Reflecting on the Transition from GE to ESAP Teaching

Mirian Fuhr



This article presents a critical literature review on the teaching of General English (GE) in comparison to the teaching of English for Specific and Academic Purposes (ESAP). The study shows that ESAP teaching is an area that is developing, but is still under-researched. The text explores some of the differences and similarities between these two areas, emphasising that ESAP teaching focuses more on the learners’ specific requirements than the GE lessons. Some of the challenges that may affect the transition from GE teaching to ESAP teaching are also taken into consideration, focusing mostly on the lack of teacher training and support, before and after the transition, taking my own experience in the Brazilian context as a real example to illustrate this issue. The research shows that there is a gap to be fulfilled regarding the necessity of more effective teacher training programmes and professional development courses which could help this transition process to become more smoothly to the teachers who need it.

Key words: English for Specific and Academic Purposes (ESAP) Teachers. General English (GE) Teachers. Transition. 


This article carries out a critical review of the literature relating to the transition of teachers of General English (GE) who, at a certain point of their careers, find themselves engaged in teaching English for Specific and Academic Purposes (ESAP). The text compares and assesses what different authors, such as Campion (2016), Loutayf (2016), Martin (2014), and Harwood and Petric (2011), say about the challenges faced by GE teachers who become ESAP teachers without having received any training, in the light of my own experience, also reflecting on what is the difference between teaching GE and ESAP, and what is to be an ESAP teacher. Besides being a new topic of research, I would like to find out more about, this has also been a particular pedagogic issue that has concerned me in my own teaching, as I struggled with lesson planning and preparation for English for Specific Purposes (ESP) lessons.


This text discusses the issue of GE teachers who engage in teaching ESAP, such as business and academic English classes, without receiving any specific training on the determined context. This topic is totally relevant to me as I have been a GE teacher in language institutions and at schools who also received the task of teaching English for exams, such as CAE, IELTS, TOEFL, and other proficiency tests, as well as for IT students, and teaching business classes to students from mixed areas in a relatively high language proficiency level already, but still with some language difficulties, and, as a matter of fact, I really struggled with the planning for those lessons and searching for interesting and appropriate materials. This short experience has shown me that ESP demands a lot more of preparation on the side of the teacher, and there is still a lack of appropriate materials to the students’ contexts.

Therefore, I got curious to study more about this transition to be better prepared for possible future classes and maybe provide some support to other teachers. Throughout the paper, I talk about “EAP designed to help students with their studies and” ESP for professional preparation (Flowerdew and Peacock, 2001: 12). The basic difference is that “EAP practitioners work in academic institutions, where research and intellectual enquiry are encouraged, while” (Flowerdew and Peacock, 2001: 12) ESP teachers are more often located in the workplace, or in language institutions.

There has been some research on the needs of students, and materials development, but it is important, necessary and interesting to look at the ESAP teacher as well, considering adaptations in their role in the classroom and their teaching methods (Martin, 2014). However, ESAP teacher education is still an under-researched area with limited literature (Loutayf, 2016; Campion, 2016; Ding, 2015). There has been little research on how teachers become ESP specialists (Belcher, 2013), on how “teachers should be trained or supported when making the transition to EAP” (Campion, 2016: 59), and on how to teach EAP (Todd, 2003). Master (2005: 24) concludes that there is a “need for research in the occupational and sociocultural aspects of ESP as well as the training of ESP practitioners”. Likewise, Walt (1999) reports the same fact regarding Business English practice, which is part of specific purposes language courses and has also little research which usually does not refer to teaching and courses. In 1983, Ewer had already made the same observations about the growth of the area, inappropriate materials and challenges in the GE teaching transition to ESP, and, apparently, it has not changed much.

Critical Literature Review

Loutayf (2016) mentions that in the context of English as a Lingua Franca (LF) used by many to communicate worldwide (Canagarajah, 1999, 2006; Hewings, 2002; Nickerson, 2013), most students need to learn ESP, consequently increasing the demand for ESP classes (Brunton, 2009; Artesol, 2015; Hüttner, Smit and Mehlmauer-Larcher, 2009; Alexander, 2012; Jordan, 2002). In my context, many Brazilian learners of English need to improve their skills in order to keep their job positions at multinational companies, to do business trades, or to succeed in their studies abroad, or even in the English disciplines in their academic contexts in Brazil.

