Common Sense Approaches to Teaching ESP

Language teaching and language learning focus on four skills: Reading comprehension, Aural Comprehension, Writing and Speaking. Most course books authors organize their materials so as to teach these skills in an integrated way.

This seems eminently reasonable, but is it?

Have you ever had a class wanting/needing to improve conversational skills on the post-intermediate level and chosen an integrated skills course book for them – only to find yourself getting bogged down in long texts for pre-discussion work? Have you ever had a class wanting/needing to improve writing skills on the pre-intermediate level and chosen an integrated skills course book for them – only to find yourself tied up with audio materials to present the topics? The reason for this is that the underlying assumption of the integrated skills approach to language learning: That all four of the learners’ skills are equal to each other at the beginning of a course and they progress at the same pace during a course.

In English for Special Purposes, the medium should be the message. This approach can and must determine the amount of time and energy both the teacher and the student should devote to the major skill (maximum) and the three others (minimum). Think about this for a moment: In one’s native language, an educated adult’s skills in reading & aural comprehension are far more developed than his skills in reading and writing and his teachers may tell him: If you want to improve your writing, read a lot – or if you want to improve your speaking, listen a lot. This pre-supposes a level from which the student can progress by following selected ‘models’. However, this reasoning must be taken a step further with ESL students: To improve your writing skills, have your students read (for vocabulary, usage) – but spend most of your/their time and energy on writing; listen (for pronunciation, expressions) – but spend most of your/their time and energy on speaking.

There was a spirited e-mail discussion on the BESIG Yahoo list on the pros and cons of using ‘authentic’ materials in Business English teaching (i.e. Business news from the media and so on). Good course materials have the advantage of being carefully graded and make a distinction between active/passive skills to be taught/learnt; however, even the most ‘authentic’ articles are already outdated by the time the book reaches the market. At the same time, good current materials must be screened carefully by a professional ESL eye to glean viable, time-efficient lesson plans from them.

The teacher is the only one in position to determine how best to utilize time and energy for the improvement of their students’ skills. Since these are usually the active skills (speaking, writing) the teacher must be on the lookout for ways to accomplish this without totally draining his own store of time and energy. Following are several tried and true steps:

A- Writing

  1. Start with sentences- stressing the use of a wide range of connectors and coded phrases.
  2. Continue with paragraphs- stressing grammatical forms and ‘specific purpose’ vocabulary.
  3. Superimpose a letter-writing, e- mail writing, proposal writing et cetera format.*
  4. Collect the final draft.

Note* This order can be reversed in short courses or weak classes.

B- Speaking

  1. Prepared aural comprehension materials should be played to the class until understood fully (whether they are by native or non-native speakers). This may require pre-teaching idiomatic language, but if it requires pre-teaching many lexical/syntactical items, it is above the students’ level of comprehension (passive skill) and so will be even further beyond their oral abilities (active skill).
  2. The pronunciation and idioms should be drilled via repetition (whole class, small groups, individual students) until each student is confident of his language production skills and the teacher is satisfied with the results.
  3. Then, and only then, should the students apply their newly-acquired material to creating dialogues, mini-presentations, and so on in the form of classroom exercises.
  4. In the final stage, students should record the above applications, either in the classroom or as homework.

When the teacher has collected the final drafts or radio- and/or video cassettes, the following should be done (depending on the nature of the requirements of the course):

Correct or grade the final effort. Use them for follow-up lessons, with other students offering constructive criticism.

The medium is the message . . . and the methodology.

This entry was posted in ESL Theory, Materials and tagged by Miriam Lavi. Bookmark the permalink.

About Miriam Lavi

Miriam Lavi (B.A. American Literature/Education, City University of New York, January,'65) is a certified teacher and has been working in the field of ESL - both in NYC and abroad - for 40 years. She is LLICEB certified to teach ESL to professionals (1995), owns and operates an English language institute and is author of the e-guide: How to Become a Personal ESL Trainer. To view these reviews and other articles by Miriam Lavi, please visit her site:

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