is, ESP student’s needs can be interpreted through Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development. Through the help of these two theories, we can best show and design what an ESP student needs to meet his or her needs.
Two kinds of information consequently correspond to two levels of knowledge presented in Krashen’s Input Hypothesis (1985), also known as i + 1 Hypothesis. According to the study, i represents student’s current level of L2 competence and +1 is a level of ESP proficiency beyond their present level (as cited in Brown, 2007).
Similar to Krashen’s theory is Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in which there are two main stages of an individual's development (as cited in Brown, 2007). The first stage is what a child or learner can do by himself. The second stage is his potential, what he or she can accomplish with the help of another more competent person. The distance between the two stages is called ZPD. Vygotsky also introduced a notion of a mediator. A mediator is a person helping students achieve what they cannot do by themselves. In the teaching of ESP, the teacher enjoys the role of a mediator. She or he starts from students’ current stage or level (stage 1) and brings them to the second stage or level (stage 2) of their needs.
Finding information about students’ needs, their previous experience and their background knowledge will be possible through different ways. For instance, at the level of university and high school, it can be done through various questionnaires, surveys, group discussions, individual tasks, etc. (Bryman, 2008). As an illustration, the students of Business English may be asked to list areas in which everyone foresees, using ESP (i.e., selling insurance, opening bank accounts, dealing with foreign customers in currency exchange offices, translating document from English to the native language, and so on.).
Another place wherein the importance of learners is emphasized is in the syllabus design (Basturkmen, 2006); That is, the role of “the learner syllabus” in the syllabus design. The learner syllabus is an internal syllabus - the network of knowledge which develops in the learner’s brain enabling that learner to comprehend and store later knowledge. The importance of the learner syllabus lies in the fact that it is through the filter of this syllabus that the learner views the other syllabuses. What is in that learner syllabus, in other words, will have a crucial influence on whether and how future knowledge is learned. It is for this reason that learners must be taken into account on a continuing basis through every stage of the course design process (Hutchison & Waters, 1989, P. 92).
There is, of course, a bias in the learner-centered approach to ESP, in that it is based on the principle that learning is totally determined by the learner, and that learning is a natural and internal process in the mind of the learner which is crucially dependent upon the knowledge the learners already have or upon the experiences they have had. This cannot be absolutely true, since learning is not just a mental process; it is a process of negotiation between individuals and society as well (Hutchinson & Waters 1989, P. 72).