Review ~ How to Write ESP Materials

A thought-provoking introduction on why, when and how to create ESP materials for many different niche groups.
Reviewed for Teflnet by Carmela Chateau
How to Write ESP Materials

How to Write ESP Materials

How to Write ESP Materials is the first ebook book that I have ever reviewed, so the review will focus on the electronic reading experience as well as on the content of the book itself. As well as being readable on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the mobi version can be read online, on a computer or tablet, using the freely downloadable Kindle app. The EPub version can be read on most other e-readers (except the Kindle), but also on a computer or tablet with the freely downloadable Adobe Digital Editions, or any other EPub app.

How to Write ESP Materials is part of a modular series from ELT Teacher 2 Writer, whose aim is to help ELT teachers become authors. However, as the author of this module points out on the ELT Teacher 2 Writer website, her first coursebook “like most ESP materials, is no money spinner.” So this is not intended as a get-rich-quick course, but rather a guide to the many facets of ESP materials writing. It starts with a pre-module task in which teachers reading the book are asked to think about the materials they use to teach ESP, and the rationale behind their design. There is also a series of relevant quotes to ponder, from key authors and researchers in the field of ESP.

After a brief introductory chapter, the book moves through four chapters on methodology, the use of authentic texts, lexis and structure (aka vocabulary and grammar), and improving learner performance. The final chapter provides a brief recap of the content, with an eight-point framework for ESP material design, a ten-step programme for writing ESP materials, and five final recommendations for ESP trainers generally. There is also a glossary and an answer key for the majority of the Tasks included in the book (no answers are provided for the more open-ended tasks, i.e. the pre-module task, Task 5, Task 11, and all of the tasks in Chapter 5). Some of these exercises are aimed at the teacher as writer; others could easily be adapted to use in class with students and are therefore, in both cases, examples of learning by doing.

The fifth and final question in the pre-module task asks readers whether they have already thought about writing materials for their target audience. Given the book’s title, it seems logical to suppose that most readers are likely to answer yes, possibly with a rider to the effect that thinking about and actually doing are two very different things. Many teachers of English are glad to have a coursebook to rely on, but coursebooks for ESP are not always readily available. Some niche markets are too small to make such a publishing venture worthwhile, so many ESP teachers are constrained to create their own materials, even if only for private use. The only extracts from published ESP manuals presented in this book are from the medical domain, so presumably that field, at least, is big enough (and well-financed enough) to sustain coursebook production.

The chapter on methodology is the longest in the book, and gives many examples of how to design an ESP course, covering target audience, needs analysis, sources for a suitable framework for course content, and the selection of authentic tasks for ESP learners. The first four tasks contained in the book are found in this chapter (Tasks 1-4). I found these exercises to be both thought-provoking and very useful, even though I have never worked in the specific fields of marketing or medicine.

The chapter on authentic texts was a little too short, in my opinion (only two pages long). It brought up some very valid points, but no feedback was given on the only task in the chapter (Task 5), which is probably too open for useful answers to be provided within the scope of this book. Perhaps an accompanying webpage could be created to provide a discussion forum for ESP practitioners.

The chapter on lexis and structure was much longer (12 pages), and focused more on lexis than structure, with an approach that I found particularly satisfying. There is even a list of free online specialist dictionaries as a starting point for those of us who would like to explore the topic a little further (although unfortunately buried in the middle of the chapter). Ros Wright also cites recent and less recent research (1992-2009), including ESP corpus studies, and providing links to three freely available, searchable corpora. There are useful sample exercises, again drawing on medical and marketing examples, which could easily be adapted to other specific types of English. Seven tasks are found in this chapter (Tasks 6-12), but again, no answer is provided for the open-ended task (Task 11), which asks readers to find a set of suitable texts and develop similar activities.

The chapter entitled Improving Learner Performance is possibly the most interesting part of the book. It could also have been called A Cultural Approach to Oral Communication. This chapter includes final series of tasks, all open-ended and therefore without an answer key (Tasks 13-15). Video-based activities and role-plays are the recommended strategies and there is even a link to a downloadable Observer’s Checklist for role-play activities, freely available from the ELT Teacher2Writer website.

All in all, this book is well worth purchasing, even if you do not intend to launch into a career as a materials writer. It should help all ESP trainers to select materials for use in class and to design courses that are truly useful for their students.

Reading an ebook is a very different experience from that of reading a printed book. Hyperlinks (underlined or highlighted words) on many pages allow you to move rapidly from one section to another. For example, you can check the meaning of a word in the glossary and click to return to the exact spot in the text where the word was first used (although this didn’t always work with the EPub version on my computer). On my Kindle e-reader, I was also able to look up words in the built-in Oxford Dictionary of English, which enabled me to discover the meaning of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) but not STEEP analysis (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political), which is explained in the book in any case. Also, when reading somewhere with internet access (e.g. wi-fi on my Kindle), I was also able to check out online anything that interested me, such as the David Riley BEsig award, immediately after seeing it mentioned in the text.

The electronic reading experience does therefore have plus sides. The minus side of the Kindle is that everything is in black and white, and you can only see one page at a time. Reading the Epub version on a computer allows you to see the Calgary-Cambridge Observation Guide (unfortunately misnamed Cambridge-Calgary in the illustration in the book) on one page and the matching exercise on the facing page, which makes the whole task much easier than switching back and forth between the one-page-at-a-time view on the Kindle. Another minor drawback in formatting was that not all Tasks were identified as such in the Kindle version (and a typo in the text introduces Task 14 as Task 15). The final quibble is that it is impossible to refer to actual page numbers in the Kindle version, as they are not provided, although some Kindle books do contain page numbers. In any case, the layout seems to vary slightly from one version to another, making full comparison impossible. But all-in-all, the advantages of an electronic version for this type of book far outweigh these minor drawbacks.

Reviewed by Carmela Chateau for July 2013


  • Ros Wright says:

    For those interested in writing materials for medical English, I just wanted to comment on something Carmela mentions in her review:
    ‘The only extracts from published ESP manuals presented in this book are from the medical domain, so presumably that field, at least, is big enough (and well-financed enough) to sustain coursebook production.’

    While there are now a few coursebooks available for medical professionals, this is by no means a saturated market; neither is it ‘well-financed’ … sadly. Patient communications is my speciality and the ESP area I felt would be the most accessible to readers of this book.

  • Ros says:

    Thanks Carmela for your very positive review. I hope others find it equally useful.

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