Methodological approaches used in the course

ESP and Task/Problem-Based Approach in English for Science

Eva Čoupková

This text discusses the ESP and Task/Problem-Based methodologies and the ways in which these were employed in the course English for Science. Since the purpose of an ESP course is to prepare students for their professional life, i.e. to develop their use of English in a specialized field of science, language and science teachers designing the course decided to use subject-specific materials and topics. To enable the students to discuss real-life issues in a multidisciplinary way, we selected one concrete and local problem to work with, consider the perspectives of individual branches of science, and collaborate on the ways and methods of addressing it.


A good characterization of an ESP teacher is given in the classic book by Tom Hutchinson and Allan Waters: “ESP teachers are all too often reluctant dwellers in a strange and uncharted land” (Hutchinson, Waters, 1994, p. 158). The reasons for the feelings of alienation many of my colleagues and I experience when trying to design and teach ESP courses are well-known - sometimes we are not quite sure whether we are teaching, say, English for Mathematics, or Mathematics in English. Even if most of us would, hopefully, opt for the first possibility, the distinction is not quite clear in all cases. Since the purpose of an ESP course is to prepare students for their professional life, i.e. to develop their use of English in a specialized field of science, and enable them to use English as the main means of communication and cooperation with partners in their expert fields, the need for subject-specific materials reflecting study programs becomes self-evident. At our department, we cater for the needs of a wide range of students of scientific subjects – biology, geology, geography, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. As our teachers prepare courses for two different levels, and sometimes even for two different subjects, the difficulties of the task are clearly manifest.

Language teachers and ESP – main obstacles

The main obstacle for teachers who decide to employ ESP is insufficient expertise in a specialist field. Even if some teachers are exceptions, having studied language and a scientific subject at college, the majority of them are still linguistics majors combined with a humanities discipline. Hutchinson and Waters claim that ESP teachers do not need to master specialist subject knowledge. In their opinion only three things are required:

  • a positive attitude towards the ESP content,
  • knowledge of the fundamental principles of the subject area
  • awareness of how much they probably already know.

The authors conclude that “the ESP teacher should not become a teacher of the subject matter, but rather an interested student of the subject matter” (Hutchinson, Waters, 1987, p. 163).

However, other sources mention additional requirements for teachers, such as “the need to feel confident about subject knowledge and subject skills related to that subject”, and “be prepared to answer learner’s questions about subject material which may be unfamiliar to them” (Cambridge ESOL, 2010, p. 6).

I believe that a positive attitude and enthusiasm are necessary, but teachers may still need to overcome their natural fears related to the complexity of scientific disciplines. Moreover, for highly abstract disciplines like mathematics and physics, fundamental principles alone would not suffice, as they require a deeper understanding of their methodology as well. To complicate matters even more, as I discovered during my ESP lessons and when evaluating the course questionnaires, specialist knowledge is what students expect. Of course, I always state openly at the beginning of our course that I am not a specialist and would need and appreciate their help and understanding. Still, many of them think that language teachers should be experts in a scientific subject as well.

It is true that as teachers prepare and adapt materials related to the specific scientific disciplines, they learn along the way and may become learned practitioners in the field. However, this knowledge is still quite limited and not sufficient to protect the teacher from being seen by students as unprepared and incompetent, and sometimes even ridiculous. So, where can ESP teachers look for help?

Solution – cooperation with subject teachers?

One obvious answer would be cooperation with a teacher of the subject (Helsvig, 2012, p. 4). Developing a project based on collaboration of the language teacher and the subject teacher has its merits, but there are also obstacles to overcome. The main one is, at least at our university, a lack of funding and interest on the part of subject teachers and the faculty management. Even if the faculty policy requires subject-specific content of language seminars, there is no subject-specific support for ESP teachers.

Since our project provided the financial resources, we were able to join science teachers and language teachers in our course. Tony Dudley-Evans and Maggie Jo St John discuss three stages of language-science teacher engagement: cooperation, collaboration, and team-teaching (Dudley-Evans, St John, 1998, p. 46). Our project included all steps mentioned by the authors:

  • cooperation - this was advertising our course and contacting the departments or individual teachers to invite them to join the project.
  • collaboration - which involved mainly outside class meetings discussing the planning of a series of classes and deciding on the input materials.
  • finally and mainly, there was the team-teaching stage in which the language and subjects specialists worked together in the classroom.

Dudley-Evans and St John list three conditions than are essential for the project to develop successfully and last for some time:

  • firstly, to clearly define the roles of teachers, which is important even for a team-teaching group of two teachers, let alone our number of 14 teachers altogether.
  • secondly, the programme should make relatively few demands on the time of subject teachers. In this respect, the preparation of our collaborative course was extremely time-consuming both for the subject and language teachers. It is clear that careful preparation of group meetings and time-management are of prime importance.
  • lastly, the authors stress the mutual respect between subject and language teachers, and the acceptance of the other’s professionalism in their area of specialization, since “where there is suspicion or hostility, collaboration or team teaching is unlikely to be successful” (Dudley-Evans, St John, 1998, p.47). We found out in the course of our work with specialists that this respect and understanding is vital, but difficult and painful to achieve. However, the effort is worthwhile, since, as both subject and language teachers agreed in the end, the experience was truly enriching for both sides.

