December 2012
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Evan Frendo, Freelance Business English Trainer, Teacher Trainer, and Author, Berlin, Germany

In a seminal article titled “ESP: The Textbook Problem,” John Swales (1980) wrote that “ESP textbooks have been in many respects an educational failure” (p. 11). Yet despite this, ESP textbooks have developed and have continued to be published in ever-growing numbers. In this article I explore the perspectives of three groups of key stakeholders in ESP—publishers, users, and researchers—and examine just how much textbooks matter to the people in these groups.

But before we start, we should take a quick look at roughly how many ESP titles are currently available, just to get an idea. This is not a simple task, because it is not easy to decide what to include and what to leave out. If we follow McDonough (2010) and focus only on ESP, as opposed to business English and English for academic purposes (EAP), and take a glance through the major international publishers’ ELT catalogues, we get something like the list in Table 1. The picture is blurred by the fact that some publishers make clear distinctions between ESP, business English, and EAP, whereas others do not. In addition, some topics, such as marketing, can be seen as a subset of business English. There is no clear definition of what is and is not an ESP textbook, so the list can appear somewhat arbitrary. But it gives an idea of what is out there.

Table 1. Publishers’ Current ESP Titles


Current ESP titles

Cambridge University Press

Professional English in Use series: engineering, finance, ICT, law, management, marketing, medicine

Cambridge English for . . .series: engineering, human resources, job-hunting, marketing, nursing, scientists, the media

Other titles: Flightpath: Aviation English for Pilots and ATCOs, Be My Guest, Contact US!, English for the Financial Sector, English in Medicine, Good Practice, Infotech, Safe Sailing, Welcome!

Delta Publishing

Absolute series: financial English, legal English

Express Publishing

Career Paths series: command and control, hotels and catering, information technology, tourism, law, air force, engineering, accounting, police, beauty salon, nursing, secretarial, banking, agriculture, navy, medical, mechanics, construction—buildings, plumbing, finance, petroleum, civil aviation, sports

Garnet Education

English for Global Industries Oil and Gas, English for the Energy Industries Oil, Gas and Petrochemicals, Technical English, Safety First, Take-off Technical English for Engineering


Professional English series: health sciences, humanities,science and engineering

Other titles: Technical English, US Citizen Yes, Financial English, Energy English, English for Cabin Crew


Aviation English, Check Your Aviation English, International English for Call Centres, English for Law Enforcement, Campaign English for the Military


Vocational English series: banking and finance, construction, information technology, nursing, oil industry

Other titles: Tourism: English for International Tourism, English for Tourism: Ready to Order, English for Work: Everyday Technical English, Technical English, Test Your Professional English: Law, Finance, Medical, Hotel and Catering, Accounting

Oxford University Press

Express series: aviation, automobile industry, energy industry, logistics, telecoms and information technology, cabin crew, pharmaceutical industry, fashion industry, customer care, accounting, human resources, legal professionals, marketing and advertising, sales and purchasing, football

English for Careers series: commerce, engineering, finance, medicine, nursing, oil and gas, technology, tourism

Other titles: Tech Talk, Highly Recommended

A list like this suggests to me that ESP textbooks clearly do matter, at least in the publishing world. There are nearly a hundred titles in the list, and I have only selected a few publishers. And I have not clarified which of the titles are offered at different language levels; some, like Pearson’s Technical English, have up to four levels. It seems clear that these books have been produced because the publishers believe they will sell. They also matter to the individuals who have been involved in their production, from editors to artists to project managers and so on. Successful books tend to have career benefits. And for authors there are royalties as well as professional reputation. No one in ESP has ever had a career harmed by the publishing of too many textbooks.

The second group to consider is the users of the textbooks—in other words, education authorities, schools, teachers, learners, and so on. Presumably these are the people who are buying the titles in the list, but it is difficult to say exactly how many they buy; publishers tend to keep sales figures close to their chests. It is probable that some books, such as Pearson’s Tech Talk, will reach a much wider audience than more niche products like English for Football, but it is hard to predict with any certainty. And sales do not necessarily point to usage. I am sure many of the readers of this article own ESP textbooks which they have never used with students—I know I do.

