Making Significant Progress in English Communication with ESP and Intensive English Programs


Making Significant Progress in English Communication with ESP and Intensive English Programs

<An Interview with Kay Westerfield>

Question: How do you initiate and design a curriculum for the students studying in IBCP? Would you please introduce some of the approaches IBCP is using to improve students’ business English at the University of Oregon? What kind of material do you think is the best for students to use?

KW: Good questions! Let me first give you a little background on the International Business Communication (IBC) Program at the University of Oregon. It is a joint program between the American English Institute in the Department of Linguistics, and the Lundquist College of Business. While primarily serving students who are majoring in business or accounting, the program is open to students from all majors who are interested in international and intercultural business communication. Students who take all five courses in the program receive a Certificate of Mastery in International Business Communication.

Question: How do you initiate and design a curriculum for the students studying in IBCP?

The overarching goal of the IBC Program is to develop global awareness, knowledge and skills in a business context. The impetus for establishing the program was to better prepare international students for success in their UO courses and in their future careers. Being able to list a Certificate of Mastery in International Business Communication on their résumé is an advantage when applying for jobs either in their home countries or in the U.S. In many countries outside the U.S., job ads routinely call for strong communication skills in English, so employers are intrigued by the IBC certificate. In the U.S., companies might hesitate at first to hire non-native speakers of English due to concerns about their ability to communicate effectively on the job; completion of the IBC Program helps assuage that concern.

We were able to establish the IBC Program as a joint program between the two faculties of Business and Linguistics because of my long-term collaboration with the College of Business on other English for Specific Purposes (ESP) programs, including our Pre-MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) Program and Executive Training Programs for international executives.

To determine the performance goals for the IBC program, we conducted a needs assessment of key program stakeholders, including international students; College of Business faculty, academic advisors, and career counselors; the business and economics reference librarian at the UO Library; and community business leaders, using focus groups, oral interviews, and written questionnaires.

As a result, we decided on five upper-division, 300-level courses: BA361 Cross-Cultural Business Communication, BA362 Effective Business Writing, BA363 Effective Business Presentations, BA364 International Business Research, and BA365 Cross-Cultural Negotiation. All five courses take a cross-cultural, contrastive rhetoric approach to key business communication skill development. 

Question: Would you please introduce some of the approaches IBCP is using to improve students’ business English at the University of Oregon? What kind of material do you think is the best for students to use?

The approach in the IBC courses follows best practices in English for Specific Purposes course design and in cross-cultural and business communication training by incorporating authentic tasks, experiential learning and up-to-date use of technology, while encouraging cross-cultural interactions and relationship building both inside and outside the classroom.

Through the needs assessment process we identified the target performance goals for our learners, i.e. the high frequency communication tasks required for courses in the College of Business as well as in their future careers in the global workplace. Based on this data as well as the examination of expert resources in the field, we drafted the curriculum for each of the courses.

“Authenticity of task” and “learner choice” are key when designing ESP programs for adult learners. Our students truly appreciate the IBC courses because they recognize that the assignments have direct relevance to their academic coursework as well as to their future jobs and personal lives. They are motivated because they have the opportunity to make choices within the task frameworks; for example, they select the company to focus on for their Company and Industry Profile research or the country for their team to analyze for their Cultural Briefing task. Based on feedback from former students now in the workplace and from business faculty, the curriculum seems to be quite effective. As our students always say, “Everybody needs to take this program!”

Question: What’s the difference between ESP and EAP? In higher education, EAP is one of the most important approaches. Is academic English also part of the content in your curriculum?

KW: English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is one of the two main branches on the ESP family tree, the other main branch being English for Occupational Purposes (EOP). Within the field of EAP, there is an on-going discussion about what actually constitutes EAP. To quote Strevens (1980), “A definition of ESP that is both simple and watertight is not easy to produce”!

