TEIS Newsletter

The Role of Register Analysis in an English for Special Purposes (ESP) Curriculum (from Winter 1986, Vol. 2, No. 2)

by User Not Found | 10/31/2011

Christopher DeMarco
Northern Arizona University

In recent years, there has been growing international interest in designing second and foreign language courses specific to work-related needs or academic objectives of well-defined groups of learners--usually adults who have studied general English in school but who need to demonstrate on the job proficiency in either a specific skill area such as reading or in a specialized content area such as technical English. Effective on-the-job communication skills have long been recognized as one of the criteria for hiring and promoting employees; a good technician with poor communicative ability may not be recommended for a supervisory or management position. The impetus for the specialization of English as a Second language course objectives and content is one consequence of the role that English has taken on as an international language in fields such as science, technology, business, or commerce. ESL teachers are faced with the challenge to relate language instruction to the uses learners will make of the language because now there are groups of learners motivated to learn English for purely instrumental purposes. In other words, these students perceive English as a means to an end, as a tool needed to acquire vocational training or professional expertise unavailable in their home country or unavailable in their native language. This instrumental motivation may be as valid a predictor of success in language learning for these students as integrative motivation was found to be in the Canadian context (see Gardner and Lambert 1972). Students, instrumentally motivated to learn English, need to perceive the relevance of second language pedagogy to their career goals. Thus not only the interpersonal function of language but also the informational function of language must be presented in the classroom using materials relevant to the uses students will make of the language. The criteria for successful language learning will be measured by how appropriately, efficiently, and effectively students can use language to perform specific goals.

One response to the change in student population at American universities and to the change in motivation for learning English has been to make the language instruction more student centered or, to borrow a term from the field of business, more "consumer oriented" by identifying specific language needs, designing course materials to optimally meet those needs, and evaluating the relevance and effectiveness of the instructional goals and materials as well as the performance of both teachers and students. Such an ongoing process of functional needs assessment, curriculum design, materials development, teacher training and supervision, and program evaluation has become associated with the communicative movement in general and with the syllabus of Wilkins in particular (Wilkins 1976). However, when the content area is narrowly restricted and there is an emphasis on specific skill areas such as reading, and when the student population is homogeneous in language proficiency, professional needs, and perhaps even language background, the functional approach to language teaching becomes more narrowly focused on a given student population and the result is a more pragmatic orientation to language instruction that has become known as Special Purposes Language Teaching.

Special purposes language courses are not restricted to the English language: there has been general acceptance of the acronym LSP or Languages for Special Purposes. However, much of the research on LSP is written in English and English for Special Purposes (ESP) has received greater attention than the more general term from curriculum experts and materials designers. One of the most complete bibliographies of ESP, that of Robinson (1980), lists over 500 entries of theoretical and applied work done within only the last ten years. In effect, ESP has become an umbrella term covering a wide range of interests and approaches to student centered learning. Munby indicates his acceptance of this term as he defines ESP courses in which "the syllabi and materials are determined in all essentials by the prior analysis of the communicative needs of the learner, rather than by non-learner centered criteria such as the teacher's or institution's predetermined preference for General English or for teaching English as part of a general education" (1978:2). Specific content areas have their own acronyms: EST refers to the English of Science and Techno- EBE refers to English for Business and Economics EOP refers to English for Occupational Purposes; VESL refers to Vocational ESL; and EAP refers to English for Academic Purposes. These acronyms reveal the content areas to be included in the curriculum; it remains the language instructor's job to specify the content in the syllabus. In other words, these questions must be addressed: What is distinctive about the language of science? How is the language of science similar to or different from the language of technology? How are areas such as science, technology or business different from general English? These questions are more often asked than answered. One early and influential attempt to answer these questions was based on the argument that different uses of a Language will necessarily be accompanied by different surface structure features--stated simply this means that the language of science will look and sound different from other varieties of English. Such a view makes intuitive sense. The proponents of this "function helps determine form" point of view were Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens in their book The Linguistic Sciences and Lang- Teaching (1964). They can be credited with introducing a term, which has become part of the jargon of applied linguistics--that of "register" or "a variety of language distinguished according to use" (1964:89). Halliday, McIntosh, and Strevens then defined louse" in terms of three parameters: field, mode, and style or tenor. Field was used to refer globally to language activities such as Politics, linguistics, or music; tenor was used to refer to the interpersonal role relationships between people (e.g., teacher/student, parents/children, boss/ employees); mode was used to refer to the medium of communication selected (e.g., speech, writing). Thus, register in the Halliday, et al., framework encompassed a number Of socio-cultural features of communication. Problems arose, however, when the framework began to be applied to specific contexts. Correlations were found between linguistic features such as grammatical structures or lexical choices and specific registers. These correlations led people to believe it was possible to predict what a register would look or sound like from the occurrences of grammar and lexicon. The Misleading assumption was that because a text exhibited certain surface structure linguistic features, then it must belong to a specific register.

