December 2012
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Ros Wright, Medical English Specialist, Past President and Editor, TESOL France

Although specialised English courses are on the increase, experts crossing over into English language teaching (ELT) from the fields of law, finance, and medicine are few and far between. As a result, responsibility for providing ESP courses is just as likely to fall to a recent CELTA graduate as it is to a trainer experienced in the particular field. Hailing traditionally from a humanities background, many trainers lack knowledge of the financial, scientific, or engineering sectors in which learners work.In the relative absence of teacher training in ESP, this article seeks to demonstrate the extent to which ESP coursebooks can provide valuable support to novice trainers.

Despite the increased demand for ESP trainers, Hüttner, Smit, and Mehlmauer-Larcher(2009) bemoan the lack of preservice training, a scenario that is repeated across Europe and beyond—in Pakistan 66% practitioners receive no formal ESP training (Maimoona & Shah, 2012). With 12,000 graduates a year worldwide, the CELTA represents one of the main ports of entry into ELT. Yet with little if any reference to ESP in this preservice programme, to what extent are recent CELTA graduates actually equipped to deal with adult learners? It is not unusual for them to find a mismatch between the conditions of their training and reality. However, finding oneself at the proverbial deep end, teaching a vocational course in nursing or a group of IT specialists just weeks after graduation, presents a slightly more complex challenge. One might argue that ESP training demands additional training compared to general English and in many instances (medical or aviation, in particular) the level of responsibility assigned to ESP trainers goes far beyond that of the general English teacher. This perspective alone leaves us questioning the current status quo; a sentiment shared by Hutchinson and Waters, who are concerned that despite the scale of what they call the ESP revolution, little seems to have been done to retrain teachers.

The impact is all too familiar. Grappling with content and terminology, new trainers are often wary of the ESP classroom and its occupants. Maimoona and Shah (2012) note that the lack of specialised training often results in ESP trainers relying on their own intuition. Needless to say, the potential implications for certain fields are considerable—and the possible outcome fatal.

Arguably the most daunting aspect of ESP is the perceived sense of powerlessness; the realisation that the learners are more knowledgeable of the “carrier content” than the trainer. Coupled with this is the learners’ own expectation of the trainer. Lacking the assurance that invariably comes with experience, not to mention unfamiliarity with the subject content, the novice may find adopting the role of facilitator in the ESP context as opposed to controller particularly challenging.

However, the lack of content knowledge is only one side of the coin. Few CELTA graduates possess the necessary skills for developing principled materials. Estaban, (2002), through his work in ESP coursebook design, goes so far as to suggest that tailoring ESP materials is a major risk for those not expert in materials production. Collaboration with content experts, notably in higher education, should be encouraged. Alas, this is not always feasible, and rare are companies that will allow trainers to observe learners’ professional environment prior to designing a course. Further impacting the situation is the number of disciplines covered. Trainers in France, for example, might be required to teach professionals from four or five different sectors at a time.

So how might CELTA graduates go about compensating for their predicament? The most logical course of action is to reach for the nearest coursebook. Although criticism is often leveled at commercially produced coursebooks, I would venture that the ESP coursebook offers an essential link between newly qualified trainer and learner.

ESP titles provide an informed reference on which to build a specialised language course. Often set against the Common European Framework, they offer course credibility and accountability as well as a certain degree of consistency and quality control. In addition, given that few ESP trainers are granted adequate time for class preparation, coursebooks also provide a time-efficient and cost-effective means of delivery.

Although learners may not expect trainers to be expert in their particular field, they will have more confidence in one who possesses an understanding of the relevant concepts. Input from content experts is therefore essential in ensuring validity. A recent move towards a more principled approach to the design of ESP coursebooks has resulted in collaborations with experts and practitioners—the Cambridge English for . . . series and Pearson’s Vocational English series. Other titles have been reviewed by content specialists: Good Practice: Communication for Medical Practitioners, a course in the development of doctor-patient communication skills, was reviewed by Jonathan Silverman, expert in medical communications. Major publishers now produce ESP coursebooks that seek to replicate real-world tasks and methodology from the field, employing frameworks and incorporating activities specific to a particular domain.These not only more closely reflect the working environment, but also provide greater opportunities for learners to draw on their own professional and personal experience. The focus is placed on achieving outcomes as opposed to linguistic accuracy.