Key stages in ESP in our course

All the key stages in ESP (needs analysis, course design, material selection, teaching/learning and evaluation) (Dudley-Evans, St John, 1998, p.121) have been covered. Stated briefly, the aim of the course was to address both objective and subjective needs of students (Dudley-Evans, St John, 1998, p.123). Objective needs meant the necessity to solve research problems interdisciplinarily and be able to work and communicate with researchers from related scientific disciplines. Subjective needs comprised the motivation of students to improve their presentation skills and practise English in a scientific context.

The main challenge facing course designers when planning the syllabus and selecting appropriate materials to work with was the heterogeneity of the group - both in terms of different disciplines involved and various language-competence levels of students. The question of balance then had to be considered carefully – especially the proportion of subject specific material that was interesting for specialists and students of the specific discipline, but too narrow and focused for other disciplines, and the common-core material. The proportion of language and science was also an important issue, as the course was mainly language-oriented. However, some students felt that preference was given to science, specifically to some fields of science that were closer to the overall topic of the course.

Selecting materials that would stimulate and motivate students was another task where the different approach of specialists and language teachers manifested itself. Science teachers tended to suggest discipline based articles that were interesting, informative and challenging for students, but in some cases not quite achievable in terms of complexity, length, or scope. Therefore a careful choice of materials had to be made, sometimes compromising a little the ambitious expectations of some scientists, so that the text would be appropriate, and, at the same time, provide opportunities for the language development.

In the teaching and classroom practice, we used not only language-learning activities, but also specific tasks and activities that reflected the methodology of specialist disciplines. Dudley-Evans and St John mention the integration of language learning and subject learning approaches as one of the main strengths of ESP methodology (Dudley-Evans, St John, 1998, p.192). In our course we employed the typical procedures of all disciplines – reporting, data analysis, predictions of future developments, interpreting graphs, important criteria selection – to enable the students to solve a specific subject-related problem and prepare a presentation for a scientific conference.

Implementing Task/Problem-Based Approach

As is evident from the preceding paragraphs, we tried to combine both ESP and Task/Problem-Based approaches. Problem-Based courses and curricula are generally designed to enable learners to understand and solve real-life problems (Ross, The Challenge, 1997, p. 28). This aspect was a key concern for us, since, in our country, education at many schools is more theoretical than practical, providing students with a quantity of detailed information that they are not able to implement later in real life. The second aim was to create an environment in which students of all scientific disciplines could cooperate on a solution of one concrete problem. Again, despite the fact that multi-disciplinary strategies are quite common nowadays, and many fields of science join in addressing complex questions facing us in today’s world, the students of individual fields of science at our faculty tend to be rather isolated, not having or creating enough opportunities to work with their colleagues from different branches.

The selection of a problem to deal with was a complex question in itself to solve. Firstly, we wanted the problem to be concrete and local, something the students from Brno and its surroundings could identify with, and also interesting and motivating for those coming from other parts of our country or abroad (mainly Slovakia). Secondly, it was necessary to choose a topic that would provide enough stimuli in terms of discipline specific and more general questions.

After a long discussion we agreed to concentrate on the Brno Reservoir - the major landscape, environmental and tourist-attraction feature of our area - and the consequences of its colonisation by cyanobacteria. We used this as a “trigger” (Lovie-Kitchin, The Challenge, 1997, p. 204) in the form of short talks given by specialists who were addressing the main issue from the perspectives of their disciplines. Then the students were asked, individually and in their small interdisciplinary groups, to identify possible problems and implications they would like to discuss. As we have discovered, students were well able to address questions related to their branch of science, develop a number of possible solutions, and even discover new materials relevant to the main topic. However, it was far more difficult for them to see the problem in its broader, interdisciplinary context. They had to be strongly encouraged to communicate and negotiate with students of different fields, trying to understand methods and approaches used in other branches, and explain complex concepts in a simple, comprehensible way, in other words – “to think and step outside their box”.

To sum up, the main advantages of the approach, as seen by teachers and expressed by students in their comments and feedback on the course, are the following:

  • working with real-life problems and situations
  • development of a number of alternative solutions to the problem
  • interesting and engaging classroom environment
  • more responsibility and independence of students
  • multidisciplinary methods and approaches
  • language specific to individual disciplines
  • final conference as a real academic-life event.


To conclude, we should admit that the employing the ESP and Task/Problem-Based approaches in our collaborative classes was often difficult and frustrating, and all the teachers had to learn along the way to adapt and get used to this new methodology. However, we think, and the reactions and feedback of students have proved it, that it can be stimulating and beneficial both for the teachers and learners. We can therefore agree with Dudley-Evans and St John who argue that “if we are to meet students’ needs we must deal with subject/specific matters” (Dudley-Evans, St John, 1998, p.51).


  • CAMBRIDGE ESOL: Teaching Maths through English - a CLIL approach. [online] Cambridge ESOL, 2010. [accessed 2013-09-16]. Available from WWW:
  • DUDLEY-EVANS,T.; ST JOHN, M.J.: Developments in English for Specific Purposes. A multi-disciplinary approach. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • HELSVIG, J.: ESP – Challenges for learners and teachers in regard to subject-specific approach. [online] Lithuania, Vilnius, University of Vilnius. [accessed 2013-04-22]. Available from WWW:
  • HUTCHINSON, T.; WATERS, A.: English for Specific Purposes. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. Eds. David Boud, Graham Feletti. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

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