“There really is no need for needs analysis”?

Hugh Dellar – Twenty Things in Twenty Years

At the recent IATEFL conference in Harrogate, Hugh Dellar looked back on 20 years in the classroom and what he had learned. His broadly insightful presentation focused on “20 nuggets of hard-earned wisdom”. You can see it at:


This was a very interesting talk and many of the things he has learned in 20 years are similar to things I have realised – and written and talked about – after nearly 40 years in ELT.

Hugh’s 5th point, though “there really is no need for needs analysis” requires some comment as it is central to what I understand by ESP and EAP.

Here are some quotations from Hugh:

“Training novice teachers to give students lists of a few random topics, grammar structures, and maybe lists of different skill areas, and then asking the students to self-diagnose their own ailments – on most general English courses – is fundamentally a mad activity, because most students basically don’t know what they need. Most students will tell you what they need is more grammar…”

“Here’s what your general English students need. They need repeated exposure to the most frequent words in context. They need a better understanding of how those most frequent words work with other words, and how those most frequent words work with grammar….”

“Students given a needs analysis form will never tell you this. And it’s time that we stopped wasting the first couple of lessons on this kind of thing in general English classes.”

I know he clearly says he is talking about General English – whatever that is – but I think my comments are still relevant as I generally agree with Michael Long when he says that all courses, however, general, are still specific.

General (language for no purpose) courses at any proficiency level almost always teach too much, e.g., vocabulary, skills, registers or styles some learners do not need, and too little, e.g., omitting lexis and genres that they do. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, it is more defensible to view every course as involving specific purposes, the difference in each case being simply the precision with which it is possible to identify current or future uses of the L2 (Long, 2005, p. 19).

 And for that reason

Just as no medical intervention would be prescribed before a thorough diagnosis of what ails the patient, so no language teaching program should be designed without a thorough needs analysis (Long, 2005, p. 1).


In an era of shrinking resources, there are growing demands for accountability in public life, with education a particularly urgent case and foreign language education a prime example within it. Many secondary school students and, especially, adults with serious academic, occupational, vocational, or ‘survival’ needs for functional L2 proficiency, as well as their sponsors, are increasingly dissatisfied with lessons, materials and methodology developed for someone else or for no-one in particular. There is an urgent need for courses of all kinds to be relevant – and to be seen to be relevant – to the needs of specific groups of learners and of society at large. (Long, 2005, p. 19)

In a way, I agree with Hugh when he says that giving students lists of  topics, structures, and skill areas and asking them to diagnose their own ailments is “a mad activity”, as students do not know what they need. But if students don’t know what they need, they do know what they want and we ignore that at our peril. Wasting the first couple of lessons on this is certainly a bad idea, but we do need to find some way to find out where they are coming from and what their expectations are. I have often quoted Graham Gibbs (1981, p. 87) on this:

… I believe people construct their own worlds. New constructions, new understandings and ways of seeing things, are based on existing constructions and ways of seeing things. I do not see how a person’s understanding can significantly develop without involving their existing conceptions, however crude and “wrong” these are.

In order to help students learn, we need to understand  their existing conceptions, however misguided they may be. If we want to be more fashionable, we can then call this negotiation (see, for example, McDevitt, 2004), essential in ESP, but, I would say, also relevant to general English, whatever it is.  It needs to be done carefully, though, as asking students what they want and then ignoring it is very demotivating!

Moreover, giving students lists and asking them to choose what they need, though, is a simplistic view of needs analysis. As it is certainly true that students do not know what they need and to some extent that is why they have come to class and are paying us for our expertise. I’m not sure about general English, but in ESP and EAP contexts, the teachers and course designers should know what their students need.

So what is the purpose of needs analysis. According to Jack Richards (2001), we need needs analysis:

  • to find out what language a learner needs in order to perform a particular task,
  • to help determine if an existing course addresses the needs of the students,
  • to determine which students from a group are most in need of language training,
  • to identify a change of direction in teaching that people  feel is important,
  • to identify a gap between what students can do and what they need to be able to do,
  • to collect information about a particular problem learners are experiencing.

But, as Hugh correctly points out, the students do not have the answers. So who does?

Brown (1995) identifies three important categories of people who may be involved in  needs analysis:

  • the target group,
  • the audience,
  • and the resource group.

The target group are the people the information will be collected about. They will usually be students but could also include teachers, classroom assistants and/or administrators.

The audience for a needs analysis are the people who will act upon the results of the analysis. They usually consists of teachers, course designers, administrators, as well as departments, and institutions, and maybe even embassies and governments.

