How to Successfully Teach 5 Common Types of English for Specific Purposes Classes

Can you spot the differences between these two adult English students?

They both start learning English as beginners. They both do well on vocabulary and grammar assignments. Each week their conversational skills make noticeable improvement. They’re learning those conjugations and expressing basic ideas in the present and past tense.

But have you asked them why they’re learning English yet?

If not, you might not realize how different these two students really are—and how differently you’d want to be teaching them.

One is learning English so she can get a job in the aviation industry, while the other is learning English so she can break her startup into the U.S. market. While their English proficiency levels might be the same, they have completely different goals and needs.

More and more students like these two are learning English for specific professional, academic or other purposes. That means English educators need to be equipped to teach these students effectively—simply relying on general ESL textbooks, vocabulary lists and speaking exercises won’t always cut it.

In this post, we’ll explore five common types of English for specific purposes classes you can encounter as an educator, plus tips and resources for teaching them successfully.

What Is English for Specific Purposes?

Have you ever learned a language with the intent of achieving a specific objective?

The first time that I visited Japan, I spent two months before the trip cramming in as much Japanese vocabulary as I could. I was very strategic with what I spent time studying. I learned the essentials like numbers, directions and food vocabulary—basic survival Japanese phrases.

In other words, I was learning a language for a specific purpose: tourism. Interestingly enough, learning Japanese in this way helped me better relate to some of my English students. It allowed me to understand that there are students who don’t care about learning how to read poetry or to engage in political conversations in English. Some students are learning English for specific purposes (also known as ESP) and have their own set of needs that might not be addressed by a traditional ESL class.

Understanding this helped me become a better teacher by giving me insight into every student’s goals and aspirations. These are things that you need to take into account when teaching to ESP students so that you can set them up for future success. Let’s dive into those for five common types of ESP classes now.

How to Master Teaching 5 Common Types of English for Specific Purposes Classes

Here are some of the most common ESP students you’re likely to encounter as a teacher, as well as tips on how you can help them get the most out of their studies.

1. Teaching Business English

Business English students are some of the most common ESP learners. While you can cater to this niche as a tutor or consultant, you’re also likely to encounter them in general English classes if you teach adult students. As the business world continues to become a close-knit global community, there’ll continue to be men and women from around the world learning English in a professional capacity.

Teaching business English for the first time can be quite challenging. There are a number of factors to consider before you step into this exciting field. You’ll not only need to be an English teacher, but also have a basic competency in business and finance as well. If you need a quick refresher on business vocabulary and themes, start reading the Wall Street Journal or the Harvard Business Review regularly before your first class.

Because business English students are learning English for professional purposes, they tend to have higher expectations than the average ESL student. It’s important that you come to class prepared and able to properly answer their questions. To get started, check out these business English lesson plans for teaching meeting management, negotiations in English and more.

However, to really meet your students’ expectations, you’ll need to understand the context in which they’re learning business English. This will help you create study programs specifically for them. For example, students who need basic business English for the office setting will need a good vocabulary and basic conversational skills, while managers who’re expected to give presentations will need to work much more heavily on pronunciation and speaking skills.

Try conducting a survey before or during your first class to find out what experience (and strengths/weaknesses, if applicable) your students already have in English and how they expect learning English will better their careers.

2. Teaching to the IELTS and TOEFL Tests

Compared to other forms of ESP, teaching English to students preparing for IELTS and TOEFL exams is relatively easy. You don’t have to memorize any technical terms and theories like you would when teaching business English. Aside from teaching them how to improve their standardized test-taking skills, IELTS and TOEFL prep courses are very similar to comprehensive English courses.

Here are some ideas to prepare your class for standardized testing:

  • Give students timed assessments to get them used to working under pressure.
  • Create exercises that are similar to the material covered on the test.
  • Have a short review at the end of every class. Mix old content with material from your current theme to keep all information fresh in their minds.
  • Don’t overload your students with too much test-prep material. It gets boring. Mix in games or conversation practice at the middle or end of class to break things up.

Visit the IELTS and TOEFL websites for more information about teaching test prep courses. Both sites are filled with resources to help teachers plan for test-prep lessons.

Also, don’t forget that IELTS covers British English and TOEFL covers American English. British and American English have slight differences when it comes to spelling and grammar, so it’s important that you have extensive knowledge about the idiosyncrasies of both styles of English before teaching IELTS or TOEFL test prep.

It also can help to learn more about why your students are taking the test. Some are doing it for immigration purposes, while others may want to study at an English-speaking university. Knowing this information can help you design dynamic, attention-grabbing lessons that your students will love.

3. Teaching Aviation English

With English being the official language of air travel, it’s important that all airline personnel can speak and understand English. Your primary focus with these lessons will be speaking and listening.

Since pilots and air traffic controllers will be expected to communicate in English over the radio, it’s crucial for them to understand one another. In the real world, your students will be expected to listen to English over a possibly distorted radio, so listening is an important part of the course.

Be sure to test their comprehension using resources that demonstrate a range of native and non-native English accents. You’ll also want to do lots of recorded speaking activities so they can hear their own speech and make quick corrections based on your guidance.

Macmillan English has useful pronunciation teaching tools designed specifically for aviation English students. These teaching guidelines from the International Civil Aviation Organization provide essential context on teaching approaches in this field, plus specific activities you can incorporate into your classroom.

4. Teaching Tourism English

As with aviation English, students learning English for tourism purposes don’t need to spend a lot of time improving their writing proficiency levels.

According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a good English proficiency level for tourists could be somewhere around A2 and B1 (upper beginner/lower intermediate). Your students should know how to do the following:

  • Use a wide range of basic vocabulary words related to health, medicine, travel, money, food and time.
  • Be able to express themselves in basic sentences.
  • Understand simple spoken sentences.
  • Know how to communicate in most situations they’ll encounter while traveling.

The goal of teaching tourism English is to give students a basic working knowledge of the language so they can read directions and maps, understand basic words and phrases and speak intelligible sentences. Tourism English is the type of English that’s found in most beginner level ESL textbooks. However, for some resources geared specifically to tourism English students, check out these downloadable worksheets relevant to a range of situations students will encounter while traveling.

5. Teaching Medical English

Medical English continues to be a growing field as more pharmacists, doctors and nurses leave their home countries and work in English-speaking countries or countries with large international communities such as the UAE.

Teaching medical English can be tough if you don’t have a background in life sciences like biology, anatomy and physiology. Fortunately, resources like Hospital English and Multimedical English have a wealth of supplementary material that can help you teach medical English in the classroom.

In addition, medical English lessons should involve vocabulary-building exercises to help students remember difficult medical terms. They should also focus on building speaking and listening skills, as well as improving reading skills so that students can understand those challenging medical journals.

The good news is that most medical English students are already studying at the advanced level, so creating lessons to improve their proficiency levels shouldn’t be too difficult. Unlike in beginner classes, you can typically rely heavily on authentic English content like medical videos, talks and publications to create meaningful and challenging lessons.


As the world becomes more and more connected, we’ll continue to see more students learning English for professional or immigration purposes.

The most important thing to do when teaching ESP students is to make an effort to understand each student’s unique set of goals and expectations. Once you’ve got an idea of why your students are learning English, you can design better lessons that help them build upon their strengths and overcome any weaknesses.

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