ESP is Failing Students – IATEFL Voices

In the latest issue of IATEFL Voices – the bimonthly newsletter of IATEFL – Adrian Tennant, in his featured article, claims that ESP is failing students. He justifies this by referring to a YouTube video and his own experience as a visitor in China.

In the joke video clip, a German coastguard officer is having problems with his pronunciation and ESP is blamed for that. In Tennant’s own example from his time in China, a Chinese hotel worker can only say “can I help you?” in English and understands nothing more. These example lead to a criticism of ESP courses and course books and their inadequacy.

I have two problems with this article. Firstly, there is no evidence that either of the people mentioned – the German coastguard or the Chinese hotel worker – have every studied ESP, and it is almost certainly the case that the inadequacies mentioned are not a result of such a course. If either of them had studied an ESP course and still could not do their jobs in English, then it would be fair to blame the ESP course. Secondly, he uses these examples to point out that learners need to develop beyond the limits of the typical ESP coursebook, and that is just what any ESP course does. ESP is about taking into account learners’ needs – all of them. Central to this is a needs analysis. The kinds of language and tasks that Tennant mentions: welcoming guests, giving directions, dealing with problems and emergencies, asking for information, clarification, explanations etc. would be identified in a needs anaylsis and therefore become part of the course. No textbook can cover all the needs of an ESP learner as all learners are different and have different needs. ESP teachers know this and take it into account. ESP teachers also know that learners learn in different ways and they have to provide opportunities for this to happen.

What Tennant describes in the last two paragraphs of his article is exactly what happens in ESP courses. I have never taught German coastguards, but I worked in a large Japanese hotel for a few years, so I can imagine the situation in China.

ESP teachers do not blindly follow coursebooks. Any teacher who simply picks up a coursebook – even if the publishers classify it at ESP – and uses it without reference to their learners’ needs is not doing ESP. It therefore makes no sense to say that ESP is failing students.

Anyone who wants to know what ESP is really about should join the IATEFL ESP SIG and read their journal: Academic and Professional English.


Tennant, A. (2015). Mayday! Mayday! IATEFL Voices, 246, 11.

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