Coursebook Syllabus versus Needs Analysis

I have a class on Thursdays that have really let me get my teeth into needs analysis with them. It’s the first time I’ve taught a class and had ‘What do you need to learn?’ answered with something other than ‘English.’

One of my learners told me that a situation we did as an extended task has taken on even more relevance, seeing as he’s going to Europe with two classmates at the end of November.

The thing is, that task wasn’t in the book. It wouldn’t have been on the syllabus at all had I not performed a needs analysis through a class discussion on training and completing a task to analyse linguistic needs.

OK, Marc, so what’s that got to do with anything?

Well, if we have a look at the set texts, and then have a look at the needs analysis then we get to the stage where a Venn diagram or suchlike would be useful. Where is the overlap between the textbook and the needs. Ideally, the people in charge of selling the course would have nothing to do with choosing (or foisting) textbooks. After a needs analysis teachers should be able to see what they need to teach and then look to see what textbook, if any, best meets the needs of the class. What resources need to be gathered? There will always be other things cropping up in lessons that will require divergence and detours from the main syllabus but if the basics are down, everything else that needs to be rejigged on the fly can be done with a minimum of fuss.

However, if you’re working to a pacing of book pages determined by someone outside the classroom who doesn’t know the learners, whose needs are you meeting? Theirs, but their needs are only wants, and those wants shouldn’t matter.

Needs Analysis in Actual Practice 

I started a new class yesterday, a group of engineers ostensibly studying English for ‘business’*. Being the kind of guy I am and knowing that the agency I work for have signed an exclusivity agreement with a major ELT publisher, I need to know what kind of things my students need and want and which of these aren’t covered by the book.

How I go about Needs Analysis

First up I ask, “Why are you studying?” if this is a voluntary course.

The answer is always “To improve my English.” Seriously. It is always this. However, it provides a way in for self-reflection.

“What aspect of your English do you want to improve the most.”

Yesterday’s class told me speaking and listening, particularly how to follow a conversation and ensure they respond appropriately and how to express themselves without becoming tongue-tied.

“Who do you communicate with in English?”

In this case, international engineers with varied first languages and including a few native speakers but not many. Voluntarily my students gave the contexts as conferences, meetings, videoconferences and telephone calls.

“What do you need or want to talk about?”

This is going to run the gamut from small talk, discussing train timetables and into extremely specific language for applied engineering.

Is that it?

No. That’s only the bit about what the students say. I need to see the needs they show.

I set up a task. In this case it was a pre-task of talking about their own jobs then into a more abstract task of comparing their duties to that of an astronaut on the ISS. They do this in pairs, then one from each pair makes a group and shares all the ideas. I choose a random student to report back.

*Scare quotes deliberate because despite being a Business English teacher I don’t think it’s a useful term. It probably equates to English for Office Clerks and Underpaid Reluctant Translators.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

As a teacher, I have a love/hate relationship with lesson planning. I love to have already planned, but I hate writing the plans. I’m pretty decent at thinking about tasks to do and the language use and activities to stimulate such use but when it comes to hammering it into MS Word, I don’t feel that I do myself justice. Whack it on a scruffy bit of notepaper and it’s brilliant.

Anyway, there was a Twitter discussion between Anthony Ash, Marek Kiczkowiak and I about the benefits of a detailed plan for observed lessons and such based on Anthony’s original post. Basically, the consensus was that detailed plans can be useful for professional development but that it doesn’t always occur. Marek and I said that the 10-page lesson plan is a waste of time seeing as it’s probably going to be binned, but that a bunch of Post-Its or bullet list would be fine provided one knows the reasons why one is doing what one is doing and how one is going to do it.

Anyway, it got me thinking about Preflection, a post on Steve Brown’s blog from ages ago, how knowing your learners is essential, and how taking notes in the class is important. It got me thinking about needs analysis as well.

It is my belief that all good reflective teachers carry out a needs analysis of their learners on the fly, either error analysis or just finding out about their motivation for learning. We then reflect upon these needs and make judgments about how to alter our practice to facilitate the student’s uptake of language regarding these needs. It got me thinking about incredibly detailed diagrams by Long (1977) and Chaudron (1977) in Allwright and Bailey (1991: p.101, p.106) showing the multitude of decisions that language teachers make in the classroom just for error treatment.

Because of this, I don’t think that having a hugely detailed lesson plan is important because whatever you do in the classroom occurs in the classroom at that particular moment; given this fact, the context changes due to affective factors such as learner moods/states-of-mind and effective factors such as new work assignments requiring different language skills to those previously needed or an impulsion to talk about something highly topical. The aforementioned bulleted list is, in my opinion, sufficient and a healthy allocation of contingency time useful in order to indulge learner whims.

Other than internet sources linked to above,
Allwright, D and Bailey, K. (1991) Focus on the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.