That said, it is important to put the “specificity” back into the definition of English for Specific Purposes by distinguishing between discipline-specific EAP courses and general English, pre-academic general skills-building courses offered before learners enter the academe. EAP started out in the 60s with a focus on English for Science and Technology (EST), and has continued to introduce learners to the specific communication needs of their future academic and professional discourse communities. EAP courses need to connect directly with the disciplines – and there are a variety of ways to do that. We are doing our students a disservice if we continue to focus on the 5-paragraph academic essay. This is completely different from the writing tasks required in specific disciplines.

The differences between discipline-specific EAP and general English pre-academic courses include the following. EAP is…

  • based on a thorough needs assessment
  • usually for a more advanced learner with higher language proficiency
  • employing authentic texts and tasks from a discipline-specific academic discourse community, bridging to future workplaces
  • characterized by accountability

The goal for EAP language programs is to provide a seamless level of academic support, beginning with pre-academic skills training for non-matriculated students through IEPs, foundation programs, and credit-granting classes for new university students; and then moving into actual EAP classes that offer discipline-specific support for upper-division undergraduate students and for graduate students.  

The American English Institute at the University of Oregon provides that increasing level of language support for academically oriented students. The Intensive English Program builds general, pre-academic skills for non-matriculated students, while providing them the opportunity to begin exploring their discipline of choice. Matriculated students at the UO are tested and placed into the Academic English for International Students (AEIS) Program; AEIS course delve more deeply into discipline-specific tasks based on the results of a needs assessment of faculty in high frequency majors. For upper-division students in business, a high demand major at the University of Oregon, the American English Institute collaborates with the Lundquist College of Business to offer the International Business Communication Program. Finally, graduate students at the University of Oregon can register for an advanced EAP class that focuses on thesis writing in their specific disciplines.  

Question: In your opinion, why are Intensive English Programs (IEPs) a good way for students to improve their English?

KW: Intensive English Programs (IEPs) are a terrific way for students to improve their all round communication skills in English! For language learning, you just can’t beat an immersion experience within the target culture. Students are surrounded by the target language – they eat, drink and breathe English! This is especially true if the IEP offers the option to live with a host family.

IEPs provide the opportunity for an intensive focus on all 4 skills (a minimum of 18 hours a week is required for a student visa and students at the American English Institute can choose to take an additional 6 hours per week of elective courses), and class size is usually limited to 17 or fewer students. As a result, students can experience significant improvement in their language skills over a shorter period of time than in a non-English-speaking environment.

IEPs also help students adjust to university life and culture. Students build cultural intelligence (CQ) while developing their communication skills in the target language. IEP students have the chance to meet and interact with US college students (who also often serve as language tutors and conversation partners) and other students from around the globe. Working with international students from other L1's in class gives students no choice but to interact in English in meaningful ways. In addition to on-campus language and cultural awareness building opportunities, there also are often avenues for volunteering in the local community through a Service Learning Program, which enables students to experience the local culture and use English for authentic communication.

IEPs are an exciting opportunity to strengthen communication skills in English while opening one’s eyes, mind, and heart to people from other cultures around the world!

Question: How many different nationalities are represented through your program? Is there a large representation of students from Taiwan or other Asian countries? If so, what is the percentage of students from each country?

KW: According to our Academic Advisor, we have 28 nationalities in the American English Institute Intensive English Program this Spring term. A lot of this diversity is the result of students from the prestigious Humphrey and Fulbright programs funded by the U.S. government. About 43% of the IEP students are from China and 34% from Saudi Arabia. About 5% are from Japan and another 5% from Korea. Taiwanese students comprise 1% of the student population. In the larger University of Oregon student community, there are more than 1,200 international students from 87 countries.

Question: As a program director, what is your impression of the English performance of Asian students, including their strengths, weaknesses and challenges? How would you suggest these students improve their learning efficiency?

KW: Asian students in our programs are typically stronger in literate (reading and writing) skills than oral skills. They are generally highly motivated and have a strong work ethic. Having more task-based learning opportunities in the classroom and seeking out opportunities for using English in authentic contexts, either face to face or online, would undoubtedly speed up their learning curve.

