So You Want to Teach English for Specific Purposes? How Not to Be a Muggle*

in Teaching

Many of us meet our first English for Specific Purposes (ESP) class and panic. I’ll never forget my own first time. I was in my first year of teaching, and I was given a class of cosmeticians to teach. How on earth was I supposed to be able to understand, let alone teach, all their specialised language? Where was I to find appropriate materials? How could I possibly come across as credible to my students?

My first session with them was horrible, a bit like a muggle facing Bellatrix Lestrange (some of them had similar makeup, but that’s another story). I left feeling bruised and battered, and with the bitter taste that the class had definitely won that contest.

Clearly, I needed to stop being a muggle, find the right wand, and learn how to use it.

And so, like Hermione, I went to the library to do some research (no internet in those days …). I soon found that people had been writing about ESP for years, and there were lots of basic tools and techniques, (or the wand, if we keep this metaphor going …), which have been developed to deal with precisely these sorts of situations. Yet finding the wand was easy. The hard work still had to be done – I still had to learn the spells, (I’ve decided to keep this metaphor going …).  But if others could do it, so could I.

In this article I would like to briefly discuss three of those spells. There are others, of course, but I think these three are fundamental for any ESP teacher. They are as follows:

  1. Requisitorum aestimatio
  2. Incantatorum civitas
  3. Retiacula colloquium

Let me explain.

Requisitorium Aestimatio

Requisitorum aestimatio, or to give it its English name, needs analysis, is one of the things which separates ESP from TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason), a term used by Abbott and Wingard in 1981.

As teachers we need to know what our students need (or want) to learn in order to help them learn it. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. A needs analysis involves not only understanding where the students need to be (the target situation), but also where they are now (the current situation). The difference between the two is known as the training gap and forms the basis for everything that follows.

Many teachers tend to think of needs analysis as something that happens between the teacher and the learners. So it involves things like questionnaires and placement tests at the beginning of a course, and then some sort of informal, ongoing analysis which allows us to tweak things as we get to know our learners better.


But there is a third element which is really important to an ESP teacher, and that is the needs analysis that takes place outside the classroom. Some people call this triangulation, which basically means using a number of sources or methods in an investigation.

So for us this means things like speaking to other trainers, reading about what others have done in similar situations, speaking to people who are already working in the target situation, speaking to colleagues and supervisors, and doing language analysis using corpus analysis tools.

For my cosmeticians this meant me speaking to ex-students to find out how they used English in their workplace and doing quite a lot of reading to find out what it is cosmeticians actually do. Who do they speak to in English? What do they talk about? I soon found out, for example, that, like many professions, my cosmeticians had to use technical language when speaking to colleagues, but layman’s language when speaking to their clients.

Incantatorium Civitas

Incantatorum civitas, or the community spell, is based on two concepts, the discourse community and the community of practice. It involves slightly advanced magic, and is useful when we really want to understand the target situation in more detail.

Part I: Know Thy Word

There are two parts to the spell. The first part involves understanding the discourse community our learners will work in. This is a concept first made popular by a famous English wizard, John Swales, who explained how discourse communities use language in very specific ways. So we could use a simple framework to look at key characteristics of this discourse. This includes: goals, mechanisms of communication, participation, genre, lexis, and expertise.

For example, my students talked about peeling in a way that seemed to have nothing to do with vegetables. This was a technical word I had to learn.

Part II: Know Thy People

The second part of this spell came from another famous wizard, Étienne Wenger, and involves understanding the Community of Practice (CoP). Wenger pointed out that different groups of people develop their own way of doing things as they get to know each other. He called this a shared repertoire.

Analysing this shared repertoire helps us understand what we need to focus on in our teaching. An English classroom is a typical CoP. Classes share ways of doing things with other classes. But they also develop behaviours which make them different from other classes. When we visit someone else’s class they feel both similar and different to our own. There are insider jokes, for example, which we might not fully understand.

Remember, it’s not your English – it’s their English.

As far as concerns ESP, one of the things we need to do as teachers is understand the CoP our students will be a member of. This concerns not only the professional language they might need to use, but also understanding what counts as normal or typical behaviour.

There is nothing worse than a teacher relying on intuition / guesswork and informing students that “we would never say that” when in fact that sort of language is used all the time in the target CoP.  Remember, it’s not your English – it’s their English. For my cosmeticians I soon found out that the ability to gossip successfully (ie relationship building language) was going to be far more useful to them than any technical language about cosmetics.

Retiacula Colloquium

Retiacula colloquium. The third spell is probably the easiest, but also the most rewarding. It can be loosely translated as networking / having conversations and refers to the idea that we should be interacting with our professional peers as much as possible, sharing ideas and learning from each other.

We shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel, spending hours developing materials and activities when someone else has already done something similar. I was not the first to teach a class of cosmeticians, and I was surprised to learn that there was plenty of material already out there. I just had to look and ask around.

For example, I found one lady who had done a masters thesis on the language cosmeticians use, and was happy to share her research, and another who had been teaching cosmeticians for years. Both were fantastically useful, and both made my job a lot easier.

The only way to find these people is to network, either online, or better face-to-face at workshops and conferences. Google only goes so far. And this spell doesn’t have to be expensive.

ELTABB does an excellent job of providing all sorts of networking activities, and the expertise is unbelievable.

It always surprises me that people can afford not to attend. Yes, that’s what I meant to write.

Teaching ESP in a nutshell

So, to recap – ESP teachers need to know three important spells. The first is needs analysis, which needs to include triangulation to be effective. The second is communities, which helps analyse both the discourse and the practice in the target situation. And the third is networking, which means not re-inventing the wheel. Even if you don’t want to or can’t invest in schools of wizardry or witchcraft, don’t assume you know more than other experts in the field. Do the reading, learn the techniques, and don’t be a muggle.

*The Cambridge Online Dictionary offers two definitions for muggle: “a person who does not have a particular type of skill or knowledge” and “a person who does not have magical powers”.

Enchanted? You can find more ELT magic in this review about using corpus analysis tools in the business English classroom.


Abbott, G., & Wingard, P. (1981). The teaching of English as an international language: A practical guide. Glasgow, Scotland: Collins.

Swales, J.M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

And of course, Rowling, J.K., a former language teacher, whose influence in this article should be obvious to all non-muggle folk.




  1. I am grateful to you Evan, for this article. I am now doing a master’s in TESOL in a South Korean university. Thanks.

  2. Thank you very much for this article! Your explanations were just what I needed for a test, and as I’ve just discovered I’m a Ravenclaw, your metaphors spoke very personally to me. By the way, I’m in Brazil. Your article is reaching different continents!

  3. loved this unique article Evan. I’m from Egypt (US citizen), 25 years in Retail Industry, now – at last – found my reason d’etre in this world, and finally have the capacity to move forward with it ! Help others be more successful – through ELT, and specifically utilizing ESP niche products like business english. I found my first client : An Arabic teacher in my kids’ school who knows nothing English. I wish to help him by not being a ‘muggle’ ! : ) Thank you so much Sir.

    • This is a great question. The key is to remember that all classes and all learners are different, and we should try to adapt to their needs and context as much as possible. ESP is simply an approach that encourages us to do this. So English major students will have certain needs which need to be addressed, just the same as any other type of course.

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