Frendo (2010) and Hüttner et al (2009) agree that learners—pre or in-work—are not always conversant in the discourse of their professional community, even in the L1. Frendo alsopoints out that “in ESP the teacher is rarely a member of the target discourse community.” Increasingly, publishers are developing corpus-driven coursebooks or at the very least making use of authentic materials. Dudley-Evans and St John (2005)warn of the likely risk of misinterpretation should teachers be allowed to develop their own authentic materials. By incorporating authentic texts, publishers aim to facilitate learners’ transition into the professional environment as opposed to making it up as they go along. From a lexical perspective, therefore, the coursebook serves to introduce the trainer to the learners’ community of practice—to their spoken and written discourse needs—be they technical, subtechnical, nontechnical, general, or even colloquial. Having tackled the basics via the coursebook, such discourse needs can then be further developed according to the specifics of the learners’ context.

Although very often function based, ESP coursebooks do take grammar into account. They tend to prioritise performance over accuracy, considering not only structures that are key to carrying out professional tasks, but also the order in which they are taught. Critical in providing an accurate diagnosis, triage nurses need to grasp early on the difference between the past tenses. Equally important is an understanding of the rationale behind the inclusion of a particular structure. A teachers’ guide for a nursing course explains that use of the structure going to for carrying out a particular procedure (e.g., taking a blood sample) keeps patients informed and prepares them psychologically for what is about to happen, which in turn helps maintain patient dignity.

The ESP coursebook also provides guidance to trainers in terms of generic business skills (meetings, presentations, telephone). Although common to many professions, the exact nature of a presentation, for example, can differ greatly and as such has implications for language training. Scientific conference presenters may be required to speak for only 15 minutes (10 minutes of content, 5 minutes of Q&A), which naturally has a bearing on the style and format of the presentation. With little time for rhetorical questions and anecdotes, the content tends to be delivered in a more formulaic, factual manner. The medium may also differ; indeed the poster presentation has now become the norm in the scientific community.

ESP coursebooks and accompanying teachers’ guides bring the CELTA graduate closer to the real world of the learner, offering an insight into the professional culture and its values, the mind-set, even the preferred learning style of the particular target group. They also introduce trainers to industry-specific exams (e.g., ILEC) as well as third parties (e.g., patients, clients, defendants) who may in fact represent the ultimatebeneficiaries of the training. Trainers’ guides then take the graduate one step further by offering background information, technical explanations, and additional resources. Trainers, novice or otherwise, cannot hope to penetrate the learner’s discourse community without the wealth of knowledge imparted through the ESP coursebook.

Belcher (2004) notes the extreme burden placed on ESP practitioners in terms of coping with often unfamiliar subject matter, and Westerfield (2012) calls for action on the part of governments and businesses to provide investment for ESP, citing the need for specialised teacher training in syllabus and materials design. In the meantime, ESP coursebooks play a vital role in empowering recent CELTA graduates, developing them professionally, easing them gently into their future role as collaborator, and in turn facilitating the learning process in the ESP context. ESP coursebooks don’t just provide novice trainers with subject content, they also serve as an important lifeline, allaying fears and building confidence, helping ensure that graduates are truly work-ready and able to deal successfully with the genuinerealities of the adult learner classroom.


Belcher, D. B. (2004). Trends in teaching English for specific purposes. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 165–186.

Dudley-Evans, T., and St. John, M., (1998) Developments in ESP: A Multi-disciplinary Approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Esteban, A. (2002) How Useful are ESP Textbooks?, Odisea, N°2

Frendo, E. (2010, November 30). Business English, ESP and Dogme [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Hutchinson, T. and A. Waters (2008) English for Specific Purposes, Cambridge University Press

Hüttner, J. U., Smit, B., & Mehlmauer-Larcher, B. (2009). ESP teacher education at the interface of theory and practice: Introducing a model of mediated corpus-based genre analysis. System, 37, 99–109.

Maimoona, A., & Shah, S. K. (2012). Change from a general English teacher to an ESP practitioner: Issues and challenges in Pakistan. Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business, 4(1).

Westerfield, K. (2012). The micro and macroeconomic impact of ESP. Lower Mekong Initiative ESP Symposium.

Ros Wright is a freelance coursebook writer and teacher trainer specialising in English for medical purposes. Passionate about the important role of materials in ESP, she holds an MA in applied linguistics and materials development and is also tutor of the module How to Write ESP Materials for

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