Why do people buy ESP textbooks? There are many possible reasons for this, but three in particular are worth emphasizing in an ESP context. First of all, there is the issue of access to the specialist genres and language. For many teachers and learners textbooks offer valuable insights into the communities of practice and discourse communities which the learner needs to operate in, and in some instances it is the only practical way to gain these insights. Few practitioners ever get the chance to observe their learners in the real world. Second, there is the question of time. Even when the teacher has access to the target discourse community, developing appropriate materials can be extremely time-consuming. Adapting written texts is hard enough, but working with spoken data can often turn into something like a full-time job. ESP textbooks help to solve this problem. And third, there is the issue of expertise. Producing good ESP materials requires certain skills, such as the ability to analyse corpora and genres, and the ability to develop pedagogically effective materials. It is easy to produce dull worksheets from authentic material, as countless teachers and learners will no doubt attest, but it is less easy to produce materials which function well in a classroom.

The third group of people on my list are ESP researchers and academics. Interestingly, this appears to be a group for whom textbooks do not matter that much. If we use the ESP literature as a guideline, we find that it abounds with descriptions of course design and materials development, studies of genre and discipline-specific lexis, and different types of learning activities, but it rarely touches on the use and adaptation of published materials. Even Paltridge and Starfield’s (2013) text, which contains 577 pages on ESP, only devotes a handful of pages to the topic of published ESP textbooks. The most recent survey on ESP textbooks I could find in the literature was by McDonough (2010). And the journal in question was English Language Teaching Journal, not ESP journal, which I found quite telling.

Occasionally there are articles about how ESP textbooks might be improved (e.g., Chan, 2009) and textbook reviews, but even these are not common, and they certainly do not cover all the ESP titles that are published. Perhaps there is a gap between what ESP researchers working in an academic context feel about ESP textbooks and the practitioners in classrooms who are inevitably under time and resource pressure. The irony, of course, is that many researchers also teach ESP. And it is worth remembering that many textbooks are produced very quickly, with little time for serious research into the specific genres and specialist language that a target group might need. Even piloting can be neglected in favour of comments by experienced readers and advisors. Publishing is inevitably a compromise. One notable exception has recently appeared in business English: The back cover blurb on Business Advantage (Handford, Lisboa, Koester, & Pitt, 2011) states that it is “the first business course to benefit from a spoken business English corpus, further guaranteeing that the language learnt is both natural and up-to-date.” I do not know of any published ESP title that can make a similar claim.

So ESP textbooks do matter. But as we have seen, perhaps not to everybody in ESP, and certainly not in equal measure. The picture is certainly changing as textbooks in their traditional form are challenged by other forms of content delivery. E-books, for example, have the advantage that they can include links to other content. Platforms like English 360 allow the practitioner to adapt published textbooks to suit a particular class. Companies such as can produce virtual worlds which allow the student to get ever closer to the target environment. And the abundance of audio and video content now available on the Internet gives the materials developer ever more options. It may be that in a few years ESP textbooks, at least in their current form, will not matter at all.


Chan, C. S. C. (2009). Thinking out of the textbook: Toward authenticity and politeness awareness. In L. Savova (Ed.), Using textbooks effectively (pp. 9–20). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Handford, M., Lisboa, M., Koester, A., & Pitt, A. (2011). Business advantage: Student’s book upper intermediate. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

McDonough, J. (2010). English for specific purposes: A survey review of current materials. English Language Teaching Journal, 64, 462–477.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of English for specific purposes. Boston, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Swales, J. (1980). ESP: The textbook problem. English for Specific Purposes, 1(1), 11–23.

Evan Frendo has been involved in ESP for nearly 20 years as a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials developer. Five of the titles listed in this article were authored or coauthored by him.

« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed
ESP-IS will publish one more newsletter this academic year in February 2013 before TESOL Madness begins.  Please share your ideas for what you would like to see in the next issue!
ESP-IS is requesting 500-word articles from areas of the world not represented in this newsletter.  Contact the editors for more information on this or other potential submissions to your newsletter.