Twenty Things in Twenty Years Part Five: there really is no need for needs analysis!

One of the more ridiculous notions instilled in me on my month-long CELTA course taken back in the early 1990s was the idea that via a scribbled sheet of paper containing a few topics and some grammar structures, I might somehow be able to discern the ‘needs’ of my subsequent classes. In retrospect, it now seems almost as mad to me as a novice medical student with a few weeks’ study under their belt asking a patient what THEY think the root of their medical condition is – and then treating them in accordance with this self-diagnosis. I dread to think what would’ve happened to me when I first slipped a disc in my early 20s after a particularly heavy session in the gym, only becoming aware of the issue due to a throbbing pain behind my knee (which I now realise was the result of inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the root of which had been trapped beneath the lapsed spinal disc). Might I have been given knee-strengthening exercises to do? Told to run more? God only knows, but one thing you can be sure of is that I would not have been well diagnosed and that the treatment I would’ve received would almost certainly have done more harm than good.

It’s not just my CELTA course that tried to foist Needs Analysis onto me, though. The edition of Jeremy Harmer’s THE PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING that I read as part of the course also includes a section on the subject, albeit within the context of evaluating material that might be useful / relevant to students. We’re told to ‘describe’ our students by noting down their age, sex, social / cultural backgrounds, occupations, motivation/attitude, educational background, English level, world knowledge, and their interests and beliefs – and to then use these findings to draw conclusions about what material might best work. We’re then encouraged to get students to write the contexts and situations students will probably use English in at some future date, the order of priority for use of different language skills – and the percentage of classroom time that should be spent on each skill. Once you’ve collated all this information, you presumably do the maths – add up all the different percentages from all the different students in the class, divide by whatever number you have in the class and then divvy up your week’s plan accordingly!

Having spent at least the first few years of my teaching career engaging in this kind of deranged activity, I can officially report one thing with certainty: most students want to do more grammar! Even the really good ones who hardly ever make grammar mistakes still think that what they most need to do is more grammar. The endless study of structures – their forms and their meanings / uses – is still very widely seen as the yardstick by which students measure their own sense of progress. In addition to this, I can confirm that most students – and here I’m talking particularly about GENERAL ENGLISH students – have either very little idea of when and where they might end up needing to use their English, if indeed they ever will; or else simply know they’ll need to use it in their lives and that this could include any manner of contexts and conversations. As if this wasn’t already complex and confusing enough, there’s the fact that needs and wants may often be two very different beasts. A student may only NEED English in a very limited context – to read academic papers connected to dentistry, say – but their WANTS may include reading 19th century literature, chatting to foreigners they meet in the bar near where they live in Alicante, surfing websites connected to the Moorish influence on Spanish culture and understanding recipes in English! Take the overlapping, conflicting complexity of one individual and multiply it fifteen times and you have a normal class: one that it’s nigh-on impossible to assess or analyse the ‘needs’ of using any of these approaches!

Of course, if you’re teaching one-to-one or doing a very niche ESP or Business class, then maybe this approach works better. I still recall being sent out to teach in a factory in Tanggerang – in the sprawling industrial suburbs of Jakarta – armed with my CEC English Course, which we slogged through for a few weeks before my students plucked up enough courage to tell me that really this wasn’t what they needed and that actually the only reason they needed English was to understand the vast Suzuki manual they had to plough through in order to do their jobs properly!

Knowing this in advance would have saved us all time and stress, no doubt. Interestingly, in the edition of Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING that I read as a novice, Needs Analysis is ONLY mentioned within the confines of a discussion about teaching Business English, which does make sense.

More recently, the concept of meeting students’ needs has formed a central part of the discourse around Dogme, as though simply doing enough talking with our students and plugging the gaps that emerge is somehow sufficient provision of language for all subsequent needs (as opposed to simply being an immediate finger-in-dyke-wall type operation)! The talking around any given task is in itself apparently the analysis and the recasting or reformulation of output, the meeting of the needs thus exposed!

Whilst there’s obviously much to be said for working from what students say and helping them to say it better, the claim that this meets needs seems to me only marginally less spurious than the idea that asking students which topics they wish to whizz through during their four-week stay at a private language school that has continuous enrollment – and which structures they most want to go over yet again in order to increase ever further their anxiety about them – helps us do the same.

My own teaching – and hopefully also my students’ learning – benefited greatly from  abandoning questionnaires of the kind outlined above (and of the kind still to be found all over the web as well!) – and finally recognising that one of the things students pay for is a more expert analysis of what they need to do in order to get to where they might want to get to – which, let’s face it, often just means to the next level up! As previously mentioned, students themselves, as a result of their own learning experiences and notions about language, tend to see progress very much in terms of grammar. I can count on maybe one hand the number of students I’ve met over the years who, in tutorials or just whilst chatting, have been astute enough to recognise that the main thing stopping them from moving up past Intermediate, say, is their lack of lexis! It’s a rare learner indeed who perceives that it’s only the drudgery of taking on board another one or two or three thousand collocations, chunks, expressions, words is at the heart of what will push them on to FCE and beyond! And that’s where we come in!

Because REALLY what your General English students need MOST is this:

– repeated exposure to as many of the most frequent words in the language, the two- and three-star words in Learner Dictionaries, as can be managed in the time you have with them.

– greater understanding of how these words work with other words, and how they work with grammar.

– advice on how best to shoulder the huge burden of having to learn this much language

– to put this advice into practice and to take some responsibility for this learning at home, whether it be by reading graded readers, making revision cards, doing vocabulary self-study books or whatever

– to read and to listen to appropriately graded texts across a wide range of social, academic and work-related topics

– to have space to discuss their own responses to these texts – and to tell stories / anecdotes using the lexis studied – in class . . . AND then to have the teacher help them say these things better

– to become more aware (via repeated work on this) of how language sounds when spoken: the linking, the elision, the assimilation, the weak forms, and so on . . . and to get the chance to hear a broad range of accents, both native and non-native.

– to sometimes be corrected when they do make mistakes with language (including grammar) previously taught and to be made aware of why what they said / wrote was wrong

– to spend some time either consolidating or extending what they know about how structural grammar works, but less time than they spend on lexis, as lexis is far more at the root of communicative competence than structural grammar is

– to have a teacher confident enough to explain these needs to them, to explain why what they think they need may not actually be what’s best for them, and to guide them towards ways of more fruitfully using the little time they have available for the study of English in more fruitful ways

And THAT is never going to happen if we continue to send inexperienced teachers out there into the big wide world armed with photocopied lists of unit titles and topic headings from Murphy’s English Grammar In Use, is it?!

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