There is also a growing need for EAP classes, mostly due to overseas students, through pre-sessional and in-sessional classes in the UK universities, and in other countries like the USA and Australia, to support international students (Alexander, 2012; Jordan, 2002), whose first language is not English (Flowerdew and Peacock, 2001). Martin (2014: 289) also states that “there exists a lucrative market for English for Academic Purposes programmes aiming to help international students into undergraduate and postgraduate study”. As a matter of fact, the need for ESAP courses leads to an expansion of EAP and ESP teachers around the world, meaning that, possibly, most of these teachers are non-native speakers with special needs for materials and training (Hyland and Hamp-Lyons, 2002). Flowerdew and Peacock (2001) also mention that most of the EAP teaching is done by non-native speaker tutors. Equally, Master (2005: 5) presents ESP as “generally more likely to be carried out in non-English-speaking countries than in English-speaking ones”. Hyland and Hamp-Lyons (2002: 2) recommend that

teachers have also come to acknowledge that teaching those who are using English for their studies differs from teaching those who are learning English for general purposes only. It is also different from teaching those who are learning for occupational purposes, which is the field known as ESP, English for Specific Purposes.

Very commonly, GE teachers then start teaching ESAP classes (Campion, 2016), attitude sometimes seen negatively by some authors (Hamp-Lyons, 2011) who argue that GE teachers might not be ready for EAP classes as they lack knowledge, skills and disposition for EAP. However, there are not many qualification programmes and EAP jobs are offered short-term or on an hourly basis. Job adverts are favourable to generic English Language Teaching (ELT) qualifications, suggesting that there is no need of a particular specialist to teach EAP, as described by Ding (2015). Harwood and Petric (2011: 252) also confirm that institutions ask “ELT teachers to teach EAP without providing specialized training”.

Campion (2016) concludes that the biggest challenge for GE teachers who make the transition to EAP is the shift from focus on delivery to focus on content. Researching about what is required to be an EAP teacher, Ding (2015) found out that experience tends to be an important key, also present in the British Council Pathways in EAP and in the BALEAP’s Teachers of English for Academic Purposes (TEAP) Accreditation Scheme (2014), both relating teachers’ assumptions and development to their experience, according to Loutayf (2016). However, Ding (2015) questions why is this so, believing that what is required is linked to teachers’ identities and political implications. King (2012) also claims the importance of the EAP teacher identity, but not as an individual only, but with the sense of communities and contexts. Sadly, but still true nowadays, EAP teaching contexts are not always welcoming, as teachers very often have problems with their timetables, lack of contact with and lower status than subject teachers, isolation from other EAP teachers and lack of respect from students (Jordan, 2002).

As aforementioned, after acquiring a few years of experience as a GE teacher, I was challenged to teach business groups, one-to-one business classes, one-to-one preparatory courses to CAE exam and other proficiency exams, English for IT students in a professional course, and I felt I did not have and I still do not have enough confidence to deliver these lessons, although I managed to do it, making a lot of effort to help the learners. Similarly, Loutayf (2016) also brings the attention to the fact that ESP teachers find it challenging and are reluctant to teach as they do not feel prepared for that and learn in-service. As Alexander (2012) states, many teachers feel deskilled, and as they become aware of the differences between GE and EAP lessons, they feel insecure and undergo a challenging transition (Alexander, Argent, and Spencer, 2008; Martin, 2014; Loutayf, 2016).

There is a sense of hierarchy, an idea that EAP teachers need a higher level of expertise (Campion, 2016). Loutayf’s (2016) findings show that teachers consider ESP teaching more prestigious and sometimes with better salaries. Todd (2003) explains that in some countries EAP teachers are more experienced and qualified than GE teachers, and, in some universities, research and innovation are valued. Unlike the other authors abovementioned, Todd (2003: 150) states that “most EAP teachers are professionals who feel confident about their own ability to make decisions concerning teaching”, regarding methods which usually prescribe how teachers should teach. Nevertheless, for Harwood and Petric (2011: 246), it is important to find “cooperation between EAP and subject teachers”, involving gathering of useful information for EAP course design. Martin (2014: 292) shares the same opinion, saying that “where EAP courses run alongside subject courses, the EAP teacher may well find it beneficial to maintain open communication with subject teachers on class content, and develop a working knowledge of topics covered to source appropriate texts for classroom language input”. However, cooperation among teachers might be affected by “the institutional context, differences in teaching methodologies and philosophies, the low status of the EAP teacher in some contexts, and related issues of power” (Harwood and Petric, 2011: 246).