Later Halliday and Hasan in Cohesion in English (1976) would define cohesion or intersentential connectivity also in terms of grammar and lexis. Although Halliday, et al., never intended for grammar and lexis to be the sole determiners of register, many interpreted register in this narrow fashion because there did exist some very specialized registers of English that could be learned with dictionary and grammar in hand. For example, the topics and questions addressed to hotel employees are generally restricted to a narrow semantic field. Similarly, the language use of airline pilots and air traffic controllers is restricted to clearly identifiable lexical items and grammatical structures. Early studies in ESP, thus, concentrated on registers that were fairly homogeneous and that did not show a great deal of variety among Users. When the same methods were applied to more complex registers, it became clear that grammar and lexicon alone were insufficient predictors what people would actually say and write. These early studies were important because they showed the inadequacy of a register approach alone and the need to include more variables in the descriptive process. The methodology for register analysis (very often computational linguistics) was necessarily bound to the words on a page and proceeded in linear, word-by-word, or sentence-by-sentence parsing. The methodology became similar to that of "explication de texte"--a structuralist methodology for making the formal features of a literary work explicit. Explication de texte attempts intensive analysis of written text assuming that the sum Of the parts is greater than the whole; register analysis too often loses sight of the global meaning of a text by an overemphasis on the parts.

One goal of register analysis dovetailed with that of contrastive analysis--where there were differences, one could predict difficulty. Language teachers could concentrate on lexical differences such as the higher frequency of noun compounds in scientific English as well as grammatical distinctions such as the higher incidence of passive voice constructions in scientific English with the intention that difficulties with the language would be removed once students had enough practice in manipulating the forms distinctive to a register. Such a solution to the register problem was necessary because few ESP teachers have the same domain specific knowledge that their students have, and thus without this top-down conceptual orientation to the subject matter, these teachers were attempting to teach what they knew best grammar and vocabulary. While register studies based on statistical descriptions helped create materials that were more authentic representations of what students would actually encounter in the real world, they still were not helping students make the semantic and pragmatic connection that comprehension entails. Thus, register analysis was a valuable tool for identifying classroom materials with high content validity; the mistake was to try to teach these materials by the same principles that they were selected. Selinker, Todd-Trimble, and Trimble underscored the problems students encounter when teaching overemphasizes discrete point features of language. They remarked that students "often seem unable to comprehend the total meaning of the EST discourse even when they understand all the words in each sentence and all the sentences that make up the discourse" (1976:82).

Register analysis is a necessary first step in an analysis of the linguistic needs of students in ESP Courses. Register analysis can guide teachers in the selection and preparation of materials that should by their content validity motivate students to learn. Register analysis thus helps ensure appropriateness of content.

However, the assumption underlying Language Teaching for Special Purposes is that a focus on the actual use made of language will lead to an improvement in student attitude, motivation, and ultimately performance. ESP, thus, falls well within the framework of communicative language teaching which is currently becoming an international phenomenon. To prevent the focus of ESP from becoming either too narrow or too wide, teachers need to continue evaluating program goals in light of student performance both inside and outside the classroom. Therefore, the content of an ESP syllabus should be based on an approach that combines register analysis with discourse analysis. Register analysis can be used to determine authenticity of language in relation to lexical and grammatical features. Discourse analysis can be used to help deter mine the authenticity Of the message as an act of communication involving a sender, receiver, and situational context in which a message is embedded. Thus, these procedures help better isolate what should be taught in the Classroom. Language teachers, however, must continue to struggle with the problem of how to make the language used in the classroom more like the language used outside- the classroom.


Gardner, R., & Lambert, W. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, Mass.; Newbury.

Halliday, M.A.K., McIntosh, A., & Strevens, P. (1964). The Linguistic sciences and language teaching. London: Longman.

Halliday, M.A.K., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

Munby, J. (1978). Communicative Syllabus Design: A sociolinguistic model for defining the content of purpose-specific language programs Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, P. (1980). ESP (English for specific purposes): the present position. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Selinker, L., Todd-Trimble, M., & Trimble, I. (1976). Presuppositional Rhetorical Information in EST Discourse. TESOL Quarterly, 10 (3), 281-290.

Wilkins, D. A. (1976). Notional Syllabuses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.