12 May 2015 / by Elena Riches

Approach to Successful ESP Classes

How does English for specific purposes (ESP) differ from English as a second language (ESL)?

In ESP classes the student has a purpose to learn English whereas with ESL they simply want to learn English to be able to converse with English speakers.

What kind of people want to learn ESP?

ESP students are usually adults who already have some acquaintance with the English language.

Why would they want to learn ESP?

In order to communicate a set of professional skills and to perform particular job-related functions.

What should an ESP program be built on?

It should be built on assessment of purposes and needs and the functions for which English is required.

So, let's take a look at some activity ideas for a few different sectors:

Practice presentations

Part of what a tour guide does is interactive, but another large part is explaining facts and stories about historical sites. It’s good to practice and prepare longer periods of uninterrupted speaking so students feel confident with this kind of speaking. A good way to practice this skill is to do presentations in your class. Assign students a particular historical place and have them do the research on it. Then, get them to give short sustained presentations, around 3-5 minutes long. Be sure to guide them on how to organize presentations, using transition words and intonation to help listeners understand.

Answer Questions

Tourists can ask questions that might catch tour guides by surprise. Practice impromptu speaking to help students think quickly on their feet in English. Prepare slips of paper with questions about random topics on them. Go around the room and give them 30 seconds to answer the question effectively.

Practice fluency

While speaking for extended periods of time, students need to practice fluency so they can be easily understood while speaking. A fun fluency activity to practice is group story telling. Begin the activity by saying the opening sentence to a story. Make sure the sentence is something generic like, “There was once an old building formerly used as a castle....” or, “This one time I had the best tour group experience...” The next student must add a line to your line that makes sense, and so on until the last student wraps up the story.

Role Play

Students will take it in turns to be a doctor and a patient. The student who is the patient will go to the doctor, describe their ailment, get a prescription, and get some advice. The student playing the role of the Doctor will listen to ailments, ask a few questions and then prescribe medicine and give some advice.

Write Medical Case Reports

This will enable students to:

- practice the language used in writing up medical case reports
- practice making questions in history taking
- become aware of colloquial language in talking to patients
- to practice using sub-technical language

Market a Brand

Students will pick a well-known brand and discuss what makes the brand stand out, who the target market is, who the competitors are, etc.


Teacher to assign a product that may be going bankrupt or out-of-style and get the students to come up with a strategy to improve it.


Students to create a logo and then give a presentation of it.


Assign students (either singularly or in pairs) an energy source to research and then get them to debate on which one is the best, giving reasons why.

Conditional Sentence Practice

Students to create sentences using modal verbs. For example, "I wouldn't be able to wash my clothes using a washing machine if I didn't have electric". Or, "I couldn't use a gas barbecue before gas existed"

Case Study

Assign a case to the students (it can be a real case or a study sample from the internet) and get them to evaluate what they would do in that particular situation. As the facts of the case will serve as the basis for classroom discussion, the process should be started by firstly clarifying the facts and then asking students questions. Here are some examples:

What happened in this case?
Who are the parties?
What facts are important/unimportant?
Is any significant information missing?
Why did the people involved act the way they did?

Role Play

This can follow on from the case study activity, using the same case.

Students can be the defence, prosecutor, judge, jury, etc and pretend that they're in court.


Note: Before teaching your first ESP activity it might be a good idea to learn about your students needs before the lesson so that you can tailor the materials towards them but, it is also possible to plan a first lesson that will be suitable for all sectors.  For example, most ESP classes can benefit from a review of how to pronounce numbers in English, a review of tenses (preferably with example sentences and exercises that are relevant to their sector), a functional language review, practice for meeting foreign guests, email practice and/or telephone practice.





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