Originally, ESP appeared responding to a need to communicate, especially for commerce and technology or as a soldier in the Second World War, meaning English for special purposes, and, later, for specific purposes (Almagro and Vallejo, 2002; Paltridge and Starfield, 2013; Swales, 1988; Loutayf, 2016). As learners need to learn the language with a purpose in mind, teachers should identify and meet these professional and academic requirements (Loutayf, 2016; Belcher, 2009b). At the beginning, ESP courses would focus on lexis and GE courses were adapted by replacing general vocabulary by a specific one, a mere change of register (Loutayf, 2016). However, EAP teachers making the transition from GE recognise that the courses are needs driven (Alexander, 2008; Campion, 2016), as “overall, instruction in EAP will be more finely tuned to the needs and the context of the students, rather than teaching language generally. The challenge for EAP teachers, then, can lie in identifying the very specific needs of a diverse range of students” (Martin, 2014: 289). Zoohorian (2015) underpins that ESP teaching has its class themes and topics related to the learners’ occupations or the areas of study, developing skills to enable them to communicate in English. Therefore, for the author, needs analysis is also a requirement for efficient course design, and the kind of teaching and learning will depend on the learners. Nevertheless, Pradhan (2013) explains that needs analysis is also primary for GE courses, but they usually do not focus on specific context-based needs, whereas ESP focuses on specific and immediate needs.

Loutayf (2016: 6) informs that nowadays, ESP courses “focus on corpus studies, genre analysis, new literacies, research methodologies, multimodalities, intercultural approaches, identity, internationalization, and localization”. Research on the area involves data collection, and stakeholders’ need analyses, for example (Johns, 2013; Loutayf, 2016). Business English departments are usually among the more innovative in using new technologies for teaching with multimedia and internet usage (Alexander, 2007, Hewings, 1999). Thus, if teachers feel confident enough, it may also be the case that small corpus linguistics and online corpora can be used for ESP lessons, compiling students’ own data, helping to identify the recurrent lexical and grammatical features, as suggested by some authors, for instance, Belcher (2009a), Lee and Swales (2006), Harwood and Petric (2011), and Sinclair (2004). Campion (2016) points out that documents like the BALEAP Competency Framework (CFTEAP) (2008), consider knowledge and understanding as a key difference required for EAP courses compared with GE, although it does not provide any information on the ways teaching might differ. For Todd (2003), clearly the content might change, but there is uncertainty about the methodology.

Based on the above, it becomes clear that, in practice, ESP teachers “need to develop specific skills and contents that are different from GE” (Loutayf, 2016: 7; Ewer, 1983). Apparently, moving from GE to ESP seems to be a common tendency for teachers, according to Loutayf’s (2016) findings. In my own context in Brazil, there was no transition training from GE, with focus on communicative competence for general communication, to ESP teaching, with students aiming at accomplishing specific needs and goals, with more time constraints. The situation is the same in other contexts worldwide, including the UK (Loutayf, 2016), as well as for Loutayf (2016), who says that her ESP experience was initially self-directed.

The Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) training courses mentioned by Martin (2014: 287), referring to CELTA courses, for example, which are also cited by Loutayf (2016), do not “provide any sort of grounding for the shift in linguistic knowledge and classroom management skills required to successfully adapt to the requirements of the EAP classroom and its students”. While DELTA, another teacher preparation course, has one optional EAP module (Loutayf, 2016) and even in the USA and in a few other countries there are specializations in ESP (Loutayf, 2016; Basturkmen, 2010; Belcher, 2013). Loutayf (2016) found out that some development can be achieved by doing Master degrees in English or American universities. Although specific qualification would bring many benefits to the profession, it is true as well that some aspects of teaching EAP would not be completely covered at a training course, but learned through experience and reflection (Sharpling, 2002). In-service support is also an important alternative for development (Alexander, 2012). Another point to consider, based on Sharpling (2002), is that most EAP teachers at the university level are on part-time or temporary contracts, with complicated timetables, making it difficult for them to take part in teacher developmental sessions.