The resource group consists of the sources of information about the target group. This could include, parents, financial sponsors, or guardians as well as current or future employers, current or future lecturers from the students’ content courses, and examining bodies.

All these people can provide valuable information about the target language that students will eventually need to use, the people they will need to use the language with and the contexts in which they will use the language.

Lastly, Hugh points out that what students need is repeated exposure to the most frequent words in context as well as a good understanding of how these words work with other words and with grammar. The problem is how do they know which are the most frequent words in the contexts they are interested in? The answer again is needs analysis, working with the various stakeholders mentioned above.

So I think we do need needs analysis and when it is done well it can be beneficial to everyone.


Brown, J. D. (1995). The elements of language curriculum. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Newbury House.

Gibbs, G. (1981). Teaching students to learn: A student centred approach. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Long, M. H. (Ed.). (2005). Second language needs analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDevitt, B. (2004). Negotiating the syllabus: A win-win situation, ELT Journal, 58, 3-9.

Richards, J. (2001). Curriculum development in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 thoughts on ““There really is no need for needs analysis”?

  1. Hi there –
    Well, firstly, thanks for the kind words about the IATEFL talk. Glad you enjoyed (most of) it and nice to see that part of it prompted such a thorough and well thought-out response.

    The point I was making in the talk was actually something I’ve blogged about in more detail here: http://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/twenty-things-in-twenty-years-part-five-there-really-is-no-need-for-needs-analysis/

    I’ll try not to repeat myself too much in responding further! Firstly, I was – as you noted – really talking about General English. I was slightly surprised to see your comment asking ‘whatever that means’ about GE, though, as this continues to be the name of the biggest selling courses that the vast majority of students enroll on around the world. Before they get round to doing ESP or EAP courses, most students somehow or other slog through Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate levels on general courses, and these were the kinds of courses I was trained to do ridiculous so-called analysis of needs on, as many many other teachers have also been.

    To address the Long quotes . . . it’s a lovely idea and I can see why teachers might want to buy into it, but it fails to tackle the reality of most GE courses, which is that they consist of wildly disparate groups of people who want / need English for all kinds of different reasons, who often have no idea what they’ll need English for, or who don’t really need much English at all. The idea that it might be possible to somehow hone down a list of possible contexts of use for all students in any given group and to then somehow write or collate material around these contexts is a pipe dream. Id also argue the same is true on many GENERAL EAP courses. Unless you’re lucky enough to be teaching on a course that is subject specific and is preparing, say, students to do a degree in Graphic Design, then probably you’ll have computer programmers lumped in with History students and Business Management people and end up teaching some kind of lowest common denominator set of ‘general’ academic English.
    However, given that, as I said in my post, the basic NEEDS of most students are to meet the core 1000-3000 words, explore how they’re used, see them gramaticalised, hear a range of accents, explore a range of different text genres, get the chance to discuss ideas and opinions across a wide range of topics (wherein they may WANT to say all kind of things we simply cannot predict and they cannot be expected to know they want to say until the moment at which they want to say them!) and to be helped to say them better, this isn’t necessarily a problem. For me, it’s very much the way I’ve tried to construct my own coursebooks and the way I try to teach: a way that ensures these areas get covered and that ensures students get the help to say / write what they want to as and when the need arises.

    I hope / suspect there’s not actually much above that you’d disagree with, and it may well be that you actually get to teach far more narrowly defined groups of students whose goals can be defined more coherently and clearly. If so, you’re lucky. But you’re also far from the reality of many other teachers stuck with far more general groups.

  2. I don’t think I agree with you, Hugh. What you are saying might make practical sense. By that I mean that it makes financial/economic, organisational/managerial and political sense, but I’m not sure that it makes educational sense. I’m not taking about compulsory education or children here – but I’m not sure if that is different – and I do not have much experience of teaching kids sent to UK by their parents in the summer. Yes, of course, large classes are financially preferable to small classes, and if you believe that all students have the same general needs, then you can do that. If you only have a small group of students, it is also easier to put them in one general group than to try to divide them up according to their needs and interests. But just because it is cheaper and easier to do that doesn’t mean it is right. If that is idealistic, then OK. I think this is true also, as you say, for general academic English and even general professional or occupational English.

    My problem with “general English” is that I’m not sure what it is. I know there are many general English courses around the world and therefore there are general English course books to cater for those course. But I don’t think there are general English students out there. As you say, general English students are wildly disparate groups of people who need English for all kinds of different purposes, but there are reasons and I think it is useful to try to find out what these are.

    The same is also true of ESP or EAP students. It often makes financial and managerial sense to teach lower level students some sort of general English before they specialise, but it is not the only way. I have an earlier blog post about that.

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