Students benefit from participating in team projects that require collaboration in English both inside and outside the classroom and by taking part in clubs and other student activities on campus. For example, at the University of Oregon, students can join ballroom dancing or African dance events, sing in a campus accapella group, join the ski and snowboard club in the winter, play a sport for fun in the intramural program, learn a new artistic skill at the Craft Center, go hiking in the beautiful Oregon outdoors, and sharpen presentation skills through the Toastmasters Club! This is just a taste of the many things to do to enrich the language and culture learning experience. 

Question: In your opinion, what is an assessment that helps to accurately portray a student’s progress and improvement? How do you assess a student’s English proficiency once a program is finished?

KW: Assessment of student progress toward course performance goals is an on-going process that starts in the early stages of curriculum design when the teacher is deciding on performance goals, that is, determining what to evaluate and how. “Begin with the end in mind” is good advice!

In terms of recommendations for formative and summative assessment, I appreciate the quote from Banta, “Institutional assessment efforts should not be about valuing what can be measured but, instead, about measuring that which is valued.” (Banta, et al., 1996)

Best practices in ESP assessment focus on what learners need to be able to do in the target language. Therefore, instead of turning only to paper and pencil tests to measure students’ knowledge of language, ESP teachers devise ways to assess student progress authentically – that is, can students actually perform the tasks stipulated in the course curriculum. 

An excellent online resource that addresses authentic assessment in ESP or in general English teaching is the Authentic Assessment Toolbox, created by Jon Mueller. After reading about "What is authentic assessment?", “Why you should do it?", and "How you should do it?", teachers can go to the section on "Authentic Tasks", and learn about the characteristics and types of authentic tasks — remembering that authenticity of tasks and texts is a key tenet of ESP. The section on “Rubrics” offers examples and useful tips for designing rubrics for your own classes.

The true test of a language program is not how well students perform on classroom tests at the end of the term, but how well they actually perform in their discipline-specific academic classes or on the job. The ESP-EAP practitioner should regularly check in with knowledgeable stakeholders, for example, content department faculty who have the students in later classes. How well are they able to handle the academic coursework? If there is a significant disconnect, it is important to re-visit the program needs assessment and evaluate other program elements. 

Question: Editor Morris’s endnote:  Thank you very much again for being our June 2012 English Career on-line interviewing guest. It has been a great pleasure to learn about your work, leadership at the ESP IS and share your diverse and cross-cultural experiences as a veteran teacher and ESP practitioner and promoter, IEP organizer as well as author of workplace best training practices and initiator/provider of many US State Dept (USIS)-sponsored English teachers training resources, video programs and websites. You may also want to talk about some of these inspiring experiences to share with our mainly Chinese readership.   

KW: The demand for ESP is growing at a rapid pace around the world with the acceptance of English as a lingua franca for higher education, research, and business. As Belcher (2004) points out, ESP practitioners are “looking at the broader implications of their classroom efforts” and are recognizing themselves as “facilitators of upward mobility” (Belcher, 2004). Training in English for Specific Purposes has far-reaching benefits for language learners, their families, and their communities. ESP practitioners need to be prepared to accept this challenge. In this regard, I’d like to leave off with another insight from Strevens (as cited in Robinson, 1991), Becoming an effective teacher of ESP requires more experience, additional training, extra effort, and a fresh commitment, compared with being a teacher of General English." 


Banta, T., et al. (1996). Assessment in practice: Putting principles to work on college campuses. San Francisco: Josey-Bass Publishers.

Belcher, D. D. (2004). Trends in teaching English for specific purposes. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 165-186.

Mueller, J. Authentic assessment toolbox. Web. 15 May 2012.

Robinson, Pauline. (1991). ESP today. Prentice-Hall International.

Strevens, Peter. (1980). ‘Functional Englishes’ (ESP). Teaching English as an international language: From practice to principle. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 

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