In the context of EAP, “as core competencies, students need to be able to write essays and reports, listen to and understand lectures, read and process academic texts, and produce speech in the context of presentations and seminars” (Martin, 2014: 291), improving their knowledge of academic contexts and academic language conventions (Zoohorian, 2015). Teachers usually deal with students who already know some English, but have fossilised pronunciation rudimentary vocabulary (Alexander, 2007, Hewings, 1999). In this sense, the tutors in Krzanowski’s (2001) study regarding the transition from GE to EAP reported that sometimes students’ levels are lower than expected and materials are boring or inadequate. Therefore, whenever teachers need to use textbooks that are not appropriate for their students, as each context might be different, these materials can be adapted to be used (Basturkmen, 2010, Jordan, 2009; Sharpling, 2002; Krzanowski, 2001).

This is a very common reality for my context and besides this, students and teachers also need to deal with the pressure of time, as most of the times students need to present quick language improvement at their workplace, expecting immediate results in a short time, as observed by Loutayf (2016) as well. On the other hand, Todd (2003: 153) states that “generally, EAP students are more mature, more self-directed and more aware that students of” GE, which leads to learner autonomy very frequent in EAP classes. Although it is possible to state, based on my experience and on Loutayf (2016) and Belcher (2006), that learners are the ones who actually have the most accurate specific vocabulary knowledge, as they deal with it daily at their work, and as the teacher might not be aware of that subject area lexis, it makes the teachers’ work even more challenging, requiring some self-study on the area. In this sense, teachers and learners can work in a more collaborative practice, requiring ESAP teachers’ flexibility as well to meet changeable students’ needs (Loutayf, 2016; Paltridge and Starfield, 2013).

Loutayf (2016), Belcher (2009b), and Johns and Dudley-Evans (1991) say that ESP implies research and design of materials and activities to meet the learners’ needs within their contexts, using specific methodologies. In addition to it, for Martin (2014: 292), teachers may then “find themselves faced with the difficult task of finding material with which they are familiar enough to teach, and which is relevant and engaging to the students. In other words, the challenge here is that EAP teachers are not teaching what they themselves have been taught”.

There are some studies, such as Martin’s (2014: 288) which are interested in listening from the teachers, “participants inform on topics of professional identity, how they perceive their role in an EAP environment, how that role has changed, if at all, since their time teaching general English, and to what extent they see the development of their new identity as being complete”. This can be a potential way for setting the scene to the ESAP teacher and draw some conclusions.

Final considerations

The study showed that GE, EAP and ESP can differ from each other, as well as they can have similarities and complement each other. Due to my personal experience in the area, I am intrinsically motivated to research more about how GE teachers who become ESAP practitioners can be better prepared to teach. In the lights of the literature review presented in this article, and based on my own experience, there is a niche in the market, considering the need for more effective teacher education programmes and professional development courses for EASP teachers and teachers to be as it is an increasing area.

A lesson that we can learn with this research, apart from the above, is that good ESAP teaching keeps students central, analysing their needs. Focusing on them is the best way for delivering a good lesson. Another possibility for improving ESAP classes can be the use of experiential learning and exploratory practice (EP). In fact, what to teach and how to teach is totally related to the learners’ and to the teachers’ needs and identities. Another point assigned in this text is that ESAP teachers get limited support and training. Some teachers are confident enough that they do not see trainings necessary, as they like to teach their own way, while others seek for more support and are more insecure, especially when moving from GE to ESAP teaching and face all the challenges attached to the change, such as materials, mixed language levels and contexts, focus on content, and so on. After all, as emphasised in the text, there is not much research on ESAP teaching. Therefore, further studies in the area are suggested.



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Mirian Fuhr: She holds a degree in Languages – Portuguese and English, and two specialism courses, one in Portuguese and one in English language teaching. She is currently taking a master in ELT at the University of Warwick, in the UK. She has been teaching English in Brazil for about 9 years, and to different levels and school contexts.




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