Needs analysis

Needs analysis identifies the evidence to justify a syllabus and deliver the most efficient teaching.

I’m about to start teaching the second semester of a Foundation Programme in which a new group of students joins a cohort that have already been studying for one semester. So I’ve been thinking about how to accommodate these two different groups in order to balance their competing needs.

Needs analysis can involve large scale formal collection of data from stakeholders, such as students, discipline teaching staff or managers within an institution, in order to provide evidence for the development of a defensible syllabus that satisfies the language learning requirements of the students (Brown, 2015). However, most needs analysis is informal and small scale, carried out by teachers like me, who are already working to an established syllabus. Needs are clarified as the syllabus is taught, based on the responses of students to the activities, materials or assessment tasks. In my view, the most important consideration for this type of needs analysis is efficiency: EAP lessons have to deliver the most crucial learning outcomes in the shortest possible time so students feel time spent in class is worthwhile. We don’t have the luxury of Teaching English for No Obvious Reason (TENOR) and just letting language wash over students in class. A defensible EAP syllabus is one which provides answers to the following questions:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Why are we doing it now?
  • How will it help me with the assessments?
  • How will it help me to study effectively on my degree?

A wide variety of syllabus types are possible in EAP but some are more efficient, and thus more defensible, than others. The syllabus designer’s approach to language and learning will determine what needs are identified and translated into learning objectives. The most common approach is to characterise needs in terms of language and skills. A more efficient approach is to view needs in performance terms: what does the student have to do with language in their discipline.

It is usually not possible to analyse needs and design a syllabus that suits everyone in a foundation class so you need to search for the generic aspects of EAP that can form the core elements of your syllabus These core elements are best characterised in terms of performance. For example, all disciplines define concepts, discuss problems and possible solutions and argue about interpretations. These purposes require students to scan texts for relevant ideas and write summaries but these skills are subordinate to the functional purposes. You can ask students to make these generic elements specific to their needs by contextualising them within texts from their disciplines. Students will have to make choices on their degree programmes so assigning the choice of assessment content to them in a supportive environment helps to develop autonomy.

Neither students nor subject lecturers are particularly skilled at identifying language learning needs. Students certainly know when their needs are not being met and respond by not attending workshops, if these impose an additional study burden. Lecturers tend to misdiagnose student problems in unhelpful ways. As an example, I recently received the following request from a lecturer in chemistry:

Some of my colleagues and I have noticed a steady decline in the level of grammar in written work from chemistry undergraduates over the years – this only becomes apparent once they start writing literature and project reports in their final year, as due to the nature of the subject we don’t really set exams of coursework which require long-form answers. I was wondering if you had any resources we could direct students to with the aim of improving their writing, […] I have to admit I know very little about English language teaching!

The assumptions underlying this request are:

  • the ability to write well depends on grammar
  • no writing practice is required before the final high stakes written tasks
  • writing is a generic skill not specific to a discipline
  • there will be generic resources students can use autonomously to improve their writing.

The lecturer was honest enough to admit he knew little about English language teaching.

I now feel I have enough experience working with EAP students together with expertise in prioritising EAP needs and designing syllabuses to challenge these assumptions on the part of staff in the disciplines. In this case, I asked the lecturer to send me some examples of student writing and the feedback that was given. I plan to meet with him to discuss his views on the ‘grammar’ problems of students and the type of performance he expects. This ‘field work’ adds to my knowledge of what Foundation students can expect on their degrees and informs my selection of materials and tasks to meet their needs.

Brown, James Dean (2015) Introducing needs analysis and English for specific purposes. Routledge.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

3 thoughts on “Needs analysis”

  1. What we need is someone like that lecturer to “get it” i.e. see that the problem wasn’t so much the grammar (language and skills) but the text structure not fit for purpose (performance) as you then can recruit them as your new evangelist for Alexander-esque EAP. (Perhaps that lecturer might also be more conscious/aware of true nature of their own writing). Now, back to TENOR – sounds like a riot, where do I sign up for that course?

    Liked